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I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer since early 2008; up until then most of my prayer could be described as some reflection on God, but mostly trying to talk to God in terms of thanksgiving, praise, contrition, or petition. I was never really satisfied with speaking or reading formal prayers.
At some point I picked up on the idea that we should talk less and listen more. I was also intrigued with Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know I am God.” But how does one listen? What do we listen for? How can we be still? Physical stillness during prayer seemed like common sense, but being mentally still never crossed my mind (no pun intended). Still waters run deep, but my prayer life before Centering Prayer may have been described as a babbling brook - kind of shallow.
Around this time, a member of my men's group described Centering Prayer and contemplative prayer during a group session. He described a way of just being still with both body and mind in God’s presence. One learns how to surrender and let go of the things we hold on to, even thoughts, feelings and emotions. In this prayer, God can infuse gifts into you or work in you beneath your level of awareness, simply because you are still and open to His presence. It sounded like something I was seeking for years, but did not know it.
My first attempts at Centering Prayer resulted in overwhelming feelings of peace difficult to describe. I was pretty impressed. I would very much look forward to the next prayer session in order to get those feelings back again. Since I was basically doing nothing, physically or mentally, I concluded that the source of what was happening had to be outside of myself. After a while, these intense feelings of peace subsided. I thought I was doing something wrong, but I understood better after reading Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart, where it says, “True lovers want to be loved for themselves more than for their embraces. So it is with God. He wants to be loved for His own sake, for who He is, beyond the experiences of absence and presence.”
Of the three signs from St. John of the Cross to help one identify if one is being called by God to this prayer form, I most relate to the third one, which describes a positive attraction or taking pleasure in being alone with God, without making any particular meditation. I’ve had feelings like this since I was a boy. I can recall just wanting to be alone outside, peacefully reflecting on God and nature. Other kids would find me and ask me to play. When I refused, they asked, “Aren’t you bored?” As a young boy that could not describe just wanting to be in “The Presence”, I responded in the only way I knew how. I answered, “I like being bored”. You might imagine the laughter that was had at my expense.
I still like “being bored,” although an awareness of God’s presence cannot be boring. Since we know a tree by its fruits, I could not say Centering Prayer has had any real meaning unless fruits were evident. In my everyday life, I’ve had a heighted awareness of both the presence of God as well as my own sin. I’m more able to let go of negative thoughts, feelings and emotions, even something as simple as a bad mood.
I’m often struck by how paradoxical Centering Prayer can be. It is the simplest thing in terms of just being still, but unbelievably difficult to not engage any thoughts for a significant amount of time. Once deep in the silence of the prayer, however, I would describe it as an experience of God’s embrace. To use an analogy, imagine what it is like to be hugged by someone close to you; it’s an exterior experience. Now try to imagine if someone could actually hug you from the inside, if that is even possible to imagine. To date, it’s the best metaphor I can think of.