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Stillness and Centering Prayer
1. The Rock – a living relationship with Christ
Jesus urges his followers to build on rock and not on sand (Mt. 7.24 – 27). In South Africa we have some unfortunate experiences with Rural Development Project housing, poorly constructed and often lacking adequate foundations. Jesus could just as well have used this as the source for his illustration!
What is the rock on which we need to build our spiritual house? There exists centuries of teaching that our foundation must be the scriptures, sound doctrine, and tradition (being the developing interpretation of Christian experience). It is necessary that we see the scriptures, sound doctrine and tradition as essential to a proper understanding of the Christian experience. However, an understanding based only on these three essentials can lead to an experience which is dry and arid because the rock becomes simply that – a rock. This means that many of us have a sound knowledge of the scriptures, doctrine and tradition that does not reward us with the experience of peace promised by the Gospel – think Mt. 11.28 – 30; Philippians 4.4 - 7 amongst others.
How can this change? Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, draws on teaching by the Jewish rabbis of the day, based on the experience of the Israelites recorded in Numbers 20.1 – 11. Moses strikes a rock and water for the thirsty travelers emerges. The rabbis taught that the rock followed the Israelites as they moved through the wilderness, and provided them with the water they needed. A striking example of God’s providence!
Paul adds his own spin to this tradition. That rock, he says, was Christ (1 Corinthians 10.1 – 4). Paul sees Christ as having been active in the history of Israel long before he came to us as a human being and Messiah. Peter echoes this idea when he speaks of Christ as the “living stone” (1 Peter 2.4ff). In short, the rock on which we are to build our spiritual house is not merely a rock, a symbol of stability. Our rock is a living rock. The qualification is important because a living rock (i.e. the resurrected Christ who is alive) implies the possibility of a relationship with Christ.
This living relationship with Christ becomes the means of avoiding the aridity of a Christian experience based solely on the scriptures, sound doctrine and tradition. Jesus warns us of the dangers of such an arid experience in Mt. 7.21 – 23. If there is no personal relationship with Christ, then Jesus says, “I have never known you; away from me, all evildoers!”
2. Developing a living relationship with Christ through centering prayer
In order to grow in personal with the living Christ, we develop our prayer life. Prayer is relationship. Our prayer life includes, amongst other practices, meditation, lectio divina and centering prayer. Centering prayer is just one method by which God prepares us to receive God’s gift of contemplation.
The essential difference between meditation and centering prayer is that meditation involves the active mind and imagination. Centering prayer, on the other hand, seeks to reach that state of inner stillness in which we can allow God’s presence and activity within us.
In committing ourselves to the discipline of centering prayer we are responding to God’s call to be still and to allow God’s presence and transforming activity within us. It is a step towards a state of total submission to the will of God for us. This requires us to learn that inner silence in which we can become still before God: see Psalm 46 .10, “Be still and know that I am God.”
The word “know” in Hebrew implies more than a simply intellectual knowledge. It also carries the implication of intimate heart knowledge of the other person, as might exist, ideally, between a married couple or between old friends who respect each other. (Note the various translations of the word into English. For example: “Adam knew his wife”, “Adam lay with his wife”, “Adam had intercourse with his wife”, in Genesis 4.1; 4.17 etc.)
3. Four Problems
3.1 Human beings have problems with sustained silence and stillness. Access to modern technology such as smart ‘phones, has exacerbated the problem. For example, periods of quiet during the eucharist are often broken by singing – usually “Be still and know that I am God”! The problem is that we cannot be still if we are unable to tolerate silence.
3.2 Then there is the common perception that silence means that no communication is happening. People often complain that they have no sense of God being present with them; they feel that they are in a dark silence in which God is not present; therefore, they are unable to see God’s signs or hear God’s voice.
In Exodus 20.18 – 21, the people are reluctant to approach the dark cloud which signifies God’s presence, “...do not let God speak to us, or we shall die...” “... So the people kept their distance while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was. And in the dark cloud God spoke to Moses.
Search the Scriptures and we find many references to God in darkness, for example, 1 Kings 8.12. And see Psalm 139.11 – 12.
The classic example is to be found in 1 Kings 19.9 – 18. Elijah has fled from the anger of Jezebel, and he clearly feels that he has no access to God’s presence and God’s voice. Then God reveals his presence to Elijah. But God is not revealed in the traditional forms of theophany, i.e. in hurricane, earthquake and fire. After the fire comes a “still, small voice”, (verse 12). (Other translations render the Hebrew as “a gentle whisper” (New International Version) or “a light murmuring sound” (The New Jerusalem Bible).) The point here is that it is not possible for Elijah to hear God’s voice unless Elijah is silent and still (Psalm 46.10). God is present despite Elijah’s perception that God is absent.
It is this that we begin to learn in the discipline of centering prayer. The experience comes up repeatedly in the testimony of the Christian tradition:
“Have a loving attentiveness to God, with no desire to feel or understand anything in particular concerning Him.” (St John of the Cross).
“We too are called to withdraw at certain intervals into deeper silence and aloneness with God....not with our books, thoughts, and memories but completely stripped of everything, to dwell lovingly in God’s presence – silent, empty, expectant, and motionless.” (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta).
“Believing in nothing other than, in the darkness of the world, touching the hand of God, and in this way, in silence, hearing the Word, seeing love”. (Pope Benedict XVI).
“The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.” (Thomas Merton).
Thomas Keating, one of the founders of Contemplative Outreach, is fond of saying that “silence is God’s first language”!
The conclusion is that we do not practice silence and stillness for what we can get out of it (though there are many benefits). We practice silence and stillness so that we may enter more deeply into God’s presence, where we are able to hear God’s voice without the noisy distraction of the outer world and our own inner noise.
3.3 The third problem comes about once we are practicing the discipline of silence regularly.
We have learnt how to cope with external and internal distractions through the use of our sacred word and practicing the four Rs:
1. Resist no thought.
2. Retain no thought
3. React emotionally to no thought.
4. Return ever so gently to the sacred word.
Now there emerges a more difficult, and even frightening, experience. This is the experience of what emerges from our sub-conscious as the barriers of repression are lifted by our discipline of centering.
I am not a psychologist. So I will illustrate the problem as I experienced it for myself of what happened when my sub-conscious began to reveal what was buried deep inside me. I had been practicing centering for about five years.
The situation arose when I had had a leading part in a two-year process involving human relations consultants and hundreds of people in my diocese. The purpose of the exercise was to explore better ways of being Church. We were exploring better ways of relating to one another in the church, from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top. In the end, a report was produced which was considered by the consultants to be a very successful presentation of what lay people and clergy wanted to see in their church. But the final report never saw the light of day and was never published. This was a bitter disappointment for many people who had spent many valuable hours working through the process for two years.
I took my disappointment to an intensive retreat at Hartebeespoort.
In the intense silence of the retreat my sub-conscious began to send signals that I was not merely disappointed, but that I was blazingly angry. So angry that I developed a severe attack of gout and found myself unable to settle into the silence of the retreat.
The counselor on the retreat explained that the anger was manifesting itself in the physical symptoms that I was experiencing. The symptoms could be treated medically and he encouraged me to get treatment. However, he also pointed out that what was happening was that the practice of deep silence was loosening the barriers of repression. Deep-seated feelings of anger, which had long been bottled up, were beginning to emerge. Now God was seeking to draw the anger out of me so that I could be healed. I was advised not to resist the manifestation of anger but to let it out, own it as mine, and let it go to God.
This experience and ongoing counseling (which was essential) led me to a place at which I was able to “own” my anger as real. There was no need to hide it from myself or from God, who wanted to draw it out of me and heal me. Uncomfortable? Certainly! But there was also a real sense of peaceful self-acceptance – and a new and authentic awareness of the grace of God.
This particular journey with my anger has been a long one – at least fifteen years. And as the Hartebeespoort experience dealt with the first recognition of the reality of my anger, so God began to reveal other deeper levels of anger. These went back to my childhood and the experience of a highly dysfunctional family life.
I have often been tempted to just opt out of the journey. Fortunately, God’s calling was strong. As I grew in my relationship with the living Rock who is Christ, so I began to experience healing and a greater sense of peace.
This has led me to a new stage in the journey where I am now able to pray for people who were part of the cause of my distress. I have been able to see how distressed they were, making it difficult for them to see how much hurt they were causing others. God has led me into the experience of forgiveness, which is also great healing.
I am now beginning to deal with all the hurt that I have caused others. It is God who draws this out of me in God’s loving desire to heal me and to have me become more and more like Jesus! God has made this possible because I am no longer afraid to let God see the real me. I acknowledge too that God has, in any case, always known the real me.
This work of God is what Thomas Keating calls the “divine therapy”. In receiving this therapy I am experiencing a new sense of freedom. It is the “glorious liberty of the children of God”, as Paul calls it in Romans 8.21.
3.4 A fourth potential problem exists! We need to be aware that this sort of experience could lead to an enormous self-pity party. We could become more nauseating to others than we already are!
What saves us from that outcome? It is in anchoring ourselves on the living Rock who is Christ. We do this through our centering prayer practice in which we invite God “to be present and active within us”. In this experience we enter the dark and the stillness, and there we are healed. It is there that I know that God is love, and that I am loved as I am. I learn that God loves me enough to work patiently and gently with me for as long as it takes in order to heal me.
4. In Conclusion
Finally: while silence is a necessary pre-condition for stillness, silence is not stillness. Stillness is submission to God and to God’s agenda and, therefore, I consent to God being present and active within me. I accept God’s timing, and I accept whatever changes God seeks to bring about in me. The agenda is God’s agenda and not mine.
Stillness is the experience of Psalm 131. I know now that I am in no way diminished by my submission to God. Indeed, it is through this experience of submission to God that God heals me and sets me free for authentic human life in God.
Richard R Hawkins