"The Lord said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?
Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord,
for the Lord is about to pass by.'"
- 1 Kings 19: 9,11
The Contemplative Outreach email arrived as usual and provided a welcome reminder to book my next retreat. However, this email was different, being a request for personal reflections on Centering Prayer and its effects on life. "I’ll look forward to reading those," I thought to myself and moved on to printing off my retreat booking form. An eager but all too infrequent practitioner like me doesn’t fit the bill for open personal reflections and life lessons.
Along came our local first-Saturday Centering Prayer meeting and during the interval, when we watch one of Thomas Keating’s DVDs, our group facilitator asked me if I would write a personal reflection for the May meeting. It’s much easier to decline an email than a face-to-face request. A bit like Elijah, I was being asked what I am doing here and soon realised I would have to leave the cave and stand on the mountain!
When the Spirit so compellingly prompts, who am I to refuse? But as Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer and teacher once put it: “Writing about the spiritual life is like making prints from negatives.” Thus, I do not intend to try to relay or reflect on the deep spiritual experience and nourishment I attain through Centering Prayer. Rather, I will try to describe how I got to where I am, in parallel with Elijah’s journey in the First Book of Kings. This passage of Scripture has greatly influenced me on my own contemplative journey and has revealed itself in unexpected ways. Such as when a priest friend, who knew nothing of my Centering Prayer practice, was moving parish and asked if my wife and I would like a few unused items he was not bringing with him, amongst which was a mounted print of Sieger Köder’s wonderful painting titled “Unexpected – The Closeness of God” depicting Elijah on Horeb.
"Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire."
- 1 Kings 19: 11-12
Like so many before, I started by first seeking happiness – that illusive entity which is so physical and sensory when young. Happiness seemed to equate to pleasure, but pleasure is a fickle and fleeting ally. No sooner was I satisfied when I would desire again. Like the wind, it could be felt but not grasped. God was not in such pleasure.
Then, with a little growth comes a little maturity. So I sought fulfilment – my place in the world, achievements, a career, the recognition of others. Isn’t this what I was taught by caring parents, teachers and institutions? Isn’t this the way of the world? Is this not the bedrock of society for the earthquake to tremble through? But God was not in the ego.
Eventually, I tried to seek God – through reading, prayer, ritual. Surely this is my ultimate goal, my full realisation? “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord,” says the Prophet Hosea (6:3). Zeal for the Lord was like a fire burning within me. But God was not in my efforts.
"And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle
and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave."
- 1 Kings 19: 13
By seeking God through my own will I was missing the point and missing God. As St. Augustine declares: “If you understood [God], it would not be God.” But then I stumbled upon Centering Prayer; although whether I stumbled or the Spirit led me is open to interpretation. It immediately seemed to make sense from the point of view of laying aside the ego and rationalisation, while retaining the true-self and reason. While I struggled with my stream of consciousness and the internal dialogue during those early days, and still do each time I practice, I have gradually learned that there is no “good” or “bad” practice. While the struggle is real, it is at the same time illusory. As our Centering Prayer priest guide explained: “Even if you have to return to your sacred word a thousand times, it is a thousand times you have said yes to God.” For me, overcoming this type of dualistic judgement has greatly helped my progress with Centering Prayer.
Similarly, I would always question how my practice is reflected in action, not realising that it is something that gently filters into my day-to-day living and is not something to be measured with a chart. Even as a relative beginner I have noticed how I am much more willing to let situations and relationships develop as they may, without feeling the need to control them. I am becoming a much better listener and do not fear silence within conversations. And I feel much more aware of the divine in all things and all moments, and the call to service that this consequently requires. All of these effects are not mere personal improvements but involve all those I meet and interact with. Hence, they are also benefits to those around me and, hopefully, to the humble building of God’s Kingdom here and now. In echoing the philosophy of the great theologian Karl Rahner; “In the days ahead, [to be a Christian] you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”
And even occasionally, when the din of the world and the mind subsides, like Elijah, I wrap the mantle over my face and encounter the sound of sheer silence …
Neil and his wife, Helen, have been married for almost ten years and have practiced Centering Prayer for around two years. They consider Centering Prayer a great gift, both on an individual level and as a married couple, bringing them closer together and closer to God.