Silence and Centering Prayer
I’ve been a priest for 12 years and love being steeped in our rich, Anglican tradition. This year I’m doing a spiritual direction certificate and writing a monthly journal right here where I’ll be exploring how the spiritual disciplines can be a gift for our ancient-future church. Always first and forefront in my mind is growing deeper into intimacy with Christ. Join me on the journey! You can find the first of the installments here.
I began to be wooed by the word, “silence” even before stepping onto campus for my spiritual direction certificate residency in rural Ohio. It was popping up in books, in sermons, even on Pinterest where I was simultaneously allured and convicted by this Mother Teresa Quote: “Listen in Silence because if your heart is full of other things, it cannot hear the voice of God.” Silence sounded as impossible as sleep with a new infant.
Silence? My life goes from homeschooling, to dinner prep, to ministry, and then to carpool for soccer. I was intrigued but inwardly despairing. Silence, I believed, was only a word for monastics or empty nesters.
At 7:30, the first morning of the residency we gathered still yawning in the common room to practice centering prayer before breakfast. The early spring sun was pouring through the eastern windows. After learning Centering Prayer during my CPE internship 15 years before and practicing it off and on, I got ready to settle happily into an old habit. I was shocked that morning at how impossible silence was when it was handed to me on a silver platter.
My silence was not quiet. A hundred thoughts clamored to the surface. Emotions surrounding newness the night before came to the forefront and demanded attention. A hundred details crowded in. It was supposed to rain the next day. Had I left my umbrella at home? The truth was that centering prayer was baring a cluttered soul.
Emptied in order to be filled
One of the professors, Dr. Woodcock, put a new spin on the practice for me: “In Buddhism,” he said, “the goal of meditative breath prayer is simply becoming empty. But in Christianity, it is about emptying in order to be filled.” Big difference. Centering Prayer fits into the same category as fasting. We are carving out negative space in order to be filled by God.
Centering Prayer is not new. It has its roots in the earliest of monastic traditions of the desert fathers and the Christian mystic tradition of hesychasm.
St. John Cassian, (360-430 AD), whose work and writings influenced St. Benedict’s Rule, and who wrote on the seven deadly sins, went out into the desert to find a spiritual father and then later taught what he had learned to those in his early monastery in Marseille. He directed his monks in the gift of a repetitive breath prayer using the words: “Lord make speed to save us. Lord make haste to help us.”
Later, Eastern Orthodox lay and monastics alike were taught to pray with the Jesus Prayer based on the blind man’s calling out in John 8: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
That first day at the residency, I took deep breaths and tried to refocus on just the name of Jesus but was amazed at how many other thoughts clamored for a hearing. When we are finally silent before God’s presence, our addictive thought patterns bob up for attention.
Be still and know that he is God
We suddenly think of a fantastically clever update for FaceBook. Sometimes our thoughts are as insistent as whiny 2 year olds pulling on a shirt sleeve. Maybe we are reminded of yesterday’s meeting with our boss and all of a sudden we are feeling small, angry, and resentful all over again. Then, almost always our to-do list looms large, anxiety quickens, and our ability to “Be Still and Know that His is God” is coopted entirely as we reach for the calendar App on the smartphone.
As we struggle through the internal chaos, our eyes are opened. We see that our inner landscape is an unholy mess but don’t worry, this is part of the journey. David reminds us in Psalms 51 that God desires truth in our innermost being. St. Augustine in his Soliloquies saw the work of healthy self-knowledge leading the way to the ability to hear God: “O God, always the same, let me know myself, let me know You. This is prayer.”
Centering Prayer also invites us to detangle from our own private agendas. America lives fast and we’ve somehow tangled ideas of success with the abundant life, or worse, with Kingdom building. We are like children in our own private sandboxes building our fake kingdoms when the King is inviting us to be stone masons on His temple. The silence of Centering Prayer gives me twenty minutes of pause in the Presence of God before jumping into my to-do list. Afterwards, I’m often surprised my rats nest of an agenda is untangled as I sit with a more eternal perspective.
Dying to self
To put more intentional language to it, Centering Prayer is a way to practice dying to self. When we do Centering Prayer, we come to the God of the Universe with only the smallest kernel of our identity as beloved children of God. The God of the Universe is not impressed with our masks, our titles, our pretense, or our production so gradually we learn to leave them outside the door. We come humble, yet are astonished to discover how deeply we are loved and wanted. We are invited to the feast not because we have earned our seat, but because we are invited to sit down deep into grace. It’s here that we learn with Brennan Manning to: “define [ourselves] as one radically loved by God. This is [our] true self. Every other identity is an illusion.”
With God, then for God
Over the months since the first residency, I have begun a new morning practice, waking with a cup of hot tea and with expectation to be in God’s Presence. Before I open the daily office or pick up my Bible, I slide into 20 minutes of Centering Prayer silence. I slide into the with-God life before I start the for-God life. I’m learning to focus on firmly attaching to the Vine before making any attempt at fruitfulness.
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