Monday, January 2, 2012

Centering Prayer and God's Embrace

We received hundreds of hits from the National Catholic Register when they recently linked their website to The Weak Eye post, so I wanted to write a follow-up.
One of the comments on the post was from a Dispensing Optician who mentioned that a patch is often used to cover a strong eye in order to help a weak eye "catch-up". She went on to explain that when our secular eye seems to be dominating with its many colorful distractions, we should sometimes cover it up and try to see purely through the eye of faith. This is a perfect segue into something called Centering Prayer as a way to close or quiet our physical self (body & mind) for the sake of our spiritual self (soul).
We often give ourselves up to vain and wandering thoughts that toss our mind here and there, wearing down the soul and the body, wasting our time and strength. This prayer style strongly relates to Psalm 46:10 which tells us to “be still and know I am God”. I read this verse as more of a command than a suggestion.
To learn more about Centering Prayer, I recommend a book called Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating or go to the Contemplative Outreach Website. In April 2011 I was privileged to have an article I wrote call God’s Embrace published in their e-newsletter:
God’s Embrace
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 didn't 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, feeling 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.


  1. The Catholic Church rejects centering prayer as dangerous.

  2. Anonymous,
    Thank you for the article. I do think the article is misleading. Centering Payer (CP) is not about creating a “mental void”. It is not about erasing or emptying the mind of all thoughts & feelings; it’s about DETACHING from thoughts & feelings (interior noise) to have a greater awareness of God’s presence.

    I have the 20th anniversary edition of the book “Open Mind, Open Heart” by Keating and we read on page 22 “Your purpose is not to suppress all thoughts because that is impossible.” It goes on, “CP is not a way of turning on the presence of God. It is a way of saying ‘Here I am’. The next step is up to God.”

    As far as the warning from Fr. Amorth, I think if he meant CP, he would have listed CP along with the other types of mediations.

    I can see how the similarities to meditations in eastern religions can cause suspicion. I think it was JP2 that alluded to finding at least some good or truth in all religions. CP takes some aspects of eastern meditations and applies them in a more perfect way. It reminds me of how Rosary beads are similar to Buddhist prayer beads that existed long before the Rosary.

    In the modern age of information and image bombardment, CP helps to lead us to that “gaze of faith, fixed on Christ” that the Catechism mentions (#2715).

  3. Come to find out that the Contemplate Outreach website has FAQ’s that address the concerns in comment #1. Here is one FAQ:

    Q: How is Centering Prayer different from meditation, especially Eastern meditation practices?

    A: Centering Prayer does not "empty the mind" or exclude other forms of prayer. It is not a "technique" that automatically creates "mysticism" or a means "to reach an altered state of consciousness." It is important not to confuse Centering Prayer with certain Eastern techniques of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation. The use of the sacred word in Centering Prayer does not have the particular calming effect attributed to the TM mantra. Nor is the sacred word a vehicle leading to the spiritual level of one's being as it is in TM. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between using the sacred word and arriving at some altered state of consciousness. The sacred word is merely the symbol of the consent of one's will to God's presence and action within based on faith in the doctrine of the Divine Indwelling. The sacred word is simply a means of reaffirming our original intention at the beginning of our period of prayer to be in God's presence and to surrender to the divine action when we are attracted to some other thought, feeling or impression.

    Throughout the period of Centering Prayer, our intention predominates the movement of our will to consent to God's intention, which according to our faith, is to communicate the divine life to us. Hence, unlike TM, Centering Prayer is a personal relationship with God, not a technique.