The deep stillness of the mind allows profound relaxation far beyond what is possible through sleep. This profound relaxation releases stored-up tensions in the nervous system and in the muscles of the body. The release of these tensions may come in the form of sharp pains, tears, or strong feelings of fear or grief. In the centering prayer community this is called “unloading”.
As a result of unresolved tensions in the body most minds are tense, even in a so-called relaxed state. Most minds are like tense muscles, not relaxed muscles. This problem can be overcome through silent prayer. In other words, on the most basic level centered prayer teaches the mind to relax. When the mind learns how to relax and release tensions, the whole nervous system and muscular system relaxes. Eventually the process invites the practitioner into a peak experience, as summed up with Paul’s words “the peace of God, which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4: 7). Our approach to silence is deeply rooted in particulars of our Christian faith tradition.
Silent centering prayer balances the mistaken understanding of prayer as a one-way conversation by focusing on what’s most important; what is being communicated from the other end of the telephone line. When we sit in silence waiting for God’s presence, our minds experience distraction. No matter the intensity of distraction, we wait. And when the chatter finally subsides, God give us what we desire: experience of God’s self.
In centering prayer we allow whatever comes up in prayer to run its course. We surrender to the present moment as it is, without trying to alter it, patiently waiting for God which requires infinite patience. “Believing in God is the easy part. Waiting for God is the hard part” (Anne Lamott). Eventually all arising thoughts and images fade into the background. Then we experience fullness, spaciousness, and liberty from the hidden addictive process deep within our minds. This is God’s intent.
Centering Prayer Differs from Eastern Meditation and Contemplation
Meditation and contemplation are misleading terms. Meditation implies Eastern meditation, and everything associated with it. Contemplation implies thought. To avoid confusion in this post, instead of the terms contemplation or meditation I’ve used silent or centering prayer. Unlike meditation the term silent prayer never loses sight of relationship with God. The term prayer always implies relationship and intimate conversation. That’s why Christians carefully retain the word prayer to distinguish Christian silent prayer from other forms of meditative practice.
Silent Prayer’s Purpose in the Christian Tradition
Westerners most often have an aversion to silent prayer. Most see silent prayer as irrelevant to the enormous political and social problems of our times or as a luxury for the upper and middle classes. Along these lines all forms of mysticism, Christian included, are shrugged off as sensuality, self-hypnosis, or luxury. These dismissive caricatures ignore the powerful link between silent prayer and social activism.
To overcome aversion to silent prayer in the West many have couched silent prayer’s benefits in terms of higher efficiency. So, it’s argued if we practice silent prayer we will be more productive members of society. Although increased effectiveness is one of the characteristics of the life of prayer, it’s not the purpose. Likewise, stress reduction isn’t the ultimate purpose. The purpose of silent prayer is intimacy with God, the source of our being, who comes to us in Jesus’ essence—who heals our souls, uniting the disunited self.
It’s true that minimizing distractions creates better efficiency in our work, less stress, and better problem-solving ability. But we can’t reduce the profound depth of centering prayer to a technique for increased effectiveness. Nor can we rely on teaching about meditation from other traditions. Carl Jung was enthusiastic about Zen and yoga. But in a famous line he said, “the West will produce its own yoga, and it will be on the basis laid down by Christianity.”
Another distinction between Christian centering prayer and disciplined silence of other Eastern religions: in the Christian context, silent prayer can only be taught by the great teacher—the Holy Spirit—the aspect of God available to us at all times, nudging us and prompting us into deeper and more consistent relationship with God. This is different from non-Christian Eastern forms of meditation, where sometimes emphasis ultimately rests on one’s self or one’s teacher. In the Christian context emphasis may briefly be placed on one’s self or a teacher, yet the focus always returns to relationship with God. It’s not up to us or our teacher to work in center prayer.
Silent prayer is about what Jesus does for us, not about our efforts; this is in line with Paul’s theology of grace, not works. Of course, to increase depth in centering prayer we need to maintain designated times for prayer and we need to leave behind our distractions, waiting for God in open awareness. Yet, in centering prayer there’s no goal we’re working towards step by step, as with some spiritual practices. Centering prayer in an effortless, passive prayer form. To progress, we have to show up habitually for prayer (daily prayer has a cumulative effect). And we need regular time for retreat. After we show up it’s up to Jesus to transform us.
Silent Centering Prayer and Spiritual Gifts
The spiritual gifts that come with mastery of centering prayer are completely undeserved. They are not based on our credentials, willpower, or stamina. Even if they were somewhat based on these character traits, who bestowed the traits upon us to begin with? Any way we think about it, we can’t take any credit for spiritual gifts.
Most westerners haven’t encountered genuine spiritual power. Because they don’t have any personal experience to back it up, many discredit the possibility of spiritual power altogether, including Jesus’ profound spiritual power witnessed in the Gospels.
Spiritual masters like Thomas Keating, a modern monk, represent the pinnacle of human transformation—what is possible through lifelong practice of centering prayer and regular retreats. Through centering prayer contemporary spiritual masters incarnate some small fraction of Jesus’ transforming presence.
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Healing the Divide; Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots by Amos Smith