Jean-Marc Laporte’s January stay at the Desert House of Prayer near Tucson, Arizona, led him to write this three part blog on Centering Prayer. Today - Basics. The complete version of this piece with additions and footnotes is available HERE click on “Recently Added”.
Part One: Basics
Centering prayer has occasionally popped up on the edge of my consciousness, but I never took any real interest in it. Yes, many of those who approved of it are people of substance in the world of spirituality but I had my hands full applying the Ignatian method, my birthright as a Jesuit, to my own refractory inner life, and by the grace of God I found great satisfaction in seeing how well this method suited most of my directees.
A month of rest and renewal after a change of assignment was made possible in January 2017. The recommendation of friends led me to the Desert House of Prayer near Tucson AZ. The desert provided a totally different environment for me to recoup my energies and find a life-giving spiritual routine.
Silence is a very serious business in this house of prayer, and at the heart of its programmes is centering prayer. My first reaction was a reluctant one; “What am I getting into? This was not part of my plan.” But then I said to myself: “I am here and this is an unexpected God-given opportunity to learn something new. You have nothing to lose. Enter into it and see where it goes.”
This I have tried to do. Reading has led me to recognize the roots of this form of prayer in the Eastern traditions of spirituality, and derivatively in Western ones, and reflection on my life long experiences to recognize my natural antipathy to it. In classical terms, I am a child of the West and my approach to God kataphatic, full of words, ideas, images, whereas this form of prayer is designed to shut all this down and to plunge me into an apophatic silence and emptiness.
The daily schedule of this retreat house is simple, based on a monastic model, but it includes periods of centering prayer. The afternoon session comprises two twenty minute sittings interrupted by a slow walk. To minimize distractions, chairs are turned around such that they face outward rather than the centre of the room.
There are variants in the literature on how one should do centering prayer, but they all involve a process of quieting the psyche, its thoughts, feelings, scenarios, and images, and entering into a space of emptiness where God can allow Himself to be found. One observes whatever enters into one’s mind, at times a miscellaneous jumble of impressions, at other times a persistent focus, with strong feelings, difficult to dispel, triggered by a concern for the future or an incident of the past.
A term which spoke to me from the literature is ‘monkey mind’. Inner silence is the void one often abhors, and one is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, often without any rhyme or reason, seeking to keep the inner patter going. In the course of observing these goings on one discovers repetitive patterns of inordinate anxiety, concern, attachment. The wheel keeps turning but goes nowhere. To more clearly discover and articulate this futility opens a path to spiritual progress and renewal.
But the point is not to keep observing and analyzing this psychic activity but to let go of it, that it might slip into oblivion, at least for a time. Thus from being a pool churned up by various waves one hopes to become a still reflective pool of emptiness, remaining in that state as long as possible, at least until the next bout of psychic activity sneaks in and needs to be turned off. One might be graced with relative calm during the twenty minutes, but more often than not one has to let go over and over again of irruptive activity in order to enter into the emptiness at the centre where God resides.
How does one go about stilling a consciousness with teeming thoughts and images and feelings? There are different approaches. One can use a word which serves as a focus in one’s resolve to quiet oneself. Or in other related prayer traditions one will focus on one’s breathing. We will comment on these two approaches a bit later.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are from The Desert House of Prayer