Seventh in a series
There is a brief section in Learning to Pray (New York: HarperOne, 2021, pp.386, $27.99) by Father James Martin, S.J, dealing with centering prayer. Because I have been doing centering prayer every day for more than 20 years I thought I would be very familiar with whatever Father Martin wrote about centering prayer.
Actually reading Father Martin’s remarks turned out to be a special grace for me. Without realizing that it was happening, I have fallen into some bad habits in the way I have been doing centering prayer. I hope Father Martin’s comments will help me correct the bad habits. In this column rather than report on my bad habits, I will try to convey clearly Father Martin’s advice on how to engage in centering prayer.
Father Martin says there are three simple steps to centering prayer. First, we take a minute or two to calm down, compose ourselves, try to leave behind what we have been doing or thinking, and focus on God dwelling in the center of our being. Then we choose some simple word that has meaning to us such as ”mercy” or “love” or “God” to help us focus on God. Rather than focusing on the meaning of the word we try to allow the repetition of the word to lead us into a deeper experience of God’s presence in the center of our being.
Enjoy and be at peace in God’s presence. You may want to stop using the word and just be with God. If distractions come, calmly return to the repetition of the word. At the end of the prayer we mentally and devoutly pray the Our Father. I usually engage in centering prayer for about 20 minutes each day. I know people who engage in centering prayer twice every day.
When I first heard about centering prayer from my spiritual director more than 20 years ago, it sounded like a perfect prayer for me. I tend to be a very active person, involved with many projects. I find myself almost always involved and preoccupied with some project whether it be writing a column or working on a book or engaging with a discussion group or preparing a lecture for class. I sometimes experience myself as almost driven and don’t think that is always healthy.
To some extent even my speech pattern may reveal that at times I am too active. I speak very quickly. A frequent evaluation from students who take my classes is that I speak too quickly. One reason I was attracted to centering prayer was that it would force me to slow down and “to waste time” with God. I was attracted to centering prayer also because it might lead me to empty myself and allow me to experience God at the center of myself. Father Martin writes the following:
“What can happen in centering prayer? Almost anything — as in any prayer. But one common result is not, as with content heavy prayer, the occurrence of images and insights — though we can be open to those things — as much as it is a feeling of closeness with God. This can be compared to what can happen in any close relationship …
Centering prayer is like this: enjoy- ing being in God’s presence silently.” (p. 281)
I believe that the practice of centering prayer may help us to be more aware of God’s presence at times when we are not engaging in centering prayer. One of the most consoling, comforting, and awesome truths about Christian faith is that we share God’s life, we participate in the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of us can state what St. Paul wrote: “I live, not I, but Christ lives in me.” That love relationship based on God living within us can deepen and influence our experience not only when we are engaged in formal prayer but in our day-to-day lives.
Sharing God’s life can deepen and broaden our consciences. This change in our conscience may go beyond our recognition of our sinfulness. It may help us to see all sorts of good actions that we are capable of performing. We may deeply experience our lives as a gift from God. That experience may move us to become gifts in the lives of others. I marvel at Pope Francis’ Christian hope. He seems to believe that with the Holy Spirit there is no limit to the good that we can do. I believe he is right.
All prayer can renew our faith and help us to look at ourselves, others, and God with a new vision. In the future, I am not going to look for specific results from engaging in centering prayer. Rather I plan to trust that spending time with God will be time well spent and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.