Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Call to the Quiet

“But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131:2, NIV)

The Call to Center
Something is seriously wrong in our church communities today. Many people suffer from what Albert Schweitzer[1] once referred to as a “sleeping sickness of the soul.” Its symptoms are loss of vision, community, morality and compassion. Many voices have been raised to lament the loss of soul and heart in our faith communities, where desperate activity and incessant busyness have replaced simple devotion and true worship. How do we regain our focus and balance in a world of distraction and performance-orientated ministry? The ancient witness of the Christian Scriptures calls us refocus our attention and heart on the center of our faith: the reality of a living and active God that chooses to dwell within us (compare Paul’s comment on this in Colossians 1:27).

Centering prayer is a simple, ancient and Biblical approach to prayer that sets up the ideal conditions to enter into that restful place of quiet awareness of God's healing presence. The primary purpose of this kind of prayer (sometimes referred to as Christian meditation or meditative prayer) is to open the "eyes" of our spiritual perception in order to become aware of His indwelling presence and to center our complete attention on Him. Richard Foster[2] speaks of this kind of prayer when he writes: "In meditative prayer we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart." Centering prayer is a simple and quiet resting in the knowledge of the God’s presence within. It is important to note this approach to prayer is powerful in its very simplicity and not complicated at all. This is reminiscent of the admonition of Jesus to approach the Kingdom of God like a little child (see Matthew 18:3).

The Practice of Centering Prayer
The practice of Centering prayer is very simple, it almost so simple that we might want to discard it. Love is simple, intimacy is simple, but it is often the very simple things that we seem to struggle with. This way of prayer is alluded to in many passages in the Old and New Testaments and probably dates from then. The ancient Greek Church Fathers referred to it as monologion, "one-word" prayer. The desert father, Abba Isaac taught a similar form of prayer to John Cassian who later wrote of it in France, transmitting it to Benedict of Nursia. This simple approach to prayer is not only Biblical, but ancient in the witness of the Church. The guidelines for centering prayer as developed by contemporary devotional authors such as Thomas Keating[3], are as follows:
· Let yourself settle down. Let go of all the thoughts, tensions, and sensations you may feel and begin to rest in love of God who dwells within (compare Revelation 3:20).
· Effortlessly, take the name of Jesus, the focus of your intention to surrender to God's presence, and let the name of Jesus be gently present in your heart.
· When you become aware of thoughts or as internal sensations arise, just take this as your signal to gently return to the name of Jesus, the focus of your intention to let go and rest in God's presence.
· If thoughts subside and you find yourself restfully aware, simply rest in God, in His presence. Be in that stillness. When thoughts begin to stir again, gently return to the name of Jesus.
· End your time of prayer with thanksgiving, adoration and intercession.

The Effect of Centering Prayer
The most basic effect of centering prayer is a renewed sense of God’s presence within. Being in the presence of God brings profound changes. Nothing is more powerful than our Lord’s presence in our hearts and minds. This is the foundation for change (compare the Apostle Peter’s words on this great truth in 2 Peter 1:2-4). Being aware of the indwelling presence of Jesus sets a powerful platform for all other forms of prayer and devotion. We can now approach every day, every action, every thought with the powerful knowledge that He lives within us. We are now able to live life from the center. The center of every action, every thought is now Jesus. He has been given pre-eminence in our lives (compare Colossians 1:16-18). Our lives become a living witness of His presence in the world, and in and through us.

One of the most profound results of centering prayer is the transformation of the believer. The central act of centering prayer is the act of beholding, centering upon Jesus. Scripture is very clear that the devotional act of transformation is the same (compare 2 Corinthians 3:18). When we constantly gaze, look and center ourselves upon Jesus we are changed in to His glorious image. As we center upon God and the indwelling presence of Jesus in our hearts, we are bombarded by a myriad of thoughts, feeling and perceptions. This is direct result of us focusing on Jesus. In His presence all that is not pure and holy must flee.

The Power of the Quiet Place
The reason we engage in this kind of prayer is to make our lives, lives of being completely centered in Jesus. Centering prayer is an expression of our faith and love. The way to the center, to the experience of God, is love. From love comes our ability to sense God present. Love for God and faith in Jesus are the two pillars that form the foundation for centering prayer. This does not mean that this might always be easy. Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and discipline. This discipline of listening and of attention is a discipline, a rather difficult one to maintain. In this listening, in the tranquil attention to God, God acts directly upon the one who prays, doing it by Himself, communicating Himself to that person. God and the beloved are together in great intimacy. Thomas Merton[4] who lived his life as one sitting at the feet of Jesus and yet had a powerful effect on the world, prayed this prayer of faith before he died and in doing so illustrates the ultimate purpose of centering on Jesus:
“To be here with the silence of Son-ship in my heart
is to be a centre in which all things converge upon You.
That is surely enough for the time being.
Therefore, Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence
so that I may learn from it the word of Your peace
and the word of Your mercy
and the word of Your gentleness to the world.
And that through me perhaps Your word of peace
may make itself heard where it has not been possible for
anyone to hear it for a long time.“

[1] Andrews, C 1997. The Circle of Simplicity. New York: HarperCollins.
[2] Foster, R J 1978. Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
[3] Keating, T 1992. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimensions of the Gospel. Shaftesbury: Element.
[4] Merton, T 1999. The Intimate Merton. Oxford: Lion.