“Be still and know that I am God.”
I tried centering prayer for a month, and may have gotten it totally wrong.
Centering prayer doesn’t look like much. I sit down, usually in my desk chair, but whatever’s around will do. And that’s it. I just sit there in silence – sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for ten minutes. I tried doing it as I fell asleep in bed, but as it turns out, that’s not quite recommended if you want to remember what you were doing and journal about it. Although, in theory maybe there is something beautiful about praying yourself to sleep. I reflected on this a little bit, but I think there is a spiritual analog between sleep and death. The idea of praying yourself to sleep and living unto death is one of my lasting personal questions and takeaways. That practice doesn’t bear its fruit in a good journal, however.
So, yes, the practice itself is quite simple: sitting in silence. To help focus or “center” the exercise, I choose a sacred word. This word is more about intention than anything else. If my mind was running frantic (which it often was), I would calmly and steadily return to the word. Examples of some of the sacred I used were grace, love, faith, steadfast, mercy, truth, and presence. The word is a way to reorient thoughts towards God’s presence (thoughts encompass sensations, feelings, images and reflections).
There is an intentional vagueness to centering prayer that is hard to pin down. The sacred word is around but might also become irrelevant or cease to be present. I am reminded of the beginning of the third chapter of The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymously written medieval work of Christian mysticism: “Lift up thine heart unto God with a meek stirring of love; and contemplate Himself, and none of His qualities.” Those “meek stirrings of love” are the beginning of the practice. The sacred word is merely a representation of that love. The commitment to silence is also a representation of that love, and through the practice – a practice that is mundane and boring – the practitioner changes. To pray is to rest. I see the benefit of learning centering prayer in a community, or from an “expert” pray-er. The practice is very abstract, and it’s easy to get lost.
Specifically, I used the Contemplative Prayer app made by the Center for Contemplative Outreach, an organization that seeks to increase awareness and access to centering prayer. The app has several settings – you can choose the duration of the timer, set the opening and closings noises (I chose a singing bowl), and select from a pre-chosen list of scripture verses for when you open in prayer and reflect upon during the conclusion of the prayer. I wish the app were more simplistic or had a “random” feature that would just pair or select verses for you.
I was motivated to explore centering prayer because of my interest in Christian mysticism. I first heard about Christian mysticism during my Freshman year of college. I was taking a course called Philosophy of Religion and the class featured a short segment on primary medieval texts from famous mystics (St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila and John Ruysbroeck). This was at Gordon College, a non-denominational, evangelical, Christian school. When “mysticism” was first brought up, I remember the awkward shift in the room. Mentioning mysticism in Evangelical spaces requires framing, and expect to get peppered with questions like “isn’t that like the New Age or a Buddhist practice?” “Wait, so are you a Christian? Isn’t mysticism like an Eastern thing?” This class diffused my Evangelical fears towards mysticism, and I learned that mysticism was more of an adjective than anything else – many religions can be mystical, Christianity included.
Fast forward to my first year at Northeastern, a personal film project loosely about Christian mysticism led me to research at a Massachusetts monastery of Trappist monks, St. Joseph’s Abbey, or Spencer Abbey as it’s more commonly known. Unbeknownst to me, Spencer was the formal birthplace of centering prayer, pioneered by Spencer’s Abbot, Fr. Thomas Keating in the 70s.
My first experiences at Spencer also coincided with a period vernacularly called “deconstruction,” a process that former evangelicals go through as they begun to unpack their faith and form their own worldview. It was during this time that I began listening to The Liturgists. I was drawn to their liturgies/meditations, and this new grey area of Christian practice that was unfamiliar with the Christian practice of my childhood had a soothing effect.
I find it interesting that there is an overlap between Christian monastic practices and exvangelicals (self-described term for former evangelicals who have gone through deconstruction). There is an ongoing debate about what is true and authentic Christian practice, and I believe Christian mysticism and contemplation is at forefront of this conversation. Some conservative voices denounce meditation as Buddhist and say it’s gone too far, and I’ve seen this sensitivity come from fellow Anglicans.
From my experience, this sensitivity from Protestants is not uncommon. During my 30-day challenge, I witnessed the awkward feet shuffling during my Anglican church’s weekend silent retreat. Silence? Meditation practices? How is this “Christian”? Is meditation an authentic Christian practice? The room was filled with questions and the retreat facilitator made sure to anchor the silence within the Christian tradition. Advocating for contemplative practices requires Protestants to cite verses or attest that the Desert Fathers (early saints who sought God in the fringes of the desert, such as St. Anthony were some of the first Christian mystics). This historical affirmation gives meditation some sort of legitimacy.
Now, I think it’s interesting how evangelical and exvangelical justification for centering prayer / contemplative practices differ. Evangelicals claim historical authenticity. Colloquially, there’s a “cool” factor when someone appeals to the Desert Fathers. It’s like saying “I know more church history than you do.” Exvangelicals, on the other hand, often talk about the scientific advantages of meditation and mindfulness on the brain. For example, The Liturgists, a popular podcast and cohort of exvangelicals, approach it from a more psychological angle. They share this similar practice, and both perspectives assume a central essence to Christianity, an authenticity which I don’t believe exists (to be fair, I doubt The Liturgists would say this, but in practice, their anti-one-size-fits-all Christianity infers that Christianity is essentially amorphous and evolving – which in of itself is an essence, albeit a harder essence to define and frame).
There is no tradition of Christianity that stands untouched by time, and I think it’s interesting that Christians engage with these duals of authenticity. As Christian traditions are competing for adherents, justifying practices as “authentic” to validate their performances is a big draw. This battle over authenticity reflects consumer culture, the urge to “diversify” the tradition and market congregations to prospective “nones.” I see this work occurring within The Liturgists. They started with a mission to produce contemplative liturgies for Christians/non-Christians. In the spiritual marketplace, authenticity is a deeply valued commodity. I wonder if this was John Paul’s mission when he called for the Fr. Thomas Keating to formally develop centering prayer as a Catholic practice in the wake of Vatican II.
Later in 1989, a Vatican pamphlet titled, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, explores the context of globalization and psychological theories, with the conclusion that Christian meditation is important because of the popularity of alternative modes of meditation:
Observing that in recent times many traditional methods of meditation, especially Christian ones, have fallen into disuse, they wonder whether it might not now be possible, by a new training in prayer, to enrich our heritage by incorporating what has until now been foreign to it.
This Vatican letter comes after Fr. Thomas Keating’s work in the 70s and goes on to warn about the dangers of self-absorption, something which I fell into during my practice.
Many of my struggles were related to sleep and my “lifestyle.” I did two meditations in an airport and if my prayers weren’t in some transient space, during one session, I experienced something entirely outside of my realm of previous mediation or prayer experiences. The feeling was so physical, like some sort of spiritual high. There was a rush of energy followed my images. In hindsight, the skeptic in me interprets this is in several ways. Because of what I thought the intention of the exercise was, of course I thought I saw Christ. I was supposed to see Christ if the exercise is working, right? But the thing is, centering prayer values apophatic experiences. In practice, I cannot see Christ, only experience him. As John the Evangelist writes, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we remain in Him, and He in us: He has given us of His Spirit.”
In effect, the consequences of centering prayer are not from the moments of prayer themselves, but the coating of reality prayer brings to the rest of the day. It’s a practice that bears little in the actual process of doing it, and more in the moments in-between prayer.
I feel like I am only truly realizing this in hindsight. My attitude towards the exercise was influenced by the understanding of meditation I had entering the experience. I thought it was thing itself doing the work, with the goal to generate some sort of mystical experience. I thought that centering prayer was a technique used to manifest Holy images, but it’s really the opposite. It’s not a technique to experience some psychological manifestation, something which I believe happened to me, but centering prayer is an opportunity to make a leap of faith. To put my trust in something unknown, mysterious and difficult. Submitting to this practice is a metaphor for submitting to God’s will, something which is unknown, mysterious and difficult. Truly a strange ritual. The thing itself does nothing, but the nothingness changes everything.
There is something anti-capitalist about centering prayer. While I think the discourse around “silence” and “meditation” within Christian spaces as a meta-commentary of authenticity bears the marks of consumer culture, ultimately, the practice was born out of a monastic community and essentially asks people to “waste their time.” I can’t think of anything less capitalistic than that. I also think that’s where the tension lies. This practice has revealed how steeped my life is with a fast-paced consumer lifestyle. I’m realizing now that even experiences are a part of this consumer world. Just because I’m not buying things out right, doesn’t mean I’m not engaging with the marketplace. I did several of these meditations in the airport of all things! And let me tell you, not a great idea.
I think for
centering prayer to be at its best requires a lifestyle change and a movement
away from consumer culture. Perhaps this progress is a chicken-and-egg
scenario. The more I engage with centering prayer, the greater the “spiritual
coating” of my day to day. As the builds through continuous practice, slowly, centering
prayer erodes the aspects of consumer culture experience that I currently hold
as valuable. I’m still working out which aspects of my life I want to change,
and this project has exposed me to some of those potential growth areas.
 Psalm 46:10
 Audrey Deng, “The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by James Bradley”, 2016, http://columbiajournal.org/translation-from-the-cloud-of-unknowing-translated-by-james-bradley/
 “About Fr. Thomas Keating”, n.d., https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/fr-thomas-keating
 “Sayings & Stories of the Desert Fathers”, n.d., https://christdesert.org/prayer/desert-fathers-stories/
 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation”, n.d., http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html
 1 John 4:12-13
*Photo taken by me at some monastery in Armenia.