Yesterday Heather and I led an Introduction to Centering Prayer Workshop at St. Matthias Church.

In the past twelve years we have conducted at least twenty-five Introduction to Centering Prayer Workshops in a variety of places. It is amazing to me, even after the countless hours we have spent talking to different people about this spiritual discipline, that it can still feel fresh and important to encourage people in the radical practice of silent prayer.

Particularly in the first week of Lent it feels powerful to stand before a group of spiritually receptive people and encourage them to think about the possibility that spiritual depth might be found along the path of letting go and surrender rather than clutching and hanging on.

We observe the church season as a reminder that the Christian life is not only, perhaps not even primarily, about dogmatic content of truths we affirm. The Christian life is a practice; it is a way of living that is learned in large part through doing. We enter most fully into the Christian life through practice. As Richard Rohr says,

We cannot think our way into a new way of living; we have to live our way into a new way of thinking.

Centering Prayer is practice in the counter-intuitive gesture of surrender that is the central gesture of the Christian faith.

You will find it at the very beginning of the Gospel story with Mary’s reply to the unsettling announcement given to her by Gabriel,

Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

“Let it be…” is the atmosphere that runs through every encounter Jesus has during his ministry and to which he returns near the end of his life in his moment of anguished prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.

‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42)

At the core of the Centering Prayer teaching is the recognition that the heart of Christian faith is the intention to “consent to the presence and action of God in my life.”

In this silent prayer I choose again and again to follow Jesus and choose “not my will but yours.” I choose for twenty minutes twice a day to let go of the obsessions and compulsions that drive so much of my daily life. I express my intention to surrender control of my life to a force that is greater, wiser, and more benevolent than any power of the will I can exert on my own.

The genius of Centering Prayer lies in the recognition that we cannot get to this place of surrender without intentional practice apart from the “heat of battle.” The time to learn surrender is not the moment when I am standing before my accuser who is determined to trash my reputation. I will not suddenly discover the gift of letting go at the moment I am feeling under attack. Like any discipline, consent is only learned through daily discipline before I face the test of needing to use the practice. The marathon runner does not show up the day of the race without having logged endless kilometers in training.

We have spent our lives learning the instinct to grasp and control, to fight for our little piece of the pie, to defend ourselves, to go for the big win, and to do all we can to shore up our fragile little sense of self. Letting go feels powerfully counter-intuitive. If we are going to learn letting go, it is going to require setting aside  a period each day to practice intentionally giving up those thoughts that hook and bind us.

Centering Prayer is training in freedom. It teaches us that we do not need to be controlled by any force outside ourselves. We do not need to live reactively all our lives, like pinballs in a machine constantly bouncing back and forth bashed by the various forces that collide in our lives. We can find a strong secure, steady place within ourselves that is the presence of God from which we can engage life with freedom and openness.

Sharing the gift of this practice with a group of people who long to live in this freedom, seems to me a worthwhile way to spend a Saturday.