(nb: this is a transcription of a ten minute talk given by Cynthia Bourgeault at the Center for Action and Contemplation [https://cac.org/] “Trinity The Soul Of Creation” Conference held 6-8 April 2017 in Albuquerque, New Mexico in which she introduces the Christian meditation practice of Centering Prayer.)
I am going to give you a short walk through of what Centering Prayer is.
Sitting for Centering Prayer is a simple form of sitting meditation, which incorporates vulnerability, present moment awareness, surrender and rest in a field that can be directly experienced as compassion when your heart gets quiet enough.
This is a very simple meditation form developed by Roman Catholic Trappist priests to allow Christians to experience some of the beauty and depth of the spiritual life, and find an access point into the contemplative mind that is made possible through the gateway of sitting meditation.
In Centering Prayer the intention is to be totally available to the divine presence. It is not to be empty, or quiet, or any of these things, but to be available, to be there, to show up deeply, to be available beyond your thinking, beyond your emotions, beyond visualization, beyond listening for messages, beyond anything, beyond saying, “Do I like this or don’t I?”
Available – beyond all that busyness of the mind.
The way we put teeth in this intention of being available is that whenever we catch ourselves thinking, when our attention moves from a kind of clear open alert awareness, when it moves from that into focusing on a particular thought, what we do to put teeth in our intention is to just let that thought go; gently let it go.
A thought in Centering Prayer is anything that calls your attention to a focal point, regardless of its content. It can be an idea, a revelation, a message, it can be an itch on your nose, it can be an overwhelming wish to pray for everybody. If you find your attention is going from the open awareness to thinking about the thought, that’s when you let it go.
Letting go is not about getting rid of thoughts. It is not pushing them away. The thought is not an enemy. Centering Prayer is a gesture of letting go.
Centering Prayer is all about that practice.
The third point in the instruction is that in order to facilitate that letting go, when we remember quickly that’s what we intended to do when we sat down to do this prayer, we don’t say, “Oh should I let go of this thought? It’s such an interesting one.”
Most people in Centering Prayer use what’s called a sacred word which is a little word of one or two syllables, or a short phrase, that you use, that you select yourself to stand for your willingness to do this deal, to let go of the thoughts. When you catch yourself thinking you let the thought go.
So you would pick a word like Abba, Trinity, yes, or a phrase like be here or let go, anything like that that would remind you, sort of like a little piece of string on your finger that says, “Oh yeah, I was just going to be totally available without thinking.”
You can pick the word. It’s not a mantra because you don’t say it over and over and over again to steady your attention.
You just use it sort of like a windshield wiper. When the windshield gets too cluttered with raindrops and stuff, the word comes to sweep it clear. And, instead of being a steady windshield wiper, it’s the one on intermittent.
The final thing to tell you is why do we this. And that’s kind of the most important thing. Because just sitting there just dropping thoughts may not feel like anything to do with prayer. But the point is we do this in solidarity with Jesus and his great paschal instructions – “Abide in my love.” “Not my will but thine be done.”
So what takes us out of that deep felt sense of inter-abiding which is there all the time, what takes us out of that Trinitarian flow is our thinking. Thinking, thinking, thinking – breaking it into bits. We get to practice not doing that for a little while. And in that we fall into that ground, that inter-abiding ground.
The letting go is in direct solidarity with Jesus by that kenotic (letting go) stance of Jesus – “Not my will but thine be done, O God.” It has a deeply christic ambience to it. And if you do it in that spirit, you’ll discover a little bit of the deep spirituality that actually flows in it.
So the last thing I’ll say is one of my favourite Centering Prayer stories about a nun who tried it at one of the very first Centering Prayer workshops ever offered. At the end of the time of doing it, she said, “I’m such a failure at this prayer. In 20 minutes, I’ve had 10,000 thoughts.” “How lovely,” says Father Thomas Keating, “10,000 opportunities to return to God.”
Every time you let go of a thought, it’s not about “Oh I’m a terrible meditator.” Instead return 10,000 times.
And so, in the midst of the pain of the world, we don’t think about it, but we allow the offering of our own compassionate presence, and our availability to God to take our yearning where it will.