Finding Quietness of Heart in Centering Prayer
James Wilhoit (Professor of Christian Education at Wheaton College) comments on the practice of “Centering Prayer,” an effort to make Christian contemplation more accessible to the church. Wilhoit points out that Centering Prayer is less a self-improvement technique than it is a mindset that exposes our deep sin and pathologies.
Thanks for checking out this video from the table conference on the topic of Mind Your Heart. In this video you’ll hear from Dr. Jim Wilhoit who will be speaking about contemplative spirituality and in particular the role of centering prayer in Christian spirituality. We hope you enjoy the video.
So it’s good to be here this morning, this today, and this has been a intellectual and spiritual feast to hear the various presentations and what I’m talking about today is on a contemplation part of the Christian tradition and part of the tradition that I’m in, the reform tradition particularly seen in the Puritans.
It was 25 years ago with the birth of my youngest daughter. I got a picture, one picture, of an aspect of contemplation when we brought Juliana home from the hospital. She was fairly common, she was jaundiced, which is elevated level of bilirubin in her blood that her tiny liver wasn’t able to break down and the suggestion was very simple phototherapy.
That we keep in there in the sunlight with just a diaper on and we would move her around the living room, keeping her in the sunlight. And the sunlight was able to enable that toxin to be broken down that her liver couldn’t do.
That’s part of what contemplation is about. It is about exposing ourselves to the love of God, where this toxin of sin, these elements in our life, are able to be broken down, that are inaccessible to our willpower. To complete the picture, two years earlier I recalled when I had seen Juliana, we had gone out for a walk with her sister, and we met a neighbor with a daughter the exact same age two days home from the hospital.
Bright spring day cool in Illinois, and they had mentioned that they had taken her out because the pediatrician had said she was jaundiced and needed to be out in the sunlight. So here was their daughter out in the sunlight but not in the light because she’s covered with a blanket, baby bunting, canopy down, and just a wee bit of her face exposed and those two pictures should tell us something about contemplation.
When you hear a talk like this, you read a book, it’s attractive. But it really is very threatening because God in contemplation often appears as a purifying fire and so this is an invitation to change not one that is always easy. The doorway to contemplation really comes through brokenness where Paul is told by Jesus, “My grace is all you need. “My power works best in weakness.” And brokenness can be understood in a couple of ways. When I was a child, here I am in rural Oregon on top of speedy mule. When I was I was born, my father was 50 and lots of things happened that weren’t ever explained to us. He came home from work one day with this mule to be a family pet. [audience laughter] This did not work out well.
I don’t have time to tell you all the stories, but suffice it to say that one element speedy mule had been rescued from neglect and abuse. By the time speedy mule arrived, speedy mule was broken in a way we might say, but certainly broken at that sense of he was not a good member of the family. That’s not the brokenness I’m talking about. Speedy mule was on some level broken in the wrong place.
At that area of agency and that area of sort of efficacy, he could not enter in, he was not able to trust us. He could not be a member of our family in the sense as other pets and other animals were. Contemplation is also opening the heart to God. As Paul prays, “I prayed that your hearts will be flooded with light.” We heard about the news that is this part of an openness to receive, as you realize you desperately need to receive the healing grace of God. It is also comes when your heart says, “I indeed want to change and while I know that there’s an agency and responsibility I have, I know that I cannot orchestrate the righteousness and the holiness in the healing that I want.
I know it is gonna come through an indirect path.” And sometimes it will take nothing less than faith for you, in the face of the setting sins to realize, what is gonna help you the most over time is to sit quietly and expose yourself to God’s love rather than to take on another self-improvement project. Listen to the words of Jesus, so well captured by Eugene Peterson. Walk with me and work with me. Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
So I’m gonna talk about contemplation and that is our desire to to live before God, with a quietness of heart, to enjoy the pleasure of His company, and that’s understood in the context of our desperate desire to receive by the grace which is gonna heal, and transform and sustain us. And I’ll mention a way that we can do that, a way that’s been practiced for half a century now, and that is a centering prayer. This is simply one way that many people, myself included, have found a way to be before God in prayer.
Centering prayer has an interesting history. It was developed outside Boston at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, and literally the monks found young spiritual seekers coming and knocking on the door of the monastery, looking for a new age retreat center nearby. And they inquired about what was drawing them to this new age retreat center, and they found these people were on a spiritual quest and when they suggested that the church and the monastery would have something to offer, the young people found that absolutely incredulous.
And the monks began to ask, “What can we do to make accessible the rich, contemplative, and prayer-filled tradition that is in our church that is unknown to these young people as they come knocking on our door?” And Father Thomas Keating, who is the abbot of this monastery, tasked a couple of monks to look into this, to think about, “What could we do?” ‘Cause they realized that if one of these young people took them up on the offer and came in, they, short of saying, spend twenty years with us, wouldn’t have much concrete advice to offer as to what to do.
And so Father Thomas Keating tasked Father William Meninger and Basil Pennington to think about a way of pattern of prayer that would fit in, particularly with the young seekers that they had coming, and William Meninger came across teaching in a medieval source the cloud of unknowing that talked about a way of meditative prayer and said, “I think I have it.”
And so they came up with what they first called the cloud prayer. And then later, following decided, made for marketing reasons, centering prayer was a better way to describe this. So, just a word on Father Keating. So he retired, from Spencer, Massachusetts, and returned to where you can see, Snowmass in Colorado where he has served.
In the upper corner I have just one of his books so if you’re interested in centering prayer, a lot of books by Father Keating. What you’ll find is that, I would guess, in his books about 20% are on technique, how to do this. 80% of his books are about the human condition. He’s really convinced that contemplative prayer is not simply a technique, but it really becomes a mindset.
And I would say a lot of his work is focused on people coming to an understanding of the depth of their sin, and the fact that their sinfulness escapes any do-it-yourself, self-improvement project. It’s coming to that sense where you realize you’ve caught yourself in a lie, and you realize that it’s not only that you lied, but I am the kind of person who would tell a lie to protect my reputation. I am the kind of person who would cheat to look better in a class. I am the kind of person. When you come to see that, you begin to realize that you’re not gonna work yourself out of that problem.
A couple of foundations that are in centering prayer. First, it was understood they said, really centering prayer presupposes that people have some familiarity with meditating on scripture when the monastery is called Lectio Divina.
As they said in their pamphlet, Lectio Divina is a gift of centering prayer, so if contemplation is something that you feel a calling to, I would say begin with meditating in scripture. Finding a passage in the psalm, repeat it over, memorize it, write it down, take it with you throughout the day, begin to pray it, begin to find a pattern of a praying scripture. In that, you’re gonna learn to become more comfortable with spiritual silence. You’re gonna begin to grow in a sense that, here, while you’re being an agent in terms of presenting yourself to God, it’s God who’s working with you in a quiet way.
And a brilliant part of centering prayer is that it’s said what it’s really about is your intention. Many quiet forms of prayer, the focus is going to be on your attention, upon your concentration, upon your focus. And it becomes a bit of a human achievement. For centering prayer the word is your intention to be before God. We consent to God’s presence and action.
And I think that, in the writing, I think that’s one of the things that Keating did so well to emphasize, is that what really counts is not that you have focus, focus, focus. What really counts is that you intend to be present and vulnerable before God. So what does it look like? Well simply put, and you can write books on it, but they could also summarize it in a eight-and-a-half by eleven piece of paper, it really is sitting in silence before God twice each day for 20 minutes. Now, some of you may seem, “Oh that’s too much.”
You know I’ll also say this is a proven way of healing one’s heart. For those that are in anguish, over lust or anger and worry, why not take the invitation? Why not take the invitation for healing that’s offered? A few things, few practicalities, if you’re gonna sit in this. One is that you set a timer. This is something I discovered before I had begun to do centering prayer, now it just frees this time. I was initially setting aside one hour, one time a week to sit before God and I realized if I didn’t set a timer, I kept wondering, “Well’s the time up?” and it wasn’t unbroken time, or I’d have worries about that I was spending too much time, so you simply set a timer for that period of time, and just commit that to God.
I also think it’s helpful to have a piece of paper and before you sit down, you might just do a brain dump of what are those things that are rattling around, and even in the midst of the centering prayer, of the remember the milk, the call mom, the pick up the laundry, comes to mind, you can put it down. Otherwise you’d have the meditation on remembering the milk. [audience laughter] Which is not very efficacious. Some guidelines. You first prayerfully select a prayer word.
And I’m gonna talk about how that’s used in a minute. And what this means is you’re gonna have a word, that you’re gonna guide and use as a focus point, and this is something that you may maintain for some time. I’ve been using the same one now for seven years. So it’s something you may change over time. One may grow.
But it’s not something you change during a session. But you simply, before the Lord you say, “I would like a word that can reflect my intention.” Because every time you say this word, you’re really saying, it’s shorthand for saying, “Lord I’m coming and presenting myself in your presence, to sit in the presence of your love and to be nourished and healed and made right by your love.”
And then you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and sit comfortably, there’s not a specific posture. What I would recommend is sit in a posture that reflects dignity. You’re sitting before, yes your Abba, you’re sitting before the Lord and maker of the universe. You sit in the posture that reflects an openness before him and you silently introduce the prayer word. So you sit, and you declare to God, “I’m sitting in your presence. “I’m here to enjoy the pleasure of your company.”
And then you gently say the word. When you become aware of thoughts, you ever so gently return to the prayer word. You don’t scold yourself. Father Keating, at a retreat, a sister had come up and said, “Father Keating I am such failure. “I suspect my thoughts wandered 20,000 times in that time of prayer.” And he, with a smile, said, “Ah, 20,000 times to return to God.” And so that’s what you do.
You just repeat the word again without any negative admonition, you just come and say here it is when you come back. And then, at the end of the time period, you remain in silence with your eyes closed for a couple of minutes to listen, to commit. It’s not so much that you’ve heard something but you again you might just commit yourself to the reality of God’s love. You may have felt God’s embrace.
You may have felt, you know, as a friend of mine said if you come to the point that in prayer you believe that you’re in, well, as she said what’s really real and you may just remind yourself that this is what is more real than anything else. Few things that might be happening might be you’re taking a brief vacation from yourself. Word of Thomas Keating.
Some of us know, we’re caught up in our vain imaginings. We’re caught up in a lot of our thoughts and this is just a delight. I do find myself, particularly in times, certain days with certain pressures at about three o’clock in the afternoon and the idea of coming and having centering prayer sounds very good ’cause I just need to take a little vacation from Jim for awhile. [audience laughter] You grow in detachment from thoughts, not the absence of thoughts, but you become to realize you don’t have to believe everything you think.
You’re able to step back from thoughts that before would’ve taking you down a dark path. You’re growing in mindful awareness and lowered reactivity. You find probably maybe not quite as short a fuse. You find that you’re not swept up and worried in quite the same way. You learned that contemplation is an act of love and sanity. Here when you’ve said it can seem at one time to be immensely focused, but then you know after several months, you may sit with a friend, and the friend comments to you on how present you are. And you say, “Yeah, I have learned to be comfortable with silence.”
And you realize my centering prayer helped me love my friend better. You learned listening to God’s love songs, love songs sung over you. The Lord your God is with you. He rejoice over you with singing, Zephaniah. So you hear the love song of God. So centering prayer is not so much an exercise of attention as intention. You intend to go to your inmost being where God dwells. You’re opening to Him by pure faith. So centering prayer, I commend it as a way of answering God’s furnace of transformation. Thank you.
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