by Father Thomas Keating
In a retreat setting, the length of the periods of centering prayer can be extended. Members of a group that regularly practices centering prayer together may also wish to increase the time length of the prayer periods once a week or once a month.
Following is a report of participants that reflects the usual experiences of persons after three successive periods of centering.
Lengthening of multiplying periods of centering prayer can help to deepen the experience of interior silence. In such a context it may accelerate the process of unloading the unconscious. The following is a report of one of these sessions in which there were three twenty minute periods of centering separated by a five to seven minute meditative walk in single file at a very slow and deliberate pace.
RETREATANT 1: I found it to be a very peaceful experience. The continuity of three sustained periods brought about a deeper feeling of peace. There was no break at all, even though we got up and walking around. I can't over emphasize the experience of a community type of prayer. I got a deeper insight into sharing prayer, any type of prayer.
RESPONSE: Actually the walking is meant to be part of the prayer, a first step to bringing interior silence into activity of a very simple kind.
RETREATANT 2: I found it very, very peaceful, but I was also aware of how many thoughts I was getting in the three periods. They did not disturb the peace, but I was aware of how many there were. I also had a sensation that sometimes my whole body wanted to go deeper. I found the time went very fast.
RETREATANT 3: The first insight that I had today was the fact that there was a supportive element in group prayer. I have practiced centering prayer for about two years alone, and I could not fathom how it could be done in a group, so I had my doubts. But they have been dissolved.
RETREATANT 4: During the first period of prayer I felt restless, more than I had before, but when I got to the third one, it was peaceful. It was an answer to a question that I have had for a long time. I have often found that my time span for prayer is on the short side, maybe twenty to twenty-five minutes. I have wondered whether it should lengthen with time. It has not and I was worried. But I can see from this experience that with this little break in between, it can be prolonged.
RETREATANT 5: I must say that the time went by very quickly and the walk tended to recharge my batteries. When I came back for the second period, the time went by even more quickly, and so for the third.
RESPONSE: The deeper the silence you have, the faster the time goes. After all, what is time? It is just the measurement of objects of perception going by. So when there are fewer objects, there is less time. At least there is less awareness of time. When nothing is going by, there is no sense of time at all, and that is when prayer is over like a flash. Such deep prayer is an intuition into what eternity is like. It is a preview of death, not death in a morbid sense, but in a delightful sense.
RETREATANT 6: In the beginning, I was deliberately trying to be quiet, and I was getting in my own way. Somehow or other, in the second or third period, I was experiencing great ease and a conscious sensation of quiet joy.
RETREATANT 7: At the beginning, it was rather tedious, but part way through the afternoon, I felt a subtle breakthrough, or just an ease of being without any interior pressure.
RESPONSE: If you keep centering long enough, your resistance gets tired and you fall into what you are supposed to be doing anyway. Thus, there is an advantage in gently tiring yourself out.
RETREATANT 8: I found the third meditation too short.
RESPONSE: Depending on one's temperament or grace, the time span can be lengthened when one is alone. But for a group of people, it is better to agree on a certain amount of time that is not too short and not too long. It must be long enough to enable your faculties to get into it and quiet down. But not so long that it discourages the faint-hearted, who will never do it if they have to face something that looks endless to them. Three successive periods with a brief, contemplative walk in between is a way of initiating ourselves into the fact that we are perfectly capable of an extended period of resting in God.
RETREATANT 9: I found a deep rest; so much so, that I was not sure if I was sleeping, at least part of the time. In the beginning, I was not sure if I could do the three of them in a row. It was not all that difficult once I got into it. I am still not sure what to do with the sacred word, whether there should be an effort on my part to repeat it, or just to let it go.
RESPONSE: The main thing to keep in mind in this prayer is that there is no effort, there is only the very gentle activity of listening. It is almost like letting the word say itself. But letting go of that activity is even better. Whenever you are uncertain what to do, you are completely free to do either, and your own experience will teach you. Just keep in mind that silence is better than the sacred word. Or to put it another way, it is the sacred word at the deepest level. Whenever you come back to the sacred word, it should be as easily as possible, as if it were a spontaneous thought that just came along. It does not have to be explicit or articulated. Even the thought to return to the sacred word may be enough.
RETREATANT 10: I found myself using the word less today than I have ever used it before.
RESPONSE: Its use or presence will vary from one period of prayer to the next, according to circumstances. You need great flexibility in using it. The principle is always to use it to go toward greater peace, silence, and beyond. But when one is in peace, silence, and beyond, forget it.
RETREATANT 11: I found myself going deeper and deeper in each session, and I have a question. Every morning I do my centering prayer, and then I offer Mass. But I find it hard to come out of it. What should I do?
RESPONSE: That's a nice problem to have.
RETREATANT 11: But should I not be thinking of the prayers of the Mass? Instead I find myself centering.
RESPONSE: If the divine Presence overtakes you and you are not leading the assembly, there is no reason why you cannot rest in the Presence of God. If you have some function to fulfill--if you are the principal celebrant, for example--obviously you have to move things along. You cannot just let the congregation wait until you come out of it.
RETREATANT 11: The problem is that I am enjoying this more than anything else.
RESPONSE: There are times in one's life when the divine action is very strong and hard to resist. There are also times when the Lord seems to forget about you. The main things is to accept whatever comes, to adjust to what happens, to whatever He gives you. By alternating the sense of His closeness and distance, God trains our faculties to accept the mystery of His Presence beyond any kind of sensible or conceptual experience. The divine Presence is very close and immediate, when we are doing the most ordinary actions. Faith should become so transparent that it does not need experience. But it takes a lot of experience to reach that point.
As God brings the "new man" to life in interior silence, that is to say, the new you, with the world view that Christ shares with you in deep silence, His view of things becomes more important to you than your own. Then He asks you to live that new life in the circumstances of everyday life, in your daily routine, contradicted by noise, opposition, and anxieties. These seem to persecute you because you want to be alone to relish that silence. But it is important to allow oneself to be confronted by daily life. The alternation between deep silence and action gradually brings the two together. You become fully integrated, a contemplative and yet fully capable of action at the same time. You are Mary and Martha at once.
We all have these two capacities, but they are in different proportions. By bringing each of them to its full potential and integrating them, one becomes a mature Christian, able to bring forth out of one's tool kit old things and new. It is to be able to act and to be able not to act, to come into function and to withdraw into silence. The alternation of contemplative prayer and action gradually establishes you in the contemplative dimension of the Gospel, which is a new and transformed state of consciousness.
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.