by Father Thomas Keating
Chapter 5, Part I
The sacred word, whatever one you may choose, is sacred not because of its meaning, but because of its intent. It expresses your intention to open yourself to God, the Ultimate Mystery, who dwells within you. It is a focal point to return to when you notice you are becoming interested in the thoughts that are going by.
Stick to the same word once you feel comfortable with it.1 If you are moved to choose another word, go ahead and try it, but do not shop around during the same period of prayer The sacred word is a sign or arrow pointing in the direction you want to take. It is a way of renewing your intention to open yourself to God and to accept Him as He is. While this does not prevent anyone from praying in other forms at other times, the period of centering prayer is not the time to pray specifically for others. By opening yourself to God, you are implicitly praying for everyone past, present, and future. You are embracing the whole of creation. You are accepting all reality, beginning with God and with that part of your own reality of which you may not be generally aware, namely, the spiritual level of your being.
The sacred word enables you to sink into your Source. Human beings were made for boundless happiness and peace, and when we see that we are starting to move in that direction, we don't have to push ourselves. The difficulty is that we are going in the opposite direction most of the time. We tend to identify ourselves with our false self and its concerns and with the world that stimulates and reinforces that false self.
The sacred word is not a vehicle or means to go from the surface of the river to the depths. It is rather a condition for going there. If I hold a ball in my hand and let go, it will fall to the floor; I don't have to throw it.
In similar fashion, the sacred word is a way of letting go of all thoughts. This makes it possible for our spiritual faculties, which are attracted to interior silence, to move spontaneously in that direction. Such a movement does not require effort. It only requires the willingness to let go of our ordinary preoccupations.
Since the will is designed for infinite love and the mind for infinite truth, if there is nothing to stop them, they tend to move in that direction. It is because they are all wrapped up in other directions that their freedom to go where they are naturally inclined is limited. During the time of centering prayer these faculties regain that freedom.
Thus the sacred word is a way of reducing the number of thoughts and of dissolving them into the single thought of opening to God. It is not the means by which we go from a noisy imagination to silence, but a condition that enables us to move into the spiritual realm to which the force of grace is drawing us.
The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him. If we get rid of that thought, our troubles will be greatly reduced. We fail to believe that we are always with God and that He is part of every reality. The present moment, every object we see, our inmost nature are all rooted in Him. But we hesitate to believe this until personal experience gives us the confidence to believe in it. This involves the gradual development of intimacy with God. God constantly speaks to us through each other as well as from within. The interior experience of God's presence activates our capacity to perceive Him in everything else--in people, in events, in nature. We may enjoy union with God in any experience of the external senses as well as in prayer
Contemplative prayer is a way of awakening to the reality in which we are immersed. We rarely think of the air we breathe, yet it is in us and around all the time. In similar fashion, the presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us. Our awareness, unfortunately, is not awake to that dimension of reality The purpose of prayer, the sacraments, and spiritual disciplines is to awaken us.
God's presence is available at every moment, but we have a giant obstacle in ourselves--our world view. It needs to be exchanged for the mind of Christ, for His world view. The mind of Christ is ours through faith and baptism, according to Paul, but to take possession of it requires a discipline that develops the sensitivity to hear Christ's invitation: "Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens I will come in and sup with him and he with me." (Revelations 3:20) It is not a big effort to open a door.
Our ordinary preoccupations involve unconscious value systems. Some thoughts are attractive to us because we have an attachment to them springing from the emotional programming of early childhood. When such thoughts go by, all our lights start flashing because of our heavy emotional investment in the values that they stimulate or threaten. By training ourselves to let go of every thought and thought pattern, we gradually develop freedom from our attachments and compulsions.
In contemplative prayer the Spirit places us in a position where we are at rest and disinclined to fight. By his secret anointings the Spirit heals the wounds of our fragile human nature at a level beyond our psychological perception, just as a person who is anesthetized has no idea of how the operation is going until after it is over. Interior silence is the perfect seed bed for divine love to take root. In the Gospel the Lord speaks about a mustard seed as a symbol of divine love. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it has an enormous capacity for growth. Divine love has the power to grow and to transform us. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to facilitate the process of inner transformation.
It is easier for most people to let go of their thoughts with a word of one or two syllables. But if you find that a visual image is more helpful, use it, provided, of course, that you introduce it on the level of the imagination and return to it whenever you notice you are thinking some other thought. The visual image should be general, not clear and precise. Some people find it especially helpful to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. They usually keep their eyes closed and are simply aware of the presence in which they are praying.
Following one's breathing is another method of quieting the mind. There is a distinction, however, that should be carefully noted. In centering prayer the object is not simply to let go of all thoughts but to deepen our contact with the ground of our being. The intentionality of faith is fundamental. Centering prayer is not just sustained attention to a special word or image or to one's breathing, but the surrender of one's whole being to God. It is not just an experience of our spiritual nature, which can be gained by concentrating on a particular posture, mantra, or mandala. It presupposes a personal relationship; there must be a movement of self-surrender. If, as a Christian, you use some physical or psychological method that is geared to quieting the mind, I suggest that you put it in the context of prayer. For instance, if you follow your exercises as a means of calming your thoughts, do so with the motive of drawing closer to God. Centering prayer is not a relaxation exercise although it may bring relaxation. It is the exercise of our personal relationship with God.
How does the sacred word actually work?
The sacred word is a simple thought that you are thinking at ever deepening levels. That is why you accept it in whatever form it arises within you. The word on your lips is exterior and has no part in this form of prayer; the thought in your imagination is interior; the word as an impulse of your will is more interior still. Only when you pass beyond the word into pure awareness is the process of interiorization complete. That is what Mary of Bethany was doing at the feet of Jesus. She was going beyond the words she was hearing to the Person who was speaking and entering into union with Him. This is what we are doing as we sit in centering prayer interiorizing the sacred word. We are going beyond the sacred word into union with that to which it points--the Ultimate Mystery, the Presence of God beyond any conception that we can form of Him.
The desire to go to God, to open to His presence within us, does not come from our initiative. We do not have to go anywhere to find God because He is already drawing us in every conceivable way into union with Himself. It is rather a question of opening to an action that is already happening in us. To consent to God's presence is His Presence. The sacred word points us beyond our psychic awareness to our Source, the Trinity dwelling in our inmost being. Moreover, God dwells there not as a photograph or statue, but as a dynamic presence. The purpose of this prayer is to get in touch with the activity that God is constantly initiating in our inmost center.
1. Example of what the sacred word might be: God, Jesus, Spirit, Abba, amen, peace, silence, open, glory, love, presence, trust, etc. Return to reference.
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.