Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 4

First Steps in Centering Prayer

Part I

    Since Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church has been encouraging Catholics to live the fullness of the Christian life without expecting priests, religious or anyone else to do it for them. That implies creativity as well as responsibility on the part of lay people to come up with structures that will enable them to live the contemplative dimensions of the Gospel without a cloister A cloister does not resolve all the problems of life. There are pitfalls and traps for monks and nuns as well as for other people.

    The monastic journey is a special kind of life with its own set of difficulties. For one thing, it puts human relationships under a microscope. Although the trials are not as big as those outside the monastery, they may be more humiliating. Monastics get upset by trifles and can't even claim a good reason for feeling that way

    Divine union is the goal for all Christians. We have been baptised; we receive the Eucharist; we have all the necessary means of growing as human beings and as children of God. It is a mistake to think that a special state of life is the only way of doing it. The persons I know who are most advanced in prayer are married or engaged in active ministries, running around all day to fulfill their duties.

    A couple of years ago, I gave a conference to an assembly of lay organizations. These included marriage-encounter and social action groups, secular , and new communities. My talk was based on monastic spirituality, but instead of saying "monastic", I said "Christian". I was amazed to see how most people identified with this traditional teaching. It corresponded to their own experience. This reinforced my conviction that the spiritual journey is for every Christian who takes the Gospel seriously

    Spiritual disciplines, both East and West, are based on the hypothesis that there is something that we can do to enter upon the journey to divine union once we have been touched by the realization that such a state exists. Centering prayer is a discipline designed to reduce the obstacles to contemplative prayer. Its modest packaging appeals to the contemporary attraction for how-to methods. It is a way of bringing the procedures to be found in the contemplative teachings of the spiritual masters of the Christian tradition out of the dusty pages of the past into the broad daylight of the present. The popularity of meditative disciplines from the East is proof enough that some such method is essential today. But centering prayer is not just a method. It is true prayer at the same time. If you are willing to expand the meaning of contemplative prayer to include methods that prepare for it or lead into it, centering prayer can be identified as the first rung on the ladder of contemplative prayer, which rises step by step to union with God.

    Centering prayer is a method of refining one's intuitive faculties so that one can enter more easily into contemplative prayer It is not the only path to contemplation, but it is a good one. As a method, it is a kind of extract of monastic spirituality It concentrates the essence of monastic practice into two periods of prayer each day When taking an antibiotic, you have to maintain the right dosage in order to benefit from the medication. You have to keep up the required number of antibodies in the blood stream to overcome the disease. So, too, you have to keep up a certain level of interior silence in the psyche and nervous system if you want to obtain the benefits of contemplative prayer.

    Centering prayer as a discipline is designed to withdraw our attention from the ordinary flow of our thoughts. We tend to identify ourselves with that flow But there is a deeper part of ourselves. This prayer opens out awareness to the spiritual level of our being. This level might be compared to a great river on which our memories, images, feelings, inner experiences, and the awareness of outward things are resting. Many people are so identified with the ordinary flow of their thoughts and feelings that they are not aware of the source from which these mental objects are emerging. Like boats or debris floating along the surface of a river, our thoughts and feelings must be resting on something. They are resting on the inner stream of consciousness, which is our participation in God's being. That level is not immediately evident to ordinary consciousness. Since we are not in immediate contact with that level, we have to do something to develop our awareness of it. It is the level of our being that makes us most human. The values that we find there are more delightful than the values that float along the surface of the psyche. We need to refresh ourselves at this deep level every day Just as we need exercise, food, rest, and sleep, so also we need moments of interior silence because they bring the deepest kind of refreshment.

    Faith is opening and surrendering to God. The spiritual journey does not require going anywhere because God is already with us and in us. It is a question of allowing our ordinary thoughts to recede into the back ground and to float along the river of consciousness without our noticing them, while we direct our attention toward the river on which they are floating. We are like someone sitting on the bank of a river and watching the boats go by If we stay on the bank, with our attention on the river rather than on the boats, the capacity to disregard thoughts as they go by will develop, and a deeper kind of attention will emerge.

    A thought in the context of this method is any perception that appears on the inner screen of consciousness. This could be an emotion, an image, a memory, a plan, a noise from outside, a feeling of peace, or even a spiritual communication. In other words, anything whatsoever that registers on the inner screen of consciousness is a "thought". The method consists of letting go of every thought during the time of prayer, even the most devout thoughts.

    To facilitate letting go, take a relatively comfortable position so that you won't be thinking about your body. Avoid positions that might cut off the circulation because then you will think of your discomfort. Choose a place that is relatively quiet in corner not to be disturbed by excessive or unexpected noise. If there is no such place in your household, try to find a quiet time when you are least likely to be disturbed. It is a good idea to close your eyes because you tend to think of what you see. By withdrawing the senses from their ordinary activity, you may reach deep rest. A sudden sound or interruption, like the phone ringing, will shake you up. An alarm clock or timer, which is one way to notify yourself when the time is up, should be a quiet one. If the clock is noisy, stuff it under a pillow Try to avoid outside noises as much as you can. If noises happen anyway, do not be upset. Getting upset is an emotionally charged thought that is likely to shatter whatever interior silence you may have reached. Choose a time for prayer when you are most awake and alert. Early in the morning before the ordinary business of the day begins is a good time.

    Once you have picked a suitable time and place and a chair or a posture that is relatively comfortable, and closed your eyes, choose a sacred word that expresses your intention of opening and surrendering to God and introduce it on the level of your imagination. Do not form it with your lips or vocal chords. Let it be a single word of one or two syllables with which you feel at ease. Gently place it in your awareness each time you recognize you are thinking about some other thought.

    The sacred word is not a means of going where you want to go. It only directs your intention toward God and thus fosters a favorable atmosphere for the development of the deeper awareness to which your spiritual nature is attracted. Your purpose is not to suppress all thoughts because that is impossible. You will normally have a thought after half a minute of inner silence unless the action of grace is so powerful that you are absorbed in God. Centering prayer is not a way of turning on the presence of God. Rather, it is a way of saying, "Here I am" The next step is up to God. It is a way of putting yourself at God's disposal; it is He who determines the consequences.

    You may be familiar with the gesture of folding your hands together with the fingers pointing upward. This is a symbol of gathering all the faculties together and directing them toward God. The sacred word has exactly the same purpose. It is a pointer, but a mental rather than a material one. The word should be introduced without any force: think it the way you would any thought that might arise spontaneously

    The sacred word, once it is well established, is a way of reducing the ordinary number of casual thoughts and of warding off the more interesting ones that come down the stream of consciousness. It does this not by attacking the thoughts directly but by relaxing your intention to consent to God's presence and action within. This renewal of the will's consent, as it becomes habitual, creates an atmosphere in which you can more easily disregard the inevitable flow of thoughts.

    If you are nervous about doing what may seem like "nothing" for a set period of time, let me remind you that nobody hesitates to go to sleep for six or seven hours every night. But practicing this prayer is not doing nothing. It is a very gentle kind of activity. The will keeps consenting to God by returning to the sacred word, and this is normally enough activity to stay awake and alert.

    Twenty to thirty minutes is the minimum amount of time necessary for most people to establish interior silence and to get beyond their superficial thoughts. You may be inclined to remain longer. Experience will teach you what the right time is. At the end of your chosen time span, begin to think your ordinary thoughts again. This may be a good time to converse with God. You may also wish to say some vocal prayer quietly to yourself or to begin planning your day Give yourself at least two minutes before opening your eyes. Withdrawal from the ordinary use of the exterior and interior senses brings you to a deep spiritual attentiveness, and opening your eyes right away can be jarring.

    As your sensitivity to the spiritual dimension of your being develops through the daily practice of this prayer, you may begin to find the awareness of God's presence arising at times in ordinary activity. You may feel called to turn interiorly to God without knowing why. The quality of your spiritual life is developing and enabling you to pick up vibrations from a world you did not previously perceive. Without deliberately thinking of God, you may find that He is often present in the midst of your daily occupations. It is like color added to a black-and-white television screen. The picture remains the same, but it is greatly enhanced by the new dimension of the picture that was not previously perceived. It was present but not transmitted because the proper receptive apparatus was missing.

Continued next week.

More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating.  It is offered in our Bookstore.