Centering Prayer in our Tumultuous Times
GUEST POST BY CYNTHIA NEAL KIMBALL
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.”
Nine months into this coronavirus pandemic, we can all relate to the first part of this psalm. We are fatigued and often downhearted. Many of us have lost loved ones and many have suffered personally the effects of this awful illness. Isolation has challenged our mental and spiritual health on multiple levels. Indeed, ‘my heart is not lifted up…’.
What does it mean to “have calmed and quieted my soul?” What kind of soul work is needed to find this calm and quiet? This image of a contented infant after nursing is powerful. How do we find this spiritual nurturance, journeying from downhearted to this calm? In this post, I offer a spiritual practice that may bring stillness to your soul in the midst of turmoil. Centering Prayer has as its foundation the theological grounding of kenotic love, a self-emptying love (Philippians 2:6-11). Paul begins this passage with “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and goes on:
“Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
and being found in human form,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
In her book The Heart of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault summarizes Centering Prayer as “kenosis in meditation form.”
Centering prayer doesn’t ask for anything, doesn’t intercede for anyone; rather, this prayer is silent, still. The only intent in this prayer is the simple desire to be with God. Self-emptying. Just be. Centering prayer is a contemplative practice that orients you to be more present to the divine presence in you. The second verse of our Psalm indicates that we take action—“But I have calmed and quieted my soul”—and this action is to be quiet. Sounds counterintuitive and yet, this is an important aspect of our spiritual journey as we meet God who transforms our minds (Romans 12:2).
The guidelines for Centering Prayer can be found at the Contemplative Outreach organization. They are relatively simple:
Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Your practice may begin with 5 or 10 minutes but many move to 20 minutes twice a day. If I’m honest, I find it easier in the morning than later in the day. Regardless, the intention is to deepen your relationship with God.
Many practitioners struggle with their thoughts during this quiet time, whether beginners or advanced. I find particularly helpful the ‘four R’s’ provided by Contemplative Outreach:
Resist no thought.
Retain no thought.
React to no thought.
Return ever so gently to the sacred word.
Let’s face it, in these tumultuous times, our minds can be all over the place most of the day! Do not let that discourage you. In fact, returning time and again, ever-so-gently, to the stillness using our sacred word (or image or breath) is actually a key spiritual training tool for our active lives. We all find ourselves most days with what I call ‘monkey thoughts’, anxious thoughts about the myriad of covid related effects on our relationships, jobs, etc. These are very real effects! I live in a three-generational home and everyone feels the effects differently. However, the fruit of Centering Prayer in my life is the calming of my ‘monkey thoughts.’ My early morning practice has trained me to find calm in the midst of the daily challenges of family life.
In Centering Prayer, we are consenting to God’s presence and action. The sacred word is not a mantra or a re-orienting back to God’s presence. Consent is the action we take to “calm and quiet our souls.” Consent in prayer becomes the vehicle to consent to God’s presence in our daily life.
Recommended sources for further reading:
Thomas Keating, 2006, Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th Anniversary edition, New York: Continuum.
David Frenette, The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening your experience of God, 2012, Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, 2004, Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications.
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in theory and practice, 2016, Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Contemplative Outreach, contemplativeoutreach.org.
About the Author
Cynthia Neal Kimball, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita, Scholar-in-Residence at Wheaton College. Dr. Cynthia Neal's interests have included a wide range of research questions, specifically the following: high-risk families, attachment theory (particularly as it relates to our relationship with God), emerging adults, and gender issues. She enjoys her extended family which includes 5 grandchildren. Additionally, when she's not training for a marathon, you'll find her reading a wide variety of good books. She's involved in a small congregation which is very concerned with social justice issues, e.g., feeding the poor and advocating for the marginalized.