Part of the instructions for the practice of Centering Prayeris to find a sacred word that signals a consent for the action and presence of God within. Some practitioners use “love” or “grace” or “light.”
The anonymous author of the 13th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing simply uses the word God.
Teachers of the practice instruct students to choose a word that is generally free of emotional charge or baggage because the aim to facilitate the movement into silence.
So you start with these strategies early on in the practice: “ok, I’m gonna enter into silence, and then when my thoughts take over, bump them out with the sacred word, and return to the silence. Lather, rinse, repeat. OK, I got this. Just bump ’em out of the way. I’m gonna be super enlightened in no time.”
While the instructions for the practice are pretty simple, what can be a little more difficult to learn is the how of Centering Prayer that can help make the practice a little more fruitful.
I am careful not to use the word “effective,” because the notion of doing something to achieve a goal or a particular outcome is precisely the kind of logical-linear strategic thinking that the practice itself helps us transcend.
Over the years as I continue my practice the one component that can get easily lost is that of disposition. As with all things, our intention matters. This is one aspect of our lives we bring to every act and interaction.
We bring it to making breakfast and packing lunches. We bring it to the drive to work. We bring it to the conference call. We bring it in entering a room.
In the contemplative life, each of these acts, however simple, becomes an opportunity for devotion, for receiving or passing on the beauty of the Beloved. This is the awareness or headspace that grows with the practice.
Early on in the practice, I’d introduce or reintroduce the sacred word impatiently, mildly annoyed when I got so far off track with some inner resentment or lingering argument or embarrassing moment from the past.
After several years it became clear that my intention, my disposition, mattered deeply. There is a piece of the Centering Prayer instructions which is easy to gloss over. Step three instructs us to introduce the sacred word ever-so-gently.
This becomes almost like a skill that is sharpened, the ability to introduce gentleness. We speak the word ever so gently. We notice our own missteps throughout the day: anger, annoyance, yelling, guilt, anxiety, whatever, and watch ourselves and then return to the present moment ever so gently.
In our time of strategy and productivity and efficiency, what a profound dimension of our lives to expand, what a quality to bring into the world, what a disposition to grow: gentleness. There is a strength to gentleness that refuses to be pulled this way and that by circumstances. It’s a disposition that requires security and trust to maintain.
In a way, this is the “secret weapon” of Centering Prayer. Bringing this disposition of gentleness, humility, and receptivity both deepens the experience of the practice and expands these capacities throughout the day. It’s like planting a seed.
It becomes a way to respond to stress, to enact forgiveness, to respond to arguments and hostility. In a sense, the mystical path is one that requires us to die to our attachments on a granular level in preparation for the great death to come, that when the time comes to move into the next phase of the great journey home, we can release this one, we can turn the page and let it go ever so gently.
By Marc Thomas Shaw
Rich Lewis on the third step of Centering Prayer
Anglican Rector Chris Page on gentleness as strength
Poem: Hagia Sophia by Thomas Merton