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Strength for the JourneyA GUIDE TO SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
By Renée Miller
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2011 CREDO Institute, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCentering Prayer
Contemplative prayer is part of a reality that is bigger than itself. It is part of the whole process of integration, which requires opening to God at the level of the unconscious. —Thomas Keating
We move at a pace in life that keeps our souls as busy as our bodies; our unconscious as full as our conscious minds. We are regularly challenged to switch between ideas, images, feelings, thoughts, and emotions with the speed of a computer alternating between programs. The effect on our souls is subtle and stealthy. Over time, we find it difficult simply to be still. We find it difficult to pray or believe that we are centered in the Divine Presence during prayer. When we are able to take the time to focus ourselves on communication with God, we find our minds assailed by those same ideas, images, feelings, thoughts, and emotions that plagued us before we sat down to pray. It seems that the moment we settle ourselves in God's presence, we find that we are thinking about a meeting we need to prepare for, or a soccer practice we need to shuttle our child to, or something we have forgotten to buy at the store, or the person in the hospital that needs a visit. We may force ourselves to complete the prayer period and wonder at the end of it if we've even prayed at all. Or, we may choose to truncate or postpone our prayer because we are frustrated by the constant chatter in our minds.
Centering Prayer, a contemporary version of the ancient practice of contemplative prayer, is not only a way to pray, but a way of prayer that has the potential to make a significant impact on the pattern of our lives when we are not praying. Thomas Keating, the Cistercian monk and master of Centering Prayer, says that we are not able to determine if the practice is making a difference in our souls based on what happens during the actual time spent in the practice. Rather, we know the prayer is effective in our lives by the comments we receive from others who begin to see a difference in us. When we simply sit faithfully in God's presence and stay there, even when thoughts distract us, we will find that we are able to bring the practice into the situations of our everyday lives. Instead of becoming focused on what may seem urgent but is ultimately unimportant, we find we are able to let it go, just as we have done during the course of the prayer practice itself. In other words, what we practice in the prayer is what we begin to live outside the time of prayer.
Centering prayer is a simple, though hardly easy, practice. After settling in the presence of God, we choose a sacred word as a symbol of our intent to remain in God's presence during the prayer period. As thoughts rise in us, we gently let them go and return to the sacred word. Thomas Keating uses a potent image. He says that as thoughts float across our consciousness, they are like boats on the surface of a river. When we are focused on what is on the surface of the river rather than the river itself we slip away from our original intention. The sacred word helps call us back to the place of stillness and faithful presence to God. It is the soft offering that affirms that we want to give our attention back to God. We continue the process of letting go of thoughts and returning to the sacred word throughout the time given to the practice—usually twenty to thirty minutes once or twice each day.
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If you are contemplative and reflective you are probably easily attracted to this form of prayer. You may find that it provides respite from the rigors of daily demands. On the other hand, if you are active and highly verbal you might, at first, think centering prayer is unsuitable for your spiritual personality. After practicing it for some time, however, you may be surprised by the spiritual balance that you experience as a result of quieting yourself in the place of deep spiritual rest.
Praying with Beads
To pray is to listen to the One who calls you "my beloved daughter," "my beloved son," "my beloved child." To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts, and let that voice resound in your whole being. —Henri Nouwen
One of the most difficult aspects of prayer and meditation is focus. So much that occurs in the daily round of life distracts us during the time of prayer. If we were to count the number of thoughts we have in just one hour, we would be astonished at the capacity of our minds to flit like hummingbirds from thought to thought. In many ways, this is not a new phenomenon. We easily fault contemporary life and technology for what Buddhists call "monkey mind." Yet, it is more a primordial than a generational response. It is part of being human and it is a glorious part of being human. It is what makes dreaming, imagining, inventing, and creating possible. While we can quickly become discouraged during prayer with the plethora of stuff inside our minds moving us off focus, it is that very stuff that is responsible for our ongoing health and growth.
The real issue is in the timing. There are times when we want to be free of our bouncing thoughts in order to become inwardly still. There are times we want our focus to be as piercing as a laser beam. There are times we do not want any disturbance to interrupt our intention. An external aid can often help us find the peace and focus we seek. For centuries, in all religions, beads and prayer ropes have been such an aid. While the most familiar use of prayer beads is as a counter for the number of prayers said, its use extends far beyond its abacus function. Prayer beads are used to help channel the mind's energy to a single point with each bead representing a mantra or a prayer. As the user moves their fingers along the beads they are connecting mind and body in such a way that the soul is able to break free to be still in the presence of God. The fingering of the beads keeps the mind and body engaged so that the soul can enter the depths of divine love.
Episcopalians are most familiar with the Anglican Rosary that was developed in the 1980s as an aid for contemplative prayer. It is essentially a blend of the Roman Catholic Rosary and the Orthodox Prayer Rope. The Anglican rosary consists of twenty-eight beads with one Invitatory bead and four cruciform beads. The thirty-three beads are prayed three times, and a prayer is said with the cross so that the total number reaches one hundred. This is the same number used for the Orthodox Prayer Rope. Anglicans also use the Roman Catholic Rosary with slight adaptations. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Christianity all have some form of prayer beads. There is even an application for prayer beads for use on some mobile phones.
When we begin using beads as a prayer practice, we will need a certain amount of time to become so familiar with the practice and the prayers that they are repeated by memory rather than by conscious thought. Here, the intent is to "push the play button," so that the prayers will keep the mind occupied but not really thinking. This creates the space for the soul to descend more deeply into stillness. While we are learning the practice, we will not find ourselves descending as deeply as we will once the beads and their associated prayers have become one with our minds and the beating of our hearts. When that begins to occur, we will experience the kind of meditation that leads the soul into deep rest, into the divine embrace, into that space of holiness from which no one emerges unchanged.
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If you feel a desire for contemplative prayer, but find it hard to sit still or keep thoughts at bay, you will find praying with beads a helpful way to go more deeply into your contemplative practice. If you are active by nature and would rather swallow ice whole than engage in contemplative prayer, you will find praying with beads a way to engage your active nature. The infinite variations available for praying with beads will appeal to anyone who is easily bored by repetition. As a reminder to pray, as a counter of prayer, as an aid for stillness, as a way to stay physically and mentally active, as a path for staying spiritually engaged, prayer beads can become one of our soul's treasured possessions.
The Daily Office
Seven times a day I praise you. —Psalm 119:164a
It's so easy to get distracted. We set our minds to working on a task, set up a structure and timeline to complete it, and then find ourselves missing the deadline because something else comes along that needs our more immediate attention. We might plan to wash the car on Saturday, for example. Then, by the time Saturday rolls around, we forget about the car because our child has to go to soccer practice, our spouse has a function we must attend, or something from the office requires our attention. It's not that washing the car isn't important, but it seems less important than the other things that feel so insistent.
Our relationship with heaven can be easily forgotten in the events of a day. There is so much to do, so many conversations to have, so many errands to run, so many tasks to complete. Our shy and unassuming soul waits patiently for us to see its desire for connecting with the Holy One. But the distractions keep us from noticing that inner longing.
The Hebrew practice from the Psalms of praying seven times a day is not meant to be an onerous and impossible commandment. It is meant to be the soft nudge that will help us stay tethered to what is most important in our lives—union with the Divine. If we develop the pattern and practice of turning our souls to God throughout the day, we will find that our souls stay full and our hearts remain still. The ancient spiritual pattern of praying the Offices is a way of centering the soul in the presence of God throughout the day.
We often think of saying the Offices either as an outdated and uninteresting form of prayer, or as a liturgical practice that is more communal than meditative. In truth, the Offices are infinitely flexible, and many creative variations can be used while retaining the structure that, for centuries, has kept souls close to heaven.
The word "Office" comes from the Latin word opus meaning work. Praying the Offices, like other spiritual practices, can sometimes seem like work we would rather not do. This prayer practice, however, has the capacity to draw us into something that makes more of our souls, more of our lives, more of the world. Like a musical opus by Mozart or Beethoven, it is a work of spiritual magnitude that can easily be missed simply because we are looking for something more exciting and trendy. Yet, if we embrace the humble and repetitive, sometimes boring, daily-ness of it, we will be astonished by the enormity of its power.
Unlike some other spiritual practices, praying the Offices is both an active and a contemplative experience. It draws upon the discursive part of our beings as well as the reflective. In it we taste the textured word of God in scripture, we pray the prayers of intercession and petition, we confess the times we've missed the mark and caused separation, we acknowledge and re-commit to the faith that is in us, we get down and dirty with the daily rigors and stresses of life as we work our way through the Psalms, and we have ample time to allow the finger of heaven to etch words on our souls in silence.
There are three strategies that will help us to receive the fullest spiritual benefit from this ancient practice. First, we need to give ourselves the freedom to adapt the Offices to what is important in our own prayer styles. This makes it a more relevant practice for modern life. For example, we can substitute other Collects or write our own, we can play a favorite piece of music for a canticle, or we can do five minutes of yoga or centering prayer as a response to one of the readings. What is most important, however, is to stay with whatever pattern we choose until it becomes second nature to us. The most grace-filled element of praying the Offices is that they become a kind of mantra for deep meditation. In other words, when we have them memorized, or practically so, we stop sitting on the edge of the pool with our feet dangling in the shallow end. Instead, we jump into the deep end and find ourselves enveloped in the full water of God's embrace. If we continually change the pattern every day, we remain at the edge of the pool.
Second, we need to make a commitment to consistency. This will keep our souls regularly poised for heaven's whisper and touch. Like any other practice in life, it is the consistency of the practice that yields the results. Over time, the commitment to consistency will lead us to a place of deep desire—desire that is more profound than the simple eagerness to try something new, or experience the good feeling of having done what we thought we should do. The deeper desire is to find the Holy One when our souls are empty and dry, to be held in the rugged embrace of heaven, to taste and chew the words of God that are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. Perhaps, the Offices have remained such a powerful spiritual tool, precisely because they have been prayed consistently throughout the centuries. They are still prayed daily all over the globe; God's blessing has been called down into people's hearts and onto the world day after day for hundreds of years.
Third, we need to trust that even if our hearts don't feel the value of the prayer, God is there waiting to tend our languishing hearts. We need to trust enough that we are willing to wrap our hearts around the practice so tightly that it becomes natural to us even on days when words seem useless and prayers feel empty. We need to trust that when the practice is threaded into our souls like strands of wool, they will become solid and strong. We need to trust that the buffeting of the stresses and struggles of life will not interrupt or interfere with the tightly woven relationship between us and God. When we trust this much, we are more able to detach from difficulty and re-attach to ardor.
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Praying the Offices is an attractive form of prayer if you find communal and liturgical prayer nourishing. It may be more difficult for you if you are tired of praying in a formulaic manner or if you feel it is a practice that is irrelevant to contemporary life, or if you prefer to simply rest in God rather than manage lectionaries, books, and Bibles. The Office, however, is an ancient prayer practice that offers more than words can express. You must try and try again until it becomes part of your day, until the day is not complete without it.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and ourone choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God's life in me. —St. Ignatius, The Spiritual Exercises
A disciple once asked one of the desert fathers how she could know that her prayer was making a difference. "I sit in my cell in solitude and silence, but I hear nothing. When will my prayer reach heaven?"
"Do not expect that because you sit in silence, heaven will come down. Instead, chew on the words of heaven until your tongue speaks to God as you are speaking to me. Heaven will see your effort and grant you grace." The desert father was trying to explain that meditation is more than simply sitting still and waiting. It is also about thinking and reflecting. The labor of this is not lost on heaven. When God sees the seriousness we bring to the task, and hears us trying to converse, God will respond.
The word discursive comes from the word discourse and refers to having a conversation. When we think of meditation, conversation is not usually what we think about. We move quickly to being silent and still, waiting on God to communicate with us in some way. It seems that prayer is comprised of conversation, while meditation is comprised of contemplation. In fact, meditation can include both conversation and contemplation.
Excerpted from Strength for the Journey by Renée Miller Copyright © 2011 by CREDO Institute, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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