In case you’ve not taken care to do so already, please be sure that all cell phones and pagers are in the mute or vibrate setting. If you have any other electronic or noise making devices, kindly switch them to off. If your ears are still full of the sounds and busyness of the week, kindly allow the volume to be slowly turned down inside your mind. If your legs are still spinning from the hustle of the weekend, please allow them to relax into a coast and then come to rest with both feet planted firmly on the floor beneath you. If you’re finding yourself being overly anxious about something coming up in the near future or if your mind is stuck reviewing something that has happened recently, gently let these thoughts be released. For a short time take an exit ramp off of the hectic information highway and take a walk in the garden of peace. Unplug yourself from the internet and be connected to the world wide web of fellowship and communion and worship. Turn down the volume, slow down, take a deep breath, be still, be present, be silent.
Silence is hard work, much harder than speaking, much more difficult than being surrounded by any kind of noise. If there was ever a golden age of silence when the noises of the world consisted primarily of wind blowing through the trees, birds chirping, and rivers flowing, that day is far behind us. In our everyday experience the default mode is full of all types of sounds – the humming of the building that one happens to be in, the radio in the car or in the room, and traffic noises, to name a few. And while these sounds are signs of the complex and interesting life going on around us, the fact that they are with us nearly everywhere, all the time, can pose a problem. Especially since our inner world has a tendency of reflecting our surroundings. The busier and noisier our external environment, the busier and noisier our spiritual selves.
There is a saying that starts by asking “Who discovered water?” to which the answer is “I don’t know, but it wasn’t a fish.” The picture of being so surrounded and immersed in something that one is unable to even know it is there cuts a couple different ways. On the one hand, this fits well into our experience of sound and activity. If we are constantly swimming around in it, breathing it in and out, do we really know what we’re involved with and do we take time to be conscious of what is happening? Is this river flowing in a good direction or do we need to swim against the stream? Is this stuff toxic? Are we slowly being poisoned? Is it life giving and healthy and is there anyway for us to make it moreso?
The unaware fish in the water is also an image for our relationship with God. While in Athens the apostle Paul quotes a Greek poet who said, “In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27). Our dependence and reliance on God are so wrapped up in our experience of being alive that we are rarely aware of how much God’s presence pervades every aspect of our lives. And how is it even possible to always be aware of that which is the breath behind our own breath, the consciousness behind our own consciousness, the source of all energy and life? We don’t have access to that kind of awareness all the time, but we get to keep moving around with our very being upheld by God.
For us who are swimming in this strange environment that is filled with both persistent noise and the persistent Presence of God, there is a type of prayer that is needed to be practiced – the prayer of silence and stillness.
The Psalmist says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The Psalm where this appears, Psalm 46, is not a calm, quiet ode to peacefulness, but a description of turmoil and even chaos. It begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though its mountains tremble with its tumult.” The powerful shifting and quaking of the earth can be a literal description of something powerful and beyond our control, but also a figurative image of political and economic and emotional forces that feel larger than life. The Psalm goes on to say, “The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter.” One response to this could be sheer anxiety. When the threat of chaos reaches level red, so do our fears and our willingness to do anything necessary to end the threat – usually something counterproductive. But the Psalm takes us to another place. It describes the actions that God wills to do in this commotion. “Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars to cease to the end of the earth. God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear: God burns the shields with fire.” The instruments of destruction are themselves in the process of being destroyed by God. This is where the Psalm says: “Be still, and know that I am God.” I like the translation that the Jewish Publication Society gives here. Rather than “Be Still” it says, “Desist.” Stop. Hault. For a brief time, look deeper, listen closer, and know that I am God.
Rather than talking on and on about silence and stillness, I’d like to lead us through one of the forms that silent prayer can take, called centering prayer. In the 70’s a group of three Trappist Monks began holding retreats that taught and practiced centering prayer. They based these retreats on the teachings of the Desert Father and Mothers, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. Since then different parts of the church have been helping to revive this ancient form of prayer. Centering prayer is more about being than doing, and focuses on listening rather than speaking. It is about making oneself available to God, available to the Presence of the Spirit and the small voice within us. I also find it interesting that it is being discovered and used by those who consider themselves social activists. There is a cycle of action and contemplation, action and contemplation, that helps sustain anyone who is actively involved in whatever form of work. The habit of centering prayer can be a way of deepening ones relationship with God and restoring one’s inner self.
If you’d like to walk through the basics of centering prayer and experience it some together I’ll lead us through that, or if you’d like to simply listen in on the process you’re also welcome to do that.
Centering prayer starts with the decision to be still. As one approaches the prayer, one comes as a listener, humble, open. One doesn’t need to have any expectations for the prayer except that God will be present, whether felt or not. You are here to receive. As a way of signaling this you may wish to be in a body position that helps you be attentive. Having your feet flat on the floor is one way of doing this. Sitting up straight is another way. Closing your eyes allows for the attention to go off of what is around you and be directed toward the prayer.
The next act is to wait for a word. You sit quietly, knowing that you’re in God’s presence, and let whatever sacred word comes to mind be the focus of the prayer. This is the centering part of the prayer as you let all other words fall away and find this one as a centering point. The word may be love, peace, grace, wisdom…or Jesus and Spirit. You wait to see if any word appears as a center for you that may be especially applicable for you…..
This is where the prayer begins to get difficult as our first tendency is to want the word to come so we can be successful at the prayer. But it’s OK to relax and not make a word come. It’s OK to just listen. It’s OK if a word comes immediately and it’s OK if no word comes……
If a word has appeared then let that word come to the center. Let it be the voice of God speaking to you. If no particular word has come up then you may wish to choose a word – hope, mercy, joy – or continue to wait. Or you may wish to let your breath be the center of your prayer. Be aware of your breathing and know that the Breath of God is breathing through you….
Let the word or the breath come and rest in the center. As you let it come you can experience the word through your breathing. Each in breath is a way of receiving this as a gift from God. Each out breath is a way of giving this away as a gift. You must receive before you can give away, and you must give away before you can receive. You may wish to place your open palms on your knees as a sign of receiving whatever is being offered….
There are inevitably thoughts and mental wanderings that happen during the prayer. There is no need to be judgmental about these thoughts as failing in the prayer. As you come to notice the thoughts, simply acknowledge that they are there, and gently return to the center. This is also hard work and takes practice. If the thoughts are especially dominating and making it hard to focus, acknowledge that they are dominating. Let the word start as a small seed and see if and how it grows.
There’s no other purpose except to learn what the teachers of this prayer refer to as God’s primary language. The language of silence. Being silent with God is enough.
I’m going to allow for five minutes of collective silence as we pray as a community. There will no doubt be different sounds that you notice during the silence. You can let them be. They’re not your responsibility during this time. Allow the word or the breath be what draws you back to the center. After the five minutes I’ll return to speaking briefly about prayer…..
Father Thomas Keating was one of the three who began teaching centering prayer in the 70’s and he continues to practice and teach it today in his 80’s. He sees the prayer as being rooted in the gospels and the prayer teachings of Jesus, especially Matthew 6:6. Jesus says, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And you Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Father Keating has commented on that last phrase about being rewarded for the prayer. Here’s what he says: “Actually, that word ‘reward’ isn’t very appropriate here. Someone who’s praying – in secret, that is, having actually reached (a habit of contemplative prayer) – is not interested in reward. I discovered in the Aramaic Bible that [the word translated as ‘reward’] really means ‘blossom’ or ‘flourish.’ This suggests that silence is the seedbed in which the Holy Spirit places the mustard seed of divine love. It takes root, and grows, and you blossom. What is blossoming? The growth of faith, hope, and love – the virtues and especially the fruits of the Spirit listed in the Beattitudes and by Paul in Galatians 5. Contemplative prayer is a process of activating the gifts that we received in baptism” (Sojourners Magazine interview, Dec. ’06, p. 35)
Father Keating encourages that centering prayer happen in 20 minute blocks, so what we’ve done here is just a taste of that.
Centering prayer is one of many forms of prayer available to us. It doesn’t have any instant rewards and it takes practice. It will be more appropriate during certain seasons of life. But it can be an opportunity for blossoming.
Any form of a prayer of silence and stillness may be especially needed for busy and active people in a noisy environment. Even if all we discover in these prayers is that our minds are on hyper-drive and full of conflicting thoughts, then we’re doing better than the fish who keeps swimming without knowing what surrounds it. It makes us more humble, more aware of our own distractions. If the practice of quiet prayer helps us see deeper, that not only are we surrounded by noise, but also the constant, abiding, pervasive Presence of God, then it is truly a gift.