Tuesday, February 13, 2007

the centering prayer method #2

Adapted from the writings of Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating.

"The old-fashioned guidance systems to keep airplanes on course during flight might help us to understand the art of listening to the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the pilot is on course, he will not hear anything on his headphones. If he veers a little to the right, he will get a beep. If he goes too far the other way, he will pick up a different signal. By correcting his course, his headphones return to silence. In the moment by moment process of daily life, similar indications of being on or off course are available. Any sign that you are upset is an invitation to ask yourself why you are upset and not to project the blame on another person or the situation. Even if they are to blame, it won't do you any good until you solve the real problem which resides in you. The fundamental work of a spiritual director of contemplatives is to encourage and to guide them to submit to the divine therapy which allows the unconscious emotional material of early life that led to the drive for security, esteem and affection, and power symbols in the culture to be evacuated. Each of us has a significant dose of the human condition. We call it the consequences of original sin. We come into the world not knowing what true happiness is but needing it; not knowing what true affection is but needing it; not knowing what true freedom is, but needing it. We bring with us into adult life the way we as children coped with impossible situations, either through repression of feeling or by compensatory programs for happiness that can not possibly work. The stronger those needs, the more the frustration when they are not fulfilled.

Into this universal human situation Jesus comes saying, "Repent" which means "change the direction in which you are looking for happiness." Human happiness is found in the growth of unconditional love. The work of spiritual direction is to help us to become aware of the obstacles to divine love and the free circulation of that love within us. This requires the cultivation of a non-possessive attitude toward ourselves and other people. Gradually we learn that God is the true security, God truly loves us and with this love, we can make it even if no one else seems to care.

Spiritual direction should primarily be directed to ordinary life. True freedom is God's gift to us, enabling us to serve. Jesus said to his disciples, "You have to learn how to serve people." The greatest in the kingdom are the persons who are truly serving--not necessarily some great cause, but just the ordinary needs of family and the people with whom they live and work. Service is something anyone can do. This ordinary kind of service and love is what Jesus seems to mean by learning to love as he loved us. He loves us in the details of our lives, puts up with our misguided ways and above all, shares with us the suffering that comes our way as a result.

Every now and then because of damaged or unprocessed emotions contained in the unconscious, we may enter a place of long term dryness in our prayer or avalanches of thoughts and feelings that are disturbing. Sometimes attitudes or desires arise that we did not even know existed in us, or sometimes we recycle a bad relationship that we thought we had resolved once and for all. This is a place where we need to be reassured and encouraged. It is not so much being told what to do as being encouraged to do what we know God and our conscience are asking us to do.

There is only a limited amount of help that spiritual direction can bring us. In the beginning, it can start us on the path by providing good readings, a rule of life and what is most important, a regular practice of prayer. It is prayer that gives us access to our center. As we approach that center where the divine Spirit dwells, the Spirit dismantles our emotional programs for happiness and relativizes them so that we begin to act not from a self-centered point of reference-from a perspective of fear or self-protection-but from a center of pure love.

As we progress we need advice when we come into some particular dilemma or double bind. In fact, as is the case with some serious medical problems, you may need a second or a third opinion. In a crisis of choice when you are perplexed and do not know which way to go, it might be good to consult several persons. God can communicate at this point through anything. The Spirit uses something concrete, like a word or a book, to enlighten the person reading it or hearing it. A good director can sometimes tell by your doubts, by your feelings, by a certain grace that you have had, how God is trying to lead you, and can point that out to you. But he or she cannot tell you what to do on all occasions. The real success of the spiritual director is to become gradually less of a director and more of a spiritual friend.

The contemplative journey that we have enlisted in through a commitment to Centering Prayer is an adventure in faith and a trip into the unknown. If we think we know what is going to happen or if we expect to arrive at certain goals, we are on the wrong road. The chief comfort that our security system, which is so deeply biologically rooted, does not want to give up is certitude. That is the ultimate security, especially certitude that we are advancing on the spiritual journey. The moment that you surrender yourself to God, you are surrendering to an unknown future and destiny. You are letting yourself become the person whom God always intended you to be. Thus, you learn through the Spirit's guidance and through difficult or impossible situations, to relinquish your hold on every level of your being, allowing God to take total possession of it so that you can manifest the pure love of God in daily life without even thinking of it. The noise and frenetic character of modern life, the excessive chatter, so much information, so much entertainment--all of this has to quiet down inside of us. The greatest teacher is silence. To come out of interior silence and to practice its radiance, its love, its concern for others, its submission to God's will, its trust in God even in tragic situations is the fruit of living from your inmost center, from the contemplative space within. The signs of coming from this space are a peace that is rarely upset by events, other people and our reactions to them, and a calm that is a stabilizing force in whatever environment you may be in. God gives us everything we need to be happy in the present moment, no matter what the evidence to the contrary may be.

Contemplative Prayer is not a technique, although it makes use of methods as starting points to awaken spiritual attentiveness. Contemplative Prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit. A basic tenet of the Christian Contemplative Tradition is that this gift cannot be earned, but it is freely given by God. Centering Prayer is not that gift, or even a way to make Contemplative Prayer happen. Rather, it is a means of preparing to receive it by opening to God’s presence and action within. The following texts from the Gospel of John are a New Testament scriptural and theological inspiration for the practice of Centering Prayer and Contemplative Outreach.

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? I am not myself the Source of the words I speak to you: It is the Father who dwells in me doing his own work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else accept the evidence of the deeds themselves. In very truth I tell you, whoever has faith in me will do what I am doing, indeed he will do greater things still because I am going to the Father. Anything you ask in my name I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son”. (John 14: 10)

“I will not leave you alone; I am coming back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me; because I live you too will live. When that day comes you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you”. (John 14: 18)

“I have told you these things while I am still with you; but the advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name; will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have told you”. (John 14: 18)

“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.... Dwell in me, as I in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself, but only if it remains united with the vine; no more can you bear fruit, unless you remain united with me..” (John 15:1)

“I am the Vine and you are the branches. Anyone who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing”. (John 15:4)

“If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask whatever you want, and you shall have it. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love”. (John 15:7)

“May they all be one in us; as you, Father are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you gave me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, may they be perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me, and that you loved them as you loved me”. (John 17:20)

. The whole thrust of Centering Prayer is to encourage us to let go of all thoughts. A "thought" in Contemplative Outreach terminology is any perception whatsoever including memories, plans, visualizations, external or internal sensations, feelings, and self reflections. Any kind of reflecting, even to make a choice, is a "thought," and hence, an invitation to return to the sacred word.

In the beginning our advice is: Resist no thought, retain no thought, react emotionally to no thought, and when you notice you are thinking about some thought, return ever so gently to the sacred word. One does not think about whether to return to the sacred word or not. One simply returns to it when thoughts are attracting one's awareness to a particular object.

We recommend the "discrete" use of the sacred word rather than its constant repetition. By this we mean using it as much as one needs it. This may be continuously at first. Beginners need it whenever they notice they are thinking about some other thought. In following this advice, we note the fact that the sacred word may become indistinct or even disappear for a limited period of time. When thoughts again engage our attention, we return to the sacred word as before. Thus, a disposition of alert receptivity is gradually formed.

Later we suggest returning to the sacred word or symbol only when we notice that we are attracted to some other thought. The meaning of this advice is that with time and regular daily practice one can discern intuitively whether one is disinterested in the thoughts that are coming down the stream of consciousness. Disregard of the thoughts is the sign that the consent of the will is becoming habitual. The will can be directed to God at a very delicate level without having to express its intention in a sacred symbol. Thus, from our perspective, the sacred symbol is not a means of going some place like an elevator. Still less is it a means of bulldozing other thoughts out of awareness. It is rather, a question of cultivating the spiritual level of awareness, which is real awareness, but without particular content.

This brings me to the chief difference between Centering Prayer, Vipassana and Hindu mantric practice. Centering Prayer comes out of the Christian Contemplative Heritage, inspired in the first instance by the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, both of which cultivate interior silence and purity of heart. In the methods of meditation in the Eastern religions, the emphasis is on concentration for the sake of developing clarity of mind. By concentrative practices, I understand the use of the rational faculties and the imagination, physical movements and postures, and continued repetition of a word or phrase.

Centering Prayer is a passage from concentrative practices to alert receptivity through consenting to God's presence and action within us, which places the emphasis on purity of intention. Effort refers to the future, consent to the present moment where God, in fact, is. According to St. John of the Cross, purity of intention manifests itself during prayer as "a general loving attentiveness toward God." This is attentiveness not of the mind but of the heart. Its source is pure faith in God's presence leading to surrender to the interior action of the Holy Spirit in the here and now.


Blogger John Wesley said...

Dear and Gentle Reader,

I heartily commend your pursuit of prayer. Verily, nothing can be as efficacious as disciplined prayer!

I should like to offer my most humble salutations and felicitations on this festal day of St. Valentine. I have the highest regard for our community, the “Methoblog” and wish we could make acquaintance under more auspicious circumstances as I am sure that these acquaintances may yet become a valuable and enriching friendship as we exhort and instruct each other to be conformed in the image of Christ.

I remain God’s most humble servant,

John Wesley

10:49 AM  

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