Practicing the Presence of God: Contemplative Prayer, Centering Prayer

This is the third and final section of the workshop I presented on 29 August 2020: “Prayer Practices to Nourish Men (and Everyone)”, from the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, Sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange.

I am sitting on a wooden bench in a garden. This is my third day on retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, in the foothills above Montecito, California. Each day I have prayed several of the monastic offices with the monks, including daily mass.

In the late afternoon, before Vespers, I sit on this wooden bench in a garden, overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon; the shimmering Pacific Ocean is in the distance. The sun will set soon. A gentle breeze carries the scent of sage and juniper up from the canyon below. Creatures scurry and rustle about in the underbrush.

My mind emptied of all the distracting voices that chattered in my head as I drove 150 miles from my home to this retreat. Those voices are now mostly silent, as I invite the Lord to be present with me. I am listening to the sounds around me, natural sounds, speaking in the rhythm of a day transitioning into night.

There is a warmth penetrating my body that is not the sun. It fills my body with welcome heat, gentleness, sweetness. Is this what God’s embrace of love and peace feels like? I let go to it, closing my eyes.

I did not fall asleep, but this encounter held me tight on this wooden bench in this garden. A bell rings in the distance; a faint sound at first, then it becomes louder and clearer: the bell calling the monks to Vespers. I had been sitting for over an hour, but it seemed like five minutes.

Hours later, lying on my bed in the monastic cell before sleep, I remembered this embrace of God. It was a visitation unconjured, unexpected, and unmanipulated.

The feeling of peace and God’s love stayed with me into my sleeping hours.

Today, as I remember that experience on the prayer bench at the monastery, an image came to me: I had been on a wooden bench at a bus stop for the Holy Spirit. There is no schedule, therefore no expectations. But I had to show up for this encounter to have happened.

I shared this experience with a friend. She asked me an important question: “How do you know you are really praying or just talking to yourself.”

It is common when we pray to talk to ourselves instead of God.

I have tried to approach my prayer with God in this way:

I want to pray as if I am having an encounter with a real person, which I am. I am speaking with God. I begin my prayers by asking God to be with me, to touch my heart, not just my mind. I ask God to remind me again that God loves and forgives me.

Saint Teresa of Avila said, “A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he/she is speaking to….I do not call prayer, however much the lips move.”[1]

How do I know if God is talking to me in prayer?

One way is from the insight of Ignatius Loyola: our experience of consolation, when God touches our soul and allows it to be comforted and strengthen by an awareness of God’s love.

Another way is when I am doing spiritual reading, or praying Lead, Kindly Light, Cardinal Newman’s hymn in Compline. Sometimes I read words that touch my heart deeply with an awareness of God’s power and goodness.

I am concluding our time together this morning with an experience of Contemplative Prayer. I have this thought: does the discipline of faithfully praying portions of the liturgy of the hours and the Examen open our soul toward Contemplative Prayer?

When I think of contemplative prayer, I remember one of the great spiritual masters, Thomas Merton.

Every semester when I taught the Christianity portion of my college class on world religions, I presented a powerful video on the life of Thomas Merton: Merton: A Film Biography (1984). In my class were many students who had not grown up in a spiritual tradition, but I found that this video was transformative for them.  It connected with their own restless, searching souls.

Thomas Merton was a writer who was a typical “party animal” in his college days of the 1930’s. Yet he had a Holy Longing that eventually led him to be a Trappist monk, one of the most severe forms of monasticism. He found serenity and deep connection with God in his practice of contemplative prayer.

As you read Merton’s journals, that restlessness, that Holy Longing, was relentless. He became the first Trappist monk given permission to be a hermit, living alone on the monastery property. His restlessness pushed him to seek more isolated locations. He went to New Mexico, Arizona and Northern California seeking the right spot.

Father Thomas Keating, a fellow Trappist, met many young people who came to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, for retreats. They had no understanding of Christian contemplative practices. To help these spiritual seeks of communion with God, Centering Prayer presents specific techniques.

I had the same experience, teaching my college classes on world religions. My students practiced, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, Zen, Tai Chi, but knew nothing about the Christian contemplative traditions. I recommended Centering Prayer to the students because it does bridge Eastern and Western mystical practices.

Father Basil Pennington shares some of the steps for practicing Centering Prayer.

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor. Let go of every kind of thought during prayer.[2]

Merton was a master of world mystical traditions. Yet he found that contemplative prayer was not a kind of altered state or blank consciousness, emptied of feeling and thought. There is no special technique to master.

For Merton, contemplation is a way of being present to what is going on within ourselves.

Father Ron Rolheiser helps us to understand this, when he wrote:
“We are in solitude, in contemplation, in prayer, when we feel the warmth of a blanket, taste the flavor of coffee, share love and friendship, and perform the everyday tasks of our lives so as to perceive in them that our lives are not little or anonymous or unimportant, but that what is timeless and eternal is in the ordinary of our lives.”[3]

There was a man who struggled with his faith in God and could not pray. He spoke with a Jesuit priest about this and received this advice:

“Make a promise to yourself to sit in silent prayer for half an hour a day for the next six months. If you are faithful to that, you will recover your sense of God.

The man rejected this suggestion, but his Jesuit friend persisted:

“Just do it! Show up and sit in silent prayer, even if you feel like you are talking to a wall. That is the only advice I can give you.”

Six months later, the man’s faith in God had returned.[4]

There will be more boredom and restlessness than warm fuzzy feelings when we pray. But God invites us to show up and God will work with us.

Let us conclude this section on Prayer Practices to Nourish Men by spending fifteen minutes in silent contemplation. In my written communication with you a few days before our time together today, I advised you to find a quiet place where you can go through our different prayer forms.

I drove 150 miles to sit on the prayer bench at Mount Calvary Monastery. Thomas Merton searched and searched for the best place for solitude and silence for his contemplative prayer.

The place where you choose to pray with the Lord is always the perfect place for you.

(From “Resting in God’s Presence”, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI)

  1. Find a place where you can sit quietly, comfortably for fifteen minutes. I will watch the time and ring a bell at the end.
  2. Here is a short Bible passage. “As the Father has love me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” John 15:9)
  3. Close your eyes or focus on a candle flame or the icon on this screen. Imagine yourself in the presence of God, a God who yearns to be close to you. Some people find it helpful to silently repeat a simple word or phrase: “Jesus”, “Blessed be God”, “Hosanna,” “Lord Have Mercy.” If you worry that you are not doing it right, listen to this advice given to me:
    “I just look at God, and I let God look at me”.

Start Bell

15 minutes for contemplation

End Bell

I must admit to you that I have times when I sit in silent contemplation, but the dark spirit pulls me down. Echoes of recent conflict, lingering depression or a health crisis in our family create a void, a dry desert wasteland. But I show up, while God seems far away. A reminder from St. Teresa of Avila has helped me:

“Love is two people sitting in a room, talking to each other. Neither knows what to say, but they recognize each other.”

I do not want to pray right now. But the Holy Presence is somewhere in this room with me. I know this.

Reflection:

  1. Describe an experience of God’s love for you?
  2. What have you found this morning in our time together that will help you in your prayer friendship with God?

Resources

Merton: A Film Biography (1984). Prime Video.

Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, Ronald Rolheiser OMI

Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton.

In the School of Contemplation, Andre Louf.

Centering Prayer led by Fr. Thomas Keating at Folsom Prison:


[1] https://owlcation.com/humanities/Ten-Tips-on-Prayer-From-St-Teresa-of-Avila

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centering_prayer

[3] Prayer, Ron Rolheiser OMI, p. 44.

[4] Ibid, p. 45.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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3 Responses to Practicing the Presence of God: Contemplative Prayer, Centering Prayer

  1. Katrina Soto says:

    Thank you for this. Contemplative prayer has always been a challenge for me because I’m a chatterbox. But of course that’s the very reason I should work on the discipline. When I read your pieces I always hear your voice and it comforts me.

  2. pennymccoy1@gmail.com says:

    Thank you, Brad. You are a man after God’s own heart. I appreciate you.

  3. Nerice Kaufman says:

    Lovely glad I saw it!

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