Just pause: Centering prayer

On Sunday when I said, ‘There is space here,’ the sense of relief in the room was almost palpable. In the midst of all the Christmas chaos, it seems we need to be reminded to pause. This week, then, I’d like to introduce you to one of the simplest and yet most challenging forms of prayer: centering prayer.

Fundamentally, centering prayer is about listening. But for this to happen, you need time and silence, and a focus so that you’re not totally distracted by the chaff of your life. First, then, choose a sacred word to communicate your intention to allow God to work within you. You might need to try a few words over time before you find one that will endure; or perhaps an image will become your sacred word; or perhaps you want to focus only on your breath.

Decide how long you will sit for. Set some form of timer, sit with your eyes closed, let the sacred word reverberate within you, and breathe. When you notice thoughts, emotions, bodily discomfort or anything else arising within you, acknowledge them, then gently turn back to the sacred word … and breathe.

As much as possible, avoid self-judgement in this process, whether of approval or disapproval. There’s a sneaky little voice that says, ‘Yay me for doing this’ or ‘You totally suck at this’ or ‘You can’t feel/think that!’: but this voice is a liar, and will tip you in false directions. When you hear this voice, and you will, gently acknowledge it, then let it go.

When the time is up, sit for another minute or two, reflecting on the time and perhaps journalling something which struck you. And that’s pretty much it. The advantage of journalling is that you can read through your journal every few months and notice deep patterns which are emerging, or shifts that have occurred.

Well, this all sounds easy enough. But let’s be honest: sitting in silence is boring and repetitious and most of the time nothing happens. Instead, you sit there wondering why you bother to do this, and then you tell yourself off for thinking this, and then you tell yourself off for telling yourself off, and then you notice this tendency and wonder about it. Then you remember you are supposed to be focussed on God, so you recall the sacred word, and breathe, and start composing a shopping list in your head. Then you realise what you’re doing, and go back to the word, and your breath. And you wonder when the plumber can come, and who will pick up such-and-such from so-and-so, and whoops! Back to the word, back to the breath. And then your nose begins to itch …

So it’s not glamorous at all. But practiced over a long period of time, it has some powerful effects. Perhaps you become better able to focus on your breath at other times; perhaps you notice and befriend the emotions which usually sit beneath the surface; perhaps you become more attuned to the destructive prompts of your ego; perhaps you glimpse an image or hear a phrase that brings insight, comfort or challenge; perhaps you find yourself awash in love. But most of the time, it’s just about turning up, making time for the Holy Spirit to work in you, and learning to be comfortable in silence.

I usually start my day with a bit of a mash up: a super-simple liturgy which includes a Bible reading, then a time of centering prayer. When I’m feeling stressed, this time is particularly important, because it reminds me that I’m not to work out of my own strength or priorities, but out of God’s strength and priorities. In other words, centering prayer is not about centering on myself. Instead, it helps decentre my ego, and recentre my life around Christ: by which, paradoxically and eventually, I discover a fuller, richer, more grounded sense of self from which good spirit can flow.

There’s a simple little free app which I use called, of all things, Centering Prayer. It includes instructions, the option of Bible verses to open and close your prayer, and an adjustable timer so you can set the time you want to sit. You can find it in the apple store or on google play. Those of you who come to Tuesday prayers: This is the app we use.


Emailed to Sanctuary on 11 December 2019 © Sanctuary, 2019. Image credit: Ricko Pan on Unsplash.

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