Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault: Centering Prayer
“God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.” —The Cloud of Unknowing, Ira Progoff, tr. (Delta Books, 1957).
In Centering Prayer, we select a sacred word as the symbol of our willingness to surrender to the presence of God. We sit comfortably with closed eyes in silence and then introduce the sacred word. Whenever thoughts return, we silently speak the sacred word. At the end of the prayer period, we remain silent with eyes closed for a few minutes.
Thomas Keating suggests practicing Centering Prayer for twenty minutes twice a day. Is Centering Prayer a simple letting go of one thought after another? That can certainly be our subjective experience of the practice; and this is exactly the frustration we sometimes encounter during Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina.
Keating tells the story of a nun who tries out her first twenty-minute experience of Centering Prayer and then laments, “Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts!” “How lovely,” responded Keating. “Ten thousand opportunities to return to God.”
Keating emphasizes that Centering Prayer is indeed a pathway of return to God, and this may be what the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing was trying to tell us.1 We also need to remember that the benefit of Centering Prayer does not always come during the prayer time, but sometimes later in the day or week, when we feel God’s presence in the moment as we never knew it before. This truth is expressed best in several of the promises in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.”2
1Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala, 2016), pp. 14, 28-29, 120, 123. From Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, February 11, 2017, Cynthia Bourgeault, guest writer.
2The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 4th ed., 2001), pp. 83-84.
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