David Frenette , author of “ The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God ” and spiritual director of Denver’s Center for Contemplative Living , offers on the ancient practice. The following is a Q&A based on some lessons from Frenette’s latest book:
What is centering prayer, and why is it especially valuable for newcomers?
Centering prayer is a form of Christian contemplative practice, or meditation, with ancient roots, designed for contemporary spiritual seekers. Hundreds of thousands practice it as a way of cultivating a relationship with the living God.
Research is now being done to explore and document centering prayer’s psychological, physiological and sociological effects, which can make the “non-spiritual” side-benefits values of its practice evident to newcomers. The principle effect of Christian meditation is that by practicing a contemplative relationship with God, deeper meaning in life awakens within, and greater inner freedom is discovered, allowing more compassion for others.
Do you have to be Christian to do centering prayer?
Similar to the way that hatha yoga is practiced by people who are not Hindu and like the way that mindfulness meditation is practiced by people without having to be Buddhist, centering prayer can also be practiced without having to “download” its entire Christian spiritual context. For example, some people in twelve-step programs practice centering prayer as a way of relating to their own higher power, which helps them in their recovery from addiction, not because they are Christians.
But, if one does center prayer with the intention of consenting to Christ there is a way in which the “blessings” of the tradition from which it arose are opened to one. These blessings include the mystical love within the Trinity itself.
Choosing a “sacred word” is one of the basic guidelines of a Centering Prayer practice. Can you please describe the concept of this “sacred word?”
Because we are often overwhelmed by thoughts, trapped in the thinking process and identified with our feelings, we are rarely consciously in touch with God. Centering prayer involves consenting to God’s presence and action within. This consent, this “yes” to God life within one, beyond and within thoughts and feelings, is done by praying, practicing with a sacred symbol. This symbol can be a one or two syllable word, a sacred word.
This word, which one chooses oneself, can have a religious meaning, such as God, Jesus, Spirit, or shalom, or it might be a word that expresses a contemplative quality such as open, be, peace, or let go. Or, one could even choose a word that is neutral religiously and spiritually. The word is sacred not so much because of its meaning but because of the way you practice with it, returning ever so gently to it when you are engaged with other thoughts.
The great Christian spiritual classic, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” says that in order to relate to God— who can only really be “loved but not thought”—practicing with a short word like this helps one “forget” about other thoughts and also let go of thinking as the only way to relate to God.
In addition, what are the roles of the “sacred breath,” the “sacred glance,” and the “sacred nothingness” in this contemplative tradition?
As my book, “The Path of Centering Prayer” describes, one can also practice with a simple inner glance—an inner turning or movement to God’s unseen presence within —as one’s sacred symbol. In addition, one can practice with the breath as the sacred symbol of consent to God. In this approach, when engaged with thoughts, simply notice your breathing, gently, rather than concentrating on it. Practicing with the sacred breath is helpful because it is an embodied, attentional way of deepening centering prayer.
Those with some experience in Christian contemplation or meditation from another tradition might recognize the value of practicing centering prayer with what Father Thomas Keating and I term the sacred nothingness. As the dualistic thinking mind loosens its grip in the light of the divine presence, one has less need of a sacred symbol. There is no thought, no image, no perception, no symbol, no thing, needed with the more subtle ways of relating to, or, better said, relating in God, for in Christian contemplation God is a Trinitarian relationship that subsumes and transforms your consciousness in love.
Practicing with the sacred nothingness in centering prayer is about just being in God rather than trying to relate to God as any thing. It is a very formless, effortless expression of the practice. Actually, it is a lot like learning how to swim. You have to let go of the wall of the pool, let go of your inner tube, let go of every form of surface support in order to discover the unseen presence, hidden in the depths of the water that supports you. Practicing centering prayer with the sacred nothingness is like floating. You learn how to rest in God, not any object of thought or perception, for God is the hidden source of every thought, every “thing” in the mind.
Could you describe your relationship with Father Thomas Keating, who is recognized as one of the principal architects of the contemplative prayer movement, and who wrote the foreword for your new book?
When I first met the Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating at a talk he gave in 1983 I immediately recognized him as a genuine spiritual master. A year later I went on the first retreat he gave outside his monastery, a two week intensive centering prayer retreat at an inter-spiritual community in New Mexico. A year later I began assisting in the spiritual work he was beginning by co-founding a contemplative retreat community under his guidance.
Ever since then he has been my abba, a term that means “spiritual father.” A spiritual father (or spiritual mother) in the Christian tradition is someone who mentors you on the contemplative path. Father Keating’s spiritual mentoring of me has existed on both a subtle interior level, along with more exterior levels. On an interior level, he has manifested the spiritual qualities of the Christian contemplative life to me; which in his case include wisdom, compassion and patience. These qualities radiate through his exterior actions. In the first few years they shone through his teachings; later in the prayerful way he celebrated the Eucharist; in these last years especially through his humility, for he clearly says he is not the source of any of these gifts. Christ in him is the source. He is happy to be an ordinary human being. I have learned so much from him, in different ways, as my own path unfolded.