I was discussing this process with a friend who had spent time living among the Trappist monks at their monastery in Snowmass. When I shared my wish to blend my newly reclaimed Christianity with my love of Eastern meditative traditions, he told me of Father Thomas Keating’s work resurrecting the tradition of contemplative prayer, a form of Christian meditation.
I was enthralled. I knew my meditative experiences were authentic and knew, too, that something profound and true brought me to Christianity. The possibility that these two paths could merge into one resonated immediately. I bought Keating’s book Open Mind, Open Heart and was on my way.
Centering Prayer and Eastern meditative traditions have many elements in common. In both, attention is focused to allow a slowing of the usual thoughts that parade endlessly through a busy mind. In Centering Prayer, however, the intent is to consciously open to the Holy Spirit. Keating clarifies that this method is “not concentrative, but receptive” and aims at “the surrender of one’s whole being to God.”
This form of meditation “presupposes a personal relationship” with the Divine. While such a relationship is a component of other traditions as well, the idea of a personal connection stands at the forefront of Centering Prayer.
As a symbol of the intention to open to “the mystery of God’s presence beyond thoughts, images, and emotions,” one begins by choosing a sacred word to act as a focal point for the mind. Since this word only directs the attention toward God, it is not held tightly or repeated continuously, but is returned to whenever attention wavers or thoughts return.
To capture the essence of Centering Prayer, an experiential telling may be helpful. And so, I close my laptop and rise from my desk, walk slowly to my meditation chair, and sit. I set my timer so as to be less tempted to check the clock as the minutes pass by.
My breath finds a steady rhythm. I welcome my sacred word into my awareness, gently repeating it with each in~breath. Consciously I open to the Holy Spirit.
A soothing warmth soon fills my chest, though I sometimes have no particular physical sensation. I repeat my word until it naturally evaporates. I am receptive and still.
Soon thoughts arise~~of squash bought at the farmer’s market this morning and needing an onion to cook with it for a meal tomorrow. I realize the tangent and return gently and without judgment to my sacred word, repeating it in sync with my breath until it fades away once more.
The sensation in my chest wanes, but a sweetness of experience continues. My breath becomes soft and feather~light.
My left shoulder begins to ache. I reposition it, relax tense muscles. My sacred word rides the wave of my breath again until it quietly drops away.
I begin crafting an inscription for a book I will give a dear friend tomorrow. I reorient myself, word and breath together once more.
Father Keating describes Centering Prayer as bringing us “the experience of resting in the Spirit.” This is certainly how it feels to me in this moment.
My timer chimes. I bow my head in gratitude and return to my desk refreshed.
I certainly wouldn't attempt to prove that I have felt the touch of the Holy Spirit during these times. I know only that something good has occurred. And I trust that.
May we all touch something good in the coming days.