Last evening I participated in a men’s Centering Prayer group that meets monthly. You need to know that my arrogant Ignatian heritage is really skeptical of much out there parading as “meditation,” especially the practice of “mindfulness.” And in the spirit of absolute self disclosure, I wrestle with a harsh and inflated judgmentalism that prejudges anything that smacks of “centering” as Gnostic navel-gazing. Okay, my rhetoric here might be getting a bit carried away. But it’s to make a point!
Last evening provided a breakthrough! Something flew beneath my egotistical radar! It was an opening reference to Centering Prayer guru, Fr. Thomas Keating (Disclosure: I am favorably disposed to all things Trappist). The man leading our pre-prayer discussion recalled Keating’s observation: “Silence is God’s primary language. Everything else is a poor imitation.” Defenses lowered, I am at least paying attention!
A second image really helped me better understand the sort of self-awareness we try to cultivate in Centering Prayer. This self-awareness talk is what trips me up and triggers judgments of navel-gazing. The very common experience of sitting in a bad movie is what allowed me to further lower my defenses. We all know the experience! And, we all generally tend to sit there enduring the bad movie – we’ve paid for it; I must be missing something others find good; it would be rude for me to walk out. We all know the script! The sort of “awareness” Centering Prayer tries to cultivate is that which frees us to walk away from the bad tapes and videos in our prayer, and possibly disposes us to walk out of the bad movies of our lives!
A couple other experiences last night were also instructive and therapeutic. The first is better understood in relation to the bad movie. We believe we “should” sit there! No, no, no, no! The self-awareness we seek never uses “should” except to highlight the truth that its appearance in our reflections should be a big red flag that our “super-ego” is controlling our behavior. At least when it comes to prayer, when the demonic word “should” appears, we should immediately run the other way! Moral norms certainly have a place! They simply are a crappy basis from which to pray.
Another “learning” I really need to take away and bring to my prayer is getting out of my head, my intellect. The sort of awareness we seek in Centering Prayer is visceral, lower-down, in our gut. It doesn’t align with our mind. Rather, it is better recognized as one’s listening heart. In that regard, my prayer would be vastly enriched with a few simple steps: Breathe. Go deeper. Be present there. Be carried. Another pray-er’s explanation also hit home: Yield. Soften. Watch. Smile.
What really brought the evening’s prayer and teaching together was reference to Mary of Nazareth as exemplar. The Annunciation to Mary by the angel was certainly anything but cognitive or head-centered. It certainly wasn’t egotistical or navel-gazing. Here only Denise Levertov’s disarmingly apt description suffices: “consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.”
Denise Levertov’s Annunciation is a must-read and may be found [here].