“So, what are you working on?” she might ask. This is how these grad school parties go.
“Sin,” I would invariably reply—sometimes saying a bit more, to make the pill go down smooth. Other times I’d utter just the one word, knowing the potential for a good, awkward laugh.
Though at one point I thought I would write on joy, I landed on sin. Martin Luther vividly describes the sinner as “curved in on himself,” and the metaphor of sinful scoliosis at once suggested so much about the small, bitter isolation of sin and the capacious joy of fellowship with the triune God in the church. If sinners curved inward, saints were drawn outward by the Spirit in union with Christ and his Father.
I suppose I also liked the metaphor for its familiarity. I am curved inward. We all are, to be true; but this felt especially resonant with the dissonant tune arising from me in my more brooding, melancholic moments. Specifically, I am a thinker. I thinkthinkthink. I don’t know how to stop thinking. And over time, I’ve realized that I think in order to fix—which means I think in order to control.
I’m expert at this, too. I even know how to use prayer to feed the beast of control (if I only pray enough, pray for the right stuff…). I can use the Bible to control, too (if I think Bible thoughts, maybe memorize Scripture, I’ll be okay…).
Of course, like all perfectionists, I am self-deceived in the premise of my argument. “If I can only do ‘x’, then ‘y’.” Problem is, I can’t do “x”. I shouldn’t do “x”. “X” is just another form of my self-exalting conviction that, at the end of the day, I’m the only one who’s got my back. That is, it is a form of unbelief in the good news that, among other things, God in Christ has got my back.
I know this. I know it in theological terms, and I have learned it in autobiographical terms. But I have found it so difficult to really get it. And, while I know that getting it takes a lifetime—it’s the adventure of holiness—I find myself discouraged at my stubborn inability to let go.
Add to this a new friend I have met in the last few years, Anxiety. Turns out, thinking too much can mess you up. At times my thoughts race, and I find myself strapped to the back of a thoroughbred of a mind, careening through the dark. It’s fearsome. My thinkingthinkingthinking takes even a physical toll in those times.
All of which to say, when I stumbled on a book early this summer about centering prayer, I was ready to try anything. A friend had sent me Thomas Keating’s Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer. Now, neither he nor I are contemplatives. We’re both run-of-the-mill evangelicals whose spirituality revolves around the Bible, intercessory and petitionary prayer, small groups, and the local church. I have grown and thrived in knowing Jesus in these ways in the company of his people. He has befriended me in the context of Bible study and memorization, corporate worship, and small group prayer and accountability.
This summer, he met me in centering prayer. I hesitate a bit in writing this, because I know many evangelicals are suspicious of contemplative prayer. It feels too Eastern, to some, especially in its emphasis on silence. Frankly, if all our spiritual practices added up to silence, it would be hard to square that with God’s own proclamation of himself in his Word, published by the Spirit far and wide.
Centering prayer certainly does not dispense with words. Instead, it insists on a rhythm of speech and silence. If anything, what I’ve found in centering prayer is that words that have long rattled around in my head are making their home in my heart and gut.
Nothing gives life like the knowledge that God has adopted us in Christ as his sons and daughters and sealed us with the Spirit of sonship, by whom we are emboldened to cry, “Abba! Father!”
But for someone like me, this doggedly discursive man whose mind so often curves in on itself in an attempt to control his world that poorly masks a sense of insufficiency and anxiety, the glory and beauty of that truth can still feel like something I look in on from outside.
The goal of centering prayer—and even talking of a “goal” is misleading with regard to a purely receptive form of prayer that commits itself to be without agenda—well, the goal is simply to abide with a single intention, to be open to the presence and action of God. It’s a prayer of utter surrender in which one sits silently with Jesus and opens to the work of the triune God. The work of centering prayer is to practice relinquishment, refusing the recurring temptation when thoughts arise to follow them down the rabbit hole. It is a fast from discursive processes, from the impulse to think things through. It is, in Keating’s charming words, a time to take “a brief vacation from yourself.”
By refusing to follow whatever thoughts arise, we refuse to seek our happiness and security elsewhere than in God. “All spiritual exercises are designed to reduce the monumental illusion that God is absent,” writes Keating. “Not so. We just think so.” And if we think so, we will think our happiness, our safety, our life is up to us. So if a happy thought arises, we will cling to it, daydream about it, as “an emotional program for happiness.” Similarly, if a frightening, shameful, or sad thought arises, we will fight it, edit it, reject it, operating another program for happiness. At the heart of centering prayer is the belief that these various trains of thought are bound for nowhere good. Besides, if God knows all (I mean, everything about me, my every thought, motivation, inclination), and if he loves me unconditionally, and if he is perfectly strong and wise, then simply abiding in his presence and opening to his presence and action is at once the safest and most strategic place I could possibly be.
And so, in centering prayer, I learn of, and lean into, the love of the Father for me, and I love him back by opening to him. Keating again:
“Suppose that through a practice like Centering Prayer, which prepares us for contemplation, the primary locus of the divine therapy, we take half an hour every day for solitude and silence, just to be with God and with ourselves (without knowing yet who that is). As a result of the deep rest and silence that come through such a practice, our emotional programs begin to be relativized. They were designed at a time when we didn’t know the goodness and the reassurance of God’s presence. The presence of God is true security. There really isn’t any other.”
All of it, too, is Christocentric. “Christ is always the teacher. The transmission of his experience of God as Abba, loving Father, is the work of contemplative prayer, to which all spiritual guidance is in service.”
And that—the ever-deepening knowledge of God as Father—well, that’s what it’s all about. I, for one, am grateful for the Spirit’s work in me as I have been exposed to this means of grace.
Here’s a brief video from Keating describing the method he helped develop: