We need to practice stillness in order to become comfortable with it. When the Psalmist wrote “Be still and know that I am God,” he was telling us that to be in relationship with God, we need to settle down and become peaceful and still. Since knowing and experiencing God is what spiritual direction is all about, the practice of Centering Prayer can be very helpful both to directors and directees.
This prayer is not something you would ordinarily practice within a session (it would take up too much time), but is one to do in the times between sessions.
Centering prayer is about spending time wordlessly with God. In silence. It is the key practice of the apophatic tradition within Christian mysticism. The word apophatic comes from ancient Greek and means “to deny.” So apophatic prayer involves an emptying—no words, no images, no movement.
If this sounds very Zen to you, well, it is very similar. This way of praying is found in many world religions, including Christianity. The reason many Christians haven’t practiced it regularly is that somewhere along the way in our history, words become much more important to Christian institutions than did silence and emptying.
Christians can thank Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian priest and founder of the Centering Prayer Movement, for revitalizing this ancient practice in our time. Keating points to the many mystics and holy people throughout the ages who referred to a kind of prayer in which “deep calls to deep” without words or imagery. While we don’t know exactly how they practiced it in the monasteries of old, we know that silence is pretty simple and basic. You sit. You open yourself to the presence of the ineffable One. And when your mind wanders, you come back to a sacred word.
Doing this prayer on a regular basis draws one closer to God and prepares both the spiritual director and directee for their time together. Here’s the practice outlined for you:
- Decide about how long you want your centering prayer time to last. If you’re a beginner and are not accustomed to silence, you might want to start with 10 minutes. Most advocates of centering prayer recommend working up to at least 20 minutes. You may keep a clock close by or set a meditation timer (apps are available for your phone or tablet). Most importantly, let go of concerns about the time.
- Choose a word that is special to you that fits your spiritual needs. Any word will do. Don’t get caught up in fretting about finding the best word—just choose something meaningful. This will be your sacred word for the centering prayer time.
- Find a comfortable position in your chair. Feel free to shift your weight now and then to remain comfortable.
- Using whatever word for God that fits for you, ask your Higher Power to become real to you in this time of centering prayer. Take a few moments of silence to focus on your intention.
- Say your sacred word to yourself silently. Allow your word to be the only intentional thought in your mind. Other thoughts will come and go, but gently return to your word, silently repeating it to yourself—not frantically, but in a relaxed way. If another thought comes into your head, simply acknowledge it and go back to your word.
- You may find yourself tempted to use other words to express yourself to God. Don’t judge the impulse and don’t give in to it, simply go back to your word. You will have time later to say what you need to say to God in words.
- When the time you have set is ended, close this centering prayer by thanking God for the gift of silence and presence. Silently say any words you longed to say to God before.
- You may choose to spend some time after the prayer reflecting and journaling about the experience. What was it like for you? What was the hardest part of the prayer? What part of the prayer seemed effortless? What was going on inside your mind? What feelings did it bring up? Did you feel closer to God as a result? How does it feel to move from thoughts to silence? How does awareness change as we stop what we are doing? Would you do this prayer again, on your own or in a group? Do you think 20 minutes (or whatever amount you chose) is a long time to spend in silence? Why or why not?
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