One of the benefits of becoming a commissioned presenter of Centering Prayer is going back through the material from time to time to develop presentations and training — what a rich resource for realignment.
During the session on the benefits of Centering Prayer, the training focuses on the four contemplative values of:
To help motivate people on their spiritual journey, I used to hear a pastor friend of mine say “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
And the point is clear enough: if we’re not integrating practices for alignment, inner renovation, health and wholeness, we revert to our defaults – anger, addiction, selfishness, whatever. Fair enough.
One of the more engaging (if dense) reads I had during my literary studies was Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.
Now in the book Frye makes the case that all the stories we tell – from Coco to the Handmaid’s Tale – have their origins in mythical archetypes, which were in turn developed in response to the natural seasons and cycles.
One implication of the book is that, in some ways, our different ideologies – religious, political, social – have to do with the stories we find ourselves in, the stories we tell ourselves about reality, which determines the way we interpret reality.
There’s an old story of a poor man who has a recurring dream of a treasure buried beneath a bridge in a distant city. He travels to the city, digs beneath the bridge and finds nothing. But an old man passing by says he too had a dream – of a treasure buried beneath a poor man’s bed in a distant village. By his description the man recognizes his own house and his own bed.
He returns home, digs beneath his bed, and finds the treasure.
I have a violence in me. It’s my vice. After some years of gracious self-observation – one of the methods we advocate on the contemplative path – I’ve noticed this usually emerges when there’s a third stressor.
So if something frustrates me, I can see it, accept it, and move on after a while. A second layer of stress means I have to intentionally stop and breathe. A third stressor layered on top? Then I just want to take a chain saw to a piece of furniture – any piece of furniture will do. If we factor in caffeine, these three stressors can even be fairly trivial, like dropped keys or misplaced sunglasses.
Contemplatives say we rest in the silent presence of God.
This is a little different, though, than what we usually mean by silence, which is just the absence of noise.
A friend asked recently if I got in fights with family about politics. Disagreements? Yes. Inner turmoil? Yes. Fights? No. But, oooooh, can it gall.
Given these times of extremely divisive political action and rhetoric, and the general breakdown in civil discourse, so often, where this hits the hardest is within. Even if we aren’t involved in shouting matches violence plays out in our inner field of vision, in inner tension, inner arguments, disbelief at someone else’s anger, hatred, xenophobia, support for policies that seem extremely damaging to the world. But of course, when the anger or resentment or resistance builds up internally, who is that harming, exactly?
When I was a kid I loved going to the movies. Now that I have a son I’m actually surprised at the amount of movies I had seen by the time I was five. Star Wars. Karate Kid. Never Ending Story. Breakin’(!). The Black Cauldron (don’t get me started).
There’s something magic about the childlike wonder sitting in front of the big screen with family and friends immersed in a different world.
The mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes that we go through different stages in the contemplative life, through times of expansion and contraction. There are times when we experience God’s feminine side, of grace, forgiveness, and mercy, and there are times we experience his masculine side, his power and magnificence, and stand in awe.
Part of our task on this journey is to integrate these two aspects of our spirituality into a unified whole. Part of that is learning to become alert and responsive to the moment we find ourselves in.
There are moments when practicing Centering Prayer – maybe ten minutes in, maybe fifteen, maybe right when the bell rings to signal that time’s up – when we have a genuine moment of release.
Thoughts have been coming and going, usually multiple layers, multiple storylines. But this time when we introduce the sacred word, we can see the thoughts drift, like a cloud drifting away, or like zooming out from a whole planet of thoughts.