Toward the Mystery:
The Contemplative Practice of Centering Prayer,
Step by Step
by Lowell Grisham
are threatening to tear our world apart. When John Lennon
tried to Imagine a perfect world, he could only imagine
it at peace if it were without religion.
people of good conscience have rejected religion because they
see the damage it inflicts. It is not unreasonable to believe
that religion is more of the problem than the solution.
yet there is something in the depths of the human heart that
yearns for a connection with something greater. There is a
spiritual hunger that is quenched only by God, especially
when mere religion is not enough.
their best, all of the enduring religions of the world testify
to that Something More, Something Deeper. And though we are
separated by languages and beliefs about that Something More,
there are some remarkable agreements.
enduring religion has a tradition of the experience of the
divine through contemplative prayer. Maybe when we get beyond
and below words, religions can heal their differences.
Contemplative practices are a place of connection among all
religions and a potential source of wisdom for all people.
Letting go and letting be are habits that
bring peace to religious and non-religious alike. Silence
is profound. The equanimity
that comes when we experience the stillness of mind and sense
is a universal experience.
Maitri Upanishad describes it well: "There is something,
beyond our mind which abides in silence within our mind. It
is the supreme mystery beyond thought. Let one's mind and
subtle body rest upon that and not rest on anything else."
Contemplative practices seek to nurture our encounter with
mystery. Contemplation is the inner journey toward that mystery.
St. Augustine says that God is "more intimate to us than
we are to ourselves," or as the Koran observes, "nearer
to us than our jugular vein."
me, the practice of Christian contemplative prayer has been
the most satisfying individual discipline I've experienced.
Sadly, many people who have grown up in the Christian Church
don't even realize that we have contemplative traditions.
Maybe that is why so many Westerners have been attracted to
the spiritual practices of the East. I
think contemplative prayer is a meeting place between East
and West and an instrument of healing among the various religions.
me share with you my contemplative practice of Centering Prayer.
It is grounded in the fourteenth century teaching of The
Cloud of Unknowing, updated for modern use by several
Trappist monks including Thomas Keating. For more info, visit
Guidelines for Centering Prayer
choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent
to God's presence and action within. What word you choose
isn't important; it is merely a tool to symbolize your intention.
If another word doesn't come to you, I suggest shalom.
comfortably with your eyes closed, keeping your back straight.
Settle briefly. Silently, and very gently, introduce the sacred
word as the symbol of your consent to God's presence and action
you become aware of thoughts, return very gently to the sacred
word. In this prayer, "thoughts" is an umbrella
term for every perception including sense perceptions, feelings,
images, memories, reflections, et cetera. Use little effort
when returning to your sacred word. If you are not distracted
by thoughts, the sacred word may become vague or even disappear.
Let it go.
the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with your
eyes closed for a couple of minutes. I have a tape with 30
minutes of silence followed by gentle music to end the prayer.
Sometimes I use a timer. Practitioners suggest that twenty
minutes is a minimum to experience inner silence.
found this to be a profound practice. It has changed me. Silently,
below the level of my thoughts and feelings, I am being healed
and made more whole. I can't tell it, but my wife can.
experience of this prayer opens up space in my consciousness.
I am more present; more accepting; more whole.
can find similar practices in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism,
Taoism, Nature Religions, and virtually every other living
religious tradition. Medical practitioners are even prescribing
secular versions of this practice for their patients.
if the Wisdom traditions of all of the religions began to
connect on the basis of what we share in common, things like
Couldn't we heal the religious divisions that threaten our
world? Maybe. But it starts with each of us. Try some practice
of contemplation; see if it doesn't heal some of your own
divisions. Peace can only begin with each of us.