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THE BENCH IS FREE


Exasperated in a session with my spiritual director a number of years ago, I said, “I’m tired of looking at my prayer and thinking about what it all means. I just want to sit with God, like an old couple holding hands on a park bench.” She replied “Have you ever heard of Centering Prayer?” It was just what I needed to hear and have prayed this way ever since.


I have described Centering Prayer several times in previous articles, and I share this video featuring Centering Prayer expert, Fr. Thomas Keating, whose explanations are exquisite and inspiring.


In this article however, I’d like to talk about the effects of Centering Prayer on my life. It hasn't been clear or a straight line to nirvana, but, having practiced for a number of years, I am beginning to notice its positive impact on my life.


Looking back, I can see that, over the years, a pattern of oxymorons created a holy struggle in me during prayer. I didn’t know I was struggling per se, nor did I notice holiness in my prayer time. On the surface, it was mostly a battle with distractions. Yet, I see now that my human imperfection and God’s divine perfection can absolutely coexist in perfect harmony.


OXYMORON #1

Only with continual practice did I learn the difference between desire and effort. As much as I want to sit with God, there is nothing I can do to “make God happen.” Because this earnest desire has no practical outlet, I must sit in a place of not knowing how my desire will be satisfied. Though I practice faithfully, I achieve nothing. All achievements are God’s alone. I simply reap the benefits of his special care for me.


If I must identify an effort on my part, it’s in the form of total surrender to God’s grace. This is painful, as it involves allowing myself to feel my desire for God keenly, while acknowledging that I have absolutely no personal ability to gain it. Indeed, I even surrender my voice to God. Thomas Keating puts it best in his prayer, Here I am, Dear Lord. Note how he asked God to “pray in me”:


Here I am, Dear Lord, desperately in need of your Holy Spirit. Give me your Holy Spirit, according to your promise. I don’t know how to ask rightly, so I just sit here and allow you to ‘pray in me’, asking for what you most want to bestow, which is your own Holy Spirit - with the Gifts through which the Holy Spirit takes over more and more of my life.


OXYMORON #2

In my prayer life, I often felt that I wanted to go deeper. Through experience, I’ve come to understand that my concept of depth is incorrect. I thought I was yearning for a specific place of depth, or perhaps an end, upon which I would finally arrive. I see this was a misguided notion of an eternal connection that, in fact, has no end. I hope my below journal entry clarifies what “going deeper” means to me now:


“Naked Before God”

I had a sense of what this phrase means today in prayer. [It is possible for something to actually happen during prayer, but an expectation or even just a hope for it can take us away from the surrender I described above]. When I come to pray, I hope to sit in silence with you, Holy Spirit. Today, you showed me how to strip myself of all that is of this Earth - not just aspects of myself. ‘Let go of the room you are in, watch it fall away into nothingness; Let go of the clothes on your body, the skin beneath that, the tissues and organs beneath that and the bones beneath that. Let them all slough off into nothingness and see the 2 tiny cells from which your body came. I thought ‘this is my soul, the deepest part of me!’ But then I had a strong sense of you saying, ‘No there’s more.’ Then God pondering the idea of me came to my mind, and I realized that God's idea of me has always existed and will always exist eternally in Him. This is my soul. It exists both in me and in God. I have hoped to understand my soul for quite some time. Today this prayer has been answered and instruction given. I have come to a new depth, a place from which I never want to leave.


The depth I came away with after that prayer was both far away in eternity and closer to myself than I even knew existed. This, of course, has affected my image of God and of myself, images I have learned to hold loosely. The most encouraging understanding right now is that our truest nature is closer to God than we can understand. This brings God intimately close. I sit with this and never want to leave.


THE FRUITS OF CENTERING PRAYER

One aspect of Spiritual Direction is to “gather the graces”. I take time to look back and see God’s work in me. This increases my willingness to continue the “holy struggle.” She hasn’t asked me yet, but below is my response to my spiritual director’s inevitable question: how has Centering Prayer affected your life?


  • God’s intimate closeness opens my eyes to his closeness with all of you, my friends, my loved ones, and even my “enemies.” The more I pray, the more I experience oneness with all of creation through my oneness with God. While it may sound overwhelming, it is not. I am exposed to tiny glimpses of this awesome awareness as God, in his closeness to me, is profoundly aware of my capabilities.

  • My explorations in my No Fear New Year could never have happened without Centering Prayer. It’s hard to believe that just 20 minutes of silent prayer a day can bring about a 12 month exploration into my deepest obstacle to God, but it did. Such an exploration created pain at times, but I somehow felt supported. It was an ever-present, if subtle, feeling which I noticed from time to time. This noticing may not have happened so clearly without spiritual direction. I am grateful for the gifts of this beautiful ministry.

  • I find other aspects of my personality either letting go or shining through. It involves a spiritual mirror that shows me the truth about myself and how it affects others in my life. Sometimes I am rendered comfortably mute where pride or impatience used to reign and other times I assert myself in ways fear and insecurities would have inhibited in the past.

  • The support during my No Fear New Year explorations is still here today. As I age, I am experiencing through friends and relatives the sadness of grieving the loss of our parents’ generation. I feel this sadness intensely lately, and yet I am bolstered by God's grace. This doesn’t mean there is no pain, but that I feel gently held as I face it.

  • The final fruit of this prayer for me is the knowledge that there is always more. There will never be an end to discovering God's love in our lives.


Let’s review the process of this prayer. I sit in silence and wait for God. While doing so, I am barraged with distraction after distraction, and, on good days, I notice the distraction and choose to return my attention to God using my previously chosen prayer word.


A moderate estimate reveals that I have 30 - 50 distractions during each prayer time. And I have been praying this type of prayer for almost 5 years. By my calculations, this means that I have chosen God in my heart anywhere from 54,750 to 91,250 times in the past five years. Can you imagine the joy my soul must be experiencing, even if I don’t feel it? But wait, maybe I do feel it. That’s the point. What was once intangible has become real for me. I can feel it in my interactions with creation, others, myself, and with God.


For me, this flows into the last line of Keating’s prayer: "the Holy Spirit takes over more and more of my life.” The more I choose God, the more I see the Holy Spirit in my life. Our view of having our life taken over implies tyranny, which is always uncomfortable. But I participate with surrender and choice, and I reap the benefits of God's grace in the everyday aspects of my life. This is anything but tyranny.


Let’s sit with that for a while…..Better yet, why not sit with God for a while; the bench is free.


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