Growing up, I didn’t really have any awareness of contemplative practices. I thought meditation was something only New Age “weirdos” engaged in. In my mind, for a Christian, personal spirituality consisted mainly of Bible reading, giving thanks, and praying prayers of supplication. That was what I was taught anyway, and I wasn’t given a reason to challenge it. Until…
In 2005, my life underwent a huge change. My mom’s health was faltering (we later discovered she had cancer), and in the process of coming to grips with her illness, she turned to a branch of Christianity broadly called the Charismatic movement. Our whole family started visiting a local prayer ministry called “The Healing Rooms”—and it just so happened that one of the rooms was for soaking.
This was my first inkling of a Christian contemplative practice, and while it took some time for my normally overactive brain to get with the program, I readily fell in love with the idea and started to incorporate it into my personal faith. More on soaking and what that is momentarily.
My mom unfortunately passed away in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2010 that a series of difficult events drove me away from the heavily Charismatic church I had attended and onward to finding a different spiritual experience in the form of Organic Church. That’s a topic for another day, but essentially, as I began to reevaluate some of the theology I’d accepted in the height of my Charismatic season, my soul-searching eventually turned to how I practiced contemplative spirituality.
Equipped with nothing more than a vague notion of what meditation “looks like” and my own Spirit-led intuition, I began to “tweak” my soaking habits and conduct various contemplative experiments. By 2013, I had settled into practicing what I’ve since come to know as mindfulness meditation.
In 2014 I became increasingly aware of the secular mindfulness movement—and in an interesting twist of fate, an article I wrote on the subject shot up to the first page of Google search results for “Christian mindfulness” where it continues to be featured to this day. This led me on a quest to find commonalities between my own “improvised” contemplative practice and established traditions of meditation whether secular or Christian.
As I studied the topic and became aware of others on similar quests, I eventually stumbled across a practice I’d only heard of but knew very little about: centering prayer. I feel like a bozo in hindsight that it took me so long to study the tradition of centering prayer, but in a way, I’m grateful for the disconnect because it means my embrace of centering prayer didn’t happen because I think it’s cool theoretically, but because I was already doing it before I discovered what it was.
What’s Old is New Again
Centering prayer as a modern practice was developed in the mid-20th century, but its roots go back thousands of years. It is based on a theological viewpoint sometimes labeled apophatic theology. Apophatic (a Greek word meaning to deny) theology is perhaps best described by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote in the 4th century:
“For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God, to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.”
Apophatic theology describes our experience of God primarily in terms of what we can’t know or understand. God is beyond our ken, ineffable. In a sense, anything we can grasp with our minds about the Divine falls utterly short of the Reality. Thus apophatic theology usually comes into play when discussing mystical spiritual experiences or practices…an engagement of faith that dwells at the edge of human perception.
Cataphatic theology, by contrast, deals in the realm of the knowable, the things that we can definitely state about God. God is love, God rewards those who diligently seek Him, etc., are all concepts we can ascertain with our intellect and communicate succinctly to others. Our testimony of God’s activity in our lives, and our confession of belief in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, all fall under the banner of cataphatic theology.
Likewise, there are also two modes of prayer and contemplative traditions within Christianity. In the West and particularly in Protestant streams of faith, we are by far more familiar with cataphatic prayer. It is the kind of prayer where we speak to God and actively engage our senses with the pursuit of knowing Him. We read Scriptures and pray to discern their meaning. We praise God and give thanks for what He has done. We try to hear actively from God in some way so as to direct our actions and our conduct in the world. Even some of the more mystical-sounding contemplative traditions such as lectio divina are primarily part of the cataphatic mode.
Apophatic prayer, on the other hand, is something quite different. Cynthia Bourgeault writes in her excellent book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (info at Amazon):
“Apophatic prayer is prayer that does not make use of the faculties; in other words, it bypasses our capacities for reason, imagination, visualization, emotion, and memory. From the perspective of our faculties, this somewhat amorphous state may feel like emptiness or nothingness…”
Bourgeault goes on to explain that centering prayer isn’t actually a state of nothingness, but rather it allows us to make use of our “spiritual senses” that typically lie dormant, just under the radar of our common, everyday awareness. On a most basic and practical level, apophatic prayer is characterized by silence. You could call this “quiet time”—yet it is not the quiet time of evangelical fame that is anything but quiet (I don’t consider active Bible study to be quiet!). We’re talking actual, genuine, eyes-closed quiet time. Through the simple act of telling our minds to lie still and be quiet, something quite extraordinary can occur—as any enthusiastic practitioner of centering prayer (or mindfulness meditation) will tell you.
Time to Get Soaked?
Let’s circle back to explain soaking, a practice which has arisen out of the Charismatic movement over the past several decades. Generally speaking, soaking involves sitting or lying down in a relaxing atmosphere, often with some kind of ambient background music playing, and praying or thinking about God quietly without discourse. While there are many superficial similarities between soaking and centering prayer, one of the key differences between the two is that when soaking, the mind is typically focused on either worship or revelation: worship due to listening to music that encourages a worshipful posture, or revelation due to the expectation that God will supernaturally grant some kind of vision or word or sensation that is inherently meaningful or poignant. In more extreme varients of soaking, the practitioner may actually be “speaking in tongues” (aka a Spirit-controlled prayer language), or participating in either giving or receiving the “laying on of hands.”
Centering prayer instead sets the mind focused not on worship or revelation—aka active verbal or image-based communication with God—but simply on silent presence. We come to God with nothing but ourselves, and we expect to receive nothing other than Himself. I can leave a centering prayer session knowing in my soul absolutely nothing more about God or His purpose for me than before I started, and yet I still feel like something deep and wonderful has been accomplished in my spirit. This sometimes will be explained as “spiritual non-possessiveness”—that is, resisting any attempt to “gain” some sort of spiritual wealth but instead hearkening to Jesus’ words: blessed are the poor in spirit…
Furthermore, it can be considered confusing and possibly harmful to conflate the apophatic with the cataphatic, as Bourgeault relates to us:
“I was invited to join a Centering Prayer group led by a very determined and charismatic spiritual director…her group would begin with the usual 20 minutes of silent prayer, but at the end of this time she would break silence going around the circle and asking each person, ‘What message did God give you during your time of centering prayer?’
“Certainly this is one way of interpreting ‘listening to God,’ but it’s clear that cataphatic listening is what the spiritual director had in mind. From the point of cataphatic prayer, silence will always tend to appear as an empty vessel into which God pours ‘content.’
“… Apophatic prayer has a very different understanding of silence. Silence is not a backdrop for form, and diffuse, open awareness is not an empty chalice waiting to be filled with specific insights and directives. It is its own kind of perceptivity, its own kind of communication. Rather than yielding itself into form, it is more that we yield ourselves into it—just as ‘pieces of cloud dissolve in sunlight,’ in the wonderful image of the poet Jelauddin Rumi.”
When I first read the above comment regarding being a vessel into which God pours “content,” I started nodding my head vigorously! Listen, I am grateful that I discovered soaking in my journey of faith, for it awakened in me a deep hunger to relate to God in the context of the contemplative and the mystical. However, soaking ultimately left me unsatisfied, because it subtly reinforces an extremist Charismatic theology of always wanting God to “do” more for us and perform some kind of supernatural feat or miracle. Soaking is often seen as a prelude or “gateway” to inner or physical healing, fighting off attacks from the devil, receiving breakthroughs in financial or social matters, opening up sinful hearts to the Holy Spirit, witnessing blessings and favor upon the Church, or other kinds of religious activity.
Learning to Let Go
What I love most about centering prayer (and its secular cousin, mindfulness meditation) is that it removes our constant need to perform, to strive towards a perceived goal, to expect a certain outcome, to prove to others or ourselves how spiritual or holy we are. It essentially tells our ego to go on vacation for a while. When I engage in silent meditation, I gradually feel a total sense of calmness and peace that is simply breathtaking, and my authentic love for God as well as my fellow humans seems to increase without effort. As a habitual routine, learning to be silent and “centered” in the presence of God has greatly improved my reactions to stressful events in the course of daily hubbub. When I feel myself getting caught up in the craziness of life, I can “switch on” mindfulness and find my way back to calm, clear thinking and spiritual gratitude.
To use a theological word many Christians are familiar with, centering prayer is, at its heart, all about surrender. May we always be ready to surrender ourselves, our bodies and our minds and our spirits, to our Heavenly Father who is ready to receive us with abundant Love and never-failing Grace.