Father Keating discusses the method of centering prayer

by Nancy Schwerin

MOUNT PLEASANT — Did you see the Lord in that man that cut you off? Or in the lady with 20 items in the express lane? If not, you can.

“God is in everything and everyone,” says Father Thomas Keating.

The Trappist priest recently gave a daylong workshop on “Centering Prayer” at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant. About 350 people from South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina came to hear the priest who developed the discipline with fellow Trappist Fathers Basil Pennington and William Meninger.

Centering prayer is a method of praying in which one spends time in silence each day opening oneself to the presence and actions of God within themselves.

The Trappists founded “Contemplative Outreach” in order to reach people worldwide with the centering prayer method, which they developed in the 1970s. In introducing centering prayer, they state: “For the Church’s first sixteen centuries contemplative prayer was the goal of Christian spirituality. After the Reformation, this tradition was virtually lost.” This prayer method is based namely on Christian contemplatives, the Desert Fathers, lectio divina, St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila.

“We were lucky to get him for that weekend,” said Mark Dickson, director of religious education at Christ Our King. He said the event had been on Father Keating’s schedule for over a year. The priest travels worldwide to spread the Good News of the goodness of the Lord.

The first step in seeing the Lord acting within oneself is understanding that true happiness lies with God, not in the worldly symbols of security, affection and power.

Letting go

To open oneself to the Lord, one must trust in and erase negative ideas of God. Father Keating says that often negative ideas have been ingrained since childhood. He suggested reading the parable of the Prodigal Son as an example of God’s loving heart; in that, he doesn’t punish the son.

Pain and suffering in everyday life is not God’s wrath come to fruition. God offers challenges along the spiritual journey, but there will always be that one set of footprints in the sand when he carries us.

“Humility is the most charming thing about God,” the Trappist said. “He joins us in our difficulties.”

It is in the trying times in life, when the heart remains open to God, that one grows closer to the Lord.

After letting go, one is ready to awaken the gifts of baptism given by the Holy Spirit. Through taking part in the transformative process of centering prayer these gifts are put in to action.

Getting started

Choose a sacred word such as father, mother, peace, love, Abba. The purpose of this word is to help maintain focus in the silence of centering prayer and according to Father Keating it reinforces “your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.”

The method involves setting aside 20 minutes, ideally twice a day, to sit in silence. It is suggested to use time in the morning and late afternoon or early evening. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit, back straight, with the eyes closed.

Focus on the sacred word and close off the external world. When thoughts enter the mind, bring the focus back to the word. Using “peace” or “Abba” helps to maintain a quiet mind and to remain open to the presence of God.

“By becoming silent, we hear God.” Father Keating said. “Centering Prayer is a personal relationship with God, in which we purify our intention.”

The inner room

The place where a divine encounter begins is the inner room. Gradually the presence of God in one’s life becomes more and more apparent. But with this realization, unpleasant memories and attitudes also begin to emerge. One may begin to feel unworthy of the Lord’s presence. But Father Keating said, as in the Great Banquet of scripture, everyone is invited whether you want to come or not.

The Lord helps us to see our true self, made in his likeness and goodness. He, therefore, allows one to feel these unpleasant memories, not so that they’re hurtful, but to recognize them and to let them go.

“We are not our feelings,” he says. “We have feelings.”

He emphasized that these memories are different for everyone, much more painful and difficult for some. This period is called the dark night, which is based on the teachings of St. John of the Cross. This transformation of the “false self” is an extensive period of purification.

St. John of the Cross in “The Living Flame” said, “As long as we have not reached our inmost center, [where we meet the living God] there is still progress to be made.”

It is in this time that trust in God is imperative. Through the purification process, one draws closer to God.

At the end of the 20-minute period, remain silent for a few extra minutes. Father Keating said this time allows one to reconnect to the external environment.

The effects

Seeing God in one’s life, feeling the love and goodness inside, makes it possible to see the light of the Lord within others.

“Its fruit is in daily life, in testing your spiritual experiences, and in how you live your life,” Father Keating said. “We’re a part of a greater plan than ourselves.”

Some skeptics of centering prayer suggest that it is unsuitable because it is not founded in the Catholic tradition or because it seems to be founded in eastern thought. But, in fact, the Trappists derived the method from early church contemplatives and writings.

While the method is meditative in nature, it is not opening oneself to basic influences of the unconscious, but to the presence of God and his goodness acting within each of his children.

Father Keating said, “An apostolic life without contemplative terms is a contradiction. We can’t keep up ministries without an inner knowledge of self.”

By recognizing his goodness in each of us, we know that the lady with 20 items in the express lane doesn’t mean to completely disrupt our busy day.

Developing the method of centering prayer brings greater depth to all kinds of prayer and keeps the heart and mind open to God’s presence — in one’s own life and in everyone.

For more on centering prayer and Contemplative Outreach

— www.contemplativeoutreach.com or www.centeringprayer.com

— Read “Open Mind, Open Heart” by Father Thomas Keating

— Read the writings of the Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila