In my sermon on the Feast of the Presentation, I mentioned my favorite book on prayer. It is Thomas Keating’s Intimacy with God: and introduction to centering prayer. It was recommended to me in seminary and I have returned to it time and again for its wisdom and insight, along with a whole lot of practical advice and encouragement for imperfect and distracted people who are struggling to pray.
Fr. Thomas Keating (1923-2018) was a Cistercian monk whose lifelong project was to invite ordinary men and women into the contemplative life–the kind of prayer practiced throughout Christian history but mostly by monastics. He wanted all Christians to know that having a deep and intimate prayer life was not something only to be attained by “spiritual experts”; it is available and accessible to all through simple daily practice. He called this practice “Centering Prayer,” a kind of praying that is centered on abiding in the presence of God.
He begins his book by challenging the unhelpful attitudes and understandings of God under which many of us have grown up: 1. that what God really cares about are external acts and “what we do“; 2. that it is up to us to initiate good works and for God, then, to respond; 3. that the point of faith is “getting to heaven” rather than living a life of love toward God and neighbor in the here and now. All of these concepts create barriers to prayer and he contrasts each to what he calls “the Scriptural model of spirituality”: that the kingdom of heaven is a present reality, that God is the one who initiates relationship with us, and that Jesus is always concerned about the heart–the interior reality of our lives.
After dismantling the attitudes that discourage our intimacy with God, Keating goes on to describe a method of prayer that it is as simple as it is profound: one centers oneself in the presence of God by using a sacred word. The word might be “Jesus,” or “Father,” or even “Love.” There is nothing to achieve or conjure in this way of praying, since a Trinitarian view of God understands that we are already one with the Father through Jesus the Son as we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. God is already there, at our depths, and so the sacred word becomes a symbol of our intention to say “Yes” to God’s presence and to refocus our attention when our minds start to wander.
And wander they do! Keating is real about how as soon as we decide to settle down and get quiet we realize that we are abuzz with uncontrollable thoughts and feelings. The point is not to beat them back, says Keating, or to beat ourselves up for not being a better pray-er, but to simply, gently return to the sacred word and our intention to abide in God’s presence. This is all part of what Keating calls “The Divine Therapy”: through the practice, our obsessive, addictive thoughts and feelings bubble up; we simply let them go and return to the reality deeper than our thoughts and feelings. That reality is our union with Christ. We “upload” and God “downloads,” a process through which we are healed by the all-encompassing love of God.
If you’re interested in more, read the book. Keating goes on to discuss the nuts and bolts of practicing Centering Prayer, what we do during dry times, how this practice works with Lectio Divina and more.
You can also check out this video about Fr. Keating talking about Centering Prayer.