I first started trying centering prayer when I went on my first mission trip with the Global Urban Trek. I was in a new place experiencing new things, and I wanted to try a new prayer practice. Plus, centering prayer seemed easy – you sit in silence for awhile and repeat one word over and over again when you get distracted.
I tried it for the summer, and I liked it. It helped me to get out of my head, to stop myself from analyzing every part of my day. I decided to bring it back with me to the US – I wanted to integrate it into my daily routine.
But then I got back, and school started, and all the quiet moments I had set aside for centering prayer were filled with schoolwork, roommates, or my small group. Every so often I would remember centering prayer, and try it for a few days, but it never lasted very long.
Doing It Wrong?
Over the years since then, I’ve tried to pick up centering prayer again. I remember going out on the back porch of my apartment one summer and sitting in the shade, with my feet on the ground and my hands in my lap, in silence with God. I would try to erase all thoughts from my mind, make my mind blank. Whenever a thought would pop up I would repeat my sacred word – something like “Jesus,” or “love,” or “Emmanuel.” But every day I practiced I felt like I was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t erase my mind, I couldn’t stop thoughts from popping up. I kept repeating my sacred word with every breath – I had that many thoughts running through my head – and over a twenty minute period it added up to something ridiculous, like 250 repetitions or more. Basically I thought was bad at centering prayer, that I was doing something wrong. So I stopped.
Changing My Expectations
Earlier this month (and probably four years since I had last practiced centering prayer) I went on a contemplative retreat with Gravity, a center for contemplative activism. I knew needed some silence, stillness and solitude in my life, so I was really looking forward to it. I didn’t know what else to expect, and I didn’t know what I wanted out of the retreat - I just needed to go.
Over the course of three days I learned about and practiced some different contemplative practices – things like the Daily Examen, Lectio Divina, and the breath prayer. On the last day we learned about centering prayer, and I learned something really important: I wasn’t bad at it, I wasn’t doing something wrong – I just had the wrong expectations.
I learned that centering prayer isn’t just about sitting in silence – it’s about surrendering to the presence of God, and consenting to what God wants to do in us. I learned that centering prayer might not be a peaceful, blissful experience – I probably won’t reach a moment when my mind is completely blank. In fact, I may have to return to my sacred word 250 (or more!) times in twenty minutes – and that’s okay. I learned that the thoughts in my head will still be there in centering prayer, but with my sacred word I choose not to engage with them. Instead, in devotion to the Lord, I just let those thoughts be.
Coming back from the retreat I’m excited to practice centering prayer. I’m still not having moments of thought-free bliss, but that’s okay. I just return to my sacred word and let them be. And I’m still working up to longer centering prayer “sits” – twenty minutes twice a day feels a little overwhelming right now! But with practice, and discipline, and grace I’m hopeful for the change that will come about in my life as a result of centering prayer.
And now, off to pray. Will you join me?
Katye Crawford works as the National Coordinator of Urban Projects. She loves cooking all things pumpkin and wearing scarves, and blogs about finding hope in the midst of mourning at My Long Goodbye.
Image from www.thefellowship.info/Pray/Prayer-Practices/Centering-Prayer