"After experiencing silence and surrender in yoga, I returned to ancient Christian prayer techniques and postures with renewed interest and a willingness to be playful. In the process, I discovered prayer practices that have opened places in my heart to which I didn’t previously have access."
“What is prayer? It is the remembrance of God, the feeling of His presence; it is joy from that presence. Always, everywhere, in all things.” —Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Like many people raised in a Christian tradition, my childhood involved a lot of praying. Mass on Sundays and blessings before meals and prayers before sleep. Much of this was petitionary prayer (asking for something) or rote prayers (reciting a memorized prayer like a poem, only faster).
Occasionally, my attention was turned toward God in prayer, but often these were prayers of words, not prayers of the heart. Duties are fine, of course, even necessary. It’s better to say “thank you,” even if your heart isn’t really in it, then not to say “thank you” at all. But it’s life-changing if you also experience gratitude.
Like many Catholics and Christians in the 21st century, the first time I was instructed at length as to technique or procedure when it came to prayer or meditation, I was in a yoga studio—not a church. It was yoga teachers who first taught me there were things you could do to quiet your mind (postures, breathing techniques, visualizations, etc.). These were also present in my own tradition, of course (kneeling, candles, closing one’s eyes), but had never been explained as such to me.
After experiencing silence and surrender in yoga, I returned to ancient Christian prayer techniques and postures with renewed interest and a willingness to be playful. In the process, I discovered prayer practices that have opened places in my heart to which I didn’t previously have access.
I still find prayer challenging, of course, and I still often avoid it because it requires an attention I sometimes can’t muster. During this pandemic, for example, I haven’t always wanted to be in the present moment. I’ve often wanted to escape it with bad TV. And, yet, I always come back to these practices because they have borne fruit in my life and have helped me find God in all things.
“I am serene because Thou lovest me, because Thou lovest me naught can move me from my peace. Because Thou lovest me, I am the one to whom all good has come.” —The Celtic tradition
Centering prayer has its roots in the writings of the mystic St. John of the Cross, the master of divine silence; and The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual classic by an anonymous 14th century author. It was popularized and taught in the United States by Fr. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk in the Benedictine tradition.
I am a big doer and an even bigger talker. Even when I am alone, I am usually having conversations with people in my head, so silence has historically been challenging for me. That’s why I need centering prayer.
It’s a relief to learn how to be quiet. On a good day, this tremendous space seems to open up and almost no time seems to have passed when my session is over. I feel calmer and connected to something bigger than myself. Sometimes, ideas come to me, sometimes gratitude, sometimes just the helpful realization that peace is there if I am open to receiving it.
Everyone’s centering prayer practice is a little different. When I do centering prayer, I like to sit cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom across from an icon or sacred image for 10 to 15 minutes. I use my bedroom because I can close and lock the door, and find some quiet moments away from my three young kids (who are out of school due to the pandemic and now summer vacation).
Often, when I close my eyes, I find my mind is very noisy, and so I like being able to open my eyes and gently gaze at a sacred image or a work of art. Narrowing my vision in this way helps bring me back into the present moment and the intention for my practice.
I typically use a painting of Jesus painted on glass I got in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a visual focal point. It’s easy to use because it hangs on the wall of my bedroom, but I also like how the paint has chipped away from the glass over the years. Gazing at a tiny detail, like the chipped paint in an angel’s wing, is grounding. It’s just enough stimulus—but not so much that my attention is diverted.
With centering prayer, you choose a “sacred word” and then inhale and exhale with that word. When thoughts come, you gently place them in God’s hands without judgment or just let them float by and then return to your breath and your chosen word. Some people use “Jesus” or “love.” I like to use the word “Jesus” and gaze at a picture of Jesus. But you don’t need to be Christian or even a religious person to do centering prayer. You could also look at a painting and use a word like “peace. ”
In my experience, the sacred word itself eventually falls away, and I am sitting in restorative silence. At the beginning, I often find it helpful to place one hand on my chest and another on my belly so I can feel my breath. I also set a timer on my phone for five, 10, or 20 minutes—however long I have committed to centering prayer so that I can surrender to being in the presence of God in the present moment without wondering, “How long have I been doing this?”
I try not to judge my centering prayer practice. Sometimes, something important comes up when I am in silence, and I need to thank God for it, or to switch back to petitionary prayer for a bit and place that important something or someone in God’s hands before returning to my breath, silence, and listening. This kind of quiet prayer is about creating the conditions for the possibility of contemplation, or a deepening experience of the presence of God, which in the Christian tradition is not something we can make happen by our own efforts, but is always and everywhere a gift.
Sometimes, as I am setting up for prayer, I use a mantra my friend Claire once taught me: “Nowhere to be, nothing to achieve."