Many mystics will tell you that centering prayer is the keystone to a contemplative life, and I would agree. As I’ve said before, don’t let the word mystic scare you off. We all have the potential to be mystics, and many of us are without realizing it. It simply means that we have an inner experience of God rather than looking at God as being ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ somewhere. Every time we enter into centering prayer we are giving God permission to work within us, for that matter we are asking/praying for God to work within us.
The idea of centering prayer is to clear our minds such that God can work. I like the description of a chalk or dry erase board. If they are already filled with our writing or doodles it is very difficult for someone else to write on it and for their writing to make sense unless we erase it first. So centering prayer is about giving our minds over to the Spirit such that we can take up the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and life as our true self which is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Jesus implores us in many ways to die to self (Luke 9:23) and to pick up our cross and follow him (Luke 14:27). He tells us, if a grain of wheat does not fall to the ground and die it simply remains a seed, but when it falls and dies it bears much fruit (John 12:24). All of these statements by Jesus tell us that to follow Jesus we must let go of our egoistic false selves. We also see this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is our true selves that bear much fruit.
The more we practice centering prayer the more we are practicing setting aside our egos, reaching deeper within to seek the true self.
So, what are we talking about here. Centering prayer is easy, yet it isn’t. We find that a lot with living a life of faith don’t we. However, I would say that centering prayer gets much easier the more we practice it. Begin by picking a quiet spot (the quieter the better) and get as comfortable as you can. I like to sit in a comfortable chair with both feet on the ground. Close your eyes and relax your body...start at the top of your head and work your way down to the feet, relaxing each part as you go. Focus for a moment on your breathing and take slow breaths. Now, clear your mind...try and think of nothing. Ha, it’s not easy and you will find thoughts coming to the surface, sometimes many thoughts. This is what the Buddhists call ‘monkey mind.’ As your thoughts come try and simply let them go...not by force, but gently. Perhaps you can picture a hot air ballon or a boat where you put your thoughts and let them fly or float away.
Don’t worry if thoughts keep coming; this is very normal, especially in the beginning. Some folks like to pick a one or two syllable sacred word such as peace, love, Spirit, or God...anything that is meaningful to you. When a thought comes let the word take you back. It is not a word you repeat over and over, but one that you use to come back to God where you are surrounded and engulfed in God’s love. Fr. Thomas Keating who brought this practice back to the Western Church said it is not a worry if you keep having distracting thoughts as it gives you more opportunities to come back to God.
Most folks who practice centering prayer recommend that you do it for 20 minutes every day and some say twice a day. I like to use a meditation app with a timer to let you know when time is up. There are a few very good ones in the app stores on your phone. Over time you will notice that it gets easier as i said, but you will also notice that the Spirit is working within you as you begin to see things differently or have a different outlook. If you have questions feel free to contact me on the contact page. Happy praying!
The Prayer of Examen is a means of reviewing your day while involving the Holy Spirit. It helps us to remember to involve God in our everyday circumstances. I like to think of it like this; you know that place in your brain where, if you have ‘something on your mind,’ that’s where it is. for me it’s kind of upper, rear, center. Ha, I don’t quite know why I feel it is that place, but that’s where the ‘something on my mind’ hangs out. So, I think the Prayer of Examen helps us to put God in that place instead.
This was a prayer form that Ignatius thought was the most important of the day. There are several things to take note of during your prayer such as looking for God’s presence in your day that you may have missed. You may want to notice your own responses to the actions or statements of others and see where you may have had automatic negative responses or even automatic positive responses...were those responses from an egoistic false self or a true self? In other words, was it the same response you would have after taking a minute to evaluate it with the Spirit? You may want to note the times during the day or under what circumstances God seemed absent to you. I like the way it was put in something I read. It went something like this, ‘While the prayer of examen includes our shortcomings, its emphasis is upon a wider scope of the spiritual movements within the soul.’ I can think of no better way to put it than we do this prayer to seek spiritual movements within the soul!
As we grow in our ‘spiritual awareness’ we grow closer in connection to God and all of creation.
So, there are 5 parts to the Prayer of Examen.
This is a process, and it takes time like most things that are worth while. Some folks do this prayer twice a day, others just in the evening. With some of the things that come up, it may be helpful to seek out your spiritual leader or a spiritual director for help with your discernment.
Lectio Divina is a form of prayer that helps us listen to God rather than asking God to work within us. It was taught by Ignatius and is a process prayer leading to discernment of what God is trying to tell us. Lectio Divina often gives insights and discernment to questions or leads one to something yet to be realized in their life.
Lectio Divina consists of four movements, Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio. This is a prayer form that can also be done in groups. Select a scripture reading from the Old or New Testament...or from one of the wisdom Gospels (eg. The Gospel of Thomas). It shouldn’t be to long, and personally I prefer a story such as Matthew 20:1-16 (The parable of the workers in the vineyard). I recommend sitting in a comfortable position, and again relaxing the body as we did in centering prayer. If you are in a group, someone is selected to read the scripture. If you are alone then it is you that reads, and it can be out loud or silently. Some folks get more insight from reading out loud.
Lectio, the first movement, is the reading of the scripture. Some call it the acquaintanceship with the reading and we invite God to speak through it. The reading is followed by 1-2 minutes of silence as you feel/discern what word or phrase in the scripture spoke to you. Maybe it is a word or phrase that ‘stuck’ as the rest of the scripture was read. Maybe it is something that jumped out at you or maybe it is something that will slowly come to you as you sit in silence contemplating what was read.
Then we move on the second movement, Meditatio. The scripture is read again as we sit in meditation with it...some say this is when we get friendly with the scripture. We open our minds and let God speak to us. What is God saying to you? We sit in silence for 3-4 minutes.
The third movement is Oratio, meaning prayer. We develop a more intimate relationship with the scripture. We trust God enough to become emotionally involved with it...letting our mystical heart respond to it. What do you want to say to God? For this movement we sit in silence for 4-5 minutes.
The fourth movement is Contemplatio, or contemplation. This is where we incorporate what we have heard, felt, and learned. We surrender to God’s presence and simply rest in our experience. We examine our feelings and contemplate how we move the experience into our lives. We allow 5-10 minutes of silence.
If in a group, this is a time when some sharing can occur if desired. Some folks look to a fifth step of going out and doing!
Another type of contemplative prayer using scripture is what I’ll call the Contemplative Prayer of the Senses. It is another prayer form taught by Ignatius, and it incorporates all of our senses. As with most forms of prayer we get into a comfortable position that we can maintain for a while, and we relax our body. Take a minute to clear your thoughts and read the selected scripture. This prayer can be done in groups as well.
Select a scripture, and for this one a story of Jesus interacting with folks really does work best. It is important to remember that we are relying on God here to speak through our senses so we try to set aside any preconceived ideas we may have about the scripture. The scripture is read through twice so that the story and details of the setting, etc. become familiar.
Now with our eyes closed we try to reconstruct the scene in our imagination. What do you see and hear? Is it a desert scene...are there trees or any agriculture. Are there animals present? Is there food cooking or being eaten? What smells might be present? Are there children playing? How are the people in the scene interacting. Watch the scene unfold for bit looking around from one end to the other.
What is going on? When does Jesus enter the scene? What does Jesus look like? How do others react to him? What do folks say between themselves? Are their words full of emotions? Who is Jesus interacting with...is he touching anyone? Do you desire to enter the scene...if so, in what role. Are you standing in line? Are you sharing in the meal? What does it taste like? Are you helping? or are you just there as an observer?
These are all things to consider as you watch the movie screen on the inside of your forehead. Some will have a more vivid scene than others, but that doesn’t change the effectiveness of the prayer. As you finish the scene/prayer, what would you say to Jesus? Take a moment to speak face to face with him. What would Jesus tell you
“The Universal path of the labyrinth is what differentiates it and sets it apart as a spiritual tool. The labyrinth does not engage our thinking minds. It invites our intuitive, pattern-seeking, symbolic mind to come forth. It presents us with only one, but profound, choice. To enter a labyrinth is to choose to walk a spiritual path” ~ Lauren Artress (whom I was blessed to have as a professor)
A labyrinth is a special sacred place for prayer. It can be set up in a number of ways, but it is much different from a maze in that there is always a beginning point, a center, and an end point. Some, like the famous Chartres Labyrinth inlaid into the Chartres Cathedral floor in France can be as many as 11 circuits, and take some time to walk. Most are smaller, 3-7 circuits. Labyrinths are found in just about every major faith tradition and have been around for over 4000 years.
For instance, The Man In the Maze is a symbol for the Tohono Oʼodham of the Sonoran Desert and of the Hopi. A human figure stands at the entrance of a maze that has only one path. The Man in the Maze life symbol depicts the path of life and all that it entails such as happiness, sadness, successes etc. The Man in the Maze design symbolizes experiences and choices we make in our journey through life. The center of the life symbol is your goal in life. There is a dream at the center and you reach the dream when you get to the middle of the maze. Upon reaching the center of the maze you have one final opportunity (the last turn in the symbol) to look back at your choices and path, before the Sun God greets you, blesses you and passes you into the next world.
There are many ways of approaching the walk and walking the labyrinth...way to many to attempt to describe here. The thing they all have in common, at least when done with a group, is that they are walked in silence.
The first I’ll talk about is the apophatic (no thoughts or images) path, and it is much the same as the process of centering prayer. We allow our minds to empty and enter a state of ‘resting in God.’ As we enter the labyrinth we allow God to fully take over (known as purgation)...we empty ourselves of whatever might be holding us back from God. We relinquish the things that we ourselves try to control. We relax and allow the stresses of life to drain away. We allow our egos to release us. Once we reach the center we listen (known as illumination). We listen for God who may speak in a word, a feeling, even a touch. Some find certain insight into their problems or come to clarity. We enter with an open heart and mind to realize what is there for us. As we then head back out of the labyrinth we are empty still such that God can continue gifting us (known as union). This is where whatever we may have gained is given energy or where our creative resources are strengthened. We are empowered to live more according to who we truly are. It can be and has been a very healing time for many.
The other path I’ll mention is cataphatic (using thoughts and images). We use our imagination to guide us to light. Again we enter with a quiet mind, and we enter in a receptive state which allows images to appear. We allow the images which appear (the movie screen on the back of our foreheads) to guide our thoughts rather than the other way around. Again we pause in the center allowing us to focus on whatever we may see. On the way out we gain perspective on the images, allowing the Spirit to interpret for us.
There is no wrong way to walk the labyrinth as long as it is done with a longing and receptive mind. You may want to bring something that represents (a symbol) something you want to let go of during your experience or something that represents a connection to God. There is often a bowl or other object in the center of the labyrinth to leave these. Click here for a world wide labyrinth locator. If you are in Arizona or western New Mexico, I also have an indoor portable classical 7 circuit labyrinth. It requires a space of about 30’ x 30’ to set up and use. I am happy to do labryinth workshops in your space. Please use the contact form to inquire.