As we journey toward Christmas, a friar based at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston writes about the value and beauty of contemplative prayer.
I have always loved the season of Advent. It is a time of expectation and of hope, to prepare one’s heart for the coming of God into my hurried life. It is a time to rise up and level my deep valleys of disappointment, pain and restless worry, and to lower my mountains of pride, power, control and privilege. Usually because of adverse circumstances or broken relationships, Advent can be a time for prayerful inner renewal and to reset one’s life priorities.
The sacred Scriptures for this holy season bid me to take a deeper look, to understand deeper meanings that I have missed during previous Advents. In Isaiah 30, the Lord calls his disciple to wait and to be in God’s all-embracing presence. Isaiah writes: “By waiting and by calm, you will find salvation. In quiet and stillness, your strength lies.”
Most of us shy away from the word “contemplation,” as it conjures up notions that contemplation only belongs to special people like monks and nuns behind monastery walls. We wrongly believe that contemplation is only for those lofty and courageous souls who dare to plunge into the depths of silence and availability. Sadly, the journey and beauty of contemplation were never consistently taught after the first 1,000 years of Christianity, nor was contemplation encouraged for the laity, as if they could not be gifted with this type of prayer. It was as though perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were prerequisites to contemplative prayer.
For the first 1,600 years of Christianity, contemplation was the goal of all prayer, but was eventually superseded by a dominant rational, intellectual, katophatic and dogmatic approach. Conversely, the apophatic approach teaches a disciple of prayer to move beyond the symbols of ritual, intricate icons, beautifully stained glass windows, rising incense and the like. These are not the final goal of prayer, as wonderful as they are. They are means to a greater mystical union with God. This union is characterized by a living, loving relationship with being in God’s self. When God said to Moses, “I am who I am,” Moses was not only being invited to participate in God’s being, he was also invited into a love that St. Paul regards as the “greatest of gifts.”
Beginning With a Gaze
In the Franciscan way, prayer is a contemplative pathway, one that begins with a gaze on the Word made flesh, to see the heart and the essence of things. St. Bonaventure calls this penetrating gaze “contuition,” where one sees concrete reality in itself and in God. Contuition is a deepening of insight and vision, but it is also a deepening of love that involves an ongoing transformation of the heart to become open, inclusive and embracive of all people and all of creation. This is not to say that knowledge is not important because as St. Bonaventure teaches, “we cannot love what we do not know.” However, knowledge takes us only so far and we must let love carry us into the very heart of God. Love leads us into the heart of the Trinity and this love is itself the deepest knowledge of God. St. Gregory the Great summed up the Christian contemplative tradition at the end of the sixth century, saying “the knowledge of God is impregnated with love.”
Centering prayer reclaims the ancient Christian contemplative tradition for contemporary times. It teaches me to “Be still,” so I may know God by cultivating interior silence. The method of centering prayer is distilled from the classic text on contemplation, “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Centering prayer invites me to consent to the presence of God within, moving from external to internal noises to stillness, and cascading ultimately to the center of our being beyond self-reflection to God. Fr. Thomas Keating writes, “It is a time for sharing one’s pure being with God, to just sit there and be still in God’s presence, and to let happen what happens.” It is an effort to be with God so that one might be totally alive to the present moment.
The beautiful aspect of this kind of contemplative prayer is that one does not have to do anything but simply consent to God’s presence via a prayer word. This word (Jesus, God, Father, Abba, etc.), is used to simply remind the practitioner not to get kidnapped by distracting thoughts, emotions or images (even when they are good and holy), so that one may return to that loving attentive gaze upon the one “whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.”
Pondering the Incarnation
Centering prayer is focused on the inner Christ alive in our “true self” through the indwelling Spirit. With Mary as our mother who pondered everything with her adoring heart, Advent leads me to ponder the incarnation with the same docility, awareness and deep abiding consent to God’s presence and action within me and in the world. Thankfully, I do not have to perform the right ritual, achieve every effort with success, and exert control to make events happen according to my agenda, nor manipulate others by saying politically correct words. I realize that through centering prayer and other forms of contemplation, I don’t have to earn God’s love, nor bargain with God. I can simply be my honest self before God’s grace and loving majesty.
Adoring the greatness of God’s love made present to us in the form of a tiny human being we name Jesus-Savior, I come to realize that I can imitate Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer who pondered in her heart and said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Like the Mother of God, I simply surrender to a deepening receptivity to God and learn to simply be, letting go of ego, power, control, entitlement, even enlightenment, joy or peace. All of this is still ego, often masked by religious piety. Enlightenment, joy and peace are gifts of God, but not the giver of those gifts. Furthermore, these gifts are not earned but gratuitously bestowed. In centering prayer, I learn to be pliable like clay in the hands of the potter and learn to accept whatever God wishes to give and humbly rejoice in who I am under God’s watchful gaze.
I close with Thomas Keating’s quote from “Heartfulness: Transformation in Christ.” “Nothing is more beautiful than the uniqueness that God has created. You don’t have to create the beauty — you’ve already got the beauty. You don’t have to create the freedom — you’ve got it. You don’t have to create the image of God in you — you have it. You don’t have to win over God’s love — you have more than you know what to do with.” Therefore, centering prayer and the season of Advent come together for me in silent stillness. I am reminded once again that the spiritual journey is not about getting something, but about awakening to something I (we) already have. Happy Advent!
— Fr. Gene, a native of Rhode Island, is the Provincial spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscan Order.
Editor’s Note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday or holy day or other season l theme – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. The previous HNP Today Seasonal Reflection about the Year of Consecrated Life was written by Jim McIntosh, OFM. A collection of seasonal reflections can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of the HNP website.