December 16, 2012

How to make prayer work for you in 6 easy steps.

Imagine the benefits to an individual when prayer becomes a way of life rather than a series of isolated acts. There is a mystic power in prayer and it works. ~John Templeton

Is prayer a regular part of your life? Or something you turn to only in times of crisis or great need? Have you tried prayer in the past and found it to be a big waste of time?

For most of my life I’ve prayed sporadically, going through phases where I would faithfully start each morning with a prayer of thanks and gratitude—only to move on to other introspective pursuits like meditation. All that changed recently.

I stumbled upon an ancient form of prayer I had read about years ago and forgotten. It’s called centering prayer and I believe it’s as close as you can get to achieving a real communion and connection with God.

Originally known as contemplative prayer, it was developed by Christian mystics in the earliest days of the Catholic church and widely practiced. But by the 15th century, due in large part to the church’s long and brutal Inquisition, this type of prayer was deemed heretical and it all but disappeared.

Contemplative prayer would make a comeback in the 1960’s and ‘70s. As the Catholic church began to lose members to the lure of Eastern philosophies and meditation, some on the fringes of the church saw it as the perfect opportunity to reintroduce it. Inspired by Thomas Merton who wrote“the simplest way to come into contact with the living God is to go to one’s center and from there pass into God”, they began calling it centering prayer.

Essentially, it is a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with God (or for some practitioners, Jesus) to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times.

I’ve been reading a helpful new book on the subject titled The Path of Centering Prayer by David Frenette, and with an assist from his writings, I’ve developed a six-point “how to” guide.

The 6 Steps of Centering Prayer

  1. Choose a one-or two-syllable sacred word such as God, Jesus, amen, love, peace, stillness, faith or trust. Note: I cheat and use three syllables that help direct me to the ultimate goal: Rest in God
  2. Sit comfortably and with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence within you.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within your self.
  4. If your mind wanders or becomes aware of anything else, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest and simply be with God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking”. Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

As with most things you want to get good at, the key to success is practice, practice, practice.  One modern day expert on the subject, M. Basil Pennington, recommends two 20-minutes sessions a day. “The first in the morning, introduces into our day a good rhythm…the second, after 8-10 hours of fruitful activity, is a period of renewal to carry us through.”

I’ve read that it can take six months or longer to master centering prayer, but if you’re versed in meditation I think you’ll see the results much faster, maybe even immediately. Also, it’s important to note that as time goes on, Frenette recommends engaging in centering prayer without any words, to “let go of the life preserver and just float”.

It’s easy to see the parallels between centering prayer and secular meditation. But while the calming effect is much the same as meditation, there’s an added dimension to centering prayer. It’s the sense that in the vast nothingness within, there’s a presence, one that’s part of the soul but greater than the soul. Could it be the presence of God? Try it for yourself and see what you think.

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