Rebooting a Contemplative Practice… and Choosing the Right Method for Silent Prayer

A reader named Allen sent me this question — actually two questions.

What advice would you have for someone who who wants to reboot their contemplative prayer practice?

I flit between the Jesus Prayer and Centering Prayer.  I find Centering Prayer “easier” but I find The Jesus Prayer grounds me in Christ.  Centering  Prayer seems more like mantra meditation to me.  Maybe its the prayer word I am using (Ruagh the Hebrew for spirit)..Maybe I need to use a more explicitly Christian sounding word to remind me of Jesus?  Or maybe just stick with The Jesus Prayer?

Two questions worth considering; let’s take them one at a time.

Rebooting a Contemplative Practice

A Trappist monk I know describes the monastic life like this: “We fall down, and we get back up. We fall down, and we get back.” I don’t think the idea is original to him, but monks have been in the business of repeating wisdom from centuries now, never mind the original source. Which reminds me of another helpful nugget of wisdom: “Always we begin again.” This phrase forms the title of a book on Benedictine spirituality by John McQuiston II (Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living).

As often happens on the Internet, people have begun to attribute “Always we begin again” to St. Benedict himself. I have searched, but cannot find that phrase in The Rule of Saint Benedict, so I think the credit goes to McQuiston. But no matter who said it first, it is indeed a very Benedictine idea — and a very contemplative idea, too.

The spiritual life is a life of never-ending beginnings. Maybe that’s why one of the most renowned books on Zen in the English language is titled Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. We need the mind (and heart) of a beginner, to truly embrace the contemplative path.

When a toddler is learning how to walk, he or she falls down lot. Oops! Another tumble. But with the encouragement of mom and dad (and, hopefully, some soft carpet to land on!), the baby just laughs at the relentless pull of gravity and keeps trying. Sooner or later, the baby stands without assistance, takes those first few wobbly steps, and soon there’s no stopping him or her!

It would help us to approach a contemplative practice the same way. We often fall, especially at the beginning. We get distracted. We forget to pray. We write it on our calendar and still don’t manage to find the time for it. It happens. We go a day, a week, a month, a season, a year — a decade! — without taking the time to tend to our soul and respond to the love of the God who is hidden deep within us. It happens.

But guess what? Always we begin again. We fall down, and we get back up. It really is that easy.

How do you reboot your contemplative practice? You do it. You take a minute for silence, or twenty minutes for Centering Prayer, or half an hour to walk a labyrinth while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Or all the above. Do it this morning. Do it tonight. Then again tomorrow morning. And before you know it, it’s an integral part of your life. And then you’ll fall down again. When that happens, be like a toddler. Say “Oops,” and laugh at your own foibles. Then get up and start again.

But the second part of Allen’s question basically asks, “How do I find the right contemplative practice to facilitate this reboot?” And that question deserves its own consideration.

Choosing a Method of Silent Prayer

It seems that in the world of contemplative Christianity, we find several options for a practice of silent prayer: Centering Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, Christian Meditation (as taught by the World Community for Christian Meditation), and I imagine there are others, but these three are the ones I’m most familiar with.

Here’s how I understand each one:

  • The Jesus Prayer, with roots in the Orthodox monastic tradition extending all the way back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers, is based on the continual repetition of a simple formula: either the name of Jesus, or a short like prayer like “Jesus, Mercy,” or a longer version, such as one immortalized in the Russian mystical novel The Way of a Pilgrim: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As we recite the Jesus Prayer, we are encouraged to imagine the mind settling into the heart, which suggests that this prayer replaces cognitive activity with affective devotion. Indeed, it is also known as the Prayer of the Heart. The words we recite “hover above” a deep silence in which the love of the human heart responds to the Love of God, poured into that heart by the Holy Spirit.
  • Christian Meditation, developed by the Benedictine monk John Main, is a fruit of interreligious encounter: whereas the Prayer of the Heart has roots deep in the Christian tradition, Christian Meditation arose out of Main’s practice of mantra meditation which he learned as a young man while working as a British Civil Servant in Kuala Lampur. Studying with the yogi Swami Satyananda, Main learned to meditate but with his teacher’s encouragement he adopted a Christian word, maranatha (Aramaic for “Come, Lord”) as his mantra. After becoming a monk Main became renowned as a meditation teacher, and his method is now practiced worldwide under the auspices of the WCCM.
  • Centering Prayer, like the Prayer of the Heart, has roots deep in the tradition, but like Christian Meditation, is a newly formed practice that was inspired by eastern spirituality. Centering Prayer was developed by the Trappist monk William Meninger, based explicitly on the prayer teachings of the Desert (especially John Cassian) but also the medieval mystical treatise The Cloud of Unknowing. It became widely taught thanks to the efforts of two other Trappists, M. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. Eventually a service organization, Contemplative Outreach, was formed to support the establishment of Centering Prayer groups worldwide. Centering Prayer involves using a short “Sacred Word” as a way to re-center ourselves when our mind wanders — but the words is not meant to be a mantra, repeated incessantly. At any time during the Centering Prayer process, if the person praying is simply resting in silence, the Sacred Word does not need to be repeated. Of course, the human heart and mind are highly distractible, so in practice the Sacred Word might seem like a mantra, repeated every time a distracting thought emerges (which for most of us is pretty much ongoing). But whenever a moment of graced silence arises, one may suspend the recitation of the Sacred Word and simply rest in unspeakable delight of Divine Love.

Now, I believe each of these practices has its own grace to offer. These different methods are ways of consenting to God’s presence in our hearts (see Romans 5:5 again), but they do not put us in the “driver’s seat” of prayer. Prayer is always God’s action, our response. So it’s best to see these prayer methods as different ways of responding to God’s silent presence and ubiquitous love.

So how  to choose? First of all, who says you can only practice one of these methods? I see nothing wrong with embracing two or all three of these practices. If it’s okay for Buddhists to practice both Shamatha and Vipassana (and I’ve never known a Buddhist to say you could only do one!), then certainly Christians can respond to God’s presence with both a repetitive way of praying like the Jesus Prayer and a more silence-oriented form of praying like Centering Prayer.

Naturally, it might make sense to have the intention of which method you are practicing each time you sit down to pray; in other words, if you intend to recite the Jesus Prayer, then return to the Jesus Prayer each time you get distracted, at least during this “session.” But maybe you  would like to pray the Jesus Prayer every evening, following by Centering Prayer each morning. I see nothing wrong with this, and would encourage you to bring the matter up with your spiritual director, just for the sake of clarity and support as you seek to deepen your practice.

Now, it may well be that, over time, you find that you naturally prefer one method over another. If that is the case, then go with the method that “fits” you. I love to quote Dom James Chapman, who said “Pray as you can, not as  you can’t.” If you prefer the Jesus Prayer because you love the words, then stick with it. But if you feel drawn to the Centering Prayer method and find grace is allowing even the Sacred Word to yield to silence, then let that be your regular practice.

My reader asked if he should use a more explicitly “Jesus” oriented Sacred Word, since his heart was yearning for a more grounded sense of intimacy with Christ. That is certainly one option — and in Centering Prayer you are free to change your Sacred Word, so if one simply doesn’t work for you, find another. The only recommendation is to stay with a chosen Sacred Word once you begin praying (i.e., don’t get caught up in trying to find the “perfect” Sacred Word during your prayer time!). And I would add, as a practical matter, that picking a new prayer word every time you sit down to pray gets old pretty fast, so once you find a Sacred Word that truly represents your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within you, consider sticking with that word — for several months at least, or for the rest of your life.

My reader speaks about using a “mantra” during Centering Prayer. That sounds like he’s confusing Centering Prayer with Christian Meditation, which is more explicitly based on mantra meditation. Using your prayer word repetitively, or allowing it fall away into the silence, can each be beautiful ways to respond to God’s love. But they are different practices.

Speaking directly to Allen: perhaps you would find it meaningful to choose a more Christ-centric Sacred Word, remembering that in Centering Prayer it’s not a mantra and you don’t have to repeat it incessantly. Likewise, perhaps you might enjoy alternating between the practice of Centering Prayer and the Prayer of the Heart until you find the one that’s truly right for you. And who knows? Maybe you’ll love them both so much that you will keep both as an active part of your spiritual practice.

We go to the gym to get or stay strong and healthy. It can be fun to go to the gym, but the point behind working out is to improve the overall quality of our lives. A prayer practice works the same way. We go to the “gym” of Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer to get, or stay, close to God. We can find joy in our contemplative practice, and indeed you do. But it’s also good to remember that the practice is meant to serve the ever-deepening intimacy with God: that’s what matters, and whether a practice is right for you ultimately depends on whether that practice serves you in your quest to more fully respond to Divine Love.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.