Centering Prayer - A Gift
From the Desert
From Centering Prayer by Basil Pennington, pp.25-37
We tend to think of our own times as being unique in the history of the human family, and in some ways that is certainly true. And yet there is undeniable truth in the words of the Wise Man: ". . . there is nothing new under the sun" (Qo. 1:9).
In recent years, we have seen a significant number of young and not so young Westerners turning to the East. Though the tide seems now to have ebbed, there was for a time a steady flow of pilgrims seeking from gurus, swamis, and roshis some sampling of ancient wisdom. Some actually made the long journey to Benares, Sri Lanka, or Thailand. Others were able to import masters or find them already imported, or in some cases even satisfied themselves with what returning disciples were able to share.
This phenomenon of dropping out of one's own life current, whether it be school or business or religious-community life, and heading toward the East in search of wisdom is not unprecedented. It was very much present in the renewal of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, finding fear-some and dramatic expression in the Crusades but significant peaceful expression in the realms of art, science, and sapiential literature. This was the period when Peter the Venerable translated the Koran, and the writings of many of the Greek Fathers were first made available in Latin, thus directly influencing the evolution of spiritual thinking in Western Europe.
The fourth and fifth centuries also witnessed such a movement. My own patron, Basil - later called "the Great" - and his schoolmate Gregory, the Theologian, threw aside their books, left the prestigious schools of Athens, and went off to find true wisdom among the gerontas (old men) in Syria and Egypt; "old man" is a term of respect used even today among the Greeks to address or speak about a significant spiritual father. St. Jerome might truly be included among these seekers, as well as his friends Paula and Melania, the Elder and the Younger. Among the pilgrims to the East must also be included a brilliant young man from Dalmatia whom the Eastern Christians today call St. John Cassian, the Roman.
John, too, at an early age, laid aside his books and left the lecture halls to go in search of true wisdom. He went first to the Holy Land and lived there for some years in a monastery in Bethlehem (not that of St. Jerome, though he probably met the saint while there). After a time, his insatiable desire pushed him on. With his abbot's permission and the companionship of one of his brother monks, Herman, he set out to learn still more of the spiritual art and the mystical life from the wise old men bidden in the solitudes and caves of Egypt. It was over seven years before he returned to his monastery, only to seek permission to continue his pursuit. He was never again to return to the Holy Land. In time, he was led from the desert to the capital, ordained a priest, and then sent back to the West, where he established two monasteries near Marseilles -one for women and one for men.
Monasticism was beginning to flourish in fifth-century Gaul, and in response to an expressed need, St. John produced two sets or collections of writings. The first, the institutes, recounted the practices of the monks of Egypt and adapted them for use in the colder, Western regions. Because of the extensive use of the institutes by St. Benedict of Nursia and the tradition he drew upon, Cassian's Institutes have had an immense and all-pervading influence on monastic life in the West. In his second collection, St. John included what he considered the most significant teachings he had received in the course of his long pilgrimage. These he presented in the form of Conferences given by various great Fathers of the Desert.
As Cassian himself tells us, one day he and Herman visited the famous Abba Isaac and sought from him a teaching on prayer. The saintly old man obliged, and this teaching has come down to us as the very beautiful and deep "First Conference of Abba Isaac on Prayer." That night, John and his companion fairly floated back to their cell, so uplifted were they by the transcendent teaching of this great Father. But when they awoke in the morning, their feet again solidly planted on Mother Earth, Herman turned to his companion with the important question:
"Yes, but how do you do it?" And the two young monks ran back across the sands to the cell of the elder to pose this question to him. Abba Isaac's "Second Conference" is his response to this question. In it we find the first written expression in the West of that tradition of prayer of which Centering Prayer is a contemporary presentation.
The whole of Abba Isaac's magnificent Conference should certainly be read. But let us here listen to just a few of the words of this wise old man, the ones that most directly relate to our present concern:
I think it will be easy to bring you to the heart of true prayer. . . . The man who knows what questions to ask is on the verge of understanding; the man who is beginning to understand what he does not know is not far from knowledge.
I must give you a formula for contemplation. If you care-fully keep this formula before you, and learn to recollect it at all times, it will help you to mount to contemplation of high truth. Everyone who seeks for continual recollection of God uses this formula for meditation, intent upon driving every other sort of thought from his heart. You cannot keep the formula before you unless you are free from all bodily cares.
The formula was given us by a few of the oldest fathers who remained. They communicated it only to a very few who were athirst for the true way. To maintain an unceasing recollection of God, this formula must be ever before you. The formula is this: "0 God, come to my assistance; 0 Lord, make haste to help me."
Rightly has this verse been selected from the whole Bible to serve this purpose. It suits every mood and temper of human nature, every temptation, every circumstance. It contains an Invocation of God, an humble confession of faith, a reverent watchfulness, a meditation on human frailty1 an act of confidence in God's response, an assurance of his ever-present support~ The man who continually Invokes God as his protector is aware that God is ever at hand.
I repeat: each one of us, whatever his condition in the spiritual life, needs to use this verse.
Perhaps wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images. I feel so dry that I am Incapable of spiritual feelings, and many sighs and groans cannot save me from dreariness. I must needs say: "0 God, come to my assistance; 0 Lord, make haste to help me."
The mind should go on grasping this formula until it can cast away the wealth and multiplicity of other thoughts, and restrict itself to the poverty of this single word. And so it will attain with ease that Gospel beatitude which holds first place among the other beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Thus by God's light the mind mounts to the manifold knowledge of God, and thereafter feeds on mysteries loftier and more sacred . . . . And thus it attains that purest of pure prayers to which our earlier conference led, so far as the Lord deigns to grant this favour; the prayer which looks for no visual image, uses neither thoughts nor words; the prayer wherein, like a spark leaping up from a fire, the mind is rapt upward, and, destitute of the aid of the senses or of anything visible or material, pours out its prayer to God...
For the better part of ten centuries, the monastic approach to prayer prevailed, beginning with the first attempts at written transmission, by such men as Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian in the fourth century, until the prevalence of scholastic thinking in the Western Christian community, which in the fourteenth century brought about a divorce between theology and spirituality. For the monk, life was integral. It was all one, and in practice he did not distinguish between reading or study of the Scriptures and prayer, or between meditation and contemplation. There was just one simple movement of response to a God who had spoken, a God who speaks not just in the books of the divinely inspired Scriptures but in the whole of creation and in the depths of one's own being.
At this point let me inject an important aside. It concerns a semantic difficulty. In our recent Western tradition, when we have spoken of "meditation," we have been understood to refer to a discursive type of prayer in which we consciously reflected on some facet of life, particularly some point of the Scriptures, and sought by this means to arouse in ourselves affective responses and resolutions to guide our conduct. At the same time, "contemplation" has signified for us that moment when our response to the revealed truth or reality was simply being present to it - having passed beyond thinking to simple presence.
For our brothers and sisters in the Hindu tradition, the terms have almost the exact inverse meaning: contemplation is a discursive exercise, and meditation usually means a non-conceptual approach. Perhaps one of the most significant indications of the failure of the Western Christian churches to bring their life-giving tradition even to their own is the fact that the terminology that prevails today in the West is not that of the Western tradition (except perhaps among religious and priests, and those mostly of earlier training) but, rather, the terminology brought to us in recent years by the wise men coming from the Asiatic countries. So there is a difficulty today when we speak of these matters. That is one of the reasons why I prefer to use the term "Centering Prayer" rather than "meditation" or "contemplation." "Prayer" emphasizes what is the essential and oftentimes distinctive element: that of an inter-personal response, a relationship flowing out of love, with another Person or Persons. However, I think it might at times be advantageous, when presenting this form of prayer in a popular context, such as a college campus, to speak of it as "Christian meditation"-meditation being understood in the prevailing, Eastern sense.
But let us return to our monastic tradition. In this tradition, when the monks wished to speak in a reflective way of their experience, they employed four words: lectio, rneditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. Lectio, or more commonly the fuller expression Lectio Divina, cannot be adequately expressed in the simple translation of the word as "reading.3' We are in fact speaking of a time when perhaps most of the monks and most of the Christian community could not read. Others, of course, could and did read to their illiterate brothers. The choice source for this lectio always was and always will be the Sacred Texts. Oftentimes, a simple Christian who could not read would manage to memorize extensive portions of Scriptures, especially the Gospels and the Psalter, so that he could constantly hear it, now recited, as it were, by his own memory.
But lectio, in the fuller sense implied here, means the reception of the revelation, by whatever vehicle it may come - the reception of the Word who is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. It may indeed come by way of one's own reading. St. Basil was strongly insistent that all monks learn to read. For us today, our personal time with the Word of Life, with the Sacred Scriptures, is of primary importance. But we also receive this word through the ministry of others, through their reading, and above all, through the Liturgy of the Word. And others will open it out for us in homilies, in instructions, in simple faith - sharing and everyday lived witness. It can also be presented to us, and in fact it has been presented, in art: pictures, frescoes, sculpture, stained glass. The whole Bible can be found in the windows of the cathedral of Chartres. And there were the wonderful mystery plays.
There is also the larger book of revelation: the whole of the work of the Creator, his wonderful creation. All of it speaks of him and of his love for us. Bernard of Clairvaux was fond of saying (to express it in a rather trite translation) that he found God more in the trees and brooks than in the books. Lectio, therefore, is receiving the revelation, by whatever means, to be followed quite naturally by meditatio.
Again, with meditatio - even apart from the semantic difficulty we spoke of above-we have to be careful that our translation be not a betrayal of the truth. In the early monastic tradition, meditation involved primarily a repetition of the word of revelation, or the word of life one received from his spiritual father or from some other source. The word - and here "word" is not to be taken literally as one single word but may be a whole phrase or sentence - was quietly repeated over and over again, even with the lips. Thus the Psalms speak of one meditating with his lips. In time, the repetition would tend to interiorise and simplify the word, as its meaning was assimilated. For during this repetition the mind was not a vacuum. It received the word more and more, entered into it more and more, assimilated it and appropriated it, until it was formed by the word and its whole being was a response to the word.
The Fathers liked to use the image of the cow or other "clean animals who chew the cud." A cow goes out and fills its stomach with grass or other food. Then it settles down quietly and through the process of regurgitation reworks what it has received, moving its lips in the process. Thus it is able to fully assimilate what it has previously consumed and to transform it into rich, creamy milk - a symbol of love filled with the unction of the Holy Spirit. When the received word passes from the lips into the mind and then down into the heart through constant repetition, it produces in the one praying a loving, faith-filled response.
I like very much a distinction made by John Henry Cardinal Newman that I think is very applicable here: What this meditatio does is to change a notional assent into a real assent. As we receive the words of revelation into our mind, they are just so many notions or ideas, which we accept m faith. We do believe. '3ut as we assimilate them through meditation, our whole being comes to respond to them. We move to a real assent. Our whole being, above all our heart, says: '~Yes, this is so. This is the reality."
Next-again quite naturally - we turn to oratio, to prayer, to response. When God, the loving Creator and Redeemer, so reveals Himself, and we really hear that revelation, that Word of Life, we respond with confident assent, with expressed need, with gratitude, with love. This response is prayer. And it bursts out more and more constantly as the reality of our assent deepens and we more fully perceive the revelation of Creator and creative Love in all that we encounter.
Our response grows. It is constantly nourished by illuminating grace. There are moments and seasons of special light. And it is at these times, which eventually become all times, that the Reality becomes so real to us that a word or a movement of the heart can no longer adequately respond to it. Our whole being must say "yes." This is contemplatio. It is a gift, a gift of the Light who is God. We can only open to it, in our God-given freedom, and express our desire to receive it by fidelity to lectio, meditatio, and oratio - oratio of the most delicate, open, and receptive type. That is what Centering Prayer is. And that is the method that Abba Isaac taught to the two eager young monks, St. John Cassian and his companion, Herman.
The desert tradition out of which this teaching on prayer of John Cassian, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Centering Prayer evolved is the same as that from which the Jesus Prayer issued. However, while Abba Isaac gave St. John a word from the Psalms: "0 God, come to my assistance; 0 Lord, make haste to help me," the Eastern current derived its source from two passages of the New Testament - that of the blind Bartimeus and that of the publican - to form the well-known prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." In time, especially under the long domination of the Moslems, the Eastern Christian tradition was enriched or modified by other influences from the East. Thus today the expression "The Jesus Prayer" is a blanket covering a variety of methods. The most highly developed, psychosomatic expression of the Jesus Prayer, presented by Nesophorus of Jerusalem and St. Gregory of Sinai (who actually learned it in Crete and brought it to the Holy Mountain) in the fourteenth century, and by St. Gregory Palamas in the century following, reproduce even to details the dhikr method of the Sufis of the thirteenth century. The Name used by the Sufis, of course, was Allah, while that used by the Orthodox Christians was the Name of Jesus. This dhiikr method in its turn reproduces down to details the nembutsu method of meditation used by Buddhists in the twelfth century. We do not necessarily have to postulate a dependency. It may be that spiritual masters coming out of related cultures evolved similar methods.
Alongside this increasingly complicated method there always continued to be present a very simple and pure practice, especially among the Russians and in the sketes on Mount Athos. We find this most recently with Father Silouan, the humble staretz of the Russian monastery on Mount Athos, who died in 1938, and whose life and works have been made known to the West by his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony. At the end of his long and busy day as dockmaster, the staretz would retire into his office near the abandoned pier, pull his skouphos (monk's hat) down over his eyes and ears, and simply enter into the awesome Presence of God, using the saving Name of Jesus. His practice at this point was the same as that of the Centering Prayer, with the Name of Jesus as his prayer word.
Other spiritual fathers developed other variations in passing on the tradition, coupling the use of the Name with the breathing or the heartbeat, adopting certain postures, and otherwise seeking to bring the mind down into the heart.
In the West, the tradition remained quite pure until it was virtually lost at the time of the Reformation with the suppression of the monasteries and the defensive repressions of the Inquisition. Flowing from the word St. John Cassian received from Abba Isaac, it did not centre on the Name of Jesus but retained a certain suppleness, so that, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing expressed it, each one practicing the prayer would choose his own prayer word – one that is meaningful to him.
Like the Conferences of Abba Isaac, The Cloud of Unknowing is the word of a spiritual father addressed to a particular disciple. In the case of The Cloud, both the father and the disciple remain unnamed and unknown. We know only that the disciple was still quite young (twenty-four years old) but had nonetheless enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the father. The The Cloud of Unknowing presupposes the oral instruction the father has given. It is undoubtedly for this reason that we do not find precise instructions by the father in the way of prayer, as with Abba Isaac. But repeatedly in the text there is allusion to such precise instruction and repetition of fragments of it. By drawing these scattered texts together we can, in a rather complete way, reconstruct the precise method of prayer that the father taught his disciple:
Simply sit relaxed and quiet. - Ch. 44
It is simply a spontaneous desire springing . . . toward God. - Ch. 4
Centre all your attention and desire on Him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.
- Ch. 3
The will needs only a brief fraction of a moment to move toward the object of its desire. - Ch. 4
If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. . . . But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. - Ch. 7
Be careful in this work and never strain your mind or imagination, for truly you will not succeed in this way. Leave these faculties at peace. - Ch. 4
It is best when this word is wholly interior without a definite thought or actual sound. - Ch. 40
Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God. Let nothing except God hold sway in your mind and heart. - Ch. 40
No sooner has a person turned toward God in love than through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection. - Ch. 4
Should some thought go on annoying you, demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one.
word alone. If your mind begins to intellectualise over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. -Ch. 7
You are to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor in their situation or doings whether good or ill. To put it briefly, during this work you must abandon them all. - Ch. 5
Anyone familiar with Centering Prayer will quite readily discern all the elements of the method in this instruction of the author of The Cloud o/ Unknowing. There is a difference between the instruction of the latter and that of Abba Isaac, even though at times they use the very same words, as when the author of The Cloud re-echoes Abba Isaac's image: "It is simply a spontaneous desire springing suddenly toward God like sparks from a fire." The difference reflects a development that had taken place in the West and the dissimilarity of the audiences addressed. The Abba, addressing himself to monks, spoke in the context of a full life of prayer: lectio, meditatio, oratio, conternplatio, as described above. Meditatio, the gentle repetition of a word received from lectio, was to be the constant occupation of the monk until the meditation, quite naturally as it were, burst into prayer and transcended into contemplation. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing might well have been a monk - he certainly was thoroughly familiar with this monastic tradition - yet there is no clear indication that the disciple was; indeed, indications are to the contrary. In any case, the author speaks in a context in which discursive meditation has taken hold. He is well aware of the value of such meditation, yet he urges his disciple to go beyond it and, at least at times, to engage in the work of contemplation. Something of the integrality of the Desert Father is lacking. In some way life seems to be compartmentalized; there is a time for activity, there is a time for discursive meditation, and a time for going beyond all this into contemplation-with a method offered for use during this latter time slot. The author is accepting the reality of the way life is for his disciple and for the larger audience with whom he shares this work; he speaks to the latter and provides for it. Yet it is evident that he has not abandoned the ideal of a wholly integrated life, for he sees this work of contemplation as the best way for his disciple to move toward reintegrating his life.
The author of The Cloud, receiving a way of prayer that had developed in the monastic tradition, with great wisdom, prudence, and discretion passes it on in such a way that it can be readily employed by one who does not find himself in a context of life wherein he can be wholly free to seek constant actual prayer. Thus it is that the method of prayer taught by the author of The Cloud and represented in Centering Prayer, while certainly not useless to monks, coming as it does from the fullness of their tradition, is yet suited to the life of lay persons as well as to priests and religious who are taken up with the many cares of the active apostolate. The Cloud 0f Unknowing represents a significant moulding of tradition responsive to the signs of the times and the needs of God's people. And so, too, we hope, does Centering Prayer.