I got an F in Centering Prayer.
I truly thought I would love that particular spiritual practice. I enjoy—even crave—silence as a part of every day. Also, I liked the notion of a deep prayer that would transcend the checklists of my tediously quotidian daily prayers (“Lord, please help Stanley with his broken arm and Jessica with her unemployment and Mike with his biopsy blah blah . . . .”). I thought that meditative forms of prayer would be a way in to depth, to spiritual exploration. To a kind of knowing or connection that I longed to experience in prayer.
As I recount in chapter 6 of my new book Flunking Sainthood, Centering Prayer was the only one of the twelve spiritual practices I attempted that was so disastrous I stopped in the middle. I simply couldn’t calm my Monkey Mind. Even attempting thirty short days of Centering Prayer seemed like such a waste of time—and induced such guilt and self-recrimination—that I quit cold turkey, feeling like a loser.
I wish I’d had Richard Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul at that time two years ago—not because it would have provided me with the surefire how-to advice I yearned for in doing that kind of meditative prayer, but because he could have assured me that such counsel would be beside the point. His book would have celebrated my journey in even attempting contemplative prayer without emphasizing the results. Why am I always all about the results?
Foster outlines three basic steps for contemplative prayer, but he also notes that even the first step—a recollection of the self, a removal of distractions—is awfully hard to achieve. It’s certainly not possible in a 30-day experiment like mine, undertaken without a teacher and in the absence of community. Reading through Foster’s steps, ironically, helped me to see that I actually had experienced some of the deep benefit of contemplative prayer, because the whole affair made me feel like I was a piece of excrement.
Let me explain. Foster says that when done correctly, meditative, contemplative prayer gives rise to “a spirit of repentance or confession” that makes us aware of our many shortcomings and sins (p. 64). That certainly did happen. Boy, did it ever. But instead of sticking with the practice and allowing something godly to emerge from it, I bravely ran away.
Someday, I’d like to overcome my fear of this practice and try again. Some of the ideas in Foster’s book would be helpful for me. I’m going to try poetry to calm my racing mind (why did I never think of that before?), as Foster suggests (p. 107). And I’m going to focus on just listening. That sounds so basic, doesn’t it? But my determination to approach Centering Prayer with an empty mind—and my utter failure to empty that mind—obscured one significant fact about myself: I’m actually a pretty good listener and a caring friend. And next time, I’m not going to check that trait at the door. By focusing so exclusively on me me me when I attempted Centering Prayer—even if it was the kenosis of self, it was still the self—I missed the whole point of prayer as relationship.
Back to basics now. Thank you, Brother Richard, for another insightful book. And by the way, today’s review is part of Patheos.com’s Book Club Roundtable, so if you want to read other’s bloggers’ takes on Foster’s latest, read an excerpt, and/or watch an author interview, you can check it all out here.