But while men and women clearly have an intense hunger for experiences that will nurture their souls, many of these questing spiritual nomads have not found what they are looking for in churches. They have tried the church and have heard theological discourses and social justice sermons, but have failed to discover much that offers them mystical encounters with transcendent spiritual powers. They long for experiences that could create the ecstasies of heart and mind that German phenomenologist Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendum. Consequently, many have sought and found spiritual food outside of organized Christianity or Judaism. Today, some of the most spiritual people I know claim to be without religion.
I relate to their problem. I have experienced an unspoken dissatisfaction with own my spiritual life that has only been allayed over the past few years as my prayer life began to change. Believing the gospel was never a problem for me, but during times of reflection I sensed that believing in Jesus and living out His teachings just wasn't enough. There was a yearning for something more, and I found that I was increasingly spiritually gratified as I adopted older ways of praying--ways that have largely been ignored by those of us in the Protestant tradition. Counter-Reformation saints like Ignatius of Loyola have become important sources of help as I have begun to learn from them modes of contemplative prayer. I practice what is known as "centering prayer," in which a sacred word is repeated as a way to be in God's presence.
In my Baptist childhood, all I learned to do while praying was to go through a litany of non-negotiable demands to the Almighty. Prayers were little more than petitions. Oh, I knew about confession, adoration and other kinds of prayer, but my prayer life wasn't far removed from that of my six-year-old son, who came into the living room one night and said, "I'm going to bed! I'm going to be praying! Anybody want anything?"
Each night, I still make my requests "known to God," just as the Bible tells us to do (Phil. 4:6), but in the morning I don't ask God for anything. Instead, I center down on Jesus.
To do so, I have to drive back the animals--the "animals" being the hundred and one things that trouble me from the day before and the many things that are waiting to be done in the new day. I've got to push everything out of mind save the name of Jesus. I say His name over and over again, for as long as fifteen minutes, until I find my soul suspended in what the ancient Celtic Christians called a "thin place"--a state where the boundary between heaven and earth, divine and human, dissolves. You could say that I use the name of Jesus as my koan. Perhaps that's because, as my friends and the country gospel musicians the Gaithers, sing, "There's just something about that name."
I wish I could say this spirit of Christ saturated my being. The truth is, most mornings nothing happens...
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I wish I could say that I feel this spirit of Christ saturate my being every morning. The truth is, most mornings nothing happens. Sometimes weeks go by and nothing comes from my centering prayers. But other times, often when I have come close to despairing, it happens.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician, gave testimony of such an inflowing of God's Spirit as he described going into a room early one evening, shutting the door, sitting alone in darkness, and prayerfully waiting. The next day he wrote in his diary:
10:30 p.m. FIRE! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the god of the philosophers and the scholars-absolute certainty-beyond reason. Joy! PEACE! Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God! The world has not known Thee, but I have known Thee. JOY! JOY! JOY! Tears of joy!When I am asked how I know that such mystical infillings of the Holy Spirit aren't the result of simple "feel good" techniques that sometimes mark the ecstasies of New Age practitioners, I have an answer. I explain that these experiences generate within me an intensive passion for telling others about Jesus. Along with that powerful evangelistic drive, His Spirit also creates within me a compassion for the poor and oppressed, and I am driven to respond to their pleas for help and justice.
The Bible says that if any person says that he or she loves God and fails to live out love toward those in need, that person "is a liar" (1 John 4:20). When centering prayer results in one's heart being broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus, it is a validation that the ecstasy experienced in stillness is an infilling of Christ's spirit. When one experiences compassionate love for others, it is evidence that "the spirits are of God" (I John 4:1).
There's an old African-American spiritual that begins, "Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus." I am gaining some idea as to what they were singing about. I think they had something in common with Ignatius--and with an age-old Christian contemplative tradition that finds perfect expression in centering prayer.