By Fr. Alex Ezechukwu, OCD
Let’s Focus on God!
Have you ever wished you could truly concentrate your mind and heart on God when you pray?
That is the hope of many people. And yet, our own thoughts and emotions seem to crowd out our awareness of God!
What might be of help is centering prayer.
Centering prayer is a somewhat recent practice rooted in the Christian tradition that helps one reach the level of contemplation. Centering prayer emphasizes the cultivation of inner silence and the deepening of one's relationship with God.
At its core, centering prayer is a method of silent prayer that goes beyond thoughts, words, and images. It seeks to create a space for the individual to rest in the presence of God, allowing God's grace to work within. The practice involves sitting comfortably in a quiet place and choosing a sacred word or phrase, such as "love" or "Jesus," as a symbol of one's intention to be open to God's presence.
And yet one must be cautious about certain extremes of centering prayer that seem to stray away from Catholic teaching. More about that in a minute.
Spirituality for a Mum
Margaret McNulty is a lecturer featured in our Wisdom Lectures series who is an expert on centering prayer. (Wisdom Lectures is sponsored by DecorCarmeli Media, a service of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in the United Kingdom.)
In two lectures of this series, Ms. McNulty explains centering prayer and shows how it can help a person lead to a deeper prayer life.
Ms. McNulty's involvement in centering prayer originated from her desire to delve deeper into the spiritual life, specifically seeking a practice that could be incorporated into her daily routine. Initially, Margaret was engaged in the charismatic renewal movement, which focused on emotional experiences within the context of faith. While she found this movement beneficial, she yearned for a more profound connection with the spiritual realm, one that extended beyond that of emotions and into silence and contemplation.
During this period, Margaret faced certain constraints that made it difficult for her to attend the charismatic meetings. She had five children to care for, and her husband’s work commitments kept him away from home.
Margaret was also drawn to the spiritual teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, particularly her concept of the "Little Way." This concept emphasized the importance of embracing simplicity and humility in one's spiritual journey, recognizing the significance of small acts of love and devotion. Margaret also admired St. Thérèse for referring to her followers as an "army of little souls."
Thus, centering prayer allowed Margaret to nurture her spiritual life within the confines of her home and daily responsibilities. It offered her a way to enter into a profound silence, a sacred space within her heart where she could commune with God.
Thomas Keating and Centering Prayer
Another awakening for Margaret was learning about the Trappist monk Thomas Keating. Fr. Thomas, from Massachusetts, was one of the principal developers in the 1970’s and 80’s of the methods of centering prayer.
One objection to Keating among Catholic scholars is that he blurs the distinction between God and man. This has to do with the issue of the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. In other words, God is far above us, and yet he is with us at the same time.
It seems that some forms of centering prayer go too far in the direction of pantheism. Pantheism, in its extreme form, is the view that the world is identical to God. This of course, does not square with Christian teaching. We must remember that God is separate from his creation.
That is the topic of another discussion. Let’s just say that we must not go too far astray in either the transcendence or the immanence of God.
Ms. McNulty clears the air here. She says, “The doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation are really important….We are not God. There is always that distinction.”
This controversy aside, Fr. Keating’s observations are helpful. He says that distractions are inevitable, integral and normal. It’s like noise in the street or background music at the supermarket that you put up with or pay no attention to.
When we are distracted, we should return ever-so-gently to the sacred word you have chosen, whether it is “love” or “Jesus.”
There’s lots of wisdom in taking for granted that there are going to be lots of thoughts, endless thoughts. But with practice you can disregard most of them, Ms. McNulty says.
She related the story of a person complaining to a spiritual director, “I must have had a thousand distracting thoughts.”
“Wonderful,” the guide said. “That’s a thousand opportunities to return to God.”
Wisdom Lectures Available
There are many more helpful points to discover in Margaret McNulty’s two lectures. In fact, more than one hundred videos are available from DecorCarmeli Media, a service of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in the United Kingdom. We produce these videos so that people can have access to authentic teachings on the spiritual life so they can benefit from the insights from the Carmelite tradition – a tradition that has produced many saints and doctors of the Church.
Monthly and annual subscriptions to the video platform will be available soon. We will let you know – simply sign up for our mailing list: DecorCarmeli Media.