It's Beyond Us-- Yet Ours
I WOULD LIKE to start this book with a word from Scripture--in this way I can be sure that something worthwhile will have been said. As we read the Scriptures day in and day out over the years, various passages speak to us with special force. Some come to be particularly meaningful and we return to them again and again. One such passage for me is the following from Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians:
The hidden wisdom of God which we teach in our mysteries is the wisdom that God predestined to be for our glory before the ages began. . . . we teach what scripture calls: the things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.
These are the very things God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God. After all, the depths of a man can only be known by his own spirit, not by any other man, and in the same way the depths of God can only be known by the Spirit of God. Now instead of the spirit of the world, we have received the Spirit that comes from God, to teach us to understand the gifts that he has given us. Therefore we teach, not in the way in which philosophy is taught, but in the way that the Spirit teaches us; we teach spiritual things spiritually. An unspiritual person is one who does not accept anything of the Spirit of God: he sees it all as nonsense; it is beyond his understanding because it can only be understood by means of the Spirit. A spiritual man, on the other hand, is able to judge the value of everything, and his own value is not to be judged by other men. As scripture says: Who can know the mind of the Lord . . . ? But we are those who have the mind of Christ. (1 Co. 2:7, 9-16)
This is essentially what we are going to be sharing in this book: "The hidden wisdom of God . . . the wisdom that God predestined to be for our glory before the ages began . . . that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him, . . ." what he "has revealed to us through the Spirit."
In Centering Prayer we go beyond thought and image, beyond the senses and the rational mind, to that center of our being where God is working a wonderful work. There God our Father is not only bringing us forth at each moment in his wonderful creative love, but by virtue of the grace of filiation, which we received at baptism, he is indeed making us sons and daughters, one with his own Son, pouring out in our hearts the Spirit of his Son, so that we can in fullest sense cry, "Abba, Father." He says to us, in fact more than in word: "You are my son; this day have I begotten you." At this level of our being, where we are our truest selves, we are essentially prayer, total response to the Father in our oneness with the Son, in that love who is the Holy Spirit. This is the mystery hidden from the ages--the great design of an eternal, loving Providence--and revealed to us. As the Son said to us in the Upper Room: "I no longer call you servants, but friends, because I have made known to you all that the Father has made known to me . . . You cannot understand now . . . But the Spirit, the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Strengthener--whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you."
"These are the very things God has revealed to us through the Spirit . . . An unspiritual person [one who does not have the Holy Spirit] is one who does not accept anything of the Spirit of God: he sees it all as nonsense." Indeed, without faith, without the powerful action of the Holy Spirit, Centering Prayer is just so much nonsense! Just sitting there, doing nothing. Not even thinking some worthwhile thoughts, or making some good resolutions--just being. Unless we are in touch with who we really are, "just being" seems hardly enough. "The depths of a man can only be known by his own spirit." True enough. But we are not men only. We have been baptized into Christ, we have been transformed, deified, in some way made one with the very Son of God, and partakers of the divine nature. And so it is only through the Holy Spirit, who "reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God," that we can hope to understand what "can only be understood by means of the Spirit." "We teach spiritual things spiritually"--that is, in and by the Holy Spirit.
As you begin this book on Centering Prayer I would like to encourage you to stop for a bit and turn to the Holy Spirit, dwelling within you. He is your Spirit, the Gift given to you at baptism to be your very own spirit; ask him through the words printed on these pages to "teach spiritual things spiritually." And as you move through the pages, may you be constantly aware of his presence, opening out to you something of the full beauty of who you really are and gently inviting you to enjoy that beauty, to wonder at it, to live out of its fullness.
Centering Prayer, under one aspect, is but a very simple method--a technique, if you like that term--to get in touch with what is. But its practice is surely not meant just to enliven forty minutes of our day. It is meant to open the way to living constantly out of the center, to living out of the fullness of who we are.
This is certainly something sublime, wondrous, beyond all our human expectations. "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man." Yet it is to this that we are all called.
Let me share with you another favorite Scripture passage. This one is from the last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, Chapter Three:
Here is the message of the Amen, the faithful, the true witness, the ultimate source of God's creation: I know all about you: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth. You say to yourself, "I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything I want," never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too. I warn you, buy from me the gold that has been tested in the fire to make you really rich, and white robes to clothe you and cover your shameful nakedness, and eye ointment to put on your eyes so that you are able to see. I am the one who reproves and disciplines all those he loves, so repent in real earnest. Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him. Those who prove victorious I will allow to share my throne, just as I was victorious myself and took my place with my Father on his throne. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Rv. 3:14-22)
There is in this passage one of the most frightening words which our Lord speaks to us: "I know all about you" (I've got your number); "you are neither cold nor hot." How true! We are not cold, indifferent, turned off--or we wouldn't be reading a book like this. Yet, on the other hand, who of us will dare to say he is really "hot"--burning with the fire of divine love? We have only to allow the briefest moment's reflection on our actual performance, our backsliding, our compromises, our rationalizations, our sin. And what is our blessed Lord's reaction to all this? He is graphically frank: "Since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth"--or, as another translation would have it: "vomit you forth from my mouth." Our Lord, who was so totally a "yes" to the Father, whose sacred heart did indeed burn with love and filial devotion, can only feel the deepest disgust toward our lukewarmness. When he sees the way we respond to the constant goodness of divine Love, it quite simply makes him feel like vomiting. That is how disgusting we, in all our pettiness, meanness, selfishness, really are. Our Lord has certainly called our number.
And yet!--and this is the sublimity of this word of the Lord, this message of life and hope, to the very ones whom he so rightly finds so disgusting--our Lord, overcoming, as it were, his natural repugnance and knowing the full power of his own immense love to enflame our lukewarmness, goes on to say: "Look, I am standing at the door, knocking." In spite of all our lukewarmness, our inattentiveness, our deafness, he never tires, never ceases to seek to enter into our lives.
In spite of all this, he who made us, who has every right over us, profoundly respects us, as no one else so fully does. He knows the greatest thing about us is our freedom, our power to choose, to love. Therein, precisely, lies our particular likeness to the divine. And he will never violate that freedom, no matter how sadly we choose to abuse it. He will never force his way into our lives: "Behold, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me . . . and opens. . . ." He humbly waits, till we open. And that is all we have to do: just open to him, and he will do the rest. No matter how disgusting we are. No matter what our track record has been. We have but to open and he will come in. This is his word, expressed unconditionally, to those whose lukewarmness he knows full well. Centering Prayer is but a simple way to open the door--wide--all the way--to let him come in.
"I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him." With a concreteness, a warmth, a full humanness, our Lord expresses the intimacy he wants to share with each one of us. The most common sign of human friendship is to sit down together and share a meal. But the intimacy here is special: a meal just for two--"If one of you hears me . . ." and we won't sit with a table between us. It will be "side by side"--like the beloved disciple, who could lean over and rest his head upon his Master's bosom. We are in the last pages of the Revelation, and our Lord harks back to the first, at the dawn of creation, when he made man, and in the cool of the evening came down and walked arm in arm with him under the shade of the trees. God made man to be his intimate friend; that is the message woven through the whole of Scripture. All are called to the intimacy of contemplative union with God, not just a chosen few. Not just the paragons of virtue, but even we poor, disgusting, lukewarm, backsliding sinners!
We are called to intimacy, indeed to union! Here, continuing to use very graphic imagery, our Lord tells us: "Those who prove victorious [not a great victory on our part--we have but to open a door--but thus we gratuitously receive as our own the fullness of his great victory] I will allow to share my throne, just as I was victorious myself and took my place with my Father on his throne." Our Lord is expressing here the fulfillment, in concrete imagery, of his earnest priestly prayer, "May they all be one, Father, as you are in me and I am in you, may they be one in us." We are summoned not only to intimacy but to take possession of our very oneness with the Son of God in the inner life of the Trinity in the communication of the very Love of Father and Son, the Most Holy Spirit. This is what Centering Prayer is all about.
William of Saint Thierry, a great twelfth-century spiritual father, about whom we will say more later, expresses this most beautifully. And--this I want to point out--he expresses it not in one of his sublime treatises on mystical theology but in a very basic work in which, with the help of pagan doctors and philosophers as well as Fathers of the Church ("I have gathered together here what I have found in the books of philosophers and physicians, and also in ecclesiastical writers"), he tries to set forth quite simply The Nature of the Body and the Soul and the full significance of God's creative and re-creative work therein. His words, then, are clearly applicable to any human person who has or is a body and soul:
For just as the body lives from the soul, so does the soul live from God. . . . It lives as one spirit with him. For the Will of the Father and the Son--the Holy Spirit, by an inconceivable grace, with unutterable joy, by most secret inspiration, in a most manifest operation, conforms the will of the soul to himself, uniting its love to himself with spiritual omnipotence. He becomes so united with the soul that, as has been said, when the soul prays with aspirations beyond conception, it is rather the Spirit who is said to pray. And this is the prayer of the Son to the Father: "I will [that is, I bring it about by the power of my will which is the Holy Spirit] that as I and you are one in substance, so they also may be one in us through grace." One in love, one in beatitude, one in immortality and incorruption, and even in some way in divinity itself. For "to as many as received him he gave the power to become sons of God."
What we are called to is indeed far beyond us, and yet in virtue of our baptism it is already ours. We need but appropriate it and enjoy it. And that is the "work" of Centering Prayer.
Excerpted from Centering Prayer by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.. Copyright © 1982 by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.