Case in point: for several years after Lucia was born, because she needed and loved (and still loves) to be held, I struggled to find just ten minutes a day when my hands were free to sit in silence. But in the last ten months, I’ve finally realized something: I’m much better at praying when I’m holding Lucia. If I’m in my office alone, like I was this morning, I’m surrounded by my books and my responsibilities and distractions, and when an idea comes to me, my hands are instantly busied, trying to scratch down that idea on paper before it flees. My eyes flutter open and my attention floats away from prayer to the day ahead of me.
But if I’m holding Lucia, I can’t use my hands. When my eyes open or rest upon something, they often rest upon her, subtly bringing me back rather than away from the intention of it all. Lucia’s voiceless expectation, the hopeful way her eyes dart and wander and peek up at me lead me back to the very present act of holding her, and being with one another–and our just being with God.
What I often count as an aberration, an intrusion from the true beauty and solace of our backyard view of nature–the screech of a large truck coming to a halt or a car horn blaring–Lucia accepts with diligent curiosity, reminding me just how fickle and narrow my own attempt at spirituality can be.
Indeed, it is only through this quiet discipline that I’ve come to realize that acceptance, such willful abiding in God’s presence, is anything but passive. Rather it’s what I continue to yearn for after all these years, and that God has placed beside me a great spiritual teacher in my tender daughter is not so much a great irony, but a sweet revelation. I’ve always believed that you do not need words to pray, yet even my own beliefs can assert themselves so willfully that the prayer become secondary. But I’ve never so palpably felt the resonance and profundity of that quiet as when I’m in God’s presence with Lucia alongside me.
It was worn, tested, tried, and true. I repeated it probably millions of times over those earlier years when I first fell in love with the spiritual discipline of silence, of making room for God to move in ways that involved only clearing my mind, cultivating a space, and ushering in a countercultural reverence for stopping when the world refused to stand still.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve never really been able to get my mind around this word, why I’m not so good at abiding, or even praying about it.
I confess that recently my abiding has become dusty and decrepit, just like my centering prayer practice, beholden and bent to the cluttering of my life in which I’ve allowed little space for anything other than tasks and work and running–little space for silence, breath, let alone God.
And yet, in the recesses of my soul, God whispers more countercultural wisdom–that more can even be done with less rigor and muscle and strength. That, just as it’s been in the deliciousness of these last few mornings, when I’ve sat idle, letting the waking silence wash over me, I’ve felt most refreshed, most awake, most alive.
There’s this mystery about life with God, how when we resort to doing wholly nothing, that nothingness becomes holy in its luxury and extravagance, a sacrifice, an intention, a heartiness that can’t be achieved or earned and is yet, so much purer and better and good than all my blustery days.And that openness gives life and purpose and wisdom to our work and our justice and our advocacy–it exceeds us, because it so importantly comes for God and not from us.
I remember vividly that my love affair with centering prayer began in my senior year of college.
I was pursuing a call to ministry, poised to move first to Puerto Rico and then onto Washington, DC to serve the poor, and becoming exhausted with finding myself betwixt and between empty praise and worship and stodgy skepticism. I longed for a place where the presence of God, not our wanton human wisdom, was paramount.
Somehow I found my way to the little Catholic circle on my Presbyterian campus, a motley crew led by a renegade lady who didn’t seem to think it weird that everybody called her Pastor and who was convinced that service and contemplation went together. In the little workshop in which she roped me in, she taught us the ins and outs of lectio, the intentional listening for God while reading scripture (in contrast to the very real Bible school temptation to try to unravel the whole meaning of the verses in just a few minutes).
We were reading Ephesians 3:14-18, incidentally one of my favorite passages since youth, closing our eyes and earnestly seeking God, and then going around and sharing the words or the phrases that stuck out to us. When the Pastor got to me, I shared my word, “grasp,” only she revealed to me that that word wasn’t actually in the text for today.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “that happens frequently,” with a smirk and a chuckle, and I was awestruck by how nonchalant this Catholic woman could be about minor miracles in our midst.
It turns out that repeatedly hearing the NIV version of that scripture growing up probably put that word in my head, but maybe God wanted me to hear it, too. When I began to come to the Catholic circle with regularity, where they not only closed their eyes and listened to scripture with their hearts, but sat for thirty minute silent prayer sessions, I also began to use grasp as my prayer word, to which I could return my heart, as I did with my eyes to the candle burning in the center of the room, if my mind wandered.
Pastor Barb, despite her high energy and her electric personality, had this ease about her, this sense that prayer was about so much more than words, and that communion with God was meaningful even when it didn’t feel like anything, even when nothing happens.
As far as my own life is concerned, the mystery of centering prayer seems to be just as much about what happens outside of the prayer as in it. During nearly six years of practicing centering prayer in the barrios of Puerto Rico, in our nation’s capital, and on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, that word grasp took me on a journey from grasping for God, to realizing that God has been ever and always grasping for me.
“Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.”
But what’s active in centering prayer is explicitly not the mind–the mind’s to be quieted to allow for the Spirit to grow, reside, and even meander. My discipline has changed as I’ve grown. Whereas earlier on, I was very conscious of clearing the mind and letting go of all thoughts, I’ve become less legalistic and more open to some of the lingering, nagging voices that exhibit themselves in that silence, more open to the myriad manifestations of God’s presence.
I’ve closed my eyes in just about every fabulous place I’ve ever had the privilege of traveling to. But I’ve never regretted those moments of silence, nor have I ever been really alone. You see, doing centering prayer in community way back in my college days always made sense to me. It’s not an easy thing to commit to those fifteen or thirty minutes on your own, but with safety in numbers, it’s somehow easier to open up to God fully and freely.
At Princeton Seminary, we’d sit in my crowded dorm room and attempt to block out the stress and the theology and the gods we often worshipped to welcome God in a very intentional way. And in China, my dear friend joined me over skype, across an ocean, and a twelve-hour time difference, and yet the practice couldn’t have been more fruitful. She says that after all these years, because we both still have a hard time with silence, it sometimes helps her to look up and see my peaceful face, the ups and downs of the breaths in and out of my chest, and my eyes closed, and and I feel the same way.
Believe it or not, silent prayer isn’t meant to be a solitary, distant practice. As Pastor Barb made clear back in the day with her penchant for social action, it’s meant to take us from detachment, to intention, to communion with God, and into community. I know it sounds impossible, bogus, even, that a practice of silence and contemplation would awaken Christians to community, to love and to justice. And I know it’s not for everyone, my own husband doesn’t take refuge in silence the way I do, and I think that just speaks even more clearly to God’s myriad of manifestations.
This one, this discipline, is not for everyone. But if you’ve ever struggled to hear God above all the other voices, if you’ve ever lost touch with your heart or your spirit, or wondered about the work of the Holy Spirit, you may want to start closing your eyes and listening to your breath, reading scripture with the eyes of your heart, seeking communion rather than answers, and being open to God’s presence not just in these times of silence but everywhere in the world.
Centering Prayer itself is an exercise in releasing ourselves from the things that distract us everyday (for me, it is often the thought that I need to start my work immediately in the morning, so therefore, I don’t have time to pray; or, it might be the thought that my Chinese is inadequate, and therefore so am I and all the plans God has for me here; or, simply, the thought that is more pressing than the words coming out of my husband’s mouth), and repeating a prayer word to remind us of God’s presence and our intention to dwell within that presence as our mind inevitably wanders (as mine just did in the above parenthetical!).
For years my prayer word has been grasp, and the word has held great meaning and a powerful reminder for me that just as I am grasping for God, God is always, ever intently grasping after me. Since I arrived in China, though, I have felt compelled to discover a new prayer word, which is no small task, given that I have literally lived and breathed the previous one for over six years.
However, the word, abide, has gently, but firmly marked my silent prayers here in China. And tonight as I was imagining myself at the feet of Jesus, looking into his eyes and straining to hear what he has to say to me, alongside Mary and Martha, I stumbled upon two things.
One is the sense in which distraction is really a choice, and not a force to which we are passively and powerfully subjected.
Martha feels trapped by the tasks which she finds a great distraction from Jesus, but I think Jesus himself implies that distraction is a choice, when he says of her sister, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I recently read an article in which a brilliant professor who is busy with multi-million dollar grants and projects had the revelation through spending about a week in nature away from computers, text messages, and the like, that he could, indeed, stand to become a better listener.
And I hear God saying to me that I can choose to be distracted and let my life pass me by, or I can choose the best thing, the only thing, which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I can choose to listen to others, and I can choose to be fully committed and fully attuned to things that really matter.
The second revelation was to do with this prayer word abide.
It occurred to me this evening that there is nothing modern about the word abide, because it harbors no sense of time, contemporaneity, or measurement, but a sense of longevity, eternity, and perpetuity. The phrase I often repeat as I pray and process the distractions in silence is, “abide in me, as I abide in you,” (John 15:4), and tonight as I repeated it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time.
I realized in my spirit that abiding is the opposite of distraction: abiding is the experience of dwelling with one another, of being content, of listening and relishing silent presence. I was sitting with my knees propped under my chin as I began to pray, and for the first time that day I noticed the tightness in my shoulders, but as I repeated my prayer word, dwelling, abiding at Jesus’ feet, far away from the distractions, the kitchen where I had previously been alongside Martha, clamoring away, I not only felt the tightness dissipate, but I felt almost as if there was a hand upon my back supporting me, and I allowed myself to lean back into it, resting, abiding, and relishing God’s presence.
Thankfully, this choice to abide, to choose against the distractions of this world, and to choose ‘the better part, the only thing’ comes also with God’s promise to support us, to hold us up as we go on living, and that can ‘never be taken away from us.’