Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Philippians 2:5-8) transports me to a locust log that lies over the trail where I walk through the woods each day. The bluest sky of the year peeks through the canopy of oak and sourwood and poplar and maple and birch leaves, various shades of red and yellow and orange and brown and stubborn green. It’s become my favorite place to practice centering prayer, a practice with which I’m a relative novice. Centering prayer is quite counter-intuitive for me, going against the grain of some old messages that are woven into my DNA. How many times did I hear growing up, don’t just sit there like a knot on a log? And yet that’s quite literally what I do for these 20 minute stretches as I sit on that locust log. Or how many times throughout college and seminary, don’t check your brain at the door? And yet that’s another thing I’m doing. My friends Jeanine Siler Jones and her dad, Mahan Siler, have introduced me to the works of Cynthia Bourgeault, who writes prolifically and leads workshops internationally on the centering prayer practice. For Cynthia, the essence of centering prayer is surrender, not in the sense of capitulation to an enemy, but a releasing of whatever we tend to cling to and clutch. The regular practice teaches the brain to release, to let go, to empty itself of whatever thoughts emerge, so that we can create space for a deeper connection with the presence of God. Neurologically, over time, this practice actually changes the way the brain makes connections, allowing us throughout our day to release those presumptions of privilege and old wounds and other things we tend to cling to, enabling us to live lives with more compassion and gentleness and grace.
The theological basis for centering prayer comes from the most ancient of Christian hymns, imbedded in the 2nd chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. It’s called the kenotic hymn, from the Greek word kenosis, translated as emptying – Jesus did not think the presumption of privilege, equality with God, was something to cling to, but emptied himself, and he continued emptying himself throughout his life, right up to his surrender to death, death on the cross. Kenosis is at the core of his teaching. It’s a matter of intention, the intention of being totally available to God, as Jesus prayed in Gethsemene, not my will, but Thy will be done, not clinging to an assertion of his own rights and desires, making room for God’s presence and God’s desires.
This weekend Jeanine and Mahan are going to Charlotte to pick up Cynthia Bourgeault and bring her back for a week of her Wisdom School at Valley Crucis. I hope to be able to go to one of these schools some day. It’s another of those counter intuitive ideas; I always thought of wisdom as something you were given, not something you could learn. But Cynthia describes wisdom as not knowing more, but knowing with more of you, knowing deeper. And this is something one can learn to do, through practice, through these daily experiences of micro-motions in the brain during those twenty minutes of silent prayer, not trying to keep thoughts out, but simply acknowledging them when they pop in and then releasing them. She tells the story of Father Thomas Keating, who is credited with recovering this ancient Christian tradition for the modern world. In one of his workshops, a nun came up to him exasperated, saying I’m a total failure at this prayer, in twenty minutes I had ten thousand thoughts pop into my mind. And Thomas Keating said, Wonderful! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God. That’s my experience. Just today, thought after thought popped into my head, as I heard the sound of a plane overhead, wondered where my dog was running off to, noticed hunger pangs, thought about what I would write about today, etc etc etc. But I remembered that each of these thoughts, any of which I could have clung to and attached myself to, provided me with another opportunity to let go of my stuff and make room for God, at a place deeper than my thoughts, deeper than my emotions, deeper than my memories, deeper than old triumphs and tragedies. I’m only a novice, but even at this stage, it’s a practice I highly recommend. Sit there like a knot on a log, and check your brain at the door.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc. Note: If you mouse over the artwork, info on the image will pop up.