I took the following definition of centering prayer off the website Centering Prayer, ostensibly the website dedicated to the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, one of the priests who began the teaching of contemplative prayer in the modern age. The definition goes:
Centering prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.
I find within this definition a perfect expression of our relationship with God: through this kind of prayer we experience God’s presence within us. For me, the whole definition of contemplative prayer could be just that statement.
But not that many months ago, a very dear priest who teaches contemplative prayer through the church where he serves, made the comment that to him, contemplative prayer is the ultimate way to bring unity to the world. At the time, I noticed that my body reacted slightly to this statement. It seems that my whole being, my soul, did not like the concept of unity being imposed on the concept of contemplative prayer.
Here is why: to my mind, the heart of the concept of unity is separateness. To unite things is to bring them together to form a single unit. The things being united had to begin their relationship with each other in the state of being apart, separate.
And my experience through contemplative prayer is that we are not, nor ever have been, separate from God. Instead of being the means of bringing us together with God, this form of prayer is our way of experiencing our oneness with God, the wholeness that is the reality of our relationship with him.
I did notice that on Father Keating’s website there was the phrase, unification of human capabilities, but this is part of his definition of simplicity. And simplicity, in his view, is the path that leads to prayer. So how closely he knits the concepts of prayer and unity (as opposed to wholeness, or in his site’s definition, experiencing God’s presence within us) is vague at best.
However, if you typed the phrase, contemplative prayer union with God, into a search engine up will pop a whole long list of writings on that subject. Looking into some, I noticed that they referred to Teresa of Avila and her supposed reference to contemplative prayer as a mystical union with God. Studying further, I found that the “guilty” quote that was to refer to this supposed union with God was the following:
We need no wings to go in search of him, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon him present within us.
To me, this describes wholeness, the same words on Father Keating’s website.
It is interesting, however, that in her writings Teresa of Avila describes a “prayer of union,” and in her explanations of her visions on the seven mansions, she does address the concept of unity with God. However, John of the Cross, Teresa’s spiritual mentor, states:
In every soul, even that of the greatest sinner in the world, God dwells and is substantially present.
For me, predictably, this is an assertion of wholeness in our relationship with God, not a healed separateness brought together through a uniting effort. John even goes on to equate the concept of unity with the experience of God’s presence in oneself. So I am suggesting that for Teresa and John, perhaps, the concept of unity is the concept of oneness, which is the concept of wholeness.
It’s a theory.