From Prayer Practices for the Way of Peace:Choosing Peace Through Daily Practices
(This is a continuation of a piece, the first part of which was posted on an earlier date.)
As I have suggested, the Christian tradition has developed a richness of prayer. There may be a form of prayer for every sensibility. In this section, I present a number of ways of praying that may be practiced in order to help form an interior foundation for peace in oneself and in the world.
Prayers of Intention
Prayers of intention are about being there, being available. The heart of such a prayer is this recognition: “I want to place myself in God’s presence.” With this recognition, then, comes a practice conveyed by these words: “I am placing myself in God’s presence.” Prayers of intention agree with the saying, “Most of life is just showing up.” Or, as Herb Hamrol, a hundred-year-old grocery store clerk in San Francisco, puts it, “You stop showing up for things, you start falling apart.” Since prayers of attention aim for nothing more than being there, they are, perhaps, the simplest form of Christian prayer. This does not mean they are easy. In fact, because most of us are trained to want to attain some designated goal or accomplish some assigned task, prayers of intention may be the most difficult to practice. They remind us that God is in our lives for the long haul, and that the fruits of prayer may arise only over time. These prayers do not offer instant gratification. No insights are expected. No feelings are looked for. No images are hoped for. There is only the basic intention defined by, “Now I am here, God.” Those who practice these prayers find that only gradually, in indiscernible increments, do they experience a growing sense of being attuned to God’s way, God’s peace.
Over the past thirty years a form of intention-prayer has developed that is rooted in three traditional forms of Christian prayer: lectio divina; the way of praying described in the anonymously written, fourteenth-century work The Cloud of Unknowing; and “prayer of the heart” from the early desert tradition. Centering prayer draws from each of these traditions an emphasis on encountering God’s presence in a way that does not depend on words, images, emotions, kinesthetic sensations, or other physical, conceptual, and affective experiences. Centering prayer depends on offering oneself to God’s love. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, for instance, describes a form of prayer in which the pray-er is immersed in an absence of thoughts, feelings, and sensations — a “cloud” in which previous ways of knowing God are no longer operative. Only love remains. Similarly, in lectio divina the dimension of contemplatio consists simply of being available to God, soaking in God’s presence without any other agenda. And finally, the desert tradition practiced a form of prayer that progressed from repeating words with the mouth (“prayer of the body”) to internally repeated “prayers of the mind” to a “prayer of the heart” (or “prayer of the mind in the heart”). In prayer of the heart, the praying is completely internalized. It continues without ceasing and with no effort from the pray-er. From prayer of the heart, the centering prayer tradition especially draws the notion of a deep communion with God that occurs beneath the pray-er’s awareness.
Here is a simple form of centering prayer.
1. Settle yourself into a comfortable position that allows you to be peaceful and alert.
2. Attend to these words: “Now I am here. You are here. We are here.” Repeat them a few times as a way of focusing your attention on the time at hand.
3. As you continue in silence for a few moments, consider this: “What word speaks to me of Divine Presence? What word draws me to be with God?” Let a word arise within you. This word will be your reminder that you are here now for God. (For some people the word might be shalom or love or freedom, or simply “here.” If no word comes to you, you may wish to try one of these for a time.)
4. Set a timer for twenty minutes. (Most people who practice centering prayer do so for twenty minutes twice a day. You may want to begin with five minutes and work up.) During this time all you need to do is “be here” for God. That is your intention. When you notice you are no longer attuned to your intention, gently repeat your chosen word one or two times. The word serves to direct you back to your intention.
After my year at the monastery of Taizé, I sought a way of praying that would emulate in some way the thrice-daily common prayers of that community. For the Brothers (as for most monastics), over the years these daily “offices” became fundamentally prayers of intention, primarily a matter of showing up. As my life unfolded, I wished for a similar experience — especially in the midst of juggling two jobs and the wonders of family life. I ultimately settled on this simple way of praying (which depends on having the right kind of wristwatch):
Set your watch to chime on the hour.
When you hear the chime, focus on your intention to be with God. You might say to yourself, “Now I am here, God.” Or you may repeat the word you use for centering prayer. Remain in this intention for one to five minutes.
For me, this simple prayer has offered a grounding sense of returning again and again to God’s peace-filled presence in my life.