DIVINE FRIENDSHIP: Ours For The Receiving by M. Basil Pennington

Ours For The Receiving M. Basil Pennington

From: Centered Living

A question I am often asked when Centering Prayer is referred to as a “method of contemplative prayer” is: Can we force God to give us contemplative prayer?  We have already spoken a little about this, but I think it is worth returning to the subject.

First of all, “a method of contemplative prayer” might not be the best way to describe Centering Prayer.  There are many different notions of just what contemplative prayer is, the term being used to cover a broad spectrum of experiences.  So we have decided to leave the label aside and stay with the title: Centering Prayer.

Surfacing in this question is a fear that has long been prevalent in our church: the fear of Pelagianism.  Pelagius was a fourth-century monk.  Saint Augustine did much to bring his errors to the fore.  They were finally condemned by a church council.  The essence of his error – or at least the error attributed to him – lay in the assertion that the human person can be the ultimate source of some good, unaided by grace.  God and God alone is the ultimate source of all good.  Whatever good is to be found in creation and in the human person has its sources in him.

Therefore, we cannot pray, or pray as we ought, without God’s grace.

And yet we know that we can decide right now to turn our attention from this book and say an Our Father.  Try it and see.  Stop reading for a moment and pray the Our Father.

Our Father,

who art in  Heaven

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those

who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For yours in the kingdom,

the power, and the glory

for ever and ever.


We can only do what we have just done by God’s grace; yet that grace is always available to us.  God has commanded us to pray constantly.  God backs up his commands with his grace.

There are two freedoms at play here: the freedom of God and our freedom.  God has freely bound himself to give us the grace we need – indeed, the grace we ask for: “Ask and you shall receive.”  There yet remains our freedom to respond to his grace and use or abuse it.  We are touching here one of the more difficult mysteries of our faith: the interplay of grace and free will.  After exhaustive searching into the question – How is it that God’s grace moves us to do good and yet we move freely? – Saint Augustine made this response to the question: “Do not seek an answer if you do not want to come up with a wrong answer.”  There are some answers we do not yet have.  They will be revealed to us only when we are brought into the fullness of the Divine Mystery.

We do not have the answers because we do not need them.  We do need faith and trust.

We can pray the Our Father.  And we can decide to pray it in different ways.  We can, as they say, “rattle it off” rather quickly.  This is not necessarily a wrong way to use this prayer.  It can be the vehicle of a very great love, sent to God express.

There is a story in our monastic tradition.  One day the steward of a very wealthy lord arrived at the gate of a monastery with a large bag of gold as an offering for the monks.  The steward’s lord wanted the monks to pray for a deceased brother.  Graciously accepting the sack, the monk at the gate turned toward the abbey church and prayed a short psalm, Psalm 128(129), the usual psalm for the deceased.  He then turned back to the astonished steward and offered him a drink and other humanities.  The steward blurted out: “Is that all you are going to do for such a generous offering?”  The monk smiled and took the man into his cell.  He sat at his desk for a minute or two and wrote out the psalm.  Then he took his scales.  He placed the bag of gold on one side and the sheet of paper with the psalm written on it on the other.  The bag of gold shot up as the weight of the psalm bore down on the scale.  “So are things weighed in God’s eyes, my friend.  And now, can I get you something to drink?”

It is the love that matters!

We can, though, decide to say the Our Father with very great care, letting our emotion and affection come into the words.  This will take longer.  And such a recitation may stir up and increase our love, or at least give better expression to it.

Again, we may decide to seek to enter into this Prayer more fully.  The Lord gave it to us, not so much as a formula of prayer, but more as a whole school of prayer.  We can meditate on each word and each phrase, applying our minds to them, drawing out all the implications we can.  Saints have written whole books on the Lord’s Prayer.  Our reflections will undoubtedly lead us into praying more deeply the sentiments contained in the Prayer.

Finally, we may decide to open ourselves, and receive the Prayer contemplatively.  We rest in the reality of Father – our Father.  If we do this, and use the word Father to help us stay with that Reality in love, we will find ourselves quite “naturally” in Centering Prayer.

In a word, what I would like to say here is that anyone can enter into Centering Prayer.  The grace and the freedom are ours.  Yes, it is a gift.  But the gift is given, it is ours for the taking.

Once an elderly nun asked Saint Teresa of Jesus: “Mother, how can I become a contemplative?”  The saint, who is recognized as a Doctor of the Church – one of the great and authoritative teachers of prayer – replied: “Sister, say the Our Father, but take an hour to say it.”  The sister was invited to give God the space to show up in her life.  That’s where our freedom lies.

One day a monk who lived on the banks of the Nile asked his Father about the different kinds of prayer.  The Father took him to the bank of the river and pointed out three monks on the water.  One was rowing laboriously.  The second was going with the current, plying the tiller to move in the direction he wished.  The third had set a sail and was flying along.  “Some pray with their minds, with the oars of thought and image.  Their prayer is all work,” said the Father.  “Others pray with their hearts.  Their prayer can be very sweet and enjoyable.  But they must keep their hands on the tiller to keep on course or they may follow the movements of a heart not yet fully purified.  And others open fully to the breath of Holy Spirit, who has been given to them as gift, and let him pray in them.  As the holy Paul said, ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but Holy Spirit prays within us.’”

The choice is really ours.  The gifts have been given to all of us at baptism.  We can open out to the breath of the Spirit and let her move us in a prayer that is wholly divine and fully worthy of the God to whom we pray.  Or we can keep our sails furled, our gifts packed, and insist on using tiller or oars.  God remains free in this, of course.  The gifts are constantly given, coming forth from the freedom of God’s creative love.  The wind can cease to blow and our sails stand slack.  But our just being there, open to it, is yet our part of the Prayer; the pure gift of ourselves to God.  Even this giving on our part is God’s gift, just as it is God who has given us the oars (reason and imagination) and the tiller (affections).  The giftedness of prayer is perhaps most readily seen in the breath of contemplative prayer, the prayer of the Spirit in us.  That is one of the reasons why the life of the gifts, the mystic life as some would call it, or the way of contemplative prayer, rather than puffing up the receiver with pride, fosters the basic virtue of humility.  It makes it so obvious that all is gift.

Why, then would one choose to row or ply the tiller rather than open the sails of contemplative prayer?  Why do some find it difficult to accept the gift of the gifts and their activity in our lives?

There are many possible reasons.

Some of us like to remain in control, seeking to maintain a rather false and very limited autonomy.  Who can be autonomous from God?  Yet many are caught in the illusion of autonomy even as they use God’s gifts of life and freedom.

Some of us are afraid to let go.  We want the course to be chartered in advance, step by step.  But: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of the human person what God has prepared for those who love God.”  We need to trust the Love of God.

Others are really afraid to love – for, truth to tell, as free as love is, it is absolutely captivating.  When we open ourselves and let the divine beauty invade our lives, we quickly come to know that we cannot live, or live happily, without it.  Such a God of goodness and love, how can we ever offend God?  We can only do what God wants.  We are the slaves of love.

Some want always to be right.  They sense a real need to be right.  They do not yet know their true selves and are trapped in the construct of a false self, a part of which is doing what is right.  In order to be sure they are doing what is right, the right way, they must ever keep an eye on themselves and all that they do.  They can never let go and turn both eyes to God.  They are anchored in the finite and so there is no room in them for the revelation of the Infinite.

Flowing from these reasons is the desire that some of us have to be able to pat ourselves on the back.  We want to do things the hard way, to merit what we get, to earn our own way, to stand on our own two feet.  But: “Unless you become as a little one, you cannot enter the kingdom” – the kingdom that is within.

In the end, the only thing that matters with God is love.  God is love.  As John of the Cross has said, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love.”  Love is the response of the heart to the good.  When we open the space in our lives for God to show up we experience his goodness; then we grow mightily in love, for his goodness calls forth the greatest love.  If we insist that God contract to fit within the limits of the concepts of our minds or the images of our imagination, our love will not greatly expand.  Anything that our minds can master can hardly call us forth from ourselves in contemplation.

God’s call to personal friendship is universal.  When our Lord said at the Last Supper, “I no longer call you servants because I have made known to you all that the Father has made known to me,” he was speaking to all who receive his Revelation.  And his command to his disciples was to “go forth and teach all nations.”  He stands knocking at the door of the heart of every human person.  Though his guises are many and varied, his desire is always the same: to come in and sit down side by side with a beloved friend and sup with that friend, sharing a divine nourishment.

We know from our own experience the freedom of friendship.  We decide to whom we will offer the gift of openness to the life sharing that is friendship.  We know, too, the freedom of the other to respond or not respond.  The Lord has clearly offered the gift of intimate friendship.  The freedom lies with us to accept.  The grace is there for us to accept, or the Lord’s offer would be a charade.  We all know that friendship must go beyond words and thoughts and feelings.  It calls for the gift of self and the silences of such communication.

Centering Prayer is but responding to the offer of the intimacy of divine friendship.  In the authority of the evangelical invitation, freely given, the grace is freely given to respond.  If you want to call this response contemplation, I do not think you would be wrong.

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