PRAYER: Coming Home by M. Basil Pennington

Coming Home by M. Basil Pennington

From An Invitation to Centering Prayer

One of the young men who headed east in the course of the fifth century was a wealthy young man from Dalmatia who had gone to Rome to study – John Cassian by name.  John traveled widely in what we call today Asia Minor and Syria, and finally he settled in a monastery near Bethlehem.  But he was far from satisfied.  He set out again on a seven-year quest only to return to his monastery still filled with longing.  His third journey took him into the depths of the Egyptian desert where he sought out the fabled fathers of the desert.  There he came upon a wise old man who was said to be the holiest, oldest, and wisest of the fathers: Abba Isaac.

John and his traveling companion Little Herman approached the venerable father with their deepest need.  “Father, give us a word on prayer.”  The venerable abba spoke to them beautifully of communion with the God who so loves us and dwells within us.  He spoke of the fruits and the joy to be found in a life that is grounded on the inner experience of God.

John and his friend all but floated back to the guest cell that night.  But when they awoke in the morning their feet were again well planted on the earth.  Little Herman turned to John: “Yes, but how do you do it?”  How does one enter into the experience of the living God who lives within us and grounds our lives upon the reality of who we really are deep down?

The two young men picked up their tunics and ran back across the sands to the cell of Abba Isaac.  “How do you do it?  How do you enter into this kind of prayer?”

The father was impressed by the sincerity of his two inquirers.  “I see that you are true seekers.  Then let me tell you what I learned as a young man from one of the holiest, oldest, and wisest fathers.”  Thus began Abba Isaac’s second conference and the practical teaching on how to enter into the space of the heart and come into the presence of the living God who lives within.

John did not return to his Bethlehem monastery.  He went instead to the capital of his world, Constantinople.  There he was ordained a priest and set forth to bring to the West the wisdom he had found in the East.  John founded two monasteries near the city of Marseilles, one for men and one for women.  For these monks and nuns he wrote down as best he could remember the words of life he had received from the great spiritual masters of the East.  It is here we find the second conference of Abba Isaac with its practical instruction on Christian meditation, the method we call today “Centering Prayer.”

Through the ages monks and nuns read the conferences of Abba Isaac as recorded by John Cassian.  They practiced the prayer.  And they taught others the prayer.  Spiritual fathers in the monasteries and lay brothers out on the granges and at the fairs taught the prayer.  The fathers wrote treatises on it for their spiritual sons and daughters.  The best known of these, by far, is one written in the fourteenth century, The Cloud of Unknowing.  It is still widely used in our times, available in several editions.

In 1971 there was an important gathering of spiritual fathers in Rome.  These were the Cistercian abbots, the leaders of monasteries from all parts of the world.  They had come to reflect together on how they could better serve their sons and daughters.  They gathered around the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI.  The aging pontiff had one message for them.  While remaining faithful to their own monastic way, he urged them to do all they could to help all the sons and daughters of the church, all the pilgrim people of God, to rediscover this ancient way of prayer, to discover their hearts centered in God so that they could ground their lives in truth – the really real – and in love and in the power of God.  That is where fullness and fulfillment lie for us all.

The Cistercians sought a simple practical way of sharing this prayer.  Soon they were teaching it widely.  Inspired by one of the greatest spiritual masters among them, Father Louis (Thomas Merton), the prayer began to be called Centering Prayer – a new name for a very old reality.

Here then, in its modern form, is the ancient method of Christian meditation that Abba Isaac taught John Cassian and which the Cistercian (Trappist) spiritual fathers teach today.

Centering Prayer

Sit relaxed and quiet.

  1. Be in faith and love to God, who dwells in the center of your being.
  2. Take up a love word and let it be gently present, supporting your being to God in faith-filled love.
  3. Whenever you become aware of anything else, simply, gently return to the Lord with the use of your prayer word.

At the end of your prayer time let the Our Father (or some other prayer) pray itself within you.

Sit Relaxed and Quiet.

Our friends have brought back some wonderful postures from the East such as the lotus and the half lotus.  They are good ways to sit for meditation.  But for most of us simply sitting in a chair, one that gives our back good support, is probably best.  The important thing is that we are relaxed (but not too relaxed or we will soon be snoring) and that our back is straight so that the vitalizing energies can flow easily.  It is good to close our eyes.  We use a good bit of psychic energy in seeing.  As soon as we close our eyes we begin to quiet down.

Jesus has said to us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.”  Prayer should be refreshing – physically as well as spiritually and psychically.

Be in faith and love to God who dwells in the center of your being.

We know that the Lord dwells in us.  We know that by faith: because Jesus said it, it is so.

In love we give ourselves to God our whole attention, all that we are, for the twenty minutes of our prayer.  “I am all yours, Lord.  Do with me whatever you will.”

Take up a love word and let it be gently present, supporting your being to God in faith-filled love.

We choose a word of love, usually our favorite name for the Lord: “Jesus,” “Lord,” Friend.”  (Probably Jesus’s love word was “Abba.”)  We gently say this word deep within, and let it quietly repeat itself.  No effort.  Just let it be there – to keep us there with the Lord – open to the Lord, letting God be present to us in any way God wants.

Whenever you become aware of anything else, simply, gently return to the Lord with the use of your prayer word.

We settle down with the Lord.  It is very peaceful.  Then all of a sudden we realize we are thinking about what we had for supper last night, or something we forgot to do, or our plans for next summer, or, or, or….  The interior computer keeps going.  Also there are the things from outside: we hear voices from the next room, somebody is mowing a lawn or playing the piano down the hall, and so on.

Each time we become aware of something, we use our love word to return gently to the Lord.  Some days we will have to use that word almost constantly.  There is a lot going on inside – or outside.  Other days we will not need it much at all.  It doesn’t really matter, just as long as each time we become aware of anything, we gently return to the Lord.

As we do, we let the other thing go.  It is as if the Lord were asking us: “Do you love me more than this?”  With our love word we say: “Yes.”  For these twenty minutes we let everything else go and just give God the space of our lives, so that God can do what God wills.  And what God wills most of all is to let us know how much we are loved, how truly God is with us – all the way.

As we choose the Lord and these things float away, all the stress and strain around them float away, too.  After the prayer we will be able to attend to them without all that “stuff” around them.  This is how our Lord refreshes us psychologically during this prayer, even while we are refreshed physically and spiritually.

So let them go, let them flow – anything and everything that comes up for us – while we just gently and simply use our word of love and choose the Lord.

At the end of your prayer time let the Our Father (or some other prayer) pray itself within you.

There are many people who pray this way regularly, centering twice a day.  They have found that twenty minutes is a good time to spend in this prayer.  It is enough to sort of let go of all the stress and tension that have accumulated since the last meditation and to get a good refreshing rest in the Lord – and to give the Lord time to do some deeper healing if he wants.  So we strongly recommend twenty minutes.

Twice a day.  We don’t meditate just to enjoy twenty minutes of bliss.  We want that shift of consciousness wherein we become more fully aware of our self and God and live out of that reality.  We want to live centered lives that freely hold everybody and everything in love – lives that are empowered by the Lord at the center of our being.  This shift comes about much more quickly if we do spend time at the center twice a day rather than just once a day.

So: twenty minutes, twice a day.

Let us come home to dwell with the Lord.

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