Thursday, May 04, 2006

American Monasticism: Centering on rebels without a cause

“Centering prayer is an opening,” says Tony Jones, giving us a layman’s definition of the ancient practice of centering prayer. He continues saying, “it is a response, a putting aside of all the debris that stands in the way of our being totally present to the present Lord, so that He can be present to us”[1]. Historically practiced by mystics and Hesychasts,[2] centering prayer is the practice of of mental ascesis that involves the use of the Jesus Prayer assisted by certain psychophysical techniques,[3] namely, various breathing patterns and bodily postures.

Hesychasts generally believe that there is a deeper, more fundamental state of existence hidden beneath the appearances of day–to–day living. For the mystic, “the hidden state is the focus, and may be perceived in any of various ways — as God, ultimate reality, a universal presence, a force or principle, psychological emancipation — and be experienced or realized directly.”[4] This kind of spiritual attitude is described in the ancient text, The Cloud of Unknowing, as being the process by which “the pray-er ascends above the ‘cloud of forgetting’ where all creatures and all thoughts dwell, and rises toward the ‘cloud of unknowing’ in which God dwells.”[5]

However, “centering” is really a notion with a much broader application than that of monks and ascetics, and I think we might do well to explore what centering might look like in some common instances. Jones’ alternate definition, printed later in the text, says that “[centering] is a laying aside of thoughts, so that the heart can attend immediately to [God]”, and with that in mind I think we can extend our definition of centering to include such things as illness, conversation, hospitality, and laughter.

When we become ill, for example, we are forced to re-center. We are forced by the encroaching awareness of our own frailty to consider what is truly important. It is why families spend so much time together at hospitals, and why elderly church ladies sing hymns before they die. It is the reason why bedside manner is tantamount to good medicine, and why the love and compassion of a minister brings peace to the sick and comfort to those who remain at home.

This centering, though, is not merely a re-prioritization of family values, but a re-enthronement of God; and this is why I rarely doubt the sincerity of deathbed conversions. In the face of death, men become afraid and look to God for salvation; and, when we look and are willing to receive, He allows us to become absorbed into His center and be made whole once again.

When I first began my own exploration of spiritual formation and Christian growth I asked my father, Bishop of our denomination and Pastor for over forty years, what he thought was the most effective way of growing as a Christian. “Trials,” he replied “we grow most through our trials.”

Yet centering does not always have to be a heavy experience. Indeed, the “laying aside of thoughts” also has a lighter side – the side of hospitality, of laughter, and of conversation. This is the side represented by Jesus’ human qualities demonstrated by his willingness to eat with anyone, and his unwillingness to ever eat alone. It is the side of friendship and of closeness with those around us, and it is where we fight battles against the circumference of despair. Many mistakenly fight those battles with anger, or with greater fervor, but I maintain that we are best served in finding our center through a full compliment of light and love, and through the great embrace of close friends and family; for it is at the dinner table where we can find our center as we find God in the midst of our family.

This is one of the great omissions, in my mind, of so many of the wonderful treatises written on spiritual disciplines: they ignore, and some even disdain, family. Yet Jesus, despite his caustic words to Mary in Mark 3.32-35, certainly seemed to draw a larger, more inclusive line around family – calling “whoever does the will of God [to be His] brother, and sister, and mother.” Jesus seems to indicate that men are now “friends of God”[6] and no longer servants by addressing God in familiar terms, such as “Abba”[7], and by modeling for His followers what it meant to speak affectionately to YHWH.

If we are to truly begin to center our lives, I cannot help but think that we ought to begin with those things that are most local, most accessible – family, hospitality, laughter – rather than the sometime gnostic path alternative. We make a mistake when we limit the value of centering to an otherworldly expression of a God, absent in our sensual and material world. I think if we are to truly emulate the life of Christ, if we are to truly grow in grace and godliness, we cannot only look to the admirable lives and practices of saints – whose admirable lives have taught us this ancient discipline - but must also look to the life of Christ and the examples in scripture that demonstrate what it means to be ‘in this world, though we are not of it.’[8]

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 73.
[2] Name for the Eastern Orthodox priests and holy men who practice centering prayer. Cf.
[3] Cf.
[5] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 71.
[6] Cf. John 15:12-17 NKJV
[7] Lit. “father.” Cf. Strong's Number: 5,
[8] Cf. John 17.14-17 NIV

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