Centering Prayer

Reverend, I’m a 60 something spiritual wanderer who is now considering becoming involved with Centering Prayer. I recently discovered a CP group that meets at an Episcopal parish near my home. However, I have a personal dilemma about this. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family and as an adult tried to deepen my church involvement as to include both contemplation and social activism. In mid-life, I went over to the Anglican fold and spent about a decade involved with several urban Episcopal churches. Around 2000 I suffered something of a faith crisis stemming from my inability to find a contemplative community and from my readings of the “historical Jesus” books that were coming out at the time. Even though I gravitated toward the more mainstream scholars and avoided the more radical voices (Borg, Crossnan, Funk, and Bishop Spong), I became convinced that the ancient writings and legends regarding Jesus could be adequately explained by known historical factors. After Occam’s Razor did its work, I was left with a Jewish Jesus, and not a Christ.

Because I could no longer affirm the Nicene Creed in a literal and intellectual sense, I felt that I no longer belonged in a Christian community. However, unlike others who decide against the divine Jesus Christ, I never gave up on God. Jesus remains important to me, and the God that he described and died for remains the God that I want. Of course, without all of Jesus’ urgent apocalyptic expectations, and perhaps a bit less male gender oriented !

After several years of spiritual drifting while helping to take care of an elderly parent, I joined a local sangha and took up Zen practice. I had recalled Merton’s enthusiastic words about Zen; also, the lineage of our teacher had passed through a Jesuit priest who is also a Zen Roshi. Zen thus didn’t seem terribly out of step with my Christian past. I’ve been involved with my Zen community for 9 years, and although I have had many meaningful moments in “Zen world”, I now admit that I want something more than Zen can provide, even socially-engaged Zen. I now believe that Merton and the Jesuits, who embraced Zen from their earliest contacts with the masters in Japan, had been seeing what they wanted to see in Zen. Even though I have heard several teachers say that Zen practice can support a robust theistic faith, I have found Zen to be a lonely place for someone whose soul still hears faint echos of a distant voice.

So I am now considering CP. I read Open Heart, Open Mind way back when, and to be honest, I have integrated CP techniques into my sitting all along, despite the usual Zen breath instructions. I long to share God-based contemplative practice with a supportive community. However, I do not integrate transcendent Christic imagery into my technique. So in a nutshell — could a CP community based in an Episcopal parish possibly work for me, and likewise, could my involvement work for those in that community? I have no bad feelings about being around Episcopalians and I don’t begrudge anyone for not “seeing the truth” about Jesus as I do — once in a blue moon I still stop by for Eucharist at a local urban parish that has a great choir! I just stay quiet during the Creed. Thank you and gassho.

~ Jim

Dear Jim,

This all sounds like wonderful, determined, healthy, and increasingly mature seeking. I can hear that on two levels at least you are longing for the heart: first, as a new center of spiritual wholeness and felt-sense relationally with something intimate, numinous, compassionate, coherent (and it’s there!, call it God, the Mystical Body of Christ, ground luminosity, etc…,). It’s there, it’s personal, it’s intimate, it’s numinous, it’s compassionate. But only your heart can pick it up. I’m not talking about your heart as the seat of your emotions, but as the center of a whole new, non-dual hardwiring of perception. And second, you’ll need to activate your heart perception to lift you beyond your struggle with Christianity, which sounds like it’s mostly about doctrines, creeds, theologies: head stuff! It’s in the heart, finally, that all this resolves: even the Nicene creed, which can now be entered into no longer with the head sense of “do I agree with these premises?” But with the heart sense of this gorgeous numinous poetry…the ever heroic human attempt to put language around the infinite and inarticulable. I love e.e. cummings’ line about “great words, writhing overmuch, stand helplessly before the spirit at bay…”

Anyway, you are on a very good trajectory. Nothing has been wasted. Just take the next step.

Now I can’t comment on the Centering Prayer group. I don’t think the Episcopal Church should be any particular problem; groups kind of pop up where they pop up, and while they take on the flavors of the host denomination to some extent, they’re also remarkably free of them—simply because CP begins to move you beyond the headspace where all those doctrinal and cultural triggers abide. But as with everything, there are more congenial groups and less congenial, those more open to the kind of seeking you’ve been doing, and those less so. It would be helpful to know where you live; I might have a better sense with whom to hook you up in your area. And as you’ve obviously discovered already, our Wisdom network is a marvelous group of open-hearted, Centering Prayer based seekers all over North America. We’d be happy to scan the data base and see who’s already out there working in your area.

Meanwhile, it can’t hurt to drop by that Centering Prayer group and check it out.

With all blessings…. This is a big next step toward you heart’s desiring!