A FRESH CALL TO CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice
By Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault
Shambhala Pubications, 2016, $16.95
February 22, 2017 - Reviewed by David Bradshaw, IdeaFactoryPress
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God....when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you."
-JESUS, Matthew 5:8, 6:6
"Let us often remember, my dear friend, that our sole occupation in life is to please God.
What meaning can anything else have? God in His mercy gives us a little more time.
We can begin all over again and repair the lost opportunity..." -BROTHER LAWRENCE, Practicing the Presence of God, Letter Nine
"We have in our hearts organs by means of which we can know God as certainly as we know material
things through our familiar five senses." -AW TOZER
"Breakthrough happened around me when breakup happened within me." -DR. JACK HAYFORD
"Little prayer, little power, much prayer much power." -EM BOUNDS
According to Barna Research's 2016
State of the Church,"Almost three-quarters of Americans (73%) say they are a Christian,
while only one-fifth (20%) claim no faith at all. A fraction (6%) identify with faiths like
Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or Hinduism, and 1 percent are unsure....The number of "practicing
Christians" is about one in three U.S. adults (31%)...three-quarters of Americans (75%)
claim to have prayed to God in the last week, down from (84%) five years ago."
How about prayer among church leaders and pastors? A 2005 Ellis Research survey for Facts & Trends found that "just 16% of pastors are very satisfied with their personal prayer lives, 47% are somewhat satisfied, 30% somewhat dissatisfied and 7% very dissatisfied. Their median amount of prayer time per day is 30 minutes."
As a practicing Christian who loves God and believes strongly in the importance of daily Bible study and
devotional reading, I confess still having a lifelong struggle to maintain a consistent, daily prayer life. Sadly, statistics show
the majority of Christians are in the same boat.
Suffice it to say that most Christians could use a fresh perspective on the value of establishing a daily prayer discipline. Regarding the practice of 'contemplation' or 'meditation', in my experience there's been little to no instruction by church leaders at all, except perhaps to be
suspect of any form of meditation associated with other faith traditions.
I suspect this lack of teaching about the historical and spiritual value of Christian contemplation is fairly widespread throughout Protestantism, despite the fact that David mentions meditating on God's Word dozens of times in Psalms, and he even included "Selah" (usually translated "silence" or "pause") at the end of half of the Psalms.
Perhaps because in the New Testament the only direct mention of 'meditation' I can find comes from Mary after receiving the angelic announcement that she would give birth to the Messiah;
"But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating
on them." -Luke 2:19
However, in the last three years of study I've broadening my exposure to the early church Fathers' writings,
as well as Richard Rohr excellent books which spotlight many other devout Christians contemplatives throughout church history, I now feel prepared to focus on the intentional practice of contemplative prayer and meditation. I am hopeful others will resonate with this growing desire to know God's heart, in addition to His mind.
This brings me to my review of 'The Heart of Centering Prayer written by Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, teacher and
retreat leader, whose practice of daily Christian meditation over the last 40 years has equipped her with a deep and broad wisdom and understanding of this subject.
Because the book was recommended by Richard Rohr, I felt confident I would not be led astray -
just stretched a bit - as I do when reading Rohr's books.
DEFINING NONDUAL CHRISTIANITY
"If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there." -Psalm 139:8
I found the book's subtitle, Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, intriguing. After all,
what's the difference between 'dual' and 'nondual' Christianity anyway? It's not a topic I've
ever heard mentioned from any pulpit, so how important could it possibly be? (except maybe in a
scholarly theological debate). Thankfully, Cynthia quickly begins unpacking her views on nondual Christianity.
But, before digging into nondualism, let's begin with a simple explanation of dualism, from C.S. Lewis' Mere
Christianity, "There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that
this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have
been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal
and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that
this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war."
Dualism can exist on many levels, such as separation of body and mind, mind and spirit, holy and unholy,
spiritual and secular, etc. A truly Christian worldview is much more unative, and is reflected in
the widespread acknowledgment of the paradox of the Holy Trinity itself (Father, Son, Spirit)
which are three distinction reflections of the same One God.
"The dualistic mind cannot process things like infinity, mystery, God, grace, suffering, sexuality,
death, or love," writes Richard Rohr in a recent devotional teaching. "The broad rediscovery of
nondual, contemplative consciousness gives me hope for the maturing of religion and is probably
the only way we can move beyond partisan politics," concludes Rohr.
Cynthia explains nondual Christianity as "unitive" spirituality. "Putting
the mind in the heart is the essence of Centering Prayer...rather than perception through
differentiation, Christian contemplation is the capacity to sense the whole pattern as a
single field...to see from wholeness."
She acknowledges this is extremely counter-intuitive, as are most of the teachings of Jesus,
starting with the Beatitudes and throughout in the parables. Therefore, she believes we need to
"upgrade our operating system" from a dualist foundation to a new, more unified foundation of perception based on recent neurological evidence. "Neurologically, the
capacity to perceive reality in this way (unified) depends on a new way of organizing the
perceptual field - an upgrade in the operating system."
THE FRUIT OF PRACTICING CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." -Galatians 5:22-23
Dr. Bourgeault then leads the reader to jump right into the practice of contemplative prayer
in Part One: A Short Course in Centering Prayer. I found this short section to be refreshingly
simple to understand and inviting. Cynthia feels strongly that establishing a new "heartfulness"
holds the key to rebooting our lives to move beyond "mindfulness".
"The real work of Centering Prayer is to lay the inner foundation for an entirely different kind
of spiritual attentiveness...putting on the mind of Christ," she writes. "It's a bit like learning
to see in the dark...there is a core sense of 'not my will but Thine be done.'"
While Eastern forms of meditation are based on focused Attention, Centering Prayer is done
with unfocused Intention, "to be totally open to God, totally available."
Step one is to choose a "sacred" word of your own choice, preferably a short, one syllable word or phrase such as;
God, Love, Peace, Yes, or Trust Love, Let Go, Be Still, etc.
"Unlike a mantra, you don't repeat it constantly, a sacred word serves as a placeholder for your
intention to consent to God's presence and action within," writes Cynthia.
Step two is to find a comfortable place to sit. The goal is to keep your body relaxed but alert.
She suggests sitting on a comfortable mat or chair with your back straight, or if you have back
problems, laying flat on your back - with eyes closed to minimize distractions for a 20-minute
period twice daily, if possible.
After a few deep breathes she suggestions an opening prayer declaring your intention to God, such
as; "Into your hand I commend my spirit" or "Oh God, I am here, Oh God you are here". Rather than
filling your mind with spiritual thoughts, needs or even counting blessings, Dr. Bourgeault believes
the key to Centering Prayer is the type of "kenosis" (or self-emptying love) which Jesus exemplified.
Cynthia acknowledges this is not easy at first. We are so used to holding onto thoughts, both good
and bad, that if feels unnatural to completely let them go. She offers 4 R's to help stay on track;
1. Resist no thought, 2. Retain no thought, 3. React to no thought and 4. Return to your sacred word.
The word "metanoia," spoken by Jesus and John the Baptist, usually translated "repent" means to
change the direction of your heart, "to go beyond your mind, or to go to a larger mind...
Centering Prayer invites you to do just that," she writes.
"The fruits of Centering Prayer are found in daily life, what happens afterward, such as; greater
spaciousness and flexibility in life and personal relationships, the purification or healing of
the unconscious, a deepening capacity to abide in a state of attention to the heart (not the
head), a deepening relationship with God and with your deepest self."
If all of that sounds as inviting to you as it does me, then I suggest giving it a chance, at least
once a day to start with. I can find no downside risk of investing time to commune with our loving
Creator - which is something we did before entering this life, and something we will do for all eternity.
The remaining 80% of the book details The Way of the Heart, which is revealed in an ancient medieval
document know as The Cloud of Unknowing - written by an anonymous English 14th century monk - which provides the
foundation for both the ancient and modern contemplative prayer movement.
In the interest of brevity of this review I will conclude with a few salient quotes from Part II and III and encourage
readers to dive into the book itself for further details.
PART II - THE WAY OF THE HEART
"The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the
reason, but by the heart." -Blaise Pascal
"According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christianity, Judaism & Islam) the heart
is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception." According to Robert Sardello's
Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness, "The physical organ of the heart functions simultaneously
as a physical, psychic and spiritual organ."
"Only when the mind is in the heart is it possible to live the teachings of Jesus without
hypocrisy or burnout...The teachings of Jesus emerges from a higher level of consciousness
inaccessible to human beings in their ordinary state of mind."
"In a secular container mindfulness tends to become privatized for personal coping skills or
wellness benefits, but in a spiritual setting it becomes relational and ethical, expressed in
growing compassion and love for God and others."
PART THREE - THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING (free download)
"Contemplation is not a 'perk' attained at one's death, the very purpose of our human
life is to begin to lay down those foundational blocks of unboundaried perception." -Cynthia Bourgeault
"The Cloud of Unknowing is a mystical text which can ultimately be accessed at the level of
consciousness which it was written...you meditate your way into the text rather than with
an analytical mind...the real meaning emerges out of practice itself," writes Cynthia.
The Cloud of Unknowing documents techniques used by the medieval monastic community to build
and maintain contemplative knowledge of God. Scholars date the anonymous authorship
of The Cloud of Unknowing to 1375. Written as a primer for the young monastic, the work is
embraces the reader with a call to grow closer to God through meditation and prayer.
I found Chapter 8 in The Cloud of Unknowing to be of great interest in understanding
the proper balance between contemplation and action. According to the Cloud ...
"There are two kinds of lives; active life (lower) and contemplative life (higher)...
a man cannot be fully active unless he is partly contemplative, nor fully contemplative
unless partly active...Active life begins and ends in this life. Contemplative life
begins in this life and lasts without end."
Dr. Bourgeault summarizes, "Contemporary men and women are awakening to the realization that life is indeed an
inner journey as well as an outer one...leading one to wonder whether the church's
biggest institutional failure has been its incapacity to build the bridge between
the lower active and higher contemplative life."
That is an important point which deserves more dialogue among church leadership.
All in all, I enjoyed this dive into contemplative prayer and plan to make it
a new part of my daily routine. Meanwhile, I recommend subscribing to Richard Rohr's Center for
Action and Contemplation daily devotionals for those interested in growing your understanding of the value of contemplation.
P.S. I also plan to practice contemplation using some
very quiet background music from Wholetones by Michael Tyrrell, which consists of seven 22-minute
instrumental musical tracks proven to help promote relaxation and spiritual healing.Here's a Sample.