What does it mean to be still and know? A few years back, a dear friend of mine was dying of pancreatic cancer. She was Catholic, knew of my return to the Church, and had discovered what she felt was a prayer method that was helping her get through her last painful months of life.
After several invitations, I attended a session at her parish, primarily to support her and of course to pray. The technique, centering prayer, is a way of learning to empty one’s mind from everything, good and bad, and just “be still and know that I am God.” It sounds positive on the surface, and clearly, there are times we need a certain amount of emptying to keep sanity and serenity. On that level, it would be difficult to object to, and this writing is not meant to suggest that those moments do not exist. But is resting the mind in such a way a form of prayer? I am not so sure.
Jesus Across the Room
I noticed something, that evening, which disturbed me then and still does. That same evening, in a different part of the parish sanctuary/nave area, another group was meeting simultaneously for the purpose of Eucharistic Adoration. The two groups arguably had some similarities. Both were there to aid in freeing the mind from this sometimes-horrific world around us. Both were meant to draw one’s soul to God. Each was meant to produce healing. Similar processes, and comparable results. At least hopefully. However, the differences were not to be ignored either.
The facilitator of the centering group opened by explaining the process. The biggest rule, as it were, was to empty one’s mind. Letting go and letting God, right? Not quite. He told us that any thoughts, good and bad, even if we believed they were from God, could distract from the process. He then suggested we choose a word or short phrase to bring us back to serenity in case we struggled with this. The word could be “Jesus,” “Blessed Mother,” or anything of our own choosing. It, in fact, could be nonsensical or worship of another god. The word simply had to mean something to us.
Ironically, after opening the meeting, and to bring us into the proper frame of mind for this emptying, the leader read a short passage from Rumi. I had no idea who Rumi was until later, but as it turns out he was a Muslim poet from the Middle Ages, considered heretical by many of his own, and certainly to Catholics, who wrote extensively on sensual themes among other things. We then spent 20 minutes in silence and afterward shared feelings or thoughts we had. Meeting adjourned.
I could not deny the urge to get up and walk to the other end of the holy space I was sitting in and go kneel before the Lord in the exposed Eucharist. I did not do so, however, primarily out of respect for my friend, who I would never again see on this earth after that night. I knew that we were missing something essential in this way of prayer and that the answer was only steps away. Jesus, fully present in the Holy Eucharist, was already silently and serenely in the room. That reality, sadly, was not in our minds during those timed moments. While Jesus sat quietly waiting, we instead tried to be our own gods. Be still and know who?
When Prayer Isn’t Prayer
All prayer is not equal, either in quality or effect. Adoration, for example, can outpour graces that come from a vastly different habitat, as it is a visual as well as a spiritual encounter with the living Christ. This is not to suggest that centering prayer has no superficial seeming benefit. It is to state, though, that very often the surface good is the enemy of the best.
My first discovery of Eucharistic Adoration came two days after returning to the Church in 2005. It was the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, nearly 10 PM, and I was sitting at home when suddenly sensing the overpowering urge to get into my car and drive to the Cathedral/National Shrine of St Paul, where an all-night session before the Monstrance was going on. I was not even yet sure of the real or substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But I had to be there. Something happened that evening so profoundly that I knew, in some tangible form, Christ was so fully present there and I became utterly transfixed in His very essence. Some might say it was psychological, and some of it certainly affected my mind and thought processes. But it was more. Be still and know!
Although I come from a strongly charismatic background, I had absolutely no need to seek out spiritual manifestations of any kind other than Jesus Himself. 35 years of powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit, many of which I believe were valid and true, paled in comparison to the simple profundity of that amazing evening. I cannot explain it other than suggesting that I was experiencing the presence of God, not the absence of self, as centering prayer attempts.
Outward Not Inward
I have occasionally had similar experiences since then during Eucharistic Adoration. Unlike centering prayer, where I had to have a systematic set of human rules and procedures to follow for, at best, dubious results, I have found that I can sit in the Chapel, gaze at the Monstrance or even the ceiling, and, as long as my heart has been open, found tranquillity I did not carry in with me when walking in. I have, too, sometimes filled pages of my prayer notebook with thoughts and ideas which might easily have been lost to me had I deliberately pushed them out of my mind. Those beauteous moments of God-based meditation helped me look beyond myself instead of inside only. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Christian meditation reaches out to our Lord and uses, not buries, our facilities of reasoning:
Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ (CCC, 2708).
One of the things the leader said was that the old traditions had much to teach us. The sadly amazing thing was that he chose traditions based upon false religions and earthly philosophies for something which could have, through Eucharistic Adoration, given far more peace to my dying friend and so many others, as well as himself. And, ironically, my friend asked me for aid in praying the Rosary, another form of authentic Christian meditation when prayed devoutly, once the meeting ended that night. Clearly centering prayer was not enough for her and she realized it. We reject the best gifts of God for the self-invented good. And we pay for it by missing the presence of both God and us.