By Rev Michael Brantley, Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Centring Prayer, also known as “listening prayer,” has been practiced from antiquity by Jews, and then Christians. In St John’s Gospel, being introduced to Nathanael, Jesus says “Now here is a man in whom there is no guile (or deceipt).” Nathaenial asks how he knows this. Jesus replies that before Philip called for him, He (Jesus) saw him (Nathanael) sitting under a fig tree. Ever wonder why he was under a fig tree? If you take a look into Jewish culture of the time, he was there praying, spending time meditating on God’s Word, and listening. This was a common practice and place to go be alone with God. In a hot climate, the cool shade of a fig tree, normally close to water, was not just practical, but had become synonymous for what we’d call a “prayer closet.”
What is Centring Prayer (or Listening Prayer)?
We have many things on our minds. We also have many concerns. We’re taught to pray using good helpful patterns, and almost always with lots of words – the amount of words and time on an issue reflecting our earnestness. While Christians do thank God for blessings and grace, acknowledge God’s love and omnipotence and reconcile with God over our shortcomings/sin; we tend to spend most of our prayer on supplication, asking God to work in specific situations. It’s okay, not wrong, but it is simply us speaking and not being in holistic relationship! Providing space to listen, to calm down and allow the Holy Spirit to speak and work in our lives, allowing our attitude, posture and emotional energy to settle into trust of God is something most of us could grow in as we follow Jesus.
So, I commend to you a new rhythm of prayer; called centring or listening prayer. What it’s not is an Eastern emptying meditation like other religions have. In those, one clears one’s mind, emptying it, nothingness, and opens one’s mind to whatever happens. The upside of that is being still, quiet, restoring the soul’s or heart’s energy. The downside is it is just a mental exercise. It’s good human balance of brain and emotional activity. What’s missing is God’s Spirit engaging us!
Centring/Listening Prayer is much more dynamic, active and yet has a similar posture from external observation. It is a being still, a quiet, a settling of one’s self – all of one’s self – so you can hear, and can really listen. If you’ve not done it before, it’s hard! Our minds want to go, wander, work through stuff. Trusting God, being truly still, really entering a place of quiet at every level of our being, so we can hear, really hear what the Spirit is wanting to say, work, transform within us, is much more difficult. It takes practice, and practice in a regular rhythm to accomplish.
Practicing Centring/Listening Prayer
The begging questions are, “what do you therefore do?” Or “how exactly do you do it?” “Will I physically hear/see or sense something?” Let’s consider how first. One way to enter into a time of centring prayer is to be still at successive levels…
The body: Start first by being physically still – but you’ll need a really quiet place, especially if you’re new at it, so the constant noise and distractions don’t pull you away! Be still in a comfortable position, but not lying down. Sitting in a comfortable chair in a relaxed but attentive posture is best for most people. Take 8-10 deep slow breaths, more if needed, concentrating on slowing your body down. Note any tensions and consciously relax that part of your body.
The mind: Next as you settle, still your mind. It’s not stilling it to nothing, but stilling it to block out all distractions, and those little niggling things that want your attention. This is a time for you to “sit under the fig tree” with God. So, you still your mind. Consider you are looking at a slow river flowing past. A leaf floating on top enters from the left… rather than thinking about it, simply let it go past and exit. Just let those issues popping in go for now. You can come back to them later. Listen – actively, dynamically listen, a posture, and reality of listening for God’s Spirit to actually speak to you… maybe you’ll expect it audibly, but more, expect the Spirit to speak into your spirit, your heart.
The heart: The third step in stilling one’s self in being centred, listening, is to still the heart. If you get still physically and mentally, you’ll note how much emotional noise is running underneath your conscious thinking. Allow yourself to become still and the emotional noise to be turned down. How? This is about trusting, and willing your soul, your heart, to trust Him, and entering a place where you practice living in trust, believing you are actually loved and valued and God does want to say things to you. This takes work! The more you try it, the more you’ll notice the noise and how much emotional volume has to be turned down, and that you can.
If you must, repeat the mantra, “Lord, I trust myself completely to you.”
The soul: Last, you’re working down through physical, mental and emotional settled listening, so you reach the soul! Be still in your soul! This is exactly what God says in the 46th Psalm, “Be still and know that I am God.” This is a pliability in our will, our own identity and surrender of our rights, our goals and aims. It’s a conscious allowing God to be God in our lives, our entire being. Do you recall the old, old hymn, “Have Your Own Way, Lord?” So in our soul, we allow Jesus to be King, God to be God, the Spirit to lead us. This is the posture of our very identity here conforming to Christ’s image.
At first, you may find it takes more time to settle than you can actually be centred, or listen well! Practice the settling and then the listening for 4-5 minutes. Work up to more until you can do so for ten, even twenty minutes! AND the more you make this a rhythm of your life, the more accomplished you’ll be, the easier it’ll be and the more you’ll recognise you actually are being transformed and hearing from Him.
Sometimes people relate this to meditation, as in meditating on God’s Word. Sure, they are related, but not identical. Meditation is also a powerful prayer rhythm, but its an active “desire to be transformed, sanctified,” being more like Christ, planting Scripture deep within us. This is also known as Contemplative Prayer. In Centring/Listening Prayer, you may have one truth (word) you slowly repeat, or one phrase, but the goal isn’t the active work of being better Christians, it’s to have a deeper ever more authentic and intimate relationship with Christ.
Often, being an active person, extroverted in relationships, I found myself so busy “for God” and making good solid rational decisions. Yet God isn’t about being rational all the time. Sometimes, it’s about walking in places we don’t have a map for, or even light – quite irrational! He often wants to do big things that we cannot grasp as our own ability, or to relate with us as we’re forced to trust Him! It’s not humanist enlightened rational thinking to do some things God calls us to, but He empowers us to do the impossible. How does one hear God? I discovered this an invaluable practice for me.
Therefore, being the activist and practical leader I am, when I discovered Centring/Listening Prayer, I found it simultaneously very difficult and frustrating, while at the same time, invigorating and something I knew beneath words I thirsted and longed for – being who I was created to be; with God, in intimate relationship. In Genesis, the author gives us an image of this intimacy we’re created for when it says God would walk with them in the cool of the evening. It’s an image of unrushed, not worrisome, calm, relaxed, unity in relationship. I wanted to “make things happen”, but as my spiritual director coached me to “BE QUIET!” I began learning how much I longed for it. My good leadership had been good and effective – doing solid leading and managing, but also not the most effective, because I wasn’t aware or aligned with what God wanted to do, and I was rather spiritually thirsty because I didn’t get this relational time with Him, as well as I was out of balance – too active and busy literally, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
It was so hard at first, but with time, I learned to hear God more. I slipped in and out of being centred and really listening. When my mind wandered, I didn’t get upset at myself, rather, I simply said of course – it’s me! I returned to the still place and got better. In the early days, I didn’t leave “my fig tree” feeling I had heard anything, but I was more centred and more present, and could hear others and attune to situations around me. Yet, I began to note that later in situations, I had heard from God and was better responding in more discerned wisdom. With time, this grew, and I began experiencing a presence with Him that I covet and can’t even put into words to share that you might want it also. The “connect” with God is equal if not more important to hearing “do this” type insights from God’s Spirit. I can only testify, it is the best prayer I have today. It’s like taking all the worries, cares, requests, my wounds and my celebrations, all my will and laying it all at His feet and enjoying the freedom of being fully present to Him, and allowing Him to form me.
Today Centring/Listening Prayer is a regular part of my life. I even use an App on my smart phone to help me when my day is super busy and I only have a moment or two. When I get more time, I will do this for longer periods. What’s different years later? Everything.