CENTERING PRAYER

Circa 1987

In the late 80’s, I began to do volunteer work with Food for the Poor, Inc. (“FFP”) following ministry trips to both Jamaica and Haiti led by Ferdinand Mahfood (“Ferdy”)—the founder of FFP.
The squalor, poverty and deep despair of the men, women and children living in these countries shook me to the core of my being. 

While one can capture a sense of the plight of these men, women and children through a video presentation—only visiting there can fill your nostrils with the “stench of death” which hangs in the air—a actual stench sown in your nostrils which takes weeks to diminish upon returning home. In Jamaica it lingered in the garbage dumps of Kingston, and in Haiti it was “in the air” everywhere.

These experiences deeply troubled my spirit—but, in the end, they also led to a deeper conversion to the cause of Christ—for either you will conclude that nothing can be done (your personal wealth and efforts can never be enough)—or you will choose to practice a greater generosity (despite its lack). 

In this volunteer position, I began to speak locally at various churches on the north shore of Boston. On occasion, I also accompanied and assisted Ferdy in various ways when he visited Massachusetts. Then, from time to time, I would visit the offices of FFP (then located in Pompano Beach, FL) to be updated regarding fundraising and outreach efforts. 

On one such occasion while visiting the home of Ferdy I had the privilege of meeting Basil Pennington who was a Trappist monk and priest and at the time was very well-known as a spiritual writer, speaker and teacher. He was also recognized internationally as one of the major proponents of the Centering PrayeMovement begun at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, during the 1970s.

As a result of this meeting I was encouraged to read some of Basil’s books and to listen to his teaching tapes regarding Centering Prayer about which I knew little.

Never for an instant did I consider the possibility that the Lord was about to update my “spiritual radar” and to “teach me more” from the fount of His unmerited mercy and love. Why this grace? Perhaps, it was simply because I was always “hungry for more” and utterly grateful that the Lord had miraculously delivered me from the abyss of eternal loss only a few years earlier.

Before further detailing my Centering Prayer journey—it would be helpful for those interested in Centering Prayer to better understand the difference between meditation and contemplation—as Centering Prayer’s domain is found in the latter. To aid in grasping the difference between these two prayer methods a descriptive narrative is presented below. This was taken from a posting made on the website of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles and you may follow the link to the entire online posting for further reflection.

Brackets and Emphasis Are Mine

‘[In Centering Prayer] [w]e have entered into a wordless prayer, an awareness of the Divine Guest within, not through the use of the intellect but through a knowing loving [i.e., a personal, intimate and experiential love], a deep communion with the Triune God. It is a prayer of quiet calmness in which we drink deeply at the life-giving fount. There are different intensities within this prayer but the way of experiencing and the passion of the experiences will vary among individuals. Our external senses remain free and enable us to carry out our responsibilities and duties even when the interior faculties are captivated by God.

The Beginning

After reading one of Basil’s works—and then listening to his teaching on tape—I began to practice the principles that he taught. 

I found a quiet place in my home where I could pray and placed a comfortable kitchen chair there in which to sit. The time allotment was twenty minutes (in the beginning this could be shorter). Then, you were instructed to close your eyes and to mentally repeat a short prayer (i.e., “Jesus, I love you.”) while ignoring extraneous thought.

In Basil’s teaching you were alerted that extraneous thought would likely flood into your mind like a river—and that you would have to work hard to overcome this intrusion. This proved to be very accurate as ideas long forgotten would mysteriously resurface—and new and novel ones constantly emerge for consideration. It was extremely hard to ignore them—as they all seemed very valuable, important and relevant. It took considerable perseverance to have victory over this constant intrusion—which I eventually learned to suppress—albeit, never perfectly.

The result of praying in this manner was an increase in the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I experienced that the virtues of peace, patience, kindness, understanding and wisdom, among others, found a deeper foundation on which to rest. I was both amazed and delighted. As a consequence, I regularly practiced Centering Prayer—that is, until a “variant occurrence”.

As alluded to in the short narration above from the Carmelite Sisters, and as emphasized by Basil Pennington in his teaching materials, Centering Prayer could offer “different intensities” of prayer and the “passion of the experiences” could vary [my emphasis]. When first meeting Basil at Ferdy’s home in Florida I remember him saying [and I must paraphrase]: “There may be moments of intense in-breaking and revelation, but these times are not often, and for the most part rare.” 

Prior to this occurrence my own experience of Centering Prayer had been deep and transforming —and I could easily accept that the fruits I had come to enjoy were from the Holy Spirit—and rooted in the love of God. This is true—even though at times—overwhelmed by a knowing loving so great that I could not plump the depth of such a love—I would exude: How can this be!” 

On the day of this particular occurrence I was praying as usual when—out of nowhere, I heard two voices speak to me. One was clear and audible, while the other was soft and hardly discernible. They seemed to speak almost simultaneously. The first voice lauded me on my spiritual progress and encouraged me to become more public in my ministry efforts. The other, very softly and virtually indiscernible, said: “No, you are not ready.” That was it!

Stunned, overwhelmed and dismayed—I thought: "What the heck am I getting into?" "Is this really God?" "Am I being deceived?" "Do I really need this?" I immediately concluded: “No, I do not really need this!”, 

From that day on I ceased to pray in this manner. I just took a break. I just abandoned Centering Prayer altogether.

Over the next few weeks, I began to process what had occurred and to realize the nature of the spiritual warfare into which I had entered. It was to be “violent”. 

In Luke 9:62 (RSV) Jesus makes the following stark declaration "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.

To reiterate from the above narrative from the Carmelite Sisters: “We have entered into a wordless prayer, an awareness of the Divine Guest within, not through the use of the intellect but through a knowing loving, a deep communion with the Triune God. It is a prayer of quiet calmness in which we drink deeply at the life-giving fount.” 

It was this communion about which Basil Pennington often spoke—and which he desired to make known to every Christian seeking to know, love and serve the Living God in a deeper way. It was this communion that I had intuitively sought—and which I had now come to know and experience in Centering Prayer. In Centering Prayer—what I had been wondering about—and what I had been seeking, I had found. 

In John 4:23-25 (RSV) Jesus makes an unmistakable invitation to every Christian to enter into such a communion: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

God had used Basil as His anointed instrument through whom I could finally ferret out the meaning of this profound declaration. 

The following Scripture profoundly sums up the revelation of the Father's love unearthed by the practice of Centering Prayer:

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love."  (1 John 4:7-8 ESV)

So, disregarding my variant occurrence—and emboldened by an increasing desire to “know more”—I elected to press on and have done so until this day. 

That’s the Game Plan—to Press on!




M. Basil Pennington O.C.S.O. (1931–2005)