Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form
by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
©1980 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.
An Image Book, published by Doubleday, 254 pp.
an introduction and guide
Father Pennington builds upon the spiritual practice of The Cloud of Unknowing, and makes it not only perfectly understandable, but irresistible. He starts off from a place to which none of the other classics (at least which I’ve read) on contemplative prayer ever went, a historical overview on contemplation. He briefly recounts how strains of silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, developed and intermingled from the “Desert Fathers,” the earliest Christian monastic tradition, the lectio-meditatio-oratio-contemplatio tradition of later Western monasteries, the “Jesus Prayer” and hesychast traditions of Eastern Christianity, the Cloud of Unknowing, up to the Carmelite saints of prayer, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He also gives an overview of how these traditions continued into modern times, and how growing awareness of Eastern methods of meditation increased interest in Christian meditation to the Christian laity everywhere. This of course, is all preliminary, but interesting.
Next is the presentation of “Centering Prayer,” what he calls a new “packaging” of contemplative prayer. It’s the approach of The Cloud of Unknowing, but distilled into three simple “rules.”
Rule One: At the beginning of the Prayer, we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” or some other prayer.
Rule Two: After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.
Rule Three: Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by use of the prayer word.
Pennington’s rules for centering prayer are helpful and brief. I found that I was soon doing centering prayer, rather than just thinking about doing it. Nevertheless, there are many challenges: distracting thoughts, consistency of practice, fitting centering prayer into the larger whole of one’s day-to-day living, service, and the larger whole of one’s spiritual life, for instance. The majority of the pages here are about these concerns—this is a how-to book for busy Christian laypeople, and Pennington beautifully addresses all of these items and more.
Fr. Pennington writes from the perspective of having given workshops and retreats on centering prayer for several years, with experience of helping thousands of people overcome these obstacles. Furthermore, he also brings his perspective as a religious priest, with years of ongoing training in daily deep prayer. The result is a how-to book, describing a practical method for the most elusive of all spiritual disciplines.
ancient and modern voices
Yet on my second reading of Centering Prayer, I find I prefer The Cloud for its emphasis that the true method of contemplation is essentially love, far more than it is a prayer word. There is an analytical tone to the book, which is helpful in some respects, but it seems to me now to quench the infectiously loving and passionate spirit of contemplation as exemplified by the author of The Cloud. The Cloud is far more open, far more passionate, far more joyful, and at least after a decent time of becoming familiar with this “contemplative work of love,” more helpful. And as one continues on the path, Privy Counseling may well become the most treasured of all three of these works.
However, I’d urge anyone interested in Christian meditation to read both modern books like Centering Prayer or Open Mind, Open Heart, and classics such as The Cloud and Privy Counsel. Also, check out the Centering Prayer website at http://www.centeringprayer.com.