Deepening the Practice of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault

Notes #9 from Cynthia Bourgeault: Olympic Park Inst. Centering Prayer Retreat – Sept. 1-5, 2003

This post was originally published in Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place (#7 and #8).

Thursday a.m.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5,6)

Read at 2 levels:

1. outer level – don’t pray to be seen.  But let your prayer be in secret ie. in sincerity.

2. metaphor for what happens in passage from kataphatic to apophatic.  Close door to outer faculties.  Room = heart, spiritual awareness.  Go into your centre and close the door to the outer world and pray in secret – ie. prayer in which you don’t know what is going on.  The secret is from yourself.  When we try to get at the secret, we are caught in self-reflection.

You are relinquishing your right to a personal cognitive experience of the Divine.  This is where this prayer is pushing.  The only way you can get beyond the experience/ experiencer dualism is to give up the right to have the experience.

When the subject/object dualism drops out in us we lose the ability to stand back and perceive the mountain and say “Aha, how beautiful it is,” so that you don’t even know that God is even there anymore.  God has collapsed.  There is no longer any inside and outside.  You simply step inside love and are lost in it and flow out of it into the world.  You sense some sort of deeper grounding where you are being held.  We simply enter without even any claim to bring something back with us.

In most meditation schools, the “I am” presence is important.  The goal is to be present in a deep way in your deep personal “I am” and not to lose your grip on that personal consciousness.  And we have to admit that to experience the “I am” is one of the powerful and important experiences of personal consciousness.  To feel the “I am” presence is the be all and end all of many spiritualities, the fundamental reverberation of being itself.  Most meditational practices aim at clear mind to connect with pure being consciousness.  This lies behind Christian Meditation – you have to stay present, to attain to a state of conscious pure presence which is the full realization of your individual personalized participation in Divine being.

“Sinking mind” = when no thoughts but nobody present, wonderful haze but a trap which takes you away form the clear mind you are aiming towards.  Comes from Vipassana background in which goal is state of “I am” conscious presence.

CP goal beyond conscious presence.  What is the state beyond presence itself?

The Taste of Hidden Things – 4 types of prayer

1. prayer of the tongue – can be mechanical

2.  prayer of the heart – personal affectivity begins to be engaged, begin to be in touch with your yearning = level of “oratio”

3. prayer of seer/secret – corresponds to entry into apophatic prayer.  The “I am” fundamentally resounds in you.

4.  prayer of the ruah/spirit – level at which spirit within contemplates God in total cognitive silence.  What goes on in the spirit is a secret even from the conscious self = the ultimate apophatic state and you have to trust it.  Have to come back because, having reached that place, you as a practitioner have a responsibility to become conscious, to allow that which has been carried and which is going on like a secret fire in the heart of your holy of holies to reverberate in your being by saying “I am,” by being aware, by practicing presence.

CP without a vessel of presence around it can collapse into a psychological yen.

The Cloud = irreducible communication gap built in by the fact of infinitude and finitude trying to relate.

Only in the West and post-John of the Cross does emphasis on contemplation being a gift ever show up.  And it reflects Western Christianity’s control issues.  We got this whole dichotomy between acquired and infused contemplation and we’re trying to say that contemplation is a gift which means that we can’t get our hands on it.  I think that teaching is wrong.  Actually, they are two separate tracks.  And one of the mistakes we made along with making contemplation the pinnacle of our prayer is that we also developed this developmental thing that first you have to go through the prayer of the tongue and then heart, seer, master conscious presence and then you may fall into contemplation.  In fact they are two different operations and we need to be working on them all the time simultaneously.  CP works along the path of surrender.  And surrender if you trust it, connects you instantly with that place at the heart of the secret.  It takes you beyond presence.

The thing of contemplation being a gift you see very clearly emerges from a kataphatic level of consciousness which is fully related to giver and receiver.  In other words that kind of teaching is not at the level it is describing.  And it’s what’s dogged the path of Western Christianity.  You do through surrender go directly into the prayer of total cognitive silence.  This is one track.  The other track is the track of attention, of conscious presence, of moving from personal self to transpersonal self.  They are separate tracks.  We need to be fluent in both of them.  But the mistake is putting prayer in as the apotheosis of what really is a different track which is the surrender track.

Suppose that from the beginning we started with the deep contemplative self that always from beginning to end was perfect, was full, was beyond and that the real problem was that we didn’t have a bridge to it.  So the real goal is not so much melting the false self as strengthening and tempering the finite being so that it can bear the beams of love.  Move from epicenter out.  Centre is the holy of holies which you live in in complete cognitive silence to your self.  Around that is this level of the transpersonal self, the “I am,” not what you are but that you are, that you sound in yourself and use to be present and use to relativize that next one which is that affective terribly immature self that’s yearning and seeking but is so intent on its own agendas and its own woundedness.  We can flow out from the centre of our self to humanize all those levels of being and bring them into relationship with each other.  That is the spiritual journey.


Full teaching available at: “Deepening The Practice of Centering Prayer”

2 replies
  1. Max Contag
    Max Contag says:

    John 6: 15

    15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

    After the miracle of the multiplication of the fish and the bread Jesus retires to a lonely place to pray alone. There is something here, a message that i am missing, and it is more than the fact that the crowds wanted to make him king. There is something to be learned from the sequence grand miracle – retire to pray alone. Can anybody help me understand this verse better, and understand what scripture is teaching us in this verse? Thank You, Max

    • Sandra
      Sandra says:

      Sometimes we are so busy looking for hidden meanings that we miss the simple explanation. In Matthew Henry”s words:
      Chris chose sometimes to be alone, to teach us to sequester ourselves from the world now and then, for the more free converse with God and our own souls; and never less alone, says the serious Christian, than when alone. Public services must not jostle out private devotions.

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