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Centring prayer: the activism of contemplation

Wednesday, 16 December 2020  | Karina Kreminski

Do you think that you have a prophetic voice that will bring justice and change, and must be heard? Do you shout so loudly that you wonder why people have stopped listening? Are you dissatisfied again? What is at the heart of your anger? Is it the hurt inside that calls out or the stirring work of God that calls you? Allow yourself to be loved… and to love… for this is a radically transformative and prophetic act.

- Celtic Daily Prayer, Book Two

In a world that is broken, we struggle sometimes with the tension between activism and resignation. We can feel that we are powerless, so we either engage energetically with our environment in order to make an impact and bring about change or we pull back and wonder if our actions have any effect at all.

When we engage in order to bring justice to our broken world, we become prophetic activists wanting to usher in the new reality that is the kingdom of God. This is obviously a good thing.

However, much of our activism can come from a place that is unhealthy, broken and needy. These days there is pressure to create platforms, to speak out, to have our voice heard. We are encouraged to be militant with our activism, to even get angry about injustice, as though it is a modern-day fruit of the Spirit. These are manifestations of an apocalyptic climate — that is, a season in our culture that is continually in crisis, revealing the fissures in a damaged world. We are all desperate to do something rather than nothing.

But before we take action, we need to check to see what is happening inwardly for us. Are we restless in a restless climate? We can’t allow ourselves to become infected with the lack of peace and restlessness that currently exists in our world. This is not at all a call for passivity, but rather an encouragement for an inward check in order to ensure that our activism is stemming from a grounded, rested and faith-based place.

One way that we can do this is through centring prayer.

In Consenting to God as God Is, Trappist monk Thomas Keating outlines the process of centring prayer. I think this is a practice that is very much needed in our times of crisis when we are instinctively quick to react. Centring prayer is the simple practice of sitting in silence and becoming aware of the presence of God, and then allowing God to love us. It does not rely on words or visualisations, though they can be used in order to move into this silent space. It is not about ‘experiencing’ God. Rather, it is the practice of consenting to receive God’s love for us. As we receive this love, we are empowered by that love to participate with God on his mission.

So how is centring prayer useful to us today?

A check on our ‘false-self’

The difference between the false self and the true self is described in Galatians 5:19-21 and 22-23. The false self is often what we project to the world. We strive, push and assert ourselves in order to have our voices heard and sometimes even to build our own empires. Richard Rohr says:

The false self, which we might also call the “small self”, is merely your launching pad: your appearance, your education, your job, your money, your success, and so on. These are the trappings of ego that help you get through an ordinary day. They are what Bill Plotkin wisely calls your “survival dance”, but they are not yet your “sacred dance”.

Some of this is not all wrong. However, if our false self overwhelms us and becomes who we are, then we begin to function from a place that is unhealthy. Even though there is critique about this dichotomy of the true and false self, I think it’s a helpful framework as it makes us aware of various aspects of our identity and helps us to think about making right choices. When we are in centring payer and allowing ourselves to be loved by God, we can lay down our false self and reveal our true self to God — the self that is naked, vulnerable and needy of attention that only God can give. As we become full of this love of God we are more confident to go into our world with that affirmation, not needing others’ approval of us as we have the approval that we really need. This can help ensure that our activism is fuelled by a rested trust in God’s love rather than a drive that could be coming from our broken self.

We recognise the presence of God

Sometimes we can feel as though God is absent in our lives. We see suffering and wonder where God is. We search for experiences of God and find that, like sugar cravings, they only satisfy for a while; then we need a bigger ‘hit’ in order to feel something. Centring prayer enables us to realise that what feels like the absence of God is actually God’s presence. Like Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19), we do not find God is in the thunder or in the wind or the earthquake, but only in the stillness and sheer silence do we recognise what we thought was empty is actually full of the love of God. Keating writes:

God’s desire to heal us is in direct proportion to our confidence, that in spite of all the obstacles in our lives and our personal defects, God is sympathetic to our goodwill and the union with him that our hearts are longing for.

When we engage in centring prayer we begin to absorb the truth that God looks beyond our brokenness and sees our true self that is seeking him. In short, we believe that ‘God is good. All the time’. Jesus said that we can enter into a private place with God in ‘secret’ (Matthew 6:6) and that this is a place for Divine love to work in us. He says that we will be rewarded if we do this. The Aramaic roots of that word reward means something akin to the full blossoming of human nature. In a world that is in crisis, we can be strengthened by knowing that what looks like God’s absence is actually God’s presence.

We become ‘incarnational contemplatives’

Keating says that ‘to be a channel of divine love is the greatest contribution we can make to humanity’. As we are filled with God’s love in centring prayer we are more and more able to integrate activism and contemplation. Increasingly, our true self surfaces. We can become incarnational contemplatives as we emerge from our moments of stillness with God and live out that love. We understand that our activity is not based on our confidence in our own resources or strength but on God’s empowering.

This kind of integration, inner peace and nurturing of our true self is needed today in a world that is restless, self-promoting, angry and weary. Practicing centring prayer can connect us with God’s love so that we are grounded in our activism, participating with God on his mission to restore a world that needs healing. Stillness, silence and retreat are not popular options today, but they are necessary if we are to be God’s image-bearers in a world that has clearly gone very wrong and needs his restoration.

Karina Kreminski is co-founder of Neighbourhood Matters and the author of Urban Spirituality (2018). She is a minister, has a doctorate in missional formation and has taught at Morling College.

This blog was first published on 9th December 2020 at Missio Alliance. Republished and edited with permission from the author.

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