Saturday, April 25, 2009

One more thing

It occurred to me this morning that there's one other thing Thomas Keating says about Centering Prayer (other than the one about ten thousand opportunities to return to God) that I need to share with you. I can't give you the exact quotation, but it's something like this: even if the Virgin Mary shows up, let her go; use your sacred word and let her go.

I partly realized this yesterday when I was explaining to a friend that what shows up here on the blog every morning almost always follows a photograph. I read, I meditate, and then I sit and sift through my photos until I find one that seems to need attention. I place it here, and then begin to write.

Sometimes something that surfaced briefly in meditation appears again here, but more often than not it is something I read that has a way of resonating through onto the page. It's not that what happens in meditation or what I see there feeds the blog and my life; it's more that meditation serves as a sort of tuning fork, allowing me to still that part of me that swings out and away from center to come back into oneness.

This is the trickier part about centering prayer, because the language we use around it makes us think we're kind of "in there, looking for God." It's easy to get what feels like a revelation, and to want to, well, revel in it. And most of us long to feel special, so if we have some sudden insight, we feel God has spoken to us and we want to bask in that sense of connection.

The problem with this (and here's where language tends to get in the way) is that even saying things like "creating a space for God" leaves us stuck in this egoic space where God is still other, separate from us. The "spiritual experiences" -- if we allow ourselves to get sucked into them -- actually keep us stuck in ego-land, in the very dualistic consciousness that centering prayer works to resolve or alleviate.

In Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Cynthia Bourgeault calls this problem "spiritual acquisitiveness," saying:

"Ultimately, we cannot have our cake and eat it too, and to step into full unitive consciousness requires letting go of that lesser consciousness which would prefer to revel in its own experience. To arrive at this unified whole, there is only one route to get there, and it is known to all the spiritual traditions of the world: dying to self. The self who "has" experiences must finally be let go, as consciousness steps out into the bare, positionless freedom which is unity...One does not "snatch" at insights, illuminations, experiences, because the only known route to unitive freedom is in the dying, in the moving not toward more, but toward less."

To clarify this she offers this wonderful poem by the great Indian mystic Rabindranath Tagore:

Time after time
I came to your gate with raised hands,
Asking for more and yet more.
You gave and gave,
now in slow measure,
now in sudden excess.

I took some, and some things I let drop;
some lay heavy on my hands;
Some I made into playthings and broke them when tired;
Till the wrecks and hoards of your gifts grew immense, hiding you,
and the ceaseless expectation wore out my heart.

Take, oh take -- has now become my cry.
Shatter all from this beggar's bowl:
Put out the lamp of the importunate watcher.
Hold my hands,
raise me from the still-gathering heap of your gifts
into the bare infinity of your uncrowded presence.

Thomas Merton puts it another way.

"In the center of one's nothingness one meets the infinitely real. This act of total surrender is not merely a fantastic intellectual and mystical gamble; it is something much more serious. It is an act of love for this unseen person, who, in the very gift of love by which we surrender ourselves to his reality also makes his presence known to us."

Whatever you want to call that unseen person -- spirit, divine, Christ, True Self, God -- it is the oneness that awaits us when we continue practicing that letting go that forms the heart of centering prayer. And if you meet the Virgin Mary -- or some other amazing insight -- along the way, just let her go. What awaits you at the center is infinitely more... and if there's something you need to know about what came to you, it will still be sitting there waiting for you when your 20 minutes are up.

I promise.


Unknown said...

Amen. Very glad you included this.

I think it's important to say that that emptiness, that nothingness, can sound/feel frightening (like death), until you have experienced it. For me, it came after I had offered myself as completely as I knew how to do. And, though I had offered, the emptiness I was taken to STILL felt as if it was against my will, because the price was so very high.
Now, that emptiness is partly gift, and partly the "thorn in the flesh." It is what I have left, in Katie's absence. XO

painter ofblue said...

I loved hearing about your process in writing this beautiful blog. As always, a thought-provoking and insightful post.