Session 4: New/Old Ways of Praying

An Online Retreat prepared by Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ

Then every scribe
who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven
is like the head of a household
who brings from [the] storeroom
BOTH THE NEW AND THE OLD.

Matthew 13:52
St. Croix River along Minnesota/Wisconsin border
[photo by Eleanor Lincoln]

Like all rivers the St. Croix (Holy Cross) River can remind us of our life journeys. This river, formed by glacial ice centuries ago, continues to flow along, ever renewing itself. Our life too can ever renew itself through prayer.

When you look at many church bulletins today, you will discover opportunities for a variety of prayer experiences. Contemporary Christians have a new interest in both old and new ways of praying.

Perhaps you would like to join a Centering Prayer group or try some meditative walking on the path of a labyrinth. Both this very quiet form of prayer and this active form were very popular in earlier centuries. Many people today have found renewed interest in both of them.

Think for a moment about your own customary ways of praying. How do you pray? How often do you pray? What gives you the most peace when you pray?

Centering Prayer

The Contemplation stage of Holy Reading leads quite naturally into Centering Prayer. As we learned in Session 2 of this Retreat it is only in recent decades that “ordinary” people have been encouraged to read and pray with the Bible and to contemplate.

The practice of contemplation, the prayer of the saints and mystics since earliest Christian times, has been restored to us especially in what is called “centering prayer.”

Perhaps you have heard of two contemporary writers who have written a lot about Centering Prayer, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. They base their description of Centering Prayer on a book, The Cloud of Unknowing, by a 14th century mystic,. They have adapted and updated this earlier form of contemplative prayer for those of us who want to practice this kind of prayer today.

Books by Thomas Merton, 20th-century monk and writer, also encourage today’s Christians to engage in contemplative prayer. Contemplation, as he recommends, is for all of us, both Christian and non-Christian alike, who wish to be open to the presence of God in our lives.

Unlike some other forms of prayer Centering Prayer asks us to lay aside our thoughts and feelings as expressed in words and to open our mind and heart–our whole being–to God, the ultimate reality beyond our thoughts, words, and emotions.

When we open our awareness to God–who is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer even than consciousness itself–we prepare ourselves to cooperate with the gift to us of God’s holy presence. Centering Prayer help us to grow in the practice of contemplative prayer.

Centering Prayer does not replace other forms of prayer, but simply puts other kinds of prayer in a fuller perspective. Centering Prayer is not an end in itself but a beginning of a deeper prayer. It opens us out to the fruits of prayer: charity, joy, peace, self-knowledge, humility, and compassion for others.

The ideal is to practice Centering Prayer daily. However, to practice it occasionally is better than never experiencing it at all. At this point in this Retreat session you might want to begin Centering Prayer.

Set aside 15 to 30 quiet minutes for your centering prayer.

Begin by choosing a sacred word or phrase to use as a symbol of your intention to be open to God’s presence. The word could be a name of God or an image of God or a quality of God–e.g. Loving Mystery, Jesus, Living Water, Peace, Love–whatever word you feel comfortable with.

Sit comfortably in a quiet place and settle yourself. Breathe deeply and close your eyes. When you are ready, silently introduce your sacred word as an indication of your consent to God’s presence and action within you.

Be open to God’s presence within you. When you become aware of thoughts or distractions, return very gently to your sacred word. These thoughts or distractions might include sense perceptions, emotions, images, memories, anxieties.

At the end of your prayer time, remain in silence with your eyes closed for a couple of minutes. This helps you to adjust to external reality and gives you a better chance of bringing the atmosphere of interior silence into the activities of your daily life.

Just as with Holy Reading you can pray privately or with a group.

Walking the Journey – the Labyrinth

We are all on a journey with and to God. Centering Prayer, practiced regularly, guides us on this journey. Another way of making this journey, on occasion, is the labyrinth which physically and symbolically reminds us of our journey to the holy.

A labyrinth is a circular diagram which consists of a single concentric circular path leading to the center. There is no possibility of going astray (although it is possible to deviate into various by-paths). A newspaper headline for an article about labyrinths read, “Going in Circles to Get Straight.”

Walking the labyrinth, an ancient spiritual act, is kind of physical meditation that has been rediscovered in our time. Many labyrinths are based on the design laid in the stone floor of the cathedral at Chartres, built in 12th-century France. Other labyrinths have been found in almost every religious tradition on several continents.

The Chartres labyrinth is composed of fifteen concentric circles leading to the center. This center, shaped like a six-petal flower, is the goal of the journey.

During the Middle Ages the labyrinth in various designs was used as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Today walking the labyrinth symbolizes our journey to the holy. Walking the labyrinth is a way of connecting with God and of finding transformation in our lives.

Because this prayer form was forgotten for centuries, many visitors to Chartres Cathedral over the years never saw the huge labyrinth on the floor because chairs had been placed over the design. Now if you go to Chartres you will find that the labyrinth has been restored to view and use.

Today many labyrinths can be found throughout the United States and Europe. Some are sewn pieces of cloth or painted on floors inside churches while others are mowed into lawns. The one shown here has been mowed into the lawn behind Carondelet Center in St. Paul, Minnesota under the auspices of Wisdom Ways, Resource Center for Spirituality.

Walking the labyrinth is part of a new/old interest in meditative walking. Some of us who have a hard time sitting still may find that we can pray better while walking. Meditative walking takes various forms, including liturgical movement.

As a four-year-old child once said, “If you want to know God better, you could take a walk with God.” In meditative walking, moving the body quiets the mind. There is no “right way” to walk the labyrinth. But it is important to be attentive to what happens within you as you walk and pray your way to the holy.

Now it is time for you to do some meditative walking. Remember that the labyrinth is a pilgrimage where you follow a circular journey to the center, a journey to the holy.

If you have an actual indoor or outdoor labyrinth available to you, walk its concentric paths slowly, knowing that the path with its turns will eventually lead you to your goal at the center.

You may want to use the diagram here, tracing your journey with a pencil or a finger, or to devise/adapt a labyrinth pattern outdoors where you can do some meditative walking.

Notice what God may be saying to you as you journey. What thoughts, what insights, what wisdom does your journey open up to you?

While one form of prayer is quiet and the other active, both Centering Prayer and the Labyrinth lead us to God at the center. But they challenge us to quite different ways of praying. In Centering Prayer we sit quietly in wordless prayer, letting God’s presence fill us. Walking the Labyrinth, an active kind of prayer, leads us along a circular path to the center where the holy is to be found.

All prayer leads us to the center who is God. As we follow the path of our life, we move to that center. Let us pray in the words of the psalmist:

You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence…

Psalm 16: 11