Centering Prayer: A Conversation with Dr. Brian Russell
Dr. Brian Russell is the author of Centering Prayer: Sitting Quietly in God’s Presence Can Change Your Life, a uniquely rich resource for spiritual formation that draws on meaningful traditions of the church across centuries. For those sensing the need for fresh practices to widen or deepen their prayer habits, Centering Prayer beckons with wisdom that outlasts stale New Year’s resolutions. As Lent begins to appear on the horizon, Centering Prayer is poised to enliven the pilgrimage to Easter with practical, theologically nuanced guidance.
Recently Wesleyan Accent delved into the topic of centering prayer with Dr. Russell, who is Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.
Wesleyan Accent: At times, folks who are most familiar with Christianity as it is practiced in North American Protestant churches are surprised when they encounter something that seems new but is actually shared ancient tradition. Or people can spend thirty years active in a local church and still feel uncertain about how to pray privately. How would you describe contemplative prayer to them? And how would you describe centering prayer as part of that tradition?
Brian Russell: I can include myself in your example. I grew up in the church. I was forty-two years old (and thirty-six years into my Christian experience) before I learned about the contemplative tradition and began to practice centering prayer.
I think it is critical to emphasize that contemplative practices in no way replace traditional forms of prayer or the other means of grace that help us to grow in our relationship with God. I still pray with my own words or with printed prayers from Scripture and modern worship resources. The foundation for centering prayer is the faith delivered to the saints as witnessed in Scripture and embraced by believing communities.
Contemplative prayer is a form of prayer that focuses on being with God rather than using words to talk to God or make petitions of God or even to listen for God. Contemplative prayer is practiced in silence. We simply sit in silence apart from our own thoughts, desires, and concerns. Our intention is to experience God’s presence and love. In his book The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self, Robert Mulholland, Jr. defined contemplation as, “the practice of stilling ourselves before God, moving ever deeper into the core of our being and simply offering ourselves to God in totally vulnerable love.” (p. 97)
Centering prayer is a method for stilling ourselves for the potential of a deeper encounter with God through contemplation. God’s presence is always a gift; centering prayer is not a way of manipulating an encounter with God’s love. It is simply prayer done in silence without words.
But as soon as we sit in silence, we discover that our minds remain active and caught in continual thought loops. Silence is literally deafening because of our mental chatter. Centering prayer as a technique teaches a way to surrender our thoughts as we become aware of them. The goal of this surrender is the opening of ourselves to experiencing God as God beyond our thoughts.
How do we practice centering prayer? It’s simple to describe, but it takes patience and practice. Here are the basic instructions:
- Select a prayer word that you can use to recenter whenever you become aware of your thoughts. I recommend that we use “Jesus” as the prayer word as it is Jesus before whom we are sitting in silence. However, others find words such as “love,” “surrender,” “Father,” and “Spirit” among others to be powerful.
- Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably for the duration of your prayer time.
- You can practice centering prayer any time of day. I typically spend twenty minutes in centering prayer as soon as I finish my first cup of coffee in the morning. My wife Astrid and I sit together as a way of beginning our day.
- Set a timer. I typically practice centering prayer in twenty-minute blocks. Select whatever time period you are comfortable with. I started with short three to five minute sessions and slowly worked up to twenty minutes.
- Close your eyes and simply sit in silence. Whenever you become aware of a thought, feeling or image, simply say “Jesus” (or whatever word you chose) in your mind as a means of surrendering the thought. The goal is not mindlessness. It is not possible to shut off the mind. However, you will begin to experience short “gaps” in the endless stream of thoughts. It will be in these gaps where you may experience God’s presence in new ways. I say may because we cannot control God. We simply sit in silence with the intention to be open to God’s gift of contemplation.
- At the end of the centering prayer session, relax for a few moments. I find it helpful to offer prayers of gratitude and then pray the Lord’s Prayer or one of my own.
WA: A while back I heard a great interview on the “economy of attention,” about how much your attention, my attention, is worth to companies. When there’s so much noise, when notification pings compete for our attention, when screens dominate our days, “centering prayer” seems exceptionally counter-cultural – and also seems like a way to quiet sensory bombardment. How does centering prayer help remind you you’re a human, not just a commodity?
BR: The practice of centering prayer is about being. There is no doing involved. Centering prayer teaches us to surrender our attention. We embrace the intention of sitting in silence in order to be with God. When our practice becomes habitual, we slowly become even more aware of the chatter in our minds and all of the noise in the world. But there will be a key difference: the disciplines of “resist no thought, retain no thought, react to no thought, and gently return to Jesus with our sacred word” go with us into the world.
Overtime, we begin to be mindful and present even during the busy-ness of our lives. The same discipline of learning to surrender thoughts to God in silence will carry over to how you listen to a colleague, family member, or friend who needs your attention; how you respond to the inevitable interruptions of life; how you react to conflict; and how you focus on your work. You will slowly find that you notice small details and experience the world in richer colors. Others will likely observe a more calming presence and availability in you.
In terms of the noise of our world, I’ve found that the more I practice centering prayer the more conscious I am of the subtle ways that our world robs us of our most precious gift to God and others: our time and our attention.
WA: Early in the book, describing the season in which you discovered the deep value of centering prayer, you comment that during your personal dark night of the soul, “my ability to think clearly had departed.”
What a word to so many people right now who are in shellshock from the past couple of years: nurses, doctors, pastors, teachers, those who are drowning in grief from the loss of loved ones. Alongside mental health tools like trauma-informed therapy and medication, what in particular might people find in centering prayer when they feel fractured or numb or horrified in their own dark nights of the soul?
BR: For me, centering prayer allowed me to find freedom from a mind that would not shut off. At the darkest parts of my season of the “dark night of the soul,” I didn’t need more information or mental stimulation. I ruminated non-stop on negative thoughts and worst-case scenarios. I was inconsolable.
But I found silence or, better put, silence found me, and in the silence I rediscovered the God who created me and who loved me unconditionally. Experiencing God’s unabashed loved for me when I felt at my lowest was transformational. God’s love cut through the noise. While I still experience times of incessant worry and anxiety, I gained an awareness of the excess and often negative chatter in my mind. In these moments, I sometimes encountered God’s loving presence directly; beyond words. I think that centering prayer can serve as a type of “Divine therapy,” as Fr. Thomas Keating described it. It does not substitute for human-to-human therapy or medication, but I believe it can work in tandem to increase their effectiveness. I’ve personally received tremendous benefits from trauma-informed therapy. In my case, I am certain that my long-term commitment to silent meditative prayer and deep intentional journaling greatly enhanced the results of therapy, as the Divine Healer had already broken up the soil of both the conscious and unconscious wounds that I carried.
WA: You mention in one place that in centering prayer, “surrendering our thoughts to God is our sole contribution.” I could imagine that statement causing some squirming; Americans so often take pride in our ability to put our best foot forward or feel that somehow we’ve paid our own way. We’re not always gracious recipients, preferring to be the ones building or giving. What do you think Christians need to learn or re-learn about our own poverty?
BR: Centering prayer allows us to see ourselves as God sees us. But to experience this level of awareness requires that we surrender even our thoughts (good or bad) to the God who loves us.
There are two deep and helpful truths that exist in a sort of paradox. These truths are expressed in the form of two prayers that I say daily. The first is the Jesus Prayer. It has ancient roots in the early church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Amen.” The second is a modern prayer composed by Macrina Wiederkehr, a Benedictine monastic: “O God, help me believe the truth about myself no matter how beautiful it is. Amen.” I learned of this latter prayer from Maxie Dunnam.
The Jesus Prayer reminds us of our core lostness and ongoing necessity of God’s grace and mercy. There is no way to earn grace and mercy. We come before God empty-handed, with a posture of surrender.
But we also need to understand that God breathed life and abundance in each of us too. Wiederkehr’s prayer opens us up to the beauty and potential of a life surrendered to God in which we walk moment-by-moment in grace as persons created in God’s image. We are free to embrace our gifts and talents without the fear, guilt and shame that tends to either paralyze us and make us play small or drive us to earn or prove our “enoughness.”
WA: Traditionally, there’s this beautiful pattern of retreat and engagement, solitude and companionship, that push and pull spiritual formation like the coming and going of the tide. In centering prayer, when you brave silence with God and sit with what you find there, how does that shape the way you then go out and engage with others?
BR: One of my favorite quotes that I live by is from my mentor Alex McManus. He taught me: “The Gospel comes to us on its way to someone else.” The prayer of silence allows you to see yourself as God sees you. We discover both our need for grace as well as the beauty and potential within us. When we experience the gaze of God on our souls and discover God’s deep love for us as his sons and daughters, we begin to see others in the same light. In fact, encountering God in the silence and accepting the reality that we’ve personally been unconditionally loved and accepted transforms the way we see others. We are freed to love others as God has loved us. My mentor and former colleague Bob Tuttle taught me this: “Show up, pay attention; God has way more invested in our ministry than we do.”
So instead of silence and solitude being a practice that excludes mission, it is one that empowers engagement with the world. What I’ve experienced must be shared. Moreover, as God has changed me through the sanctifying work that occurs during centering prayer, I am free of more of my own “junk” that previously marred my witness and ability to serve as the hands, feet, and mouthpiece of God’s abundant and holy love.
Brian D. Russell, Ph.D., is Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. Learn more about his role as Coach for Pastors and Spiritually-minded Leaders by visiting www.brianrussellphd.com.
Featured image courtesy Fragile James via Unsplash.