Book Review: Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
9th October 2019
By Sr Magdalen Mather osb
Book Review: Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault
Editor’s note: This article spells ‘centering’ as the book’s author has done.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in diving deeply into the practice of centering Prayer. It is an excellent guide for the beginner and a wonderful source of reminder and inspiration for those who have been practicing for some time.
The first section of the book offers an in depth exploration of the basics of the practice. The conversational style invites our participation and engagement as students of this way of prayer. While the tone is conversational, the content is never superficial. Cynthia Bourgeault writes from the fruits of her decades of practice and study. It is therefore an in-depth presentation of the process centering prayer takes, and how that process may look as we begin our own practice. She shares generously how she has come to understand, context and conceptualise her experience of centering Prayer. Always practical Cynthia provides a pack of helpful material to steer us on our way containing tools such as dealing with thoughts and distractions, the feel of apophatic prayer - what is ‘normal’ and to be expected in this practice of silent presence - to name but a few.
Part two of the book tells the story of the modern origins of centering prayer and traces its roots deep into the Christian tradition. ‘ While the Cloud of Unknowing is the immediate source for Centering Prayer, the Cloud itself rests on a stream of lived tradition by then more than a thousand years old’ (p. 58). Fundamentally based in the spiritual teaching and practice of Jesus, the influence of the desert mothers and father and the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina are also clearly seen. Exploration of these strands gives a fascinating read and solid understanding of the Christian traditions which underpin centering Prayer. The theology of Centering Prayer is also explored as a surrender or letting go practice – based largely though not solely in the kenosis (self emptying) of Jesus as described in Philippians 2 prefaced with ‘Let what was seen in Christ Jesus be seen also in you… he did not claim equality with God as something he should cling to. Rather, he emptied himself… ’
In section three the focus shifts to the psychology of centering prayer and unpacks what might be expected to unfold as the practice deepens. Fr Thomas Keating coined the apt description ‘The Divine Therapy’ to describe the process which ‘results in a comprehensive psycho-spiritual paradigm that begins in woundedness and ends, if a person is willing to take it that far, in transforming union’ (93). The practice then moves outward as the title to the tenth chapter indicates ‘from healing to holiness’. Cynthia’s exploration of process, her reservations with some aspects of the process of healing and helpful clarifications around areas which many may find confusing, serve to ground this practice steadily within a Christian arena. ‘My concern is that the therapy metaphor, taken too literally, may cause people to underestimate the reservoir of strength an divine assistance available to them at any moment through the sheer fact that Centering Prayer is indeed prayer and not therapy.’(109)
In the introduction to the book Cynthia describes part four as an attempt to widen the scope of our understanding of centering prayer both theoretically and practically. She attempts to build a bridge between centering prayer and the traditional language and methodology of inner awakening – citing the work of the mystic theologian Symeon the New Theologian who teaches about placing the attention on (in) the heart (Ch 11). She says: ‘my guiding understanding has been that inner work is a way of accepting the profound invitation to have in yourselves that same mind as Christ’ (Phil 2:5). On a daily and practical basis Cynthia explains the Welcoming Prayer process. This is a method developed by centering prayer practitioner Mary Mrozowski which is about carrying the surrender/awareness practice into daily life. It is about practicing the acceptance of life as it presents itself in the present moment – and proceeding from that point.
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is a book full of priceless treasures. It is to be read slowly and savoured, pondered and used as a ‘how to’ guide book. My own copy is now dog eared and much read, referenced and returned to again and again. It does not lose its freshness or cease to offer something new each time I return to delve into its pages. Cynthia’s summation and final invitation speak loudly: ‘Whoever you are, or whatever your spiritual reference points, I hope you’ll feel invited into this book…I know from my own experience that there is something in this prayer that can restore harmony, dignity and depth to our lived Christian community. It is this, more than anything else that I wish to share with you’. (xiv)
Sr Magdalen Mather, osb has been a member of the Benedictine community at The Abbey at Jamberoo NSW for 23 years.
This book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault, is a new title in the Books for Groups collection thanks to a generous donation of a member. It is a complete guidebook to the practice of Centering Prayer, which also relates the practice to the classic tradition of Christian contemplation and explores its revolutionary potential to transform Christian life. See details about how to hire this book as an individual or for a group https://www.eremos.org.au/books-for-hire
Website: Books for Hire