I went through a phase where I would avoid using the word “pray.” It felt uncomfortable because prayer seemed to only refer to a way of petitioning the Divine for something a person wanted, for one’s self and for others, like forgiveness (for a wrong) or a favor (to heal or help someone). Even more abhorrent to me was that prayers were often used to ask the Divine to destroy someone else so that we (in whatever form or group) could be the “winners.” Sometimes the prayer was one of gratitude, and hymns often seemed like prayers of adoration; I definitely felt more at ease with those kinds of prayers. Nevertheless, the Christians around me kept talking to Source, but were we listening?
Where was the practice of stillness to receive guidance?
A while back, I wrote my own lyrics for a traditional hymn called “In the Garden” though I only changed them slightly, for example singing forest instead of garden, and maybe one reason I’ve always loved this hymn is because it is about listening to the voice of the Divine.
The Catholic tradition is more familiar with prayer as listening (as compared to Protestants) because of the exemplary devotions of historical people within its structure (some called saints, others simply referred to as mystics), although it has generally been limited to monastics. The only other Christian tradition that seems to hold sacred a practice of listening prayer is the Society of Friends (Quakers). I was left wondering: why do most Christians avoid a practice of listening?
Isn’t it odd that Protestants broke away from traditions that enforced an intermediary between the people and God (the priests, confessionals, and their hierarchies), only to create a different intermediary framework (ministers who were accepted as the “best” interpreters of the sacred texts)? Why are people so afraid of trusting in their own relationship with the Divine?
A few months ago, I was fiercely angry about a conversation I’d heard. It seems that an elderly person felt deeply comforted by her personal belief in heaven as a place where she could again be with her family members who had passed away. However, a pastor told her that heaven wasn’t like that – he said that in heaven no one would know each other but we would all simply be at peace. Seriously?! What kind of minister is that to take away her comfort? And, even more, why would she or anyone place more trust in a supposed “expert” than in what their own heart, study, and belief told her heaven was like?
As I have researched and explored over the years many non-Christian religions and spiritual cultures, I found a significant majority of them had practices in which they could participate to create space within for listening to and being embraced by Source. These were beautiful spiritual practices of faith! Only after finding these did I come across, for instance, the exquisite writings of Saint Teresa of Avila on the step-by-step process for contemplation.
Eventually, I came across a contemporary person who had been working for decades to create a Christian path into listening prayer: Father Thomas Keating and his “Centering Prayer.” Below is a marvelous video of one of Fr. Keating’s introductions to this contemplative practice: