It’s the start of a new year, and everywhere I look I see suggestions for how to make improvements in my life, from physical fitness to organization to spiritual growth. I’m all for ongoing growth, especially spiritual growth; but so often we approach our spiritual formation as a to-do list, thinking that if we just read the Bible more, pray more, or serve more, then we will reap spiritual growth (become more like Christ). The emphasis in this mindset is on self-effort and striving, which lead to shame. These three life-taking S’s keep us trapped in a cycle of performance:
Actually, the path to spiritual growth is one of releasing, not doing. It’s a process of letting go of self-effort, striving, and shame so that we can allow God to transform us, making us who we are meant to be. Contemplative practices facilitate this process, enabling us to quiet our minds and connect deeply with God so that “God, who began the good work within [us], will continue his work until it is finally finished….” (Philippians 1:6 NLT). Our part in this process is letting go through three life-giving S’s that lead to transformation:
The path to spiritual growth is one of releasing, not doing.
There was a time when I resisted these three S’s. As a 2 on the Enneagram (which is one way of looking at personality types), I desire connection, which generally involves being with people and communicating. So, silence and solitude were not initially appealing to me. Similarly, my 3 wing likes to be valued for being productive, something that our culture not only encourages but actually demands of us—and something that is not possible in stillness. But as I have learned to embrace silence, solitude, and stillness, I have discovered that these contemplative practices actually deliver so much more than the motivations of my ego ever could. The same is true for you, whatever your Enneagram number or interior motivation might be. Silence, solitude, and stillness slow us down, allowing us to let go of mental clutter, connect deeply with God, and rest in God's healing presence and love. And that is what transforms us.
If you're still not convinced, I get it. Few of us are inclined to enthusiastically embrace silence, solitude, or stillness—at least not in the beginning. From the time we rise in the morning to the time we go to sleep at night, we’re continually stimulated by a variety of screens and other "inputs" that keep our minds engaged and our hearts distracted. There is much within us that resists slowing down and quieting the noise. Quiet allows our fears, worries, regrets, disappointments, doubts, and resentments to surface—and who wants that, right? But here's the liberating truth: making space for these things to surface gives us the opportunity to practice noticing them and then letting them go as we acknowledge we are not in control and invite God to work within us. Silence, solitude, and stillness open us to this transformative work.
Centering prayer is a good way to begin practicing these postures that invite God’s deep work within. (See below for the guidelines and benefits of centering prayer.) In this practice of praying without words, God is accomplishing something we could never do for ourselves, something too deep for words. When I think of centering prayer, I think of Romans 8:26-27, which tells us that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with “wordless groans” (NIV), searching our hearts. I love how The Message Bible expresses it:
“If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”
We might say that centering prayer is the practice of completely trusting the Spirit of God to pray and work in us. Our part is simply to show up and "practice" letting go, noticing and releasing thoughts and emotions as they arise and then returning to resting in God. And, as with anything we “practice,” the fruit of our practice comes over time. The key is to stick with it and trust that, slowly but surely, noticeable changes will become evident—both within us and within our lives.
Centering prayer is the practice of completely trusting the Spirit of God to pray and work in us.
I admit that when I first started practicing centering prayer, it seemed that nothing was happening, and I was impatient with the process. But in time, I began to notice in my daily experience some of the benefits I had read about, such as being more present to God and others, more responsive (rather than reactive), and more at peace. Once I had this realization, I was hooked! Though purists suggest spending twenty minutes in prayer once or twice daily, I've found that to be unrealistic with my schedule. So, believing that something is better than nothing and that flexibility and customization are not only acceptable but also desirable when it comes to spiritual practices (after all, God works with each of us uniquely), I gave myself permission to develop a centering prayer practice that works for me. Though the duration of my silence varies, I notice benefits as long as I consistently make space for the practice.
During the past couple of years, which brought several significant losses, practicing silence, solitude, and stillness has been instrumental in helping me to "let go" and surrender to God’s work within me. This practice helped me through 2020, and I'm counting on it to see me through 2021. In fact, I have decided to make even more space in my life this year for this transformational practice. Phileena Heuertz says that "To the extent we are transformed, the world is transformed,"* and I agree that our our own transformation is necessary for the transformation of the world around us.
Our own transformation is necessary for the transformation of the world around us.
If you would like to join me in inviting God to do a deep work in you as you slow down and make space for more silence, solitude, and stillness this year, centering prayer is an excellent way to get started. For many people, sitting in silence with others can be more comfortable than doing it alone. Though a mystery, it's possible to experience solitude and community simultaneously. In fact, joining others in silence actually unites us as we rest in God’s love together.
During the season of Lent (the forty days preceding Easter), my friend and fellow spiritual director Scott Spradley and I will be offering an online centering prayer group designed as an introduction to the practice. We will meet on Zoom each Wednesday during the Lenten season. All are welcome, and we’d love to have you join us (see below for more info). Or if you’d like to try centering prayer on your own, I encourage you to download the centering prayer app from Contemplative Outreach (also see below), which allows you to select the duration of your silence and offers a variety of beginning/ending sounds and a selection of opening/closing prayers.
Of course, centering prayer is not the only way to slow down and connect more deeply with God. Observing regular Sabbath rest, meditating on Scripture (such as lectio divina), journaling, observing nature, taking walks or hikes, and practicing breath prayer are just a few examples of other contemplative practices. Choose one or two practices that appeal to you and commit to stick with them for several months, trusting that God is doing what you cannot do for yourself even if you do not yet see evidence of it. Be patient and remember that change comes over time. Whatever you choose, my prayer is that this year you will let go of striving and invite the deep work of God within you.
3 GUIDELINES OF CENTERING PRAYER
BENEFITS OF CENTERING PRAYER
CENTERING PRAYER APP
What: Introduction to Centering Prayer (Online Group)
When: Every Wednesday, February 17th - March 31, 2021, 5:30 - 6:00 p.m.
Sign Up Here: www.prov.church/sign-up (coming soon; or contact me at www.sallysharpe.net)
*Quoted in The Sacred Enneagram, Christopher L. Heuertz (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 172.
Hi, I'm Sally!
I'm passionate about connecting with God and connecting with people, offering spiritual encouragement and companionship. I'm so grateful to be on the journey with you as we walk with God together.