Living in the Presence of God
This flower, this light, this moment, this silence:
THOMAS MERTON’S poetic language draws us into a contemplative aware-ness of the sacredness of the present moment. He evokes the mystery that in the simplest tiny flower we can see everything and nothing. We can experience that God is. Moreover, as Merton identifies in New Seeds of Contemplation, ‘the ever changing reality in the midst of which we live should awaken us to the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God.’2 We live in the Presence of God—a God who calls us to live an un-interrupted dialogue, in intimacy, in union.
Naming the Presence
The Presence is Love
A Relational Presence
Where can I hide from you
We cannot escape this Presence, it is part of who we are. Presence creates a restlessness, a desire for life and love and peace. If we listen intently, in the words of the psalmist, Deep within a voice says ‘Look for the face of God.’ (Psalm 27:8). The presence of the beloved calls us to look, to gaze, to centre, to contemplate, to see the face of God within our own being, within one another, within creation, within the cosmos.
A Dark Presence
When we call into the deep darkness again and again, entrust all to the silent inclusive mystery, Presence reveals itself to us unveiled as everlasting love. In the soft and silent presence of mystery we experience the intimacy of knowing that we are permeated in love that transcends the depths of our deepest personal and cosmic wound. We experience the eternal and endlessly personal, You to You. In the darkness, when all we have is a cry screamed opaquely in a dark hope and trust, the experience that Paul describes becomes ours: ‘We, with unveiled faces reflect like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Taking the risk of losing all, of being abandoned, of becoming nothing, begins the process of unveiling our face layer by layer, until we begin to reflect more completely the eternal You. We begin to mirror the Presence we seek. We begin to really live in the Presence.
Awareness of the Presence
Centering in the Presence
Centering is a totally natural way of prayer. Becoming centered in God and living out of this centre is a phase by phase, moment by moment journey of a life time that takes us more and more deeply, more and more completely into the stillness and silence of God. Centering is a way of prayer that is gentle, non-invasive, never forceful, always respectful of the vulnerability of our humanity and the resistances we experience as we seek union with the divine. We simply bring who we are to our centre, our joys and our sorrows, our wholeness and our incompleteness. Centering harmonizes and integrates.
Paradoxically, when we centre, attend to the presence of God within, the movement in, draws us out. It is like the ebb and flow of waves washing the sand on the shore. We flow into our being in God, and we flow out and see the face of God in all humanity, all creation and the whole cosmos. Centering creates connections. The more regularly we centre on a daily basis, the more we rid ourselves of dualisms, of divisions between peoples, race, and culture, of categories that split between the physical and the spiritual, and see, inter-connection, inter- relationship, inter-dependence, the union of all things in God.
The first moment of centering is to focus on our desire. Though at times we may seem to have competing desires, the author advises us to lift up our heart with a meek stirring of love (16:3),12 to come humbly, in an earthy way, stirred by the desire of love. We are to listen to the stirring deep within, focus on our only true desire. When we attend to the voice deep within, the creative touch of God that desired us into being, that breathed life in our lifelessness and whispered words of love, arouses in us a desire to be one, a desire to seek the mystery, to be in union with the beloved, even if we are not even sure what it is we are desiring. If we attend to desire, Paul reminds us: ‘when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26). The more we attend to this desire, the more it increases, and the more urgent it becomes. Desire incites us to risk letting go of our resistances and defences and to seek the beloved with all our being.
The second moment of centering is to come as we are. The Cloud author suggests to come with naked intent (17:2), in other words, to come just as we are, simple, unadorned, nothing hidden, nothing covered over, poor in spirit. We are reminded of Mathew 5:8 ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, they shall see God.’ We come in our poverty and reach out for God. This reaching out, intending, desiring to be with God, is an act of the will that has its source in God’s desire for us.
The third moment is to choose a little word (28:10-16). This is to become our sacred word. The Holy Spirit inspires us with this little word. The Cloud author suggests that it can be a word like God or love. We are to fix it in our mind and use it to focus our attention from outer distractions into the stillness of our centre. The word helps us to place all our concerns in a cloud of forgetting and to move more and more deeply into darkness, into a cloud of unknowing (26: 5-12; 2228:19-20). We are to answer our distractions with this word as we become empty and wait for God (29:1). We use the word to shift our attention from head knowing to heart loving. We can wrap our desire in the little word and repeat the word until it takes us into our heart, into the depth of our being. We only return to the word if we become distracted.
Thomas Keating, the person responsible for teaching centering prayer to millions of contemporary seekers, also suggests that we can use a simple inward gaze upon God rather than a sacred word.13 In this case we simply acknowledge God’s presence within the depth of our being and turn inwardly towards God as if gazing upon the face of God that is inscribed in our being.
The fourth moment is to sit comfortably and silently with eyes closed. If we become distracted we return to our word or gaze until we are centered again. We simply stay attentive to the presence of God deep within us. We rest in this darkness in the cloud of unknowing with a loving stirring and a blind beholding gazing into the naked being of God (32:5-8). In other words in centering we discover a darkness, a cloud of unknowing that we simply abide in, dwell in (16:19-20; 17:1-10). This cloud of unknowing conveys a profound sense that we live in the Presence, dwell within a love that is beyond knowing, beyond our wildest imagining.
Finally we end the prayer period with prayer that arises from the depths of our heart.
Thomas Merton describes the experience of contemplation that centering prayer nourishes:
A door opens in the centre of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact. God touches us with a touch that is emptiness and empties us. He (God) moves us with a simplicity that simplifies us. All variety, all complexity, all paradox, all multiplicity cease. Our mind swims in the air of understanding, a reality that is dark and serene and includes in itself everything. Nothing more is desired. Nothing more is wanting.14
In centering prayer we dispose ourselves to the gift God desires for us, to live through love in the Presence. Centering prayer empties us, draws us more and more deeply into the immense depths where time and eternity unite. Centering prayer sensitizes us to the sacredness of the present moment. It gives us a sense of the inexpressible reality that is dark and serene. It nurtures in us a growing awareness that we exist in a mysterious eternal, yet tenderly immanent mystery. We belong to the all in All (Colossians 3:11).15
First, when we centre, the love in which we dwell draws us to deeper and deeper silence where we come to know with all our being that we cannot exist apart from divine love. Gradually we experience a growing awareness of the oneness of all people, all things in God. In this time where we are experiencing that we are anything but one people, one world, one universe, people with this awareness can create a paradigm shift in a way of life, that if left untouched, will lead us into annihilation. The world needs a renewed sense of the union of all things in Presence.
Second, when we bring the whole of who we are to God in centering prayer, our lives, our love, our relationships, our distractions, our brokenness, our sinfulness, we experience deeper and deeper reconciliation of the contradictions of opposites. The inner spiritual and out physical dimensions of our lives become more in union. In a world that is still scared by the split between the dualisms of spirit and matter, an appreciation of the connectedness between the spiritual and the physical and the need to integrate our contradictions will enhance all life experience.
Third, centering assists us to recognize clearly that we live in the Presence. This deepens trust. We begin to experience a joy that we didn’t know existed, even in the midst of suffering. People with joyful hearts know how to be with the other, to care for the other, to work for justice for the other.
Fourth, centering prayer enables us to participate in ongoing conversion. It supports the diminishment of self-sufficiency and self-centeredness replacing this with compassion. We become more self-accepting and tolerant of others, more peaceful and less judgmental. The divides that separate begin to crumble and our need to possess and control diminish. Domination and submission lose their appeal. When we are centered in God we know the futility of greed and war. We know that the only way to everlasting peace is through love.
Fifth, when we are faithful to centering prayer, life becomes full of invitation and possibility. We see the Presence of God in the ordinary and realize that every moment has the potential to engage us in deeper transforming union.
The whole cosmos rests ever in the creating love of God, and we come to know in our oneness with the Divine, that it rests within us to be held in tender love. We are one with the all and with All. 16
And so we pray, may we live through love in your Presence.
Kerrie Hide (ACU, Signadou Campus) won first prize in the gender category of the Catholic Press Association awards for her Gifted Origins to Graced Fulfilment—The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich (Liturgical Press, 2001).
1 Thomas Merton. Conjectures of a Guilty
Bystander. (Garden City: Image Books, 1968), 146. I have replaced the
masculine pronoun he with the more inclusive image God. I consider that
this is very much in keeping with Merton’s spirituality.