By: Roberta C. Bondi
Centering Prayer : Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form
The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross
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If we live in our fears and let them rule us, it proves we have no faith in God. When we let go of our fears, we put our faith in God to make a way for us where there seems to be no way. God does not promise the transition will be smooth, or easy. Often embracing the devil we don't know is the hardest thing we'll ever do.
Lifting the Veil
Preached at MCC Columbia
Columbia, South Carolina
February 22, 2004
When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist church, there were two words that I had never thought to put together - "church" and "calendar." I had no idea that there was any such thing as a "church calendar" or that the church had "seasons" like Advent or Lent. To any good Southern Baptist, "lint" was what one cleaned out of the dryer vent while doing laundry - it certainly had nothing to do with church! The only thing we did with any regularity was celebrate the Lord's Supper four times a year.
It wasn't until I began attending MCC years ago that I learned about such a thing as a "church calendar" and the yearly events celebrated by our body of faith. Today, according to the church calendar, is Transfiguration Sunday. Now, as a good Southern Baptist, I haven't the slightest idea what this day is or what it commemorates. So, I did a little homework.
First, let's start with a definition. The transfiguration, as defined by the dictionary is "the sudden emanation of radiance from the person of Jesus that occurred on the mountain." As our scripture today tells us, while Jesus was praying on that mountaintop, "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white." This is Jesus' transfiguration - his transformation.
The question that is traditionally posed in sermons on Transfiguration Sunday is "why did Jesus appear with Elisha and Moses?"
According to The Interpreter's Dictionary this "was a visionary moment that revealed to the disciples Jesus’ true nature (symbolized by the light) and his future glorious state after death." The presence of Moses and Elisha is to be understood as verification that Hebrew law and prophecy supported Jesus and His mission.
According to Dr. Jane deVyver, "a common interpretation in the Orthodox Church is that Moses represents the Law and Elisha represents the prophets. An additional explanation is that Moses represents the dead, while Elisha symbolizes the living, because he did not die, but was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. … The theology implied here is that Christ is lord of both the living and the dead, present and future."
Wow, that's some heady stuff - and probably makes for some really powerful sermons on Jesus' mission of redemption for the world. Too bad you won't be hearing that kind of sermon this morning.
Instead, I'd like to focus on another meaning of the word transfiguration - and give you one way that you might experience the meaning of transfiguration for yourself. Transfiguration also means "a metamorphosis" or "a change that glorifies or exalts." This is the meaning of the word that I want to address today. Certainly, Jesus' experience on the mountaintop was a metamorphosis - a glorious change that exalted him as the Christ. But, Christ is not the only person who can experience transfiguration. This kind of glorious change is available to all of us - if only we'll take the time to experience it.
Experiencing our own Transfiguration
How can this be, you might wonder? How can we experience transfiguration and commune with such great spirits as Moses and Elijah? The key comes early in our gospel reading. Jesus' transfiguration took place during prayer. This is what makes metamorphosis available to us mere humans. Through prayer we can, as Paul says, remove the veil:
"And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit."
So, prayer is something that transforms us - it reveals our true nature as beloved children of God - being changed from one degree of glory to another. This is an important point. As a good Southern Baptist, I remember a slogan from my childhood that was said like a mantra in my church: "Prayer changes things."
But, transfiguration stands that platitude on its head. Instead of prayer changing things - prayer changes the "pray-er." Yes, some situations may change or improve after we pray over them - but let us watch carefully what it is that truly changes after we've prayed for a while. Did the situation really change, or did something change deep within ourselves that lifted the veil and gave us new eyes with which to see the same old situation in a different way?
As someone who is adamantly opposed to war, I have prayed a lot recently for peace. I pray for our leaders that God may show them a better way to solve conflicts besides going to war. I pray for our troops, put in harm's way simply because of the career field that they chose. I pray for those people affected by war, whether they are the families of those troops, or people on the other side of the conflict. I pray earnestly that all people involved in war will be shown a better way - a way to solve conflicts without resorting to violence. I pray that God shows us how to break that cycle of violence, and bring true peace to our planet.
This is my earnest prayer, but war still goes on. Does this mean God is not answering my prayer for peace? Does that mean God is not listening, not acting? No, not at all. In all this time that I have been praying for peace I have noticed that my own life has become more peaceful. I used to be very prone to rage - to lashing out when I became frustrated. Since I've been praying for peace, I've become less angry - given to fewer and fewer fits of rage. In praying for world peace, I have come to a place of inner peace. My prayers may or may not change the world situation of war - but it has stopped the little wars that go on inside of me. I am a more peaceful person - and that means I bring more peace into the world. This is how prayer transforms the world. It does not immediately solve huge problems like war - but those who truly pray for peace become peaceful people and that is what ultimately changes the world. This is the true transformative power of prayer. This is the heart of transfiguration.
Spending Time with God
But, how do we pray? That may sound like a silly question. I mean, as Christians, we've been praying all our lives, right? We've said grace, prayed for our friends, prayed for our family, prayed for our pets, prayed for our partners, our church, our jobs, our cars, our houses. We've prayed and prayed and prayed! What could be special about praying - what could be transformative about such an everyday thing?
What makes prayer transformative is when we stop seeing prayer as a way to get something from God and view it instead as simply a way to spend time with God. Whenever we seek God, God also seeks to be with us. In fact, sixteenth century mystic, John of the Cross believed that God seeks us even more than we seek God. God longs to be with us if only we'll take the time to be still and simply enjoy God's presence.
One of my old professors at the Candler School of Theology, Roberta Bondi, writes that, "if we pray primarily to 'get something out of it,' whether it is psychic wholeness, insight into our own depths, or a new bicycle, we are giving up the goal of love of God before we even start. How can we get to God if we only approach God in terms of what God can or will give us?"
Georgia monk M. Basil Pennington echoes that sentiment when he writes, "In prayer we seek God. We do not seek peace, quiet, tranquility, enlightenment; we do not seek anything for ourselves."
Instead, we are simply seeking communion with God. We only seek time with our creator. Often we do find peace, quiet, tranquility, enlightenment, psychic wholeness, and maybe even a new bike - but the difference is we didn't go looking for any of those things. We simply sought to enter God's presence - where the veil is lifted and we are transformed into God's image "from one degree of glory to another."
The Best Way to Pray
Okay, so prayer is about spending quality time with God, not about getting things or making things change in our lives. So, how do we pray like that? What's the correct formula for prayer? Are there correct positions we must assume? What can we do to get it "right" and be with God in prayer? Well, the answer is - it depends.
One day, three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. "Kneeling is definitely best," claimed one.
"No," another contended. "I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven."
"You're both wrong," the third insisted. "The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor."
The repairman could contain himself no longer. "Y'know, " he interrupted, "the best prayin' I ever did was hangin' upside down from a telephone pole." There is no one, or no one "right," way to pray. Prayer is a very personal thing, whether we do it on our knees, stretching our hands to heaven, lying on the floor, or dangling from a telephone pole. We are each unique and our prayer lives express each person's relationship to God. In short, you must find the prayer that prays you.
Father Ed Hays reminds us that, "You are prayer. You are a special and sacred word of God made flesh. To pronounce your own unique word is to pray the most beautiful - if not the holiest - of prayers."
In prayer we learn to speak the sacred word that is us - that is the essence of our being. One of the best ways I know to begin to discover this sacred word that is us is through a practice called "centering prayer."
M. Basil Pennington, in his book on centering prayer, calls it "a very simple method to get in touch with what is. … It is meant to open the way to living constantly out of the center, to living out of the fullness of who we are."
Practicing Centering Prayer
I'd like for us now to try a short exercise in centering prayer taken from Pennington's book. We begin by "recalling the goodness of God's personal creative and redeeming love." We do that by inviting God to join us in our prayer time. We reflect on God's love for us and our response to that "full-faith love" which "brings us into God's presence where we can simply be to that wonderful presence."
To help us stay in this presence we use a prayer word or a "word of love" as Pennington calls it. Beginners seem to obsess on this point, thinking hard about what word to use because again we want to get it right! But the word really doesn't matter - it can simply be an intelligible sound. What is important is that the word means something for us - and that meaning is love. This word "abides as a present sacrament," Pennington writes. Let this word come to you as you begin to move into God's presence. It may be the same word all the time, but it may be different each day. Let it come to you - don't force it.
Use the prayer word to keep yourself centered. Don't analyze your prayer word. It's not there to be picked apart and analyzed. It's there to anchor you in God's presence. As thoughts begin to intrude into your mind - gently return to the prayer word until the thoughts pass. Let nothing come between you and your word. If you find yourself chasing a thought, don't berate yourself for doing something "wrong" - remember you can't get this prayer "wrong" - simply repeat your prayer word and come back to God's presence.
As you come to the end of your centering prayer, you don't want to just open your eyes and jump right back into the fray of the world. Instead, come out of your prayer slowly by reciting the Lord's Prayer or any other prayer that appeals to you. I like to use the Prayer of St. Francis, but any prayer will do. We need to emerge slowly from our prayer, not jolt ourselves out of it.
So, let's take a few minutes and use this prayer to center ourselves on God. Find a comfortable position.
I'll start us out with an opening prayer of invitation for God to join us in our prayer - and we'll end with the Lord's Prayer.
[Time of silent prayer - ending with the Lord's Prayer]
How was that? Does anyone want to share their experience?
Remember, this is just one form of prayer that you can use to experience the transforming power of God's presence. There are as many ways to pray as there are people. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to pray. You don't need a mountaintop or a meeting with famous Bible characters. You don't need the church calendar to tell you that today is the day of transfiguration. Every day in God's presence can be transforming.
You don't need fancy prayer positions or large, pretty words to bring the whole of your being into the center of God's presence. The only thing you need to truly experience your own transfiguration is a willingness to let your whole life become a prayer. You must be willing to be totally present to God so God can be totally present to you - and in that presence the veil is lifted and we are transformed "from one degree of glory to another."
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. She is an ordained minister and holds a master's in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and is studying to be a spiritual director. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism and public relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2004 by the author