Q: Occasionally, I feel when I am in Centering Prayer that God is setting up a barrier, and that beyond that barrier is fire and that I would be burned if God allowed me to go beyond the barrier. The fire is God’s holiness, into which we cannot enter. It’s holy ground and taking off one’s shoes is not an option. Do other people have this kind of experience?
A: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to respond to your question.
All of us have different experiences with images in our Centering Prayer practice — in the beginning more so than later. In a sense, the image itself isn’t as important as the opportunity to let go of whatever it is that we need to let go of. If it’s important for us to notice, we will remember it outside of the prayer time. Then we can bring it to prayerful discernment and listen for any insights. But most of the time the simplest thing is to let it come and let it go. This is a prayer of consent and a prayer of the heart; to feed the intellect with analysis right away brings us to our head and takes away from the locale where the purification takes place, which is our hearts.
Remember the third guideline of the Centering Prayer method, “When engaged with your thoughts return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.” Having said that, the whole idea of fire as a sign of God’s love is very strong in the Christian tradition. Let me share three examples that have been meaningful to me in my journey.
1. Thomas Merton talks about when people fall in love with God they become burnt people – the actual phrase is “burnt men”. The closeness affects their whole being — in a sense sets them on fire. Gives them a “Son” burn – sorry?
2. Then there is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin prayer: “Lord, lock me up in the deepest depths of your heart; and then, holding me there, burn me, purify me, set me on fire, sublimate me, till I become utterly what you would have me be, though the utter annihilation of my ego.” I like praying it this way “through the utter annihilation of my selfishness.”
3. From a homily by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop +470AD: Prayer is the light of the spirit: “The apostle Paul says: We do not know how we are to pray but the Spirit himself pleads for us with inexpressible longings. When the Lord gives this kind of prayer to a man, he gives him riches that cannot be taken away, heavenly food that satisfies the spirit. One who tastes this food is set on fire with an eternal longing for the Lord: his spirit burns as in a fire of utmost intensity.”
When engaged with your thoughts — thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images and reflections — return ever-so-gently to your sacred word and symbol. The wisdom is this: when everything is said and done, ever-so-gently let it all come, let it all go and just be in the awesome presence and action of your God. It is a leap of trust into the unknown which we call God. Let God take you by the hand and lead you over the barrier and then let it all go and BE.
Blessings, Fr Carl Arico