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The Serpent and the Center

In the morning I hear, through the window, the early commuters headed into the city. Sometimes I hear my dog, restless, pacing around the apartment, waiting for her breakfast. On very cold days, days like today, before the sun is up, I hear the hums of engines as drivers warm up their vehicles. I hear harsh scraping as they clear their windshield of ice. Even out here, in the suburbs, there is noise. There is always noise and there is always a task to do, so when I read Thomas Merton’s translation of the Verba Seniorum, the “Sayings of the Elders,” I find myself at once in awe and filled with jealousy.

It was said of Abbot Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.

This is a silence I do not know.

Abbot Pastor said: Any trial whatever that comes to you can be conquered by silence.

And again.

One of the elders said: A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts, or how that one lives. Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter. There is nothing better than to keep silent.

I am someone who believes that we live in an age no worse and no better than any other age before us, and indeed after us. I do, though, think we live in the noisiest age. Unless you go far out into the country, there is noise, exterior noise. Sometimes even there. There is no escape. How, then, can one be silent? I am especially interested in how someone can be silent but be in the city at the same time. I am not a country person, and I do not feel called to move away from the city. But I do feel called to silence.

In his introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, Merton writes:

Prayer was the very heart of the desert life, and consisted of psalmody (vocal prayer—recitation of Psalms and other parts of the Scriptures which everyone had to know by heart) and contemplation. What we would call today contemplative prayer is referred to as quies or “rest.”

Where is this rest?—I mean for me, in my life. If I look, where will I find it? If I ask, will it be there?

*                    *                    *

In the beginning we ate the fruit because we wanted to be God. We wanted to be the center of things. “You,” the serpent said, “will be like God!” And we ate the fruit. The Fall was the confluence of pride, idolatry, and selfishness. But it was also something else. The Fall resulted from warped vision. No longer was God, the true center of the universe, on the throne. We tried to displace him.

I like the way David Foster Wallace put it in his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College:

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor.

If this is true, that my default setting has become a kind of prideful self-centeredness, and if it is also true that I am not actually the center of the universe, then the question I must ask myself is, “How can I remove myself from the center of my own little universe?” Or, “How can I be removed from the center of my own little universe?”

I think it has to do with vision. I must see correctly in order to move correctly. My awareness of reality must align with God’s creative order. If I believe, for example, that I exist on this earth to survive, propagate, and derive as much pleasure from material goods and other people as possible, then I will fill my heart with new gadgets, rich feasts, and unending sexual experiences. (Or power, or authority, or whatever else suits my appetites.) If, however, I believe that I am not in fact the center of the universe, that I am not in fact my own creation, that I in fact do not dictate the terms of reality, then I will live entirely differently.

But to see correctly I must be aware of the truth. The key is awareness.

In Ephesians 4, Paul writes, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires … be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and … put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

The difference between the two selves is astonishing. One serves itself and its own whimsies, and the other is not only made in the image of God, is not only called a son or daughter of the Most High, but has been purchased by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; even more, this self has been given the wisdom and presence of the Holy Spirit; it has been given a family in the Church. This self no longer lives for its own desires but for others, and for God. “It is no longer I who live,” Paul writes in Galatians, “but Christ who lives in me.” It is not that our personality is erased and we are a Jesus Robot, but that our eyes are awakened to the truth.

In a sweepingly long sentence in the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes about prayer. He prays “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened,” and then he goes on with a number of clauses detailing the work Christ has done and what that work means for our identity.

The old self must die. The new self must live. How do we move from the faulty understanding of our place in the universe to God’s understanding of our place in the universe?

I think that prayer, and most specifically a practice of contemplative meditation called Centering Prayer, is one of the most paradoxically effective ways of sharpening our vision of reality and seeing the way God sees. I say paradoxical for a couple reasons. First, because Centering Prayer involves “doing” nothing. Second, because while its goal is to propel us to awareness that God is the center of our universe, it is also a radical decentering.

David Muyskens, who has written two books on Centering Prayer, defines the practice this way:

In the practice of Centering Prayer you sit for at least twenty minutes … in simple openness of heart to the presence of God. Letting go of thoughts, you give consent to God’s presence with one word that expresses that consent. You repeat the word any time the mind wanders—not constantly, like a mantra, but whenever you need to return attention to the Holy One.

How strange! How often do I as an American, as a Westerner, as a post-Enlightenment man in my twenties, spend time doing absolutely nothing? Not moving, not thinking. Stillness and silence. Not filling but emptying. Not gathering but shedding. Not building but tearing down.

I am trying to distinguish between two types of prayer; the terms can be confusing. What I am calling contemplative prayer is not like Lectio Divina—in which the mind focuses on a small passage of Scripture—it is not confession, not petition, not thanksgiving, not intercession, not repentance or renunciation. All these prayers are discursive. In contemplative prayer, instead, the mind empties itself of itself. No symbol is concentrated on, no passage assessed, no image conjured in the mind. Setting the stage for contemplative prayer, or what I am calling Centering Prayer, is simply a short time of silence and stillness. The goal is to invite God into the empty space.

Contemplative prayer immediately accomplishes a double task. It sharpens my sense of God’s awareness in the world and it reminds me how weak I am. (I am no regular Thomas Merton!) But it also does a third thing. It gives God the space to work, to exercise His own agency. Of course, God does not need my permission to work in my interior being, but I think that he greatly loves something about the invitation. For how happy is a father when his child lifts her arms to him?

Elaine Scarry, a professor at Harvard, wrote a book called On Beauty and Being Just that has somehow become an integral understanding of how I see prayer. I say “somehow” because as far as I know Scarry is not a Christian, and the book is not about prayer, and she might be terribly upset if someone told her that I was using her words to talk about Centering Prayer. All the same, the crux of the book is that when we encounter beauty we undergo a transformative experience that allows us to alter our vision: In a Christian sense, to wriggle out of that “default setting” about which Wallace speaks, to crucify St. Paul’s “old self.” Here are two quotations from Scarry’s work that, to me, demonstrate the work’s essence and also the central character of Centering Prayer:

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to [Simone] Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the center … A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense imprecisions and psychological impressions.”

It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

Centering Prayer is “the moment.” It is the time, for me, and for many others present and past, to enter the presence of the most beautiful being of all. Beauty itself. And that Beauty begins to take its rightful place at the center of my universe.

*                    *                    *

A confession: I am a beginner. Do not think that I am some teacher. These are my own prayers and experiences. My daily practice of Centering Prayer is occasionally erratic and not even two years old, and my mind wanders so frequently that my focus word would sound like a mantra if I spoke it out loud. But despite the difficulties I have in quieting my interior self I can also confess that nothing has changed my perception of the world the way this short, daily period of silence has.

I greatly desire silence but I find silence very difficult. To be silent and to be still—this is alien. To decenter myself from my own life—this, too, is alien. The world is noisy and busy and I am selfish. I can hardly live with me some of the time.

“For God alone,” David writes in Psalm 62, “my soul waits in silence.” And in Psalm 37, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”


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  • NDaniels

    “For God Alone” my soul “waits in silence”, but this does not change the fact that we are not serving Christ when we are sleeping in Gethsemane during a Great Falling Away. In all things, we must witness to Christ. Love is an action word.

  • Dennis Larkin

    Max Picard wrote the lovely book, The World of Slience