Centering Prayer, Brian D. Russell. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.
Summary: An introduction to the practice of centering prayer with practical helps and theological basis, by a practitioner who found the practice transformative.
Brian Russell was an “all in” Christian–a pastor and seminary professor. Then after a twenty year marriage, he found himself divorced. All the things that had worked suddenly didn’t. It was at this point that he discovered the ancient practice of centering prayer, and in that discovered in new ways the love of God, inward healing, and what it means to love and be present to other people. In this book, he offers a practical guide for others to enter into this practice and how it may change them.
He begins with an explanation of what centering prayer is, describing it as entering into “objectless awareness.” He offers this description:
“Entering into ‘objectless awareness’ is not about dissolving into the Divine or losing our identity as an individual created being. It is about embracing the silence as a new way of perceiving or experiencing consciousness. We are no longer ‘seeing’ through the lens of a subject pondering some object. Instead, we exist in these moments in a space of silence in which we may experience our truest self being fully known by God” (p. 17).
He offers practical steps for beginning addressing time, duration (it’s OK to begin with 1-2 minutes), atmosphere, setting our intention and choosing a prayer word to deal with our thoughts. It turns out that stray thoughts are both the challenge and opportunity of centering prayer. They draw us away from silence but our non-judging awareness and use of a prayer word like “Jesus” to return to being present to God is the opportunity. He shares four “r’s” that serve as classic advice:
- Resist no thought.
- Retain no thought.
- React to no thought.
- Return ever so gently to the sacred word.
In the following seven chapters comprising the first part of this work he addresses other aspects of centering prayer. He articulates why our souls need solitude. He talks about our feeling of failure as we deal with distractions and how important the step of gently returning to our sacred word again and again may be. He offers that centering prayer is a journey into the depths of God’s love as we say “yes” to the invitation to be present to God. He differentiates it from Eastern forms of meditation or mindfulness training in that our silence is consent for God to commune with us at a heart level. We grow in surrender through the practices of the four “r’s”. He cautions against our desire for the spectacular, for some “result,” and learning to appreciate that silence with God is enough.
The second part of the book turns to the theology behind the idea of a journey into the depths of God’s holy love. He unpacks Bernard of Clairvaux’s four loves: the love of self for the sake of self, the love of God for the sake of God, the love of God for the sake of God, and finally, the love of self for the sake of God. Finally he discusses fear and love and that our only fear is of the God who loves us utterly and liberates us of all fears.
Part three of the work returns to what he so aptly calls our “hamster-wheel minds.” He offers a discussion of Evagrius’s eight distracting thoughts to help us discern the kinds of thoughts that distract us and how the surrender of these allows God’s deep transformative work on our unconscious drives. Then in part four he turns to how this process brings to surface our “false self” and using a Star Wars image, takes us into the cave where we confront ourselves, where our deep wounds and our stratagems to bolster ourselves are laid bare to the overwhelming love of God for us that frees us to break through to our true selves and embark on the upward spiral of God’s love.
The book concludes with the fruits of centering prayer. Centering prayer propels us back into the world. Being present to God enables us to be more fully present to people, to create spaces where they know they are loved by God, and by us. And sometimes that will involve forgiveness.
I found this book both remarkably practical and inspiring in its vision of transformation that reflects the experience of the author. While Russell cautions that our process of growing into intimacy with God is a lifelong process, I was a bit concerned with the presentation of centering prayer as the “silver bullet” to breakthrough. No doubt, there was an aspect in which this was so for the author and he is careful to caution against seeking the spectacular. But in reading the acknowledgements, there is evidence of spiritual counsel and Christian community that played an important role in going deeper in this practice, as did rich practices of spiritual reading. No mention of spiritual direction is made, yet for many, the companionship of spiritual friends who attend and discern may also be very important.
Yet there is this to be said. Russell has given us one of the most helpful guides to centering prayer I’ve read, combining practicalities and spiritual groundwork with a clarity that offers steps for the beginner and rich fare for those more experienced in these practices. He inspired me to renew a practice of centering prayer I’d allowed to lapse. I won’t make any claims other than it has been good to sit quietly in God’s presence. I sense Brian would say, that is good enough.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.