This time we’re talking about centering. Last time, Christy mentioned centering prayer as a Buddhist/Catholic practice with Quaker overlap.
Mackenzie: Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast with Mackenzie and Micah. This time we’ve decided that we want to talk about centering, how we get centered when we’re sitting in unprogrammed worship.
Micah: I got to say, I’m ready for this episode because I haven’t felt centered in many a day, so maybe I need this more than anybody.
Mackenzie: I think lots of people have different techniques that they come up with for how to get centered and so we’ll just talk about ones that we’re aware of and then, hopefully, listeners, you can pop up in the comments on our website and let us know other techniques you use for getting centered.
Micah: Before we go down that road, maybe could we talk a little bit about what getting centered is because I’m not sure that’s self-explanatory?
Mackenzie: Right. We talk about in unprogrammed worship that we are listening for messages from the Divine or from God. It’s getting into that mindset to listen. For some people that means trying to clear all the thoughts out to their head like with meditation, but I think there are other ways people think about it.
Micah: Yeah, so I guess one of the questions would be centering on what? For example, Mackenzie and I both work in software development and I think we probably both have the experience of, probably recently, of we’re working on solving some problem and we just get totally immersed in the problem. An hour can go by and it’s as if it’s been a few minutes.
In a way, you could say that we were centered in that moment, we were centered on the problem. We were united with it and that was like the axis upon which we were revolving. Maybe centering is a broader phenomenon, but I think, as Mackenzie said, we’re specifically talking about centering on God’s presence and centering on an awareness of God’s presence and our receptiveness to being changed and moved and directed by that presence.
Mackenzie: Although, I know saying God’s presence might feel very uncomfortable for a lot of people. When I first started coming to meeting, saying the Inner Light would have been a lot more comfortable for me.
Micah: Yeah. Yeah, for me it’s all Jesus. For me, talking about God is pretty neutral space.
Mackenzie: I’ve finally gotten more used to you doing that over the almost two years we’ve been doing this.
All right, before we started recording, I said that the way that I tend to center now is that I pray silently. I’ll often be doing praying for my friends and that sort of thing until I run out of words. I think that that running out of words might be also what people think of for when their holding in the Light, but I think we want to do a separate episode on that topic in particular.
Micah: No, that’s super interesting too because obviously, it’s going to depend on personality. For me, it’s often the opposite of this. It’s only when I get centered that I feel like I can speak properly. The words come after the centering, in general, for me so that’s really interesting.
Mackenzie: Okay, yeah. For me, I will, anytime I have a quiet moment, I will silently say a prayer for whoever in my life needs that. It’s when I run out of anything more to say, it’s just I hit the point of what God’s spirit, whatever, you know what’s in my heart and that’s it. I’m just going to sit here and rest in your presence. That that’s, for me, how I get to centered.
Micah: That’s interesting. Yeah, I know that I pray the hours most days, which means that I go through several times a day, go through a liturgy that I’ve adapted from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer. In this liturgy, it’s just talking. It’s a lot of talking, a lot of set prayers, reciting Psalms and stuff like that.
There’s a time when right before you say the Lord’s Prayer, there’s a time when you can just pray whatever you want and in that time, sometimes I have that experience of I pray myself out. I’ll go through all the stuff I need to pray about and say things about and then I’m like, “Okay. Now I just need to hand this over to God.”
Mackenzie: I used to, before I started having a regular prayer practice, I used to sit … Well, before I started having a regular prayer practice, before that I intentionally picked up a daily Bible reading habit ’cause there’s a point where you’re like, “You know, I should find out what’s in there.” So, I was doing a read through the New Testament.
I would, on Sundays, do my reading as I would walk into meeting and I would read for the 20 minutes until the kids leave for First Day School and the latecomers come in. I would use that as an aid to get centered. So, I’d read the Bible for 20 minutes and then stop and go and worship from there.
Micah: Nice. Yeah, I would say that my experience in observing the unprogrammed portions, whether it’s the whole time or whether it’s part of it of Quaker meeting for worship, I feel like a lot of different people have different ways of centering. Sometimes I wonder which ones are more effective. I have to say, there have been times when I’ve seen people that will journal through the entire hour or they’ll read the Bible through most of the time and I’ll wonder, “At what point should you be putting that away?”
Obviously, there’s no one right answer to that because people have different processes or there are different techniques of opening themselves to God, but I have had questions sometimes when I’ve seen people mostly engaged in perhaps centering activities for the whole time or most of the time.
Mackenzie: Well, certainly I’ve seen people who knit or crochet during meeting and I know especially if you have ADHD, having something simple and repetitive that your hands are doing can be really helpful to keep you from having your mind wander or to keep you from fidgeting in ways that are more distracting.
How about you, how do you-
Micah: So … Well, I guess before I get into that, I just have another question which is what’s the point of centering? What’s the benefit?
Mackenzie: I guess that feels like a weird question to me since I said before that if we’re waiting for a message, if we’re listening for a message from the Still, Small Voice, then what’s … It seems like more likely you’re going to hear it if you actually do take the time to sit and listen as opposed to just continuing about your busy day.
Micah: Right. Yeah. It’s making a space where there’s less reactivity and more attentiveness.
Mackenzie: Paying attention, focusing on that Inner Voice.
Micah: Yeah, I would say in terms of me, I think that my normal mode of centering has changed a lot over the years, depending on my life circumstance. Maybe five years ago, I probably spent at least a half an hour every morning, pretty much first thing, in silence. Probably spent a half an hour in silence and another half an hour journaling like every morning, drinking my tea.
Micah: Yeah, I worked part-time then. I didn’t have children. My life is very different now. I do have two boys. One is a toddler and one is becoming a big boy. He’s in pre-K three now. Yeah, life is really different and I work full-time as well. So, my life is transformed and my prayer practice and practice of my centering has transformed a lot. And, frankly, not in necessarily good ways in the sense that I’ve just had a lot more dedicated time for prayer before.
I know a lot of prayer warriors would say, “Well, you still have time for prayer. You just have to pray without ceasing, Micah. Come on.” My experience of it is that having the dedicated time was really, really helpful. Now, I have very little dedicated prayer time and, at best, usually, my best prayer time is on my commute. I usually end up praying the hours during my commute.
Morning prayers and vespers, vespers being sort of like around-
Mackenzie: It’s a [crosstalk].
Micah: Yeah. But for me, basically, it’s when I get off work is vespers. Morning prayer and vespers are pretty easy for me, but then I have to really push myself to step out of work-
Mackenzie: For terce?
Mackenzie: Terce, 9:00 AM.
Micah: I just call it midday.
Micah: Yeah. My morning prayers are more like 8:00. I’m not doing prayers at 6:00 AM or something. I’ve got enough craziness going on-
Mackenzie: That’s too early to wake up.
Micah: That’s too early. That’s too early. I’m not medieval saints getting up at three in the morning to do prayers. I guess all that is to say is I try to steal prayer in little snippets in my day, and I feel like I have an ongoing conversation going with God. I feel like I’m regularly turning to God to ask God for help because honestly, my life has been really, really challenging over the last couple years in just the way I described. I’ve got two little kids. I’m working full-time and work is very challenging.
I’m just constantly asking God for help ’cause I need help. I guess I would say before my prayer was much more contemplative and much more like, “I will just sit here for half an hour and God, whatever you want, tell me. I’m just going to listen.” Now, my prayer, to a much greater degree is, “Help me, God. Help me, God. Help me, God. I really need some help. This is really hard. I need you to intervene right now. Please do the stuff. Thank you. Thank you.”
Mackenzie: I actually was sitting in a metro station waiting for the train one morning and there was a guy sitting next to me and he had a little book. I saw him do the sign of the cross several times. After he stopped, I asked, “Were you just praying the hours?” He said, “Yes.”
I get a lot of prayer in on my commute as well. I actually, in not very traditionally Quakery fashion, just like you with the Book of Hours, I have a set of prayer beads. It’s not a rosary ’cause it’s got 12 decades, not five. I didn’t actually go out and buy prayer beads. I won them at a sewing competition and they have little skulls for the Our Father beads.
Micah: Right on point for Día de los Muertos, right?
Mackenzie: Sure. I won them several years ago. I was going the say memento mori. Yesterday, I prayed the whole way around there doing instead of a standard rosary, ’cause, like I said, it’s 12 decades, on the little beads I did, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Just those two lines from the Lord’s Prayer on the little beads. Then, on the skulls, I did a whole Lord’s Prayer and a prayer intention.
Anyway, centering, we got off topic.
Micah: I’m not sure we did get off topic.
Mackenzie: Yeah, did we, didn’t we, whatever.
Micah: Okay, this is something I think about a lot or at least I’ve thought about a lot, is what’s the purpose of the unprogrammed meeting for worship? I think there’s really good stuff that can happen in that hour or however long of silent worship that many Quakers practice, but I think the bigger purpose of it is as a practice training ground for all the time. I think perhaps actually the more important time is when we’re not in worship because it’s a less structured and supported environment.
How are we centering? How are we listening in our daily lives? I think when I need to have a difficult conversation with a co-worker or when I’m feeling really angry with someone in traffic, how am I practicing the presence of God and living in the spirit of Christ?
Mackenzie: Okay. Yeah, that makes sense because yeah, when we’re in unprogrammed meeting for worship or the unprogrammed portion of meeting for worship, everything basically has gotten quiet except maybe the air conditioner. Yeah, that is a setup to be easier to concentrate on that as opposed to when we’re doing that on our, like we had said, doing that thing on a metro train.
Micah: Yeah. The purpose of centering in meeting for worship, to some extent is to encourage and be receptive to prophetic witness and prophetic utterance and preaching. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it has happened to me at many points in the past where that same feeling of basically being given a word from the Lord and delivering it in speech or in other action, that doesn’t just happen in meeting for worship. That happens other times too.
Being given that kind of message and delivering it outside of meeting for worship, in my mind, is way cooler because … It’s like, this is this not merely a socially constructed thing that Quaker’s do. This is actually God working.
Mackenzie: Sam Barnett-Cormack over in the UK, I know he will sit on his own in contemplative worship and he gets messages when he’s alone and he writes them down. He does written ministry from the messages he receives when he’s on his own. That is a very, very, old Quaker practice. The early Friends did that. They did written ministry and they would publish it and that sort of thing.
Micah: I guess you could say that my blog and my sermon writing, and this is something that the Quakers have had a lot of discussions about is prepared sermons, but same concept. With my sermons and with my blog posts, I would say it’s a similar process. I’m sitting and waiting and asking God to guide me and really inviting a force beyond myself to guide my words even in a prepared form. It’s not like there’s some qualitative difference really between prepared words and words that are spoken at the moment of inspiration, if that makes sense.
Mackenzie: Yeah, as long as they were inspired at some point.
Micah: Well, when it comes to my blog obviously … Excuse me. When I’m writing for my blog, I’m writing for the readers of the blog. So, the context, the meeting for worship so to speak, of that hopefully prophetic utterance is that audience. When it comes to a sermon, a sermon’s even better in a lot of ways for this purpose because when I prepare a sermon, I prepare it with the audience in mind, which for me is actually two audiences. Primarily, the audience is the congregation I’m going to be preaching to, but also secondarily, I also publish it on my blog so I do consider that.
Once it’s written, when I actually deliver it, it often changes. Sometimes just a little bit, always a little bit, and sometimes substantially. There’s the original inspiration you might say, but then there’s also the additional inspiration in the moment.
Mackenzie: Yeah, I think you’ve mentioned that before. Okay, we talked about prayer as a way of centering, Bible reading, journaling, knitting and trying to empty your mind with Buddhist meditation/centering prayer. Are there other techniques that you can think of that people … Or, methods people use for centering that you’ve run into?
Micah: Well, I would really just say anything that you would read about in a self-help book or a business book, which is basically the same thing, could be a form of centering. Going exercising, going for a run, that could be centering. Centering is not, in my opinion, this necessarily mystical, spiritual thing. Centering is just centering. Centering is just placing your focus on a center and letting other concerns drop.
Just as you say, Buddhist meditation has … Middle East, theologically speaking, I think generally Buddhists would agree with me on this, Buddhist meditation has nothing to do with listening to God. It has everything to do with letting everything drop away and being just completely present with the moment. That’s, in a sense, what we’re going for with Christian centering in that we, along with the Buddhists, want to let everything else drop away. The difference is that there is a specific focus of our attention who is God that we specifically want to invite in.
Mackenzie: There’s one thing left.
Micah: Right, exactly.
Mackenzie: Okay. Actually, when you were mentioning running as a thing that, and I’ve heard that too, and people going for walks, that reminded me of labyrinths. Labyrinths are a very, very old thing that Christians have used for meditative purposes. I know right now West Hills Friends Church is working on getting a labyrinth built in the grass in front of their meeting house.
Speaker 1: You can find us on the web at quakerpodcast.org. As @quakerpodcast on Twitter, Facebook, or Patreon and on iTunes.