Deuteronomy 26:5-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Psalm 91; Luke 4:1-13
[NB: The Gospel is read by Father Thomas Fraser.]
In recent decades, there has emerged a movement of people who practice “Centering Prayer”. For those unfamiliar with it, Centering Prayer originates in the ancient Benedictine tradition of lectio divina, and presents itself as practice to cultivate an awareness of being and a deeper relationship with God. Centering Prayer spread through the teaching of it in retreats beginning in the 1970s.
The practice is actually quite simple. A person sits on the floor, or a pillow, or a chair. They choose a sacred word or short phrase that expresses their intention to consent to God’s presence and action during the time of prayer. A word such as Christ, love, God, Spirit, or any word or short phrase. Then commences the sitting in silence. When one notices in their mind any thoughts, feelings, desires, associations, images, one does nothing but silently return to their sacred word, as their anchor, their centering in God. Thoughts, awareness, centering word. That’s it – that’s the whole practice, recommended in 20-minute sessions, twice a day.
One of its advocates is a Trappist (Cistercian) monk named Father Thomas Keating. Once, in a retreat, Father Keating was told by a woman present at the retreat that it was obvious to her that she was not very good at Centering Prayer. Why, he asked. Because, she said, she couldn’t concentrate at all. Over the 20-min period, it must have been over a hundred times she had to return to her word. Ah, he said, smiling, but that is no problem at all. How wonderful to have turned over a hundred times to God. This move, amid thought or feeling back to God, is a simple dance very important to Christian life.
Confronted with the temptations of the devil, what did Christ do? What did he do but this very move; amid a desire of power over creation (the stone into bread); amid a vision of power over the political world (authority over all kingdoms); and amid a feeling of power over the Father’s very hand (forcing a saving by God’s angels), how simple and elegant is each of Christ’s responses. He turns from desire, vision, feeling back to God. His sacred words come from Deuteronomy: words spoken by Moses to the children of Israel, as they themselves concluded a wilderness experience. Theirs was 40 years; Christ’s 40 days.
Perhaps his wilderness was a study of Deuteronomy, in lectio divina — called a “feasting on the word” in four steps. First you take a bite of scripture (reading a phrase or word); then you chew on it (considering its meaning); then you savor it (a conversing with God); and then you digest it (a silent attentiveness). Doing this helps to make true sense of the Word of God, to make it one’s own. And why is this good to do? It is good because when confronted with a battle for our heart, we can walk in the ways of Christ to respond comfortably and peacefully not with our own words, our own will, but rather with that of God’s will and God’s words, whether from Deuteronomy, or elsewhere in Scripture, or even with the simple word, “Christ.”
The seed of all forms of sin is forgetting God. Adam and Eve forgot God. They thought instead of their own desires, their own selves. God called to Adam “where are you?” not because God did not know the whereabouts of Adam and Eve, but because he knew that they were now in the wilderness – physically present, but emotionally, spiritually “not there.” It is God’s words that return us to him. Not merely the specific words, but the biting, the chewing, the savoring, the digesting — or in the Prayer Book tradition, the reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting: lectio divina lived on through the 16th-century upheavals.
This season of retreat, by God’s goodness we receive the bread and wine, fruit of earth and vine, the work of human hands. Will we make this a “sacrament to go”, as so much fast food take out? Or against such temptation, will we eat and drink God’s very words, seeking their meaning, savoring the glory these words give to God? And can the bread of life and our spiritual drink, the very living grace of God, heal our souls as the opening of our lives to the pregnant silence of God’s love that gives expression to all material things, and to the beating heart of every person ever born?
It is such a simple move: amid our thoughts, amid our feelings, amid our mental activity, amid our physical activity, amid our eating and our drinking, amid the retreat of Lent — remember God, on our lips, and in our hearts, for every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
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