My colleague heard I was leading a retreat on prayer, and that part of it was about prayer in discernment. How can prayer help us decide things? I feel like it's all about gut calls, he said, and I'm never comfortable playing the "sorry, but no" guy based on gut.
Well, yeah. Hitler made plenty of gut calls. So did Idi Amin and Josef Stalin. That something "feels right inside" is no guarantee at all that it really is -- this, when you stop and think about it, is a truly terrifying thought. We fool nobody as thoroughly as we fool ourselves.
What I have been thinking lately about prayer in discernment is that centering prayer is really the key. In its silence, beneath all words and worries, everything is cleared away -- including my important decision. To sit in silence at the moment when an urgent question tugs at the sleeve is an expression of trust in God, and God does not disappoint.
And so, centering: offering the important choice to God and then stripping everything away in silence and sitting in the silence. Then, when you "return," something has been added, something that is more than gut.
And so, you sit down with your urgent question. You place both feet on the floor. You close your eyes and make sure your clothes aren't binding you in any way -- if your belt is tight, you, loosen it. If you are cold, get a wrap. You turn your attention to your breath and mark it, and you continue to mark it throughout the prayer.
Starting with your feet, you relax the parts of your body, one by one, by tightening them very firmly and then releasing them. Both feet. Both calves, both thighs, your abdomen, your buttocks, both hands, both arms, your shoulders, your neck. You contort your face and then let it relax. As you tighten and relax each part of your body, it seems to disappear.
And, all the while, you mark your breath. In and out. The gift of God. Sustaining you your whole life long.
You begin to repeat your holy word, over and over. Your holy word is not chosen for its wealth of meaning, since this is prayer that goes beneath meaning. Save the really thought-provoking words for another time. Choose this one for the sound. If you can't think of one, you're welcome to use mine. It's "Holy God, holy and mighty."
Holy God, holy and mighty. Holy God, holy and mighty. Holy God, holy and mighty. Holy God, holy and mighty.
Just say it again and again, as you sit. Let it catch any distraction that comes your way: a sound outside, a physical sensation, a thought. Let it be like flypaper -- do people still know what flypaper is? -- and just let your distractions stick to it. After a time, the word will slip away, too, and you will be in silence. If a thought or a sound comes, just repeat your holy word until it passed.
You are still. Empty. Underneath everything, in a way. God can fill you now. Maybe this stillness is what God is like. You can stay as long as you like. Don't worry; you won't get stuck down there.
What happened to your big decision? It's still there, still waiting to be made. You still must make your choice. But you are different now. Something has changed in you, something you may not be aware of at all.
Sometimes all our prayer about things is just too frantic -- it's just worry, with an "Amen" at the end. Sometimes you have to stop and let God carry the load for a while, and then when you come back, the deciding is different. Maybe centering prayer is a little like restarting one's computer -- an old program isn't gone until you shut down, and the new one you installed isn't activated until you restart. Maybe centering prayer sweeps your spirit clean and gives God some room to move in you.