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The best guide to centering prayer for experienced practitioners
on September 5, 2012
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say right away that I played a small role in editing The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God and have assisted David Frenette for the past three years with a regular retreat that he gave based on the material in this book. However, the reason that I have chosen to be involved with David's work is that I find his approach to be the most helpful I have encountered in terms of providing practical guidance for the experienced centering prayer practitioner and I wanted to play a role in disseminating his teachings. I am a trained spiritual director with thirteen years of experience, I have taught at Union Theological Seminary and have led a weekly centering prayer group for the past six years.
Centering prayer is a method of silent contemplative prayer that comes out of the teachings of the Christian tradition. In the fourteen years that I have been practicing centering prayer, I have found that there is a wealth of material out there for the beginning centering prayer student and many good books on the theological background of the prayer, but it is more difficult to find help for the experienced practitioner. When I heard David Frenette speak for the first time four years ago, I knew I had finally found the teacher I had been looking for. David has been practicing and teaching centering prayer under the guidance of Thomas Keating for over 25 years and he has a great gift for describing the subtle interior experience of the prayer. The experience of sitting in silent contemplation can be very hard to talk about, even for those who have been practicing for a long time. David is very good at describing and addressing concerns and problems that may arise. I believe that the qualities that I have appreciated in his spoken teaching are very present in this book.
Thomas Keating in his classic Open Mind Open Heart mentions that centering prayer may be practiced using several different forms of the sacred symbol: the sacred word, the sacred breath, the sacred glance, or the sacred nothingness. However, almost all teachers of centering prayer focus entirely on the sacred word and often do not even refer to the other symbols. In the first part of The Path of Centering Prayer, David expands in very practical detail on the use of each of these sacred symbols, discussing how each may be suited for different people at different seasons of the spiritual journey. Those who have been using the sacred word may find their practice enriched and refreshed when they experiment with another of the sacred symbols, or may even find that their practice has naturally evolved into the use of one of the other symbols and that David's teachings may help to illuminate and affirm this natural evolution. The sacred word may sometimes come to feel a little bit harsh or overly conceptual, and the use of the other symbols may provide a valuable opportunity for the deepening of the practice.
The second part of the book looks at eight contemplative attitudes: receiving, consent, simplicity, gentleness, letting go, resting, embracing, and integrating. These attitudes represent subtly different ways of being in the prayer that allow one to relate to the sacred symbol more and more deeply. David describes in these chapters how one may move from a more active disposition into an attitude in which one is completely receptive to God's action. David has a very gentle way of describing the prayer in these chapters that conveys the feeling of being in the prayer. There is always tension involved in trying to explain contemplative prayer, a non-intellectual way of being, in words and concepts. I find that David's approach allows me to remain in a contemplative mode without leading me away from the contemplative space.
Since I came to David's work as a more experienced practitioner of the prayer, it's harder for me to address how this book will be received by less experienced practitioners. It is meant to be a guide for beginners and experienced practitioners alike. I know that there have been beginning practitioners on the retreats who have very much enjoyed them. David's approach seems to me to be very respectful of the different places where people are in regard to the prayer. I believe that David always speaks up to his audience, never down. Newcomers may often understand the prayer very deeply and may appreciate being invited into the richness that this book offers.
The Path of Centering Prayer is full of stories from David's experience and quotations from the spiritual classics that help to bring it to life. David's teachings come out of himself, his long practice of the prayer, and his rootedness in the tradition of the prayer. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to go more deeply into this method of contemplation. Because of its very detailed and practical discussion of contemplative prayer methods, it may also be of interest to non-Christian practitioners of meditation and prayer.