The process of surrender in centering prayer is critical to the taming of our need for control. When we pray, we commit to sitting in solitude with God. This is a form of self-denial. Recall Jesus’ summary of the essence of discipleship: “If any want to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and continually follow me” (Matt 16:24 cf. Mark 8:34 Luke 9:27). The focus of discipleship is on consciously following Jesus. Jesus’ words in Matt 16:24 serve ably as a model for centering prayer.
Intending the Things of God
In Matt 16:21, Jesus had laid out the necessity of his journey to Jerusalem. There Jesus would experience suffering, death, but also resurrection. In response to this revelation (16:22), Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus by saying, “May this never happen, Lord!” Jesus responded to Peter with “Get behind me Satan. For you have not set your mind on the things of God but on the things of humanity.” In other words, Peter struggled because he assumed that his plans, desires, and will should govern the actions of Jesus his Lord.
This is not to say that our goals and ideas have no value. As we live in the world, we will continually take decisions and actions. But the process of growth in grace involves removing the idolatry and injustice out of our decisions. The challenge of the spiritual life is that, when we learn about the mind of Christ, we discover that our truest humanity resides in living fully as the person whom God created us to be. The irony is that we are often the greatest impediment to our growth. Our false self attempts to block access to discovering who we are at the deepest level.
To set our mind on the things of humanity means that it is our will and talents that remain in control of our destiny. It is the full flourishing of our flesh apart from reliance on the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:1–17).
To set our minds on the things of God involves realigning continually with the will of God. Our guide is Jesus. Centering prayer allows us to practice this ongoing surrender of the will.
Invitation to Surrender
16:24 begins with an invitation: “If anyone wishes to come after me….” Jesus calls would be followers to set an intention. Decide and commit to go in the way of Jesus. Jesus calls us to a person–the Son of God. When we take the decision to sit in solitude, we are answering the call of Jesus.
What does this intention or decision involve? It involves surrender to a new mode of being. In centering prayer we do not set the agenda. In fact there is no agenda. The moment we seek one we have gone the way of Peter and set our mind on the ways of humanity.
Centering Prayer and the Meaning of Surrender
What does surrender look like? Jesus uses three phrases in 16:24: deny self, take up cross, and continually follow me.
Deny self. This is not merely a call to a disciplined life involving deprivation. It is more radical. To deny self means to orient fully to the way of Jesus so that the cross shapes our goals, desires, rights, and privileges. In centering prayer, this means a steadfast recognition that my stray thoughts, emotional baggage, and even brilliant insights must give way to being present with God.
Take up the cross. In the ancient world, the cross was a terrifying symbol. Crucifixion was gruesome, humiliating, and meant certain death. To take up one’s cross meant literally lifting the wood upon which one would soon die and walking under its weight to the place of your death. A person taking up the cross was a dead man or woman walking. In solitude, we come to God empty handed in the surrendered posture of one whose life is over. This frees us from both past and future in order to be with God in the moment.
Continually follow me. If the first two phrases involve a letting go of one’s rights, privileges, past, and future, Jesus’ final phrase points to the pathway for the present. Disciples follow Jesus moment by moment. This was true during Jesus’ earthly ministry. It remained true for the Christians to whom Matthew was writing in the first century. Jesus’ words are still vital for us in the 21st century. Discipleship involves a deep ongoing relationship with Jesus. This is why Jesus came to earth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is Immanuel “God with us” (1:23). In Matt 18:20, Jesus promises, “For where there are two or three gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” In Matthew 28:20b, the risen Jesus declares, “Behold, I myself am with you all the days until the end of the age.”
Centering Prayer and the Practice of Surrender
In prayer, denying self and taking up the cross serve as the means of purging our rights to ourselves. Whatever thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams, goals, visions, triumphant memories, or nightmarish recollections arise in solitude, we surrender them and continually follow Jesus. This means using our prayer word to realign ourselves with our Lord.
Imagine yourself taking a walk with Jesus. He leads you down a path. You hear birds singing so you look up for a moment. You then turn your gaze back to Jesus. Then you get an idea for a project at work followed by a worry that you don’t have enough time to accomplish your goals for the day. You catch yourself and again return to the master. A few moments later you reach a point in the path that triggers a painful memory of great loss. Yet again you turn to Jesus. Martin Luther’s dictum comes to mind in this process: “You can’t prevent a bird from landing in your tree but you don’t have to allow it to build a nest.”
Recognize that the process of centering prayer is to continually return to the Lord. Period. Thoughts are thoughts. Feelings are feelings. Memories are memories. The call to discipleship challenges us to turn away from self and follow Jesus. This is the way of prayer too. The question is trust: Do I trust God enough to release my attachments to whatever the hamster wheel inside my head offers up?
Merton writes on the need for continual surrender, “to have a will that is always ready to fold back within itself and draw all the powers of the soul down from its deepest center to rest in silent expectancy for the coming of God, poised in tranquil and effortless concentration upon the point of my dependence on him;…”
There is a dynamic tension between surrender and our role in the surrender. Merton’s words capture it well. It is not that our will disappears. Our will remains. Its intentions have become aligned with the divine will. The Lord’s prayer becomes reality in our inner world, “on earth [in me] as it is in heaven.”
In fact, the process of recentering is the critical discipline that opens us up to God’s presence and grace. There is no contemplative moments apart from the our conscious return to God every time that we find ourselves lost in a stream of thoughts. This is how souls are made. It is a moment by moment journey.
© 2019 Brian D. Russell
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