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Augustine and Centering Prayer

Photo by Ukkasyah Quwwatulha from Pexels

Extract from the book 'Making Room for Others'.

Given as one of a number of retreat talks to the Augustinians in Japan in 1992. The author was living in South Korea at the time.

Augustine’s only attempt to write specifically on prayer was his letter to Proba (Letter 130). But while he did not write a treatise on prayer as such, because of the popularity of centering prayer are there any pointers in Augustine that suggest he may have understood something of this kind of prayer? John Main, one of the modern-day masters of Christian meditation, defines the essence of prayer as union with God. In order to achieve this, he suggests a very simple and practical type of meditation technique: sit still, sit straight, sit silently; and recite your prayer-word from the beginning to the end of the meditation. Do this twice a day, morning and evening, for between twenty and thirty minutes each time. He says we should do this without any expectation of receiving consolation or enlightenment. Leave that all up to God to grant in his own good time. This type of meditation is an act of faith, done in love and requiring a certain self-discipline and commitment. The purpose of the prayer-word, or mantra, is gradually to weaken the hold of the ego, or conscious self, on the mind, in order to facilitate its transformation into the mind of Christ (see John Main, Word into Silence, London, 1980, and his many other works).

Turning to Augustine, I think we can find support for centering prayer. Its basic assumption, implied in the very word ‘centering’, is that God is to be found within. We are made in God’s image and we are temples of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of prayer – any prayer - is to bring to realisation this fact; that is, to make us more Christ-like and better able to make contact with the God within who is the source and origin of our lives. As John Main says, prayer is about getting in touch with reality, and God is Reality. Here, Augustine’s teaching on interiority is relevant. As Fr Zumkeller says, ‘The admonition “Return to your heart” – redi ad cor – occurs repeatedly in [Augustine’s] sermons and writings. Not only in his own inwardness – “in the core of his heart” – does man encounter himself that he may recognize his weakness and sins; but there, too, the ‘image of God’, renewed in him, reveals itself to him, and there he finds the truth that gladdens him, the teacher who instructs him, his God who makes him happy’ (Adolar Zumkeller, OSA, Augustine’s Ideal of the Religious Life, New York, 1986, p.179).

The heart, the inner person, is the place of encounter both with our yet-to-be-fully-redeemed selves and God. The journey within is unavoidable if we are to make progress in our prayer-lives, if we are to discover God. So often we think of prayer as something aimed at a God ‘up there’ or ‘out there’. After all, prayer was usually described in terms of ‘lifting up’ our hearts to God. It was meant metaphorically, but nevertheless this has led us to think spatially about a God apart from us. It was only in the 1960s that Bishop John Robinson caused a furore among Christians in Britain, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, by suggesting that God was not ‘up’ in heaven, nor indeed anywhere in any spatial sense, but that he resided within, as the Ground of our Being (see John Robinson, Honest to God, London, 1963).

So God is within. Let us listen to Augustine himself: ‘Do not go outside yourself, but turn back within; truth dwells in the inner man’ (On True Religion, 39.72). Or, ‘We have our teacher within, Christ. If you cannot grasp something through your ear and my mouth, turn to him in your hearts, for it is he who teaches me what to say and gives to you as he wishes’ (On John’s Gospel, 20.3). And, perhaps most famously, ‘Enter, then, “into your heart” (Is 46.8), and if you have faith, you will find Christ there. There, he speaks to you. I the preacher must raise my voice, but he instructs you more effectively in silence’ (Sermon 102.2). One could go on. The point is that even if there are some who think that centering prayer or contemplation is only for an enthusiastic few, at least one cannot say that it is un-Augustinian. Indeed, it surprises me that the great exponents of centering prayer, like John Main, Basil Pennington and Thomas Merton, hardly refer to Augustine at all. Possibly it is because his fame as a theologian and philosopher has eclipsed his teaching on the spiritual life.

Recently, I was listening to a tape by Henri Nouwen entitled ‘Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry’. Aiming his talks at those of us engaged in the pastoral ministry, he says that the Desert Fathers have three things to teach us: the need to withdraw, the need to be silent, and the need to pray always. Solitude, silence, and prayer. This is also the message of the advocates of centering prayer. We need to withdraw regularly from our busy lives and create a space of silence where we can set aside our cares and concerns, get the mind to wind down, and listen instead of talking. What John Main and others are telling us is to do this daily, twice daily, and use the prayer-word, or mantra, as the device to achieve this.

Listen to this: ‘Let us leave a little room for reflection, room too for silence. Enter into yourself, leave behind all noise and confusion. Look within yourself and see whether there be some delightful hidden place in your consciousness where you can be free of noise and argument, where you need not be carrying on your disputes and planning to have your own stubborn way. Hear the word in quietness, that you may understand it…’ Remarkably, that was said not by one of the modern authors of centering prayer I mentioned but by Augustine in one of his sermons (Sermon 52.22). ‘Hear the word in quietness’ may or may not be a reference to a prayer-word, but the whole tenor of what he says seems to be in keeping with what the contemporary masters of centering prayer are teaching.

Augustine’s reflections on prayer are scattered over a wide area, in sermons, letters, and books, with only the famous Letter 130, to Proba, coming close to being a treatise on prayer. And while he says many inspiring things about prayer, especially in the context of interiority, it is impossible to know how he prayed. One commentator has said, ‘Augustine seems not to have been so preoccupied as were the later mystics with the techniques and regimens of the life devoted to God. He was no Loyola, setting forth spiritual exercises by the day and hour for the example of his followers. Nor was he a Bonaventura, crisply defining each path and promontory of the Christian life in the manner of a spiritual cartographer’ (R. Hazleton, ‘The Devotional Life’, in R.W. Battenhouse, ed., A Companion to the Study of St Augustine, Grand Rapids, 1979, pp.399-400).

Van der Meer is even more direct when he says, speaking of the prayer habits in Augustine’s time: ‘There was perhaps little meditation in our sense of the word, and even in the monasteries there may not have been very much of it… Men uttered their prayers out loud much more often than they do today; they prayed straight from the heart and accompanied their prayer with lively gestures…’ (op. cit., p.168). And yet there are hints that life in Augustine’s monasteries may have been a little different. Zumkeller, who is probably a more reliable authority on his spirituality than van der Meer, says that it is significant that Augustine set aside times for prayer in the monastic schedule, which was not the case in other monasteries, where manual labour was considered to be a continuous prayer. Also, Augustine may well have been the first to designate a specific room for prayer and nothing else in the monastic compound, an oratory (see Zumkeller, op. cit., pp.180-83). Hence the significance of the remark in the Rule: ‘In the oratory no one should do anything out of keeping with the purpose of the place. So that if some perhaps have leisure and wish to pray outside the regular hours, they should not be distracted by those wanting to use the oratory for another purpose’ (Rule II.2).

It would seem, therefore, that Augustine wished to promote the practice of private prayer outside of times for common prayer, and in so doing he was breaking with a tradition in Eastern monasteries whereby the oratory, if there was one, was also a workroom (remember, at this time there was no reservation of the Blessed Sacrament for devotional purposes). Incidentally, it seems that St Benedict took up Augustine’s idea of the monastery oratory and we have had them ever since. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a religious house without one, but that seemingly was not always the case.

Even Possidius, in his biography of Augustine, is not very enlightening on his master’s prayer life. The only reference one can find is in Chapter Three, where he says that Augustine ‘lived for God in fasting, prayer, and good works and in meditating day and night on the law of the Lord’ (Possidius, Life of St Augustine, 3.2). Such a remark could be applied to any of the saints. But if we are to reflect a little on his insistence on the provision of a room in the monastery specifically for personal prayer, we can assume that Augustine himself was in the habit of praying privately outside of times for liturgical prayer. As Augustine says to the lady Proba: ‘let us be careful to withdraw our attention at stated times from worrying affairs and preoccupations… let us surrender ourselves instead to the business of prayer’ (Letter 130, 6.8). Augustine advises her to follow the example of the Egyptian desert fathers and make use of very frequent but exceedingly brief prayers, perhaps a hint of the prayer-word, which John Cassian got from the desert fathers and which John Main borrowed from Cassian. Augustine goes on to add that she should avoid much speaking in prayer. Fervour of attention is more important, he says, than piling up words. Prayer ‘is often a matter for groans rather than words, for weeping rather than speaking’ (7.20). So it may well be that Augustine had knowledge of something like the prayer-word or mantra. We have no way of being certain, however.

Augustine is tantalizingly brief about the way he and his monks prayed, but if one takes his emphasis on interiority and returning to the heart together with his distaste for many words and the usefulness of short, sharp ejaculatory prayers, we have some evidence that he would at least have been sympathetic to centering prayer, if not an actual practitioner in the modern sense. As Theodore Tack says, ‘though surrounded by noise, confusion, anxieties and the many problems of his pastoral service, Augustine never failed to create within himself, through faith and grace, an interior silence which allowed him to commune with God the Father and his Son Jesus. His total focus was on Jesus Christ, both as the one who would lead him within, and as the one who was the goal of his interior search…’ (T. Tack, OSA, If Augustine Were Alive Today, New York, 1988, p.58).

Tack devotes only one chapter out of ten to prayer in his book on Augustine’s spirituality, preferring instead to devote most of his time to expounding his teaching on community, about which Augustine is much more eloquent than on prayer. This is a view that is supported by one of the great modern commentators on him, Gerald Bonner, who says, ‘while regarding the contemplative life as superior to the active because it is eternal, Augustine holds that perfection of contemplation is possible only in the life to come. In his monastic rule he emphasizes the active cultivation of charity in the common life rather than solitary contemplation, and in heaven the life of the saints is a social one’ (Gerald Bonner, ‘St Augustine of Hippo’, in G.S. Wakefield, ed., The Westminster Dictionary of Spirituality, London, 1983, p.34).

And yet, paradoxically, it is in contemplation that we become more in touch with our authentic selves and thereby better able to relate to others. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing says, contemplation gives ‘discernment, when he needs it, to read people’s characters… It gives him the knack of being at home with everyone he talks to, habitual sinner or not, without sinning himself… to the astonishment of the onlooker, and with a magnetic effect on others, drawing them by grace to the same spiritual work that he practices’ (see, The Cloud of Unknowing, ed., William Johnston, New York, 1973, chapter 54). Contemplation, community and ministry are intertwined. The fruits of contemplation are to be found in the way we relate to others, to those in community and to those for whom we minister. If Augustine speaks more often of the fruits of contemplation than of contemplation itself, he has nevertheless left enough tantalizing hints that had he known of centering prayer as we understand it today, it would not have been unfamiliar to him.

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