soul settling

What is the level of noise in your life? And I don’t mean the sound wave variety only, but also the ‘noise’ of distractions and busyness: attention-demanding issues that appear as insistent, flag-waving obligations and from which we struggle to achieve the distance required to gain a truer perspective.

Just yesterday, I was chatting with a friend who has taken the radical step of leaving her London-based job to travel alone around New Zealand, in large part motivated by a desire for space to think, to listen to her own soul and to the invitations of God regarding her future. While I can totally appreciate this motivation (as well as the rightness of this decision for my friend) not all of us are in a position to completely extricate ourselves from our daily lives. I have a feeling my husband and daughters would miss my presence at the dinner table! So this got me wondering: what are those practices we can lean into as a means of cultivating inner space, a place of shelter from the clamouring of everyday life? 

Is it possible, I ask myself, to find ways to settle my soul when life itself seems to constantly work to agitate it, or shake it up?

There are several practices I find helpful in bringing me to a place of settledness, including the practice of retreat, of meditation, breath prayers and regular, mindful walks in nature. Probably the most helpful practice though, one that doesn’t require me to calve out free time, or even to leave my desk, is that of Centering Prayer. 

I wonder if you have heard of Centering Prayer? If you have, you might also be aware of Thomas Keating, who was a Yale-educated monk (he passed away in 2018). Keating was one of the principal developers of Centering Prayer and you can find several resources online that explain and introduce this contemplative practice. For instance, you could take a look at this video.

Centering Prayer is a way of focusing our attention on God. With much practice, we might pray in this way for 20-30 minutes twice a day, but for most of us this is a stretch! We are so distracted, so unused to focusing our attention for any length of time, that we might need to start with 5 or 6 minutes and exercise our attention before extending the time of our practice. 

(Full disclosure: I am no expert and as a novice can manage about 15 minutes most days, stretching myself to 20 minutes about once a week. As a way of learning and growing together, I open up my home every Friday to anyone who would like to pray together in this way. If you are local, do pop in!)

The foundation of the practice is to choose a meaningful word to focus on, a word that turns your attention to God. It is best to choose one word that will be yours every time you come to the practice, rather than choosing a different one each time. The reason I have found it so powerful to stick with the same word is that - even at times of busyness, stress or unsettledness, when I am not actually practising Centering Prayer - the word itself becomes a sort of trigger into a quieter, more spacious place. And the accompanying awareness of the presence of God grows and expands along with experience in the practice.

The word I chose is kyrie (pronounced KIR-ee-ei) which is a well-known word in Christian liturgy and comes from the Greek, meaning Lord (you may have seen it as kyrie eleison, or Lord, have mercy). I find it helpful to have a word that it ‘special’ or different from any word I would commonly use. The idea is simply to repeat this word as a way of focusing on God and, as often as competing thoughts make their noisy presence felt, to simply return to the word without berating or judging yourself. That’s all there is to it, really, and it is utterly surprising that such a simple practice can achieve within us such space and depth as it inevitably does over time.

breathing underwater

The image that often comes to my mind, and it is one used by Father Keating in his descriptions of Centering Prayer, is of a body of water. Above the water are all kinds of colourful vessels - sailboats, kayaks, dinghies - which can be likened to our busy thoughts, all competing for our attention. There are many good and beautiful thoughts, along with some thoughts that are of less value or are even unhelpful, and they fill the space with their movement. 

As we begin to pray it is as if we sink beneath the water, and the sounds of the busyness become less raucous. Immediately we are in a different dimension, movement is slowed along with our breathing that becomes slower and deeper. Instead of the primary sense of motion being in a horizontal direction - everything moving away from or towards ourselves - we have the idea that now the primary direction of our being is along a vertical plane. That is, we either move downward and deeper into the stillness or, as thoughts tug on our attention, we move out of the stillness towards the noise at the surface of the water. 

Overall, the idea of moving further into the watery depths speaks to me about moving more deeply into God. Perhaps I would even go so far as to say that, following this analogy, God is the water. I am aware of being immersed in the relational reality of God. No matter what is going on at the surface of my life, I can choose to take these moments to be reminded that my ultimate reality is that I am in God and this perspective quietens the babel of life’s activities in such a way that my soul comes to a place of stillness.

How about you? What are those practices you find helpful to still the noise in your life, to settle your soul? To what extent do you sense God inviting you into a place of greater stillness? How would you like to respond to that invitation? What makes it hard for you to respond in the way you would like?