October 28, 2018
+ This past Thursday, one of the truly great spiritual leaders of the Church passed away. You might not have heard about his passing. In fact, you might not have even heard of the man himself. But he was a giant, especially among those of us who have tried to follow a more contemplative prayer life.
On Thursday, a Cistercian priest and monk by the name of Father Thomas Keating died at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. And he was a giant because, in a very quiet, very unassuming way, he radically brought about a very simple kind of prayer that has helped countless people to no end. The form of prayer he helped people to practice was called “Centering Prayer.” He did this as a way to “revive the contemplative teachings of early Christianity and present them in updated formats.” (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/history-centering-prayer)
For him, it was a form of contemplative prayer was prayer "centered entirely on the presence of God."
Centering Prayer, according the method of Father Keating, uses single prayer word to “center” us, to bring us back into communion with God. Now that single prayer word is important. And it is meaningful only to the person using it. It might be as simple as
But it is this word that helps us be centered—to focus—in our prayers.
Now you’ve heard me preach again and again about this, but I firmly believe that, without a solid foundation of personal prayer, all that we do in church on Sundays is without a solid base. All of us who have been baptized are ministers of the Church. And for our ministry to be effective, we need to have a strong and very solid prayer life to support that ministry.
I, of course, highly encouraged people to pray the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer every day as the first foundation. From the offices and from the Mass, our prayer life as followers of Jesus flourish. For many of us, however, the Daily Offices are not something we can fit into our busy lives.
But, no matter how busy our lives are, we must always have a strong foundation of prayer. And that prayer life can be very simple. Centering Prayer and its emphasis on simple little prayers throughout the day are sometimes, by far, the most effective prayers.
This morning, in our Gospel, we find a very little, but it seems, very effective prayer, very much in the spirit of Centering Prayer. It is a story that at first seems to be leading us in one direction, then something else happens.
We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we also find of course that he is blind.
Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going to happen. We know where this story is going. We know Bartimaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see.
But the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel, like a wonderful little treasure.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now that designation of Jesus as the “Son of David” is interesting in and of its self. By identifying Jesus as the Son of the David, Bartimaeus is essentially identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one sent by God.
But it takes on special meaning for us this morning, on this day after the massacreat Tree of Life Temple in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. I want to be clear about what happened yesterday. What happened there didn’t just happen to people we think of as “them.” Yes, I know. We’re Christians. They’re Jews. They are “them.” But, we really don’t get use that excuse.
Because of this one we follow—this Jewish Son of David—what happened there at Tree of Life Temple, to those Jewish people, happened to us as well. We are the same family. We are inheritors of what those people died for yesterday. Those people were murdered because they were Jews. They were Jews living in hate-filled society by an anti-Semite with automatic weapon. We cannot simply explain all of that away. And we cannot blame them because they didn’t have an armed guard at their door. They were Jews who were murdered because they were Jews. Jews, just like our own Son of David was a Jew. And because of that, what happened to them, happened to us too. We can never forget that fact.
So this man, Bartimaeus, is praying to the Jewish Messiah, to the One God sent, to have mercy on him. And what does the Son of David do? He has mercy on Bartimaeus.
And in that prayer, we find the kernel of Centering Prayer to some extent. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple.
But, obviously, according to our Gospel for today, the prayer is important. Jesus does what he is asked. He has mercy on this man and heals him.
So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer. Jesus occasionally gives us advice in the Gospels on how we should pray.
The first one that probably comes to mind probably is the Lord’s prayer, the Our Father. But today we find a prayer very different than the Lord’s prayer. The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.
The prayer we hear this morning cuts right to the very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart. The words of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray.
Here it is, summed up for us.
More often than not, our prayers really are simple, one word prayers. And the one word prayer we probably pray more than anything—I do it anyway—is:
“Please!” I pray so often.
Or sometimes it’s: “please, please, please!”
The one word prayer I should be praying more than anything is: “thanks.”
But Centering Prayer definitely comes from that kind of heart-felt prayer. Here are the words we long to use in those prayers without words.
“Have mercy on me!”
But if we were to pare it down, if we were to go to the heart of the prayer, what word from that prayer would be the heart of the whole prayer? It would, of course, be “mercy.” And in Centering Prayer, that would be our centering word.
We would quiet our mind. We would breathe quietly. And we would just simply repeat that one word, over and over again until we are in the presence of God.
The word draws us to God, helps nudge us into God’s presence. And then once we’re there, we don’t need to use it again except to use it to nudge us back into that Presence.
And, for many of us, this is the heart of our prayer. This is what we desire from God.
Please, God, we pray. Have mercy on us.
Using words like this, praying like this, simply sitting quietly and just being in the presence of God is a kind of “prayer of the heart.” That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer would be the words of our heart.
The fact that it is so simple is what makes the Centering Prayer so popular. Anyone can do it. It is a prayer each of us can do wherever we are and whenever we need to do it.
I sometimes do centering prayer when I am in the dentist chair, getting my teeth cleaned. Or on the airplane. And during times like this, when hatred and anger and true darkness rages around us, we need these moments of peace. In fact, it is a prayer that demands to be practiced in moments like that. It’s almost impossible not to do it once we dip into it.
And it’s not as though we are mindlessly babbling on for sake of “saying our prayers.” We are not mindless repeating a prayer word over and over again for the sake of appearing to pray. It is a way to truly enter into the very heart of what prayer is all about.
What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and addresses our very own limitations. It is essentially the ceaseless prayer that should be going within us all the time. It is the prayer of absolute humility.
Or, going back to our discussion about one word prayers, the one word from this prayer we would be praying is “mercy.”
Like Bartimeaus, we can simply bring what we have before God in prayer, release it, and then walk away healed. There is no room for haughtiness when praying this prayer. The person we are when we pray it is who we really are.
When all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in and takes over for us. This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we “present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—Centering Prayer—such a popular prayer practice for so many. And this prayer does not even have to be about us. We can use this prayer when praying for others. How easy it is to simply pray:
God, have mercy on her, or him, or them.
It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple words can pack such a wallop. We don’t have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and petitioning God. We simply need to open our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very similar to the words of the Centering Prayer of Father Thomas Keating.
So, like Bartimaeus, let us pray what is in our heart. Let us open ourselves completely and humbly to God. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time. Like Bartimaeus, we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking through into our lives. And when that blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow him on the way.