Can You Combine Different Methods of Silent Prayer?
Do you think it’s possible to legitimately combine Christian Meditation (WCCM), The Jesus Prayer, and Centering Prayer into a single practice? For example – to entrain The Jesus Prayer to your breath as the WCCM mantra (breath in – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; breath out – Have mercy on me, [a sinner]), and then to focus on your Centering Prayer Word at the same time (e.g. Be still)? I’ve been experimenting with this and wondering what your thoughts are.
Your question is about different methods of silent prayer. As you know, different teachers and different organizations offer different approaches to silence. At the risk of oversimplifying:
- The World Community for Christian Meditation promotes the use of a Christian mantra — a word (typically “Maranatha”) that is repeated in the silence, often entrained to the breath.
- The Jesus Prayer, or Prayer of the Heart, is a traditionally Orthodox practice that involves repetitive recitation of either the name of Jesus, or a short phrase (“Jesus, Mercy”) or prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me”), also often entrained to the breath.
- Centering Prayer involves the use of a “sacred word,” of your own choosing, that you recite, but only when you are distracted by wandering thoughts — in other words, it’s not driven by the breath, but by the activity of the mind.
So each of these methods of prayer is different. You asked what is “possible” and “legitimate” — and I must defer to the fact that many people pray in many different ways. There is no standards board for Christian prayer, contemplative or otherwise. So if this kind of prayer is possible, it sounds like you’re already experimenting with it, so naturally it’s possible! As for whether or not such experimentation is legitimate, that probably depends on who you talk to.
What you are describing is something different from each of the three methods you are drawing from. So I don’t think it would be appropriate to call this “Centering Prayer” or the “Jesus Prayer.” And while it is certainly a form of Christian meditation, it’s different enough from what WCCM teaches that if you spoke to people in their community, they would probably say that what you are doing is different from what they teach.
But none of these facts makes this kind of prayer illegitimate.
I think it’s better to get away from legal metaphors when talking about prayer, opting instead for relational or therapeutic metaphors. So let’s give the word “illegitimate” a vacation.
Instead, you might want to ask, “Does this way of praying help me to draw closer to God? Does it foster a sense of intimacy with God? Does it help you to remain more faithful to your daily commitment for prayer?” I think those are the more meaningful questions here — and they are questions that only you can answer.
If you find that it is hard to sort all this out on your own, it might be worth seeking out the wise counsel of a spiritual director or someone you trust as an experienced practitioner of silent prayer. Having a discernment-partner can really help with questions like this.
One other thought: I would suggest that of the three methods that you are combining, the one that you are “stretching” the most is Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is the most radically silent of these three methods. It’s really not about repeating the sacred word — except when your distracting thoughts pop us. Now, granted, for many of us, we get so many distracting thoughts that we end up repeating the sacred word over and over again. But at least in theory, Centering Prayer is an invitation into deep silence — as, and when, your distracting thoughts dissipate, you may also let the sacred word go, and simply rest in the vast, objectless silence.
So it seems to me that the “hybrid” method you have created, while it might be a very rich and meaningful practice for you, it’s good to keep this in mind: that it actually undermines the method of Centering Prayer, which is to prepare yourself and to consent to the radical openness of silence, which you may or may not experience, but it’s always a possibility.
Reciting a mantra — or some variation of the Jesus Prayer — is a beautiful way to pray. But it really is a different method than the Centering Prayer method, which is more “western” (i.e., based on The Cloud of Unknowing) than the other two methods. If you read The Cloud, you’ll see that it never talks about repetition of your prayer word, whether entrained to the breath or not.
So, here’s a few thoughts for your discernment. How about instead of combining these methods, you use one method in the morning and another at night? That way you can enjoy the unique blessings of two different methods, without trying to make your prayer be “all things at all times.”
Along these lines, unless you have strong ties to WCCM, I personally would recommend going with the Jesus Prayer, entrained to your breath, in the evenings, and Centering Prayer in the morning (or vice versa). The reason I suggest this is because, since there is precedent for praying the Jesus prayer in a breath-entrained way, you probably don’t need to practice both the Jesus Prayer and the WCCM style prayer (using “Maranatha” as a mantra). The two methods are very similar, so pick the one that is most meaningful for you, and go with it. Centering Prayer, on the other hand, really is a different approach to silent prayer, so if you are going to experiment with two different methods, it might make sense to keep Centering Prayer as one of your chosen methods.
If you don’t pray twice a day… first, consider making the time to do so. I know it’s a big commitment, but pretty much all the contemplative traditions advocate praying more than once a day. Remember, our Muslim friends pray five times a day! So surely we can manage twice. But (no shame, no judgment) if only once a day works for you, then consider setting a period of time to work with each method specifically — maybe 40 days each. Then, after four months, you will have had an extended “trial” of each method. You may find that one method is clearly your method and if that’s the case, then go with it. Or if you find that you really still need to work with more than one methods, you can continue to alternate from season to season.
But let me hasten to say that all of this is based on the idea that the “hybrid” method of prayer you have been experimenting with ultimately doesn’t work for you. In all candor, it sounds rather complicated to me! But that’s me, and you have to follow your own heart, your own intuition here. If you can answer yes to my questions (“Does this way of praying help me to draw closer to God?” Does it foster a sense of intimacy with God? Does it help you to remain more faithful to your daily commitment for prayer?”), then it’s probably an experiment worth continuing.
Abbot John Chapman, author of Spiritual Letters, is famous for saying “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” I think this is tremendously sound advice. Yes, advocates for Centering Prayer or WCCM or the Jesus Prayer will make the case that “their” method of praying is the “preferred” method. Well, it’s the preferred method for them. Your job is to be faithful to who God created you to be — and to pray accordingly.