Q&A on the Sacred Word
"Our sacred word does not carry a magic power to achieve enlightenment. We are just there with God in silence, not trying to receive revelations or to become a holy person. The most powerful thing we can do during Centering Prayer is to rest in God and to allow God to work healing and loving us completely. "
Question: I've been bouncing around with different sacred words recently, and it has been very distracting in my CP practice. I'm finding that words aren't resonating. Does that make sense?
Answer: Thanks for your question! We can get into all kinds of mental anguish about which sacred word to choose. We can be in the middle of the Centering Prayer session and wonder whether it’s the right one. If we are distracted about which word works, it’s important for us to stay with one and not change it during the prayer. We can find one that fits when we are out of the prayer.
It really does not matter which word we choose, only one that will be a symbol. It could be something like "door.” It's just a device to bring our attention back to our intention of growing closer to God. The main idea is not the word but how we are coming back "ever so gently" (so it's not an ego trip) to our intention to consent to God's love, presence, and action going on within us. Knowing that there’s no exact right or wrong word should ease our conscience about which one fits us.
"In our culture we have learned the way to succeed is to meet goals, tick boxes, and achieve certain expectations. We are doing the opposite in Centering Prayer. We are spending time resting in God in silence."
We do not say our sacred word continuously. We only say it when we notice we are wrapped up in thought. The word does not have to have a deep theological significance, because if we keep thinking about what it means, we will have moved out of silence into thinking. Thinking is not part of Centering Prayer. Our sacred word does not carry a magic power to achieve enlightenment. We are just there with God in silence, not trying to receive revelations or to become a holy person. The most powerful thing we can do during Centering Prayer is to rest in God and to allow God to work healing and loving us completely. This period in silence appears to be nothing much, but it is the most beneficial thing we can do. We are growing closer to God. We receive tremendous fruits and gifts in the silence that are obvious to our friends and family before we are. They show up in our actions outside the prayer. Our own Paul Reeves explains it well here in our Introduction to Centering Prayer Workshop on Zoom in conference III. Choosing and Using the sacred word starts at 1:10:40 .
In our culture we have learned the way to succeed is to meet goals, tick boxes, and achieve certain expectations. We are doing the opposite in Centering Prayer. We are spending time resting in God in silence. There is no right word or wrong word, no goals of enlightenment or achievement. Our only goal is to “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 42:10] We are not trying to present ourselves as more perfect to God with the perfect word. God looks at us already with perfect delight. Thomas Keating says, “You don’t have to win over God’s love—you already have more than you know what to do with.” [Heartfulness]
If words become a distraction to your Centering Prayer experience, there are other ways to reach our intention to consent to God. Some find focusing on each breath as we breathe in and as we breathe out. Not thinking about the breath, just being present with each breath while our intention is focused on God.
Another place where you can find excellent information about the sacred word is in Chapter 3 of Thomas Keating’s Open Mind Open Heart, available here.