I wrote last Sunday about the “centering prayer” workshops that former Sewanee Chaplain Tom Ward is running at the Ayres Spiritual Center in Sewanee. Centering prayer, Tom told us, is “a way of listening to the texts of Scripture as if we were in conversation with Christ and He were suggesting the topics of conversation.”
After listening to a verse from the Bible, we closed our eyes and chose a “sacred word.” (I chose “grace.”) By returning to this sacred word whenever our minds wandered in the subsequent 30-minutes meditation, we showed our intention of consenting to “God’s presence and action within.”
The mind can’t help but wander, Tom said, as whatever is preying upon one’s mind is sure to arise. But peace or consolation can be achieved if one gently returns to the sacred word whenever tumult intrudes. The Christian centering prayer tradition finds inspiration in Jesus telling the multitudes, “But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your father in secret. And your father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
According to Tom, all religions have a centering prayer element, often housed in their mystical wings. This is borne out by the poem below, authored by the 12th century Sufi mystic Rumi (translated by Reynold A. Nicholson). ‘’’Twas a fair orchard” notes that “the beauty in the world” emanates, not from the world itself, but from the observer’s inner connection with spirit.
Thus it makes sense that Tom had us close our eyes rather than meditate upon the stunning view of the mountains before us. Beauty in the world, Rumi declares Platonically, is like “quivering boughs reflected in a stream” whereas the inner reflection focuses on “that eternal Orchard which abides /Unwithered in the hearts of Perfect men.” There is the reflection or shadow and then there is the real thing. We can see the beauty of nature because, and only because, we are already in touch with eternal beauty.
Or as Rumi says, nature is but a symbol of the Sign that we behold within.
’Twas a fair orchard, full of trees and fruit
And vines and greenery. A Sufi there
Says with eyes closed, his head upon his knee,
Sunk deep in meditation mystical.
“Why,” asked another, “dost thou not behold
These Signs of God the Merciful displayed
Around thee, which He bids us contemplate?”
“The signs,” he answered, “I behold within;
Without is naught but symbols of the Signs”
What is all beauty in the world? The image
Like quivering boughs reflected in a stream,
Of that eternal Orchard, which abides
Unwithered in the hearts of Perfect men.