THE Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in theory and practice (Shambhala Publications, £16.50 (£14.85); 978-1-61180-314-3) is a “how-to” and “why-to” book, both describing the practice of centring prayer and positioning it within the story of Western spirituality.
Two things: the author, Cynthia Bourgeault, is an US Episcopalian priest and something of a guru, with a string of titles to her name. She writes with confidence and assurance and is not afraid to use powerful contemporary metaphors to describe what she means. We learn about the brain’s capacity to run “operating systems” and re-wire itself. More traditionally, we also learn about the desire to “put the mind in the heart”.
Critically, the reader should also note that the author is a product of the American Trappist Fr Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach programme. In that sense, she is a guru and a pupil, both teaching and learning at the same time.
Bourgeault acknowledges that the practice of self-emptying, as exemplified in the writings of Christian mystics such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, which she examines at length, and also the work of St Symeon the New Theologian, is universal. It runs like a golden thread through the practice of all belief systems, from both East and West. Within Christianity, it has a special flavour, based on St Paul’s celebrated passage in Philippians 2. Self-emptying or abandonment become mandatory in prayer and will lead to awareness or, put in more contemporary language, the “nondual” or unitive state to which centring prayer aspires.
I have said that the author is both a teacher and a learner: does this explain her openness to new ideas? Her understanding of the neurological aspects of altered brain states brought about by prayer, and her desire to reach out to other traditions beyond Christianity, make this a really interesting read. An example — which brings the two together — is that to describe the “rewiring of consciousness” she chooses a quotation from Rumi, who writes of “quivering like a drop of mercury”, or what Bourgeault calls “being able to hold your attention as a tensile field of awareness”. This is altogether a worthwhile read.