By way of introducing this subject, let's start with a little anthropology.
Anthropology is the study of human nature through its physical, emotional,
mental, cultural and mystical manifestations. This will be a theological
anthropology, which is the study of human nature and its faculties through
the added perspective of Christian revelation.
Let us think of ourselves as coming into existence as a little dot that might represent our conception, our personal "big bang", so to speak. Theological anthropology suggests that at the moment of conception, the Source of our being is present in that tiny organism whose cells are multiplying at an enormous rate. Basically all our human potential, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual is present in that initial "bang" of creation -- our personal entrance into the human family.
The teaching of the Divine Indwelling is a fundamental doctrine for the spiritual journey. The Father, the Son, the Eternal Word of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, are present within us. These relationships, which are never separate in their unity, are forever interacting. The Father is the potentiality for all existence; the Son is the actuality of all possibilities of existence; and the Spirit is the love that motivates both. Love loving itself eternally in the Trinity is the basis of our own existence, the most intimate part of us, that which is most real in us, the part of us that is capable of infinite happiness through participation in the divine life.
The true self, which is what we are trying to awaken through spiritual practice, is not separate from God. The true self is the divine manifesting itself in our uniqueness, in our talents, in our personal history, in our cultural conditioning, and in all the rest of the complex factors that go to make up our conscious life and its manifestation in our various activities. The infinite tenderness of God, right now, minus all the obstacles we place in opposition to that manifestation, is present in us right now. But each of us, because of what traditional theology calls the fallen human condition, is out of touch with this enormous energy of love that is inviting us to participate.
This does not mean that we have no identity of our own. Nor does it mean total absorption into God, as it does in some Eastern traditions. It does not mean the total loss of self. We remain uniquely whoever we are in virtue of our creation, but there is no possessiveness towards that uniqueness. The movement of the Spirit prompts us to give back whatever we are, all that we are, as much as we are, and everything that we have received from God. To give all back to God in love is the work of everyday life.
Around the true self there is a circle of awareness that we might call our spiritual nature. It has two principal faculties, the passive intellect and the will-to-God. These are respectively the innate desire for infinite truth and the innate desire for boundless love.
Because of the damage resulting from our fallen human condition, we are not normally in touch with our spiritual nature. Our actual psychological consciousness on a day to day level consists of our homemade self manifesting itself and not God.
The spiritual journey is initiated when we become aware that our ordinary psychological consciousness is dominated by the false self with its programs for happiness and over-identification with our cultural conditioning. The spiritual journey involves an inner change of attitude beginning with the recognition of being out of contact with our spiritual nature and our true self, and taking means to return. Only then can our true self and the potentiality that God has given us to live the divine life be manifested. Contemplative service is action coming from the true self, from our inmost being.
To liberate our true self is an enormous undertaking and a program that takes time. Centering prayer is completely at the service of this program. It would be a mistake to think of Centering Prayer as a mere rest period or a period of relaxation, although it sometimes provides these things. Neither is it a journey to bliss. You might get a little bliss, along the way, but you will also have to endure the wear and tear of the discipline of cultivating interior silence.
Thinking our usual thoughts is the chief way that human nature has devised to hide from the unconscious. So when our minds begin to quiet down in Centering Prayer, up comes the emotional debris of a lifetime in the form of gradual and sometimes dramatic realizations of what the false self is, and how this homemade self that we constructed in early childhood to deal with unbearable pain, became misdirected from genuine human values into seeking substitutes for God. Images that don't really have any existence except in our imagination are projected on other people instead of facing head-on their source in ourselves.
Just think of the beatitudes that Jesus proclaims. The capacity to practice them are within us as part of the patrimony of Baptism. Similarly, the Seven Gifts of the Spirit and the Fruits of the Spirit enumerated by Paul in Galatians 5 are vibrating within us all the time. But, they are mediated through the various levels of the psyche so that we don't experience their power until they are awakened through the discipline of deep prayer. Of course, there are other ways that God has of awakening us to his presence. For instance, he is perfectly free to reach up and pull us down into that area any time, but don't count on it. It is better to practice a discipline.
What would be an active discipline to assist our centering prayer, so that it doesn't become self-centered or a mere process of self-perfection, but actually is the assimilation of the infinite tenderness of God living his life within us? In general, such a discipline might be called "contemplative service"; in the concrete, I call it the "attention/intention practice".
When you emerge from centering prayer, the present moment is what happens when you open your eyes. You have been in the present moment of prayer when you were completely open to the divine life and action within you. Now you get up out of the chair and you continue daily life. This is where attentiveness to the content of the present moment is a way of putting order into the myriad occupations, thoughts and events of daily life. Attention to this context simply means to do what you are doing. This was one of the principal recommendations of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth century. The disciple would come for instruction and say, "I am interested in finding the true self and becoming a contemplative. What should I do?" The Desert guides would reply in the most prosaic language. "Do what you're doing." Which means, bring your attention to the present moment and to whatever is its immediate content and keep it there." For instance, it is time for supper. Well, put the food on the table. This is true virtue. Turning on the television at that time or making a needless phone call might not be. Attending to the present moment means that our mind is on what we are doing as we go through the day. Thus we are united to God in the present moment instead of wondering about what we are going to do next or tomorrow. There might be a good time set aside for planning but not now.
To be completely present to someone you are talking to is one of the most difficult of all practices. Your presence will often do more than what you say. It gives others a chance to be present to themselves. Moreover, if your presence is coming from a deep place within, the divine compassion that is inspiring you will be there for them in the degree that they are capable of receiving it.
To be totally present to children, if you have them, to the old folks, if you have them, to counselees if you have them, to the job of the present moment that needs a responsible fulfillment - this is what might be called how to act from the center, how to do contemplative service, how to put order into ordinary daily life by being present to the occupation of the present moment. This cuts off an enormous amount of needless reflection, projects of self-aggrandizement, and wondering what people are thinking of us.
If we refuse to think of anything except what we are doing or the person that we are with, we develop the habit of being present to the present moment. In a way, the present moment becomes as sacred as being in church. Far better to be present to your duty if you are a bartender, than to be present in church and to be thinking about being in a bar. At least you are present to yourself when you are paying attention to what you are doing.
Attention, then, is a way of doing what we are doing. It cracks the crust of the false self (our psychological awareness of daily life) in which we are the center of the universe while everything else is circling around our particular needs or desires. This is an illusion, but unfortunately it is the heritage we all bring with us from early life.
A practice, then, of just paying attention to what you are doing for a certain part of the day for the love of God, and disregarding every other thought is a practical way of opening ourselves to a deeper level of contemplation. It will not work instantly, but regular practice has long-range effects. It might be called the how of activity.
The spiritual level is also healed of the false self by the why of what you are doing. Your intention to do what you are doing for the love of God connects you with the divine presence in a powerful way. The power of intention is immense. The will willing God actually enters into union with God although you may not consciously experience the effects of this union right away. My intention is why I am doing what I am doing.
Here is the practice: Choose a certain time when you deliberately establish and renew your intention of doing some particular work for the love of God. Our minds are generally so scattered that we keep forgetting. To have a time or one particular activity when you do this deliberately as a daily practice will quickly show you the influence of your intentionality on the false self. Nobody does anything without a motive. You don't know why you are doing something unless you know both your conscious and unconscious motivation. For example, as soon as you start trying to do a particular job at hand for the love of God, the motivation of the false self begins to arise and you may find yourself acting out of jealousy; or you want to get even with someone who has wronged you; or you are trying to get ahead in some situation and you trample on some one else's rights. The galaxy of bad intentions motivated by the false self emerges when for a few minutes you try to maintain a pure intention.
The great insight of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers was that a pure intention leads to purity of heart; selfish motivation is gradually evacuated and the habit of a pure intention is firmly established. You begin to enter into God's intentionality, which is to manifest infinite compassion in the present circumstances, however painful, however joyful, however seemingly bereft of the divine presence.
As soon as you focus your intention -- why you are doing this particular action -- your unconscious motivation arises. The unconscious motivation might be that in our service, however devout it may appear outwardly, we are really looking for praise. In other words, our secret desires begin to emerge into consciousness when we deliberately focus our intention on loving God in all that we do.
How to work -- attention. Why I am working -- intention. Awareness of these two aspects lead to the third and final quality of contemplative service -- who is doing the work. Having uncovered the spiritual obstacles of pride, envy, and whatever else might be hidden on the unconscious, we are now approaching our true self; we are approaching our inmost center; we are approaching Love loving itself. What's going to happen? Without your intending anything special, without necessarily doing anything special, people begin to find God in you as you humbly do what you are supposed to be doing. Complete submission to God allows the divine energy to radiate, and others seeing you have a sense of being in touch with God or in the midst of a community where divine love exists. This is what a Christian community is suppose to be, whether it is a family, parish or organization. The third way of working or acting in daily life might be called transmission.
When attention to the present moment and a pure intention are established as habits, then you have, in the fullest sense of the word, contemplative service. Your contemplation is then perceived, enjoyed and received, perhaps without a word, or without anyone being able to explain it. People know that somehow, Christ is acting in you, is present in you, and is loving them in you. This is the atmosphere in which people can grow and become fully alive. One needs to feel loved as a human being to come alive. And the greatest love, of course, is divine love, especially when it becomes transparent in another person. And it is most impressive when that person is not even aware of it and it just happens.