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Center on prayer
Grace Episcopal delves into meditation with a workshop about the practice of centering prayer
Jeff Jones demonstrates centering prayer. The practice involves sitting quietly and uses a sacred word to keep the mind from wandering. Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville will hold a workshop on the practice Sept. 20. - photo by Tom Reed

Experiencing a deeper way to pray and a true sense of reality is why Jeff Jones started practicing meditation 25 years ago.

He said he thought there must be more to prayer than what's normally portrayed in a church setting.

So he began practicing centering prayer, something Jones discovered through Contemplative Outreach, founded by the Rev. Thomas Keating.

"It's one of those things in life you have to experience in order to understand it," said Jones, a member at Grace Episcopal Church. "Having said that, I think it allows a person to be with God one on one with no intermediary and with no language constraints - just one being alone with the source of all being."

Centering prayer is a form of contemplative prayer or meditation in which a person chooses a certain word on which to focus and then sits quietly. When thoughts begin to wander he or she returns to that word.

Jones, who became a member at Grace Episcopal Church about three years ago, wants to bring the practice to his church by holding a centering prayer workshop.

The workshop on Sept. 20, partly sponsored by Contemplative Outreach, will be taught by the Rev. Tom Ward, a retired Episcopal priest who now teaches centering prayer full time.

"I'll talk a little bit about prayer in general at first and try to locate contemplative prayer on a larger map of prayer in the great world religions - prayer in Christianity and prayer in the Episcopal church." Ward said. "The case I will be making is that this is an ancient Christian prayer practice, that we are going through a revival for our time. Most people don't know much about it and they don't know where to put it, and so I'm trying to make connections with what they are familiar with.

"I'll make the case that every world religion has a contemplative dimension."

The Rev. Doug Dailey, rector at Grace Episcopal, said he doesn't know much about centering prayer and plans to attend the workshop to learn more.

"My approach to prayer is the one advanced by the first protestant archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, after the Church of England broke with the pope in the 16th century," Dailey said. "In the first Book of Common Prayer ... Cranmer provided two daily ‘offices' or offerings of prayer: morning prayer and evening prayer."

Ward said for many people centering prayer has to hit you at the right time in your life.

"For those that it's the right time ... it's a life changer; it has been for me for the last 20 years," he said.

The workshop is designed to teach centering prayer methods to those at Grace Episcopal as well as other churches.

"One of the fruits of this type of prayer is that you develop a compassion for other people and all of life that seems deeper and more intense than what I had experienced before," said Jones, whose wife Polly also meditates but in a different form.

Centering prayer is a method to help make contemplative prayer become real in your own life. It is an attempt to update earlier teaching into a modern form, according to Contemplative Outreach's Web site.

The Web site also states that centering prayer is not meant to replace other forms of prayer but to give them a new meaning. Centering prayer in conjunction with contemplative prayer is said to deepen the relationship between people and Christ.

In order to practice centering prayer yourself, Contemplative Outreach recommends a minimum of 20 minutes each day; one time first thing in the morning and another in the afternoon or evening.

For Jones, who is retired, he tries to have 45 minutes to an hour of meditation each day. He sits in a room quietly and closes his eyes.

When his mind starts to wander he goes back to his sacred word, which is between only him and God.

"The issue always comes up, what do you do with thoughts," Ward said. "What do you do with distractions? What do you do when you are praying for the most important thing in your life and you find out what you've really been thinking about is what's for lunch."

Ward says the sacred word should be something that is meaningful to you.

"The point of the sacred word in this prayer is not to find a holy word that rings the bell," he said. "This looks a lot like some other things ... what makes this prayer is your intention. You are consenting to God's presence and action within. You are using the sacred word to say yes to God.

"As long as thoughts are passing through the stream of consciousness and you are not hooked to them ... you just let them go."

But the difficulties that arise within yourself during the prayer are quickly replaced by spiritual and emotional positives.

"I hope the workshop will give the attendees a glimpse of this way of living and demystify the whole process," Jones said. "It's part of everyone's heritage and potential, yet it is so little used and developed in our modern world."

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