I have a good earthly father; one I still call “Daddy” though I am past 40. I grew up thinking of God as my good heavenly father. I’ve never doubted, even when suffering came, that God knew what was best for me. 

And yet, I struggled to see myself as his loved child in a tradition that focused heavily on recognizing and repenting of our sinfulness. I never could see myself as accepted, as belonging to him, or imagining him taking pride in me as his child.

There came a point when I could only see God as this far off being beyond my reach. All the prayers I had learned didn’t “work” anymore. 

Dipping Toes in Contemplative Waters
I had begun dipping my toes into contemplative waters and it felt a little out of bounds for a good evangelical girl. When I sat with Trappist monks (a reformed branch of Benedictine Roman Catholic monastics) and learned about methods of contemplative prayer, my heart raced. I believed I was learning something that could bring me closer to God and yet others asked why I needed to go to Catholics to learn. 

I just knew deep in my heart that there was something ancient and beautiful they retained in their daily chanting of the Psalms and quiet meditation, like a treasure in a field waiting to be uncovered—one I would do anything to possess.

Years later when the informal prayer of my youth or the prayer books and imaginative prayer I’d come to love later in life all left me feeling alone and empty, words escaped me completely. I turned to a prayer practice taught in the second half of the twentieth century by the same Trappist monks who had introduced me to contemplation—Centering Prayer. 

It’s such a simple concept. It’s such a difficult practice. 

Father Thomas Keating and countless others have written volumes on this practice of listening to God. It is prayer without words. Recently someone told me she thinks of it as basking or sunbathing in God’s presence. It is simply becoming open to God’s presence and being still with God. As a method of prayer, it is training oneself in stillness so that we might listen to God in the quiet places of our soul—even on the unconscious levels where the Spirit can transform us from the inside out. 

A Centering Word
Some people find it helpful to have a word they focus on when their minds start to wander, to help them return to that stillness in God’s presence, to help them find their “center” again. In those days when God felt distant and I felt like it must be my own fault—
certainly it meant I was the disobedient child, I discovered the teachings of Brennan Manning, who calls God “Abba”—father, daddy. He talks about imagining you are crawling up in God’s lap and focusing on God seeing you as his beloved. I used the word “beloved” as my sacred word. Something still felt amiss.

At the time my family was living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Learning the marvels of the Bangla language expanded my prayers in a way I never expected. 

I knew the word for father in Bangla is Abba, that same loving name Manning uses for his father God. Amma is the word for mother. The day my friend and I were talking about her parents, a lightbulb went off in my soul. 

I learned there isn’t a separate word in Bangla that is translated “parents.” Instead, Abba-Amma (or the more informal Baba-Ma) is used to name them. The two people become immersed into one loving unit: Father-Mother. The distinct-yet-inseparable persons make up all the child needs.

I began praying in this way, calling God my Father-Mother, my good parents, my everything. Nothing changed at first, but I kept sitting, just imagining this all-encompassing love of family, of mother and father enveloping me. Abba-Amma. Let me know your presence.

The more I meditated on this image of God as my all, the easier the silence became. As my view of God expanded, I felt as if I could quietly sit in that loving presence. Words didn’t return so I just sat.

A few weeks later, the same friend who introduced me to the Bangla word for “parents” texted me and used a word I didn’t recognize. Amar Priya, she called me in her message. Amar means mine and I knew priyo meant favorite. I found out the similar word priya means: Beloved, dear one, my most favorite person.

In the following days every time I would sit out on the veranda and try to quiet my heart, this word would float up in my mind like a lotus bud gently floating atop a pond. It filled the space the silence had made. It was all I could see in my mind’s eye. It was as if it was this gift Abba-Amma left there for me to find. 

“You are my most dearly loved child. I’ve been here all along. I have always been yours and you have always been mine,” they seemed to say. “I am your Abba-Amma. You are my dear one, amar priya. My beloved.”

As if leaning down to pick up the fragile flower, I picked this message and held it between my trembling fingers. Together we sat until I realized I didn’t need words after all. This listening—this loving gaze—was all the prayer I needed.

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