Circling to the Center:
One Woman's Encounter with Silent Prayer

by Susan M. Tiberghien

Paulist Press, 2000. ISBN 0809139405.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 10/12/2001

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

In this lovely little book, Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Switzerland, uses the circle as a symbol of her quest for a deeper communion with God. She quotes from Meister Eckhart : "…to begin a good like a man who draws a circle. Let him get the center in the right place and keep it so, then the circumference will be good." Tiberghien finds that the symbolic center is universal. It is in Jung's definition of the collective unconscious, in Taoist legend, in Hindu story, in the prayer wheel, and in the mandala. Drawing freely from such spiritual writers as Black Elk, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich, she illustrates our common longing for the center whether we call it the ground of being, the All, the Source, or the God within. Tiberghien has found that the practice of silent prayer has brought her closest to that "center," that "one-ness" with the Universe toward which we are drawn.

She begins each of the book's five chapters with a prose poem about an aspect of nature that focuses her contemplation. Since she writes from her personal perspective as a Catholic, the practices will be most familiar to Christians, but she also includes stories from Taoist, Hindu, Sufi and Native American traditions to illustrate our common search for the "center," the Source of All.

In this deeply personal book, Tiberghien offers stories from her own life to illustrate the concept of surrender by letting go of the trappings of success, the busyness of career and worldly accomplishment that at midlife left her feeling lost and empty. Contemplating the lightness of her father's ashes, she was confronted with the reality of her life. Would she also come to this, a small pile of almost weightless remains? She decides to go deeper into herself, in silent contemplation, to see what she would find at the center of her being. This can be a frightening task. Could we be keeping ourselves so busy because we are afraid of what we will find if we stop? Tiberghien wondered if going deep inside, she would find nothing there. She takes us along on her journey, inspiring us to embark on our own.

The book uses drawing and photography to bring together the points in each chapter, providing us with yet another way to meditate. A photo of a pear tree and a postcard depicting Van Gogh's Pear Tree In Bloom illustrate a chapter in which she compares her daughter's anorexia, and her mother-in-law's Alzheimer's disease. One spring, the skinny tree in her yard does not blossom, and its arms are painful reminders of her daughter's thinness. Van Gogh's Pear Tree appears twisted and crippled, and Tiberghien's mother-in-law sits crippled in her wheelchair. She waters the tree in her yard and loves her daughter, and sits with her mother-in-law, resting in the darkness, in the "opaque unknowing" she calls the All.

She visits the Black Madonna of Mont Voirons, who represents the Mother Goddess, the missing darkness of the feminine side of God, and is opened up to the darkness within, and to the knowledge that decay is necessary for growth and that death is part of life

This method of prayer does not make use of the petitioning or penitent words taught by many religions. Rather, it is the silent prayer of meditation, of acceptance, of awareness. In troubled times, even prayers with words become mantras we repeat over and over. "...thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." "Hail Mary, full of grace..." "Now I lay me down to sleep." Tiberghien suggests choosing only one or two words of a favorite prayer to repeat silently, thus quieting the busy mind and encountering one's center.

Written in a meditative, lyrical style, this book can be a rich source for one's own journey to the "center." The suggested readings at the back are classics from Christian and other traditions as well as contemporary interpretations of the concepts in the book.

As a woman in midlife, at a time when many of us are reevaluating our choices—spiritual, professional, or personal—I found this book tremendously comforting and empowering.

Susan Tiberghien has also written Looking for Gold: a Year in Jungian Analysis (Daimon Verlag, 1997).

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