What is Centering Prayer?
Centering prayer is a form of silent prayer that comes from the Christian monastic tradition. We often think of "prayer" as thoughts and feelings expressed to God with words, but Paul says to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17), implying that the deepest prayer must be something beyond words. In the Christian tradition, the purest form of prayer is the surrender of our entire being to God - a loving presence that infuses all that we say and do.
Most monks and nuns spend at least some time in silence every day, learning how to surrender and open themselves more fully to the experience of contemplative prayer - a phenomenon written about by Christian mystics like John Cassian, Theresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton, which entails a complete resting of the self or soul "in God."
Such mystical experiences are understood to be the pure gift of grace, meaning that they cannot be "attained" or achieved through any special technique alone. Technically, they can be experienced by anyone at any time. Many people have received flashes of contemplative insight at some point in their lives, similar to Thomas Merton's famous experience in downtown Louisville, KY. Often people refer to these moments as "conversion" experiences.
While the contemplative experience cannot itself be conjured or controlled, it does require our participation and consent, which means that we must be both able and willing to let go of the things around us and within us that distract us from full awareness of the presence of God. And that takes practice. Most of us need to "re-train our brains" in order to un-learn some of the habitual thought processes that our daily lives and our culture has ingrained in us, which inhibit our ability to trust in that presence, and listen for Divine guidance.
Jesus called his disciples to metanoia, a Greek word translated in the New Testament as "repent," but which literally means to "turn around." Metanoia implies a sense of moving beyond our egocentric minds in order to embrace a deeper way of thinking and being - one that is marked by a transformation of the heart. Centering prayer is a simple spiritual discipline that can help us do that.
"Silence is God's first language. Everything else is a poor translation."
-Fr. Thomas Keating
The Practice of Centering Prayer
Centering prayer was developed by a Cistercian monk named Fr. Thomas Keating as a way of translating the Christian monastic practice of silence into a form that could be practiced by anyone at any time. For those who are used to spoken prayers, centering prayer is a very different way of thinking about what it means to "pray." It is important to understand that centering prayer is not intended to replace our spoken prayers, but to deepen them, by moving us from a place of conversation with God to an experience of intimacy and communion.
The mechanics of the practice are quite simple. You sit in silence for a period of 20 minutes, during which time you continually withdraw your attention from whatever thoughts and feelings may arise in you, letting them float downstream as you gently return your attention to a place of resting and trusting in God's presence. To assist you in this process, you choose a word that will serve as a signal of your intention, and you say this word whenever you find yourself distracted by your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This word is not a chant or a mantra, but a gentle reminder to return to that presence which is always closer to us than our next breath.
This activity of "resting and trusting in God's presence" is different from thinking thoughts about God, or conjuring up images of God, or having feelings based on some theological understanding of God. Thoughts, images, feelings - even about "God" - are non-judgmentally released, as we open ourselves to a direct experience of the "Is"-ness at the heart of existence (remember the name that God gave to Moses: "I am that I am"). The anonymous writer of the 14th century monastic text The Cloud of Unknowing explains,
"Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love, and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the emptiness you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God. Never give up your resolve, but beat at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love. And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds."
While the mechanics of centering prayer are simple, the practice is certainly not easy! When we finally stop long enough to allow ourselves to become fully aware of all that is really going on inside of our minds, hearts, and bodies, it can sometimes be overwhelming. It is very common for people to feel discouraged after the first few sessions. But this experience of inner chaos is a normal part of the practice. Consider the story of one young nun who confessed to Fr. Thomas Keating after a prayer session that she was terrible at centering prayer, confessing that she'd had ten thousand thoughts during her time of silence. "Wonderful!" Fr. Keating responded: "Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!"
Is Centering Prayer a form of "meditation"?
Practices of contemplative prayer have been part of the orthodox Christian prayer tradition dating back to the earliest Christian writings and teachings. It is rooted in Jesus' own prayer practice and teachings, as well as the variety of suggestions for how to pray that are found in the writings of the early desert fathers and mothers from the 4th to the 6th centuries. Particularly influential are the writings of John Cassian, the desert monk who is considered "the founder of Western monasticism." The practice was later developed even further in classic medieval monastic texts like Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle and The Cloud of Unknowing.
The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes: "God can be loved, but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving." This "apophatic" way of understanding God is similar to many Buddhist teachings that discourage thinking of "God" as a concept. However Christianity, of course, also acknowledges "cataphatic" ways of knowing and experiencing God, because God is understood to be incarnate and interpersonal (Triune). The Christian path therefore encourages a multiplicity of different ways of knowing and experiencing God, including conversations with God, reading and reflecting on Scripture, liturgical prayers, communal worship, theological reflections on everyday life, affective prayers of awe in response to beauty in art, music, and nature, as well as contemplative practices involving silence, breath, and the redirection of focus.
Of course, many people have noticed that the mechanics of centering prayer are very similar to some popular forms of mindfulness meditation, particularly Transcendental Meditation (TM). For this reason, centering prayer can offer many of the same benefits as mindfulness meditation, including release from stress and anxiety, increased energy, clarity of mind, and an overall feeling of relaxation. When practiced within a Christian framework, however, these benefits are understood to be the happy byproducts of prayer, rather than the goal of the practice itself.
Many forms of meditation as they are practiced in the West, while teaching important mindfulness skills, also tend to focus on the achievement of some desired personal outcome - usually an idealized state of inner peace, health, or "wellness." While these are all worthy goals, the Christian perspective also calls our attention to the ways in which even our best efforts to strive towards personal enlightenment can often lead to unintended consequences along the way (most notably pride). Alas, the more we grasp at our own well-being or happiness, the more these outcomes elude us.
Christians therefore teach that true Selfhood (and thus, true happiness) is found in relational practices of reciprocity and surrender (kenosis), which move us beyond the desires of the personal self to a place of communion with God and interdependency with one another. This understanding of "surrender" does not aim for a dissolution of the self, but rather its truest fulfillment through postures of intimacy and vulnerability. For this reason, we do not try to achieve any specific spiritual or psychological goal or outcome in centering prayer, other than simply being receptive to relationship with God. The practice, in itself, is both goal and fulfillment.
St. Luke the Stylite
Guided Centering Prayer:
If you are new to this spiritual discipline, it can be helpful to have a guide who understands both the mechanics of the practice and the deeper theology underlying it, who can answer your questions and sit with you during and after your first session. I spent two years co-leading a weekly centering prayer group in the context of the Episcopal church, and have introduced the practice in countless small groups, classes, workshops, and retreats. I also work with people one-on-one in spiritual direction.
Visit my Workshops page to learn more about the classes and workshops I offer on Centering Prayer as well as other Christian spiritual disciplines.
David Frenette, The Path of Centering Prayer, Louisville: Sounds True, 2017.