Centering Prayer

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Human nature is to be transformed into what wine symbolizes – namely, the Spirit. Notice that the miracle does not annihilate but transforms the water… we come to the wedding as guests and we leave as brides.
Thomas Keating, “The Kingdom of God is Like …”, 22

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, that is prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. It consists of responding to the Spirit of Christ by consenting to God’s presence and action within.

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of verbal prayer into a more receptive prayer of resting in God. This method of prayer is a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him. It is the opening of heart and mind – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts and emotions. As such Centering Prayer stands in the mainstream of the Christian Spiritual Tradition. The conceptual background to the practice, as taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, draws on the work of major contributors to the Christian contemplative heritage including: John Cassian; the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing”; Francis de Sales; Teresa of Avila; John of the Cross; Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton.

To find out more about the details of the prayer method download the leaflet.

How to get Started

If you feel drawn to the contemplative dimension of Christian teaching and practice and want to make a start with silent prayer download and study The Method of Centering Prayer leaflet. Find a space of solitude and silence where you won’t be interrupted for 20 minutes and carry out the instructions which will become clearer to you with practice. Be alert to how your experience develops. If you feel called into a Centering Prayer practice read Thomas Keating’s “Open Mind, Open Heart” which will clarify your understanding and carry you deeper. It helps to join a prayer group to support you in your practice; to find one contact us.

Centering Prayer and the Christian Spiritual Tradition

The essence of Christian spirituality is to live in relationship with the risen Christ through prayer. And this is what Jesus himself taught about how to pray:

When you pray go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

Matt. 6:6

In the centuries that followed the Apostolic era many Christians who wished to live out this teaching to the full retreated into the deserts of Syria and Egypt seeking silence and solitude. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, as they became known, experienced prayer as an inner conversation with God free of outward forms. Hence their interpretation of Christ’s words was a metaphorical one:

This is how to do it.
We are praying in our inner room when we withdraw our heart completely from the clamour of our thoughts and preoccupations, and in a kind of secret dialogue, as between intimate friends, we lay bare our desires before the Lord.
We are praying with our door shut when, without opening our mouth, we call on the One who takes no account of words but considers the heart.
We are praying in secret when we speak to God with the heart alone and with concentration of the soul, and make known our state of mind to him alone, in such a way that even the enemy powers themselves cannot guess their nature. Such is the reason for the deep silence that it behoves us to keep in prayer…

John Cassian Conferences IX, 35

Prayer in this form leads us from the prophetic experience of God as the transcendent Other to the liberating contemplative encounter of God within. As St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions, “You, Lord, were more within me than my inmost being…”. Such prayer goes beyond words, thoughts and, eventually, feelings:

When your intellect, in an ardent love for God, sets itself gradually to transcend, so to speak, created things and rejects all thinking . . . at the same time filling itself with gratitude and joy, then you may consider yourself approaching the borders of prayer.

Evagrius of Pontus On Prayer, 62

Although much still survives of what was written by and about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, theirs was essentially an oral tradition passed on from ‘elders’ to novices. Hence we find no systematic ‘method’ for getting started. We do know, however, that they made much use of Scripture, particularly the Psalms, which they interpreted as speaking prophetically about, and so revealing the mind of, Christ. Praying the Psalms then becomes a quest for the spirit of the Word rather than repetition of the words. “If a profitable reflection comes to you, let it take the place of psalmody,” wrote Evagrius, which indicates he had an awareness of the process of reading Scripture prayerfully known to us as lectio divina.

Now John Cassian, quoted above, was a European who as a young man had made a 15-year pilgrimage to Egypt seeking spiritual knowledge. Later, as the fourth century was drawing to a close, he was living in what is now the South of France and he wrote down his findings for the benefit of local Christian communities in a series of Conferences. When St. Benedict came to write his monastic Rule a century afterwards he made much use of Cassian’s work and the Conferences became regular reading for Benedictine monks. Subsequently the Rule was adopted by the Western Church as a whole and so the practices of chanting the Psalms, lectio divina and silent prayer became part of the spiritual landscape of every Christian in Europe for the next millennium.

Roughly at the same time as Benedict was working in Italy there lived a monk in Syria who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ after the disciple of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. In his essay Mystical Theology he put forward the idea that, since we cannot apprehend God with our senses nor with our intellectual capabilities of reason and imagination then it is better to by-pass these faculties altogether. Rather than building up an armoury of devotions and spiritual practices we gain more by letting things fall away from us. As he put it, the sculptor removes material from a block of wood to reveal the statue inside.

The works of Pseudo-Dionysius, as he is more commonly referred to now, were extremely influential in the Eastern Church and were translated into Latin in the ninth century after which they became equally important in the West, particularly for Carthusian spirituality. Among the many who absorbed this influence was an anonymous English writer in the 14th century who provided some advice for an acolyte in a book he called The Cloud of Unknowing. His method for silent prayer was simply this:

So when you feel by the grace of God that he is calling you to this work . . . A naked intention directed to God, and himself alone, is wholly sufficient. If you want this intention summed up in a word, to retain it more easily, take a short word, preferably of one syllable… And fix this word fast to your heart, so that it is always there come what may.

The Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 7

This was the passage that Fr. William Meninger brought to Abbot Thomas Keating after the latter had challenged his monks in Chapter at St. Joseph’s Abbey to encapsulate their practice in a method that could be effective beyond the cloister walls for the 20th century. Re-expressed in modern terms it became ‘Centering Prayer’.

Sources:

Mysticism, The Development of Humankind’s Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill, 14th Edition, Methuen, London, 1942. Appendix “A Historical Sketch of European Mysticism from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Death of Blake”.
The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément, New City, London 1993.
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault, Cowley Publications, Cambridge MA, 2004. Chapters 6 & 7.