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Frequently Asked Questions - Centering Prayer
Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.
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 receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.
The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the Indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. The effects of Centering Prayer are ecclesial, as the prayer tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.
If you are not affiliated with a local Contemplative Outreach chapter, first seek permission from your church pastor or minister to host a Centering Prayer Introductory Program (this program consists of the introductory workshop to Centering prayer and six follow-up sessions). Then, contact the nearest chapter coordinator in your area and collaborate with the coordinator to present the introductory program. If there is not a chapter in your area, contact the regional representative listed for your region to assist in planning the program. You may search for local contacts under Community.
In the beginning, it is recommended that you practice Centering Prayer for 20 minutes, twice a day. Early in the morning is best, before the activities of the day begin and then again in late afternoon or in the evening. As your practice stabilizes and your relationship with God deepens, you may feel called to longer periods of prayer. Attending a weekend or multi-day retreat also helps to deepen one’s prayer practice.
The primary purpose of a Centering Prayer group is to help sustain the commitment to a regular practice of Centering Prayer. Members of a Centering Prayer group gather to practice Centering Prayer together, to deepen their understanding of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, and to share personal experiences of the Centering Prayer practice and its effect in their daily lives. The group provides community support for spiritual journey. You may search for a local Centering Prayer group under Community.
Centering Prayer groups are usually formed following the Introduction to Centering Prayer workshop and follow-up sessions. Participants are invited to form a group that meets weekly or bi-weekly to support one another in their Centering Prayer practice and to share their experience. A facilitator usually guides the group process. A facilitator handbook is available, which provides guidelines for group formats and suggested resource materials for group discussion.
Centering Prayer can be learned in several ways. The most common way is by attending a local “Introduction to Centering Prayer” retreat/workshop. These workshops are usually given in a one-day format, with subsequent follow-up sessions to help you establish your daily practice. You can search our online calendar to see if there is a workshop near you.
You can also learn the method through an online course. Contemplative Outreach partners with both Sounds True and Spirituality and Practice [link to course to come] to provide these online Centering Prayer courses.
Finally, an in-home package was created in partnership with Sounds True so that people could learn the method at home through DVDs, CDs and a guidebook. The package is available in our store.
In response to then Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1989 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” This was written by Thomas Keating in response to questions about that letter and Centering Prayer.
Not Directed to Centering Prayer
Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation”, written in 1989, was not directed to Centering Prayer, which is the traditional form of Christian prayer, but rather at those forms of meditative practices that actually incorporate the methods of Eastern meditations such as Zen and the use of the Hindu mantras. The letter is chiefly concerned with the integration of such techniques into the Christian faith. It does not forbid their use and indeed, states, “that does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions… cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace even in the midst of external pressures” (#28).
Having noted this affirmation of the value of the Eastern practices when rightly integrated into Christian faith, may I point out that Centering Prayer is the one contemporary form of contemplative practice that does not make use of any of these techniques. The quotation from the Letter that the gift of contemplative prayer can only be granted through the Holy Spirit is precisely what we teach. Nor does Centering Prayer encourage a privatized spiritual journey or the seeking of spiritual experiences, but rather fosters the complete surrender of self in faith and love that leads to divine union. There is much greater danger in concentrating on oneself in discursive meditation and in intercessory and affective prayer, especially if one is preoccupied with one’s self feeling and reflections. In Centering Prayer one is not reflecting on one’s self or one’s psychological states at all.
Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina and Contemplation
It is important to situate Centering Prayer in the context of the monastic tradition of Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is the most traditional way of cultivating contemplative prayer. It consists in listening to the text of the Bible as if one were in conversation with God and God were suggesting topics for discussion. Those who follow the method of Lectio Divina are cultivating the capacity to listen to the word of God at ever deepening levels of attention. Spontaneous prayer is the normal response to their growing relationship with Christ, and the gift of contemplation is God’s normal response to them.
The reflective part, the pondering upon the words of the sacred text in Lectio Divina, is called meditation, discursive meditation. The spontaneous movement of the will in response to these reflections is called oratio, affective prayer. As these reflections and particular acts of will simplify, one tends to resting in God or contemplatio, contemplation.
These three acts –discursive meditation, affective prayer, and contemplation – might all take place during the same period of prayer. They are interwoven one into the other. One may listen to the Lord as if sharing a privileged interview and respond with one’s reflections, with acts of will, or with silence –with the rapt attention of contemplation. The practice of contemplative prayer is not an effort to make the mind blank, but to move beyond discursive thinking and the multiplication of particular acts to the level of communing with God, which is a more intimate king of exchange, a matter of the heart.
In human relationships, as mutual love deepens there comes a time when the two friend convey their sentiments without words. They can sit in silence sharing an experience or simply enjoying each other’s presence without saying anything. Holding hands or a single word from time to time can maintain this deep communication.
This loving relationship points to the kind of interior silence that is being developed in contemplative prayer. The goal of contemplative prayer is not so much the emptiness of the thoughts or the conversations as the emptiness of self. In contemplative prayer, one ceases to multiply reflections and acts of the will. A different kind of knowledge rooted in love emerges in which the awareness of God’s presence supplants the awareness of one’s own presence and the inveterate tendency to reflect on oneself. The experience of God’s presence frees one from making oneself or one’s relationship with God the center of the universe. The language of mystics must not be taken literally when they speak of emptiness or the void. Jesus practiced emptiness in becoming a human being, emptying himself of his prerogatives and the natural consequences of his divine dignity (cf. Phil. 2:5-8). The void does not mean void in the sense of nothing at all, but void in the sense of attachment to one’s activity. One’s own reflections and acts of will are necessary preliminaries to getting acquainted with Christ, but have to be transcended if Christ is to share his most personal prayer with the Father which is characterized by total self surrender.
Centering Prayer is only one method of developing contemplation and preparing oneself for this great gift of the Spirit. I would think it would have strong appeal for the people in the charismatic renewal movement, especially for those who enjoy the gift of tongues. The gift of tongues is already a form of contemplative prayer since one is fully aware of the presence and action of the Spirit without thinking about what one is saying.
The practice of Centering Prayer is basically a waiting upon God with loving attentiveness, fulfilling the Gospel injunction, “Watch and Pray.” If one can accept the notion of prayer as primarily relationship with God, it becomes obvious that one’s relationship with God can be expressed without words, simply by a gesture or even by one’s silent intention to consent to God’s presence. This is not to deny the value of other forms of prayer which are normally necessary to prepare one for this level of relating to God. It simply moves one to a deeper dimension of intimacy with God. Thus, it is a more personal kind of prayer than discursive meditation and affective prayer. As a result, it enables one to penetrate to a greater degree the meaning of scripture and liturgical texts and symbols.
Pantheistic and Panentheism
The term “pantheistic”, often used in connection with Eastern practices, is ambiguous and misleading. A distinctions needs to be made between “pantheism” and “panentheism”, as is done in inter-religious dialogue. Eastern practices are not necessarily pantheistic. Many forms of Buddhism and Hinduism are just as devotional as similar practices in the Christian faith, though directed, of course to their particular deities. Pantheism is usually defined as the identification of God with creation in such a way that the two are indistinguishable. Panentheism means that God is present in all creation by virtue of his omnipresence and omnipotence, sustaining every creature in being without being identified with any creature. The latter understanding is what Jesus seems to have been describing when he prays “that all might be one, Father, as we are one” and “that they may be one in us”. Again and again, in the Last Supper discourse, he speaks of this oneness and his intentions to send his Spirit to dwell within us. If we understand the writings of the great mystics rightly, they experience God living within them all the time. Thus the affirmation of God’s transcendence must always be balanced by the affirmation of his imminence both on the natural plane and on the plane of grace.
The practice of Centering Prayer is simply offered to those who feel called to a deeper life of prayer and who are looking for a method that will help them to do so in the context of a very active life in the world. These people should not be deprived of such an opportunity on the basis of false fears raised by superficial understanding of Centering Prayer and a failure to recognize the significant distinction between traditional methods of preparing for the gift of contemplation, such as Centering Prayer, and the techniques of the Eastern spiritual traditions.
Centering prayer is designed to deepen the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and to develop the most ancient of all Christian methods, the practice of Lectio Divina leading to contemplation.
Centering Prayer is fundamentally two things at the same time: first, the deepening of our personal relationship with Christ developed through reflection on Scripture; and second, a method of freeing ourselves from attachments that prevent the development of this relationship and the unfolding of the theological virtues of faith, hope, one, and love. It reduces the tendency to over activity in prayer and to depending excessively on concepts in order to go to God. In short, it reduces the obstacles in us, especially selfishness, so that we become sensitive to the delicate inspirations of the Holy Spirit that lead to divine union.
Centering Prayer does not "empty the mind" or exclude other forms of prayer. It is not a "technique" that automatically creates "mysticism" or a means "to reach an altered state of consciousness."
It is important not to confuse Centering Prayer with certain Eastern techniques of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation. The use of the sacred word in Centering Prayer does not have the particular calming effect attributed to the TM mantra. Nor is the sacred word a vehicle leading to the spiritual level of one's being as it is in TM. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between using the sacred word and arriving at some altered state of consciousness. The sacred word is merely the symbol of the consent of one's will to God's presence and action within based on faith in the doctrine of the Divine Indwelling. The sacred word is simply a means of reaffirming our original intention at the beginning of our period of prayer to be in God's presence and to surrender to the divine action when we are attracted to some other thought, feeling or impression.
Throughout the period of Centering Prayer, our intention predominates: the movement of our will to consent to God's intention, which according to our faith, is to communicate the divine life to us. Hence, unlike TM, Centering Prayer is a personal relationship with God, not a technique.
Centering Prayer is a traditional form of Christian prayer rooted in Scripture and based on the monastic heritage of Lectio Divina. It is not to be confused with Transcendental Meditation or Hindu or Buddhist methods of meditation. It is not a New Age technique.
Centering Prayer is rooted in the word of God, both in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. It is an effort to renew the Christian contemplative tradition handed down to us in an uninterrupted manner from St. Paul, who writes of the intimate knowledge of Christ that comes through love.
Centering Prayer is designed to prepare sincere followers of Christ for contemplative prayer in the traditional sense in which spiritual writers understood that term for the first sixteen centuries of the Christian era. This tradition is summed up by St. Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. He describes contemplation as the knowledge of God impregnated with love. For Gregory, contemplation was the fruit of reflection on the word of God in Scripture as well as the precious gift of God. He calls it, "resting in God". In this “resting.” the mind and heart are not so much seeking God as beginning to experience, "to taste" what they have been seeking. This state is not the suspension of all activity, but the reduction of many acts and reflections into a single act or thought to sustain one's consent to God's presence and action.
This form of prayer was first practiced and taught by the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, including Evagrius, John Cassian and St. John Climacus. It has representatives in every age, e.g. in the Patristic age, St. Augustine and St Gregory the Great in the West, and Pseudo-Dionysius and the Hesychasts in the East: in the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Guigo the Carthusian; the Rhineland mystics including St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Mechtilde, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroek, and Tauler; later the author of the Imitation of Christ and the English mystics of the 14th Century such as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich; after the Reformation, the Carmelites St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux; among the French school of spiritual writers, St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal and Cardinal Berulle; among the Jesuits, Fathers De Caussade, Lallemont; and, among the Benedictines, Dom Augustine Baker and Dom John Chapman; among modern Cistercians, Dom Vital Lehodey and Thomas Merton.
Over the centuries, ways of cultivating contemplative prayer have been called by various names corresponding to the different forms they have taken. Thus we have Prayer of Faith, Prayer of the Heart, Pure Prayer, Prayer of Simplicity, Prayer of Simple Regard, Active Recollection, Active Quiet, and Acquired Contemplation. In our time a number of initiatives have been taken by various religious orders, notably by the Jesuits and Discalced Carmelites, to renew the contemplative orientation of their founders and to share their spirituality with lay persons. The method of Centering Prayer is a further attempt to present the teaching of earlier times in an updated format and to make it available to ordinary people who are experiencing a hunger for a deeper life of prayer and for a support system to sustain it.