The purpose of silence is to give an opportunity
for the longing for God to break through the crust of
the false self and our defense mechanisms,
so that we can be motivated by hunger and love
to pursue the transformative process untiringly.
– Thomas Keating, from Session 2 video, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Heartfulness: Transformation in Christ
In the forthcoming sessions, we will be reviewing the practice of Centering Prayer. You may be brand new to the prayer, early in your practice, or perhaps you’ve been a dedicated practitioner for decades. Whatever your level of practice, you are invited to come to this section with beginner’s mind, perhaps connecting or reconnecting with the original longing for God which led you to this practice and this moment in time.
The Method of Centering Prayer
Centering Prayer is meant to facilitate the movement into contemplation, or what Gregory the Great referred to as resting in God. In Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Thomas says, “The fundamental purpose of Centering Prayer … is to contribute to bringing the knowledge and experience of God’s love into the general consciousness of the human family.” We sometimes think of prayer as words we express to a God who is “out there,” and often don’t recognize that God is present to us in our inmost being, with every breath we take, every beat of our heart, every thought, feeling, in all the activities of our daily life. The knowledge and experience of God’s love in this prayer move us closer to becoming who God created us to be in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we live and love and interact daily.
The method of Centering Prayer is derived from ancient sources in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We find reference to this type of prayer in the Hebrew Scripture, Psalm 46:11, “Be still and know that I am God.” But listen to the beginning of Chapter 46: “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress,” which speaks of the security of God’s presence in our lives. Yet, Teresa of Avila said that the trouble most people have with prayer is that we pray as if God is absent. The method of Centering Prayer shows us the way towards becoming still, allowing the movement into prayer, which the fourth-century monk, Evagrius, says is “the laying aside of thoughts.” When we become still, we begin to experience the presence of God.
The format for Centering Prayer is based on Jesus’ suggestion in Matthew 6:6, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.” By going into the inner room and closing the door, we are symbolically letting go of external concerns, which helps us to develop an interior disposition of alert receptivity. In this state, we are able to follow the advice of the 14th century anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing to “Lift up your heart to God with a gentle stirring of love …” We begin to relate to God beyond thoughts, feelings, concepts and particular acts.
Fr. Thomas is careful to point out that the guidelines for Centering Prayer are suggested guidelines. In addition to being a method of prayer, more importantly, Centering Prayer is a way of cultivating a deeper relationship with God. The method helps us to learn how to do the prayer, but the real focus is this developing relationship through our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. If we can let go of doing it “right,” the Spirit will teach us how to pray, as Paul expresses in Romans 8:26-27, “… The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
The Four Guidelines for Centering Prayer
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When engaged with your thoughts, * return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes
*Thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections.
This audio recording of the guided meditation from Open Mind, Open Heart encourages you before you begin your experience of Centering Prayer. It is about five minutes in length.
– Choose a sacred word to use when practicing Centering Prayer. Choose a word that is one-to-two syllables, remembering that it is not the inherent meaning of the word that is important, but the meaning you give it with your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
– Use the audio of Fr. Thomas leading a 20-minute “practice session,” or the Centering Prayer app, or any app or timer of your choosing.
– In your journal, without any judgment or criticism, note your experience with Centering Prayer: frustrations as well as consolations are common in this form of silent prayer.
Resources for Further Study:
You may wish to read:
- Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2 in Open Mind, Open Heart (20th Anniversary Edition); Introduction and Chapters 2 and 4 in older editions
- Chapter 9 in Open Mind, Open Heart (20th Anniversary Edition); Chapter 10 in older editions
- The brochure on The Method of Centering Prayer from the Contemplative Outreach web site. The brochure is available in multiple languages under “Documents” on this page (scroll down).