Centering Prayer: Contemplative practice for the 21st century

A contemplative movement of Christian Centering Prayer is quietly (almost secretly) reviving religious life and faith in society. Here in the land of “the spiritual, but not religious,” and growing numbers of “Nones,” or non-church affiliated, a new form of evangelization is appearing. Centering Prayer is a practice of silent prayer that is a stripped-to-essentials form of Christian monastic contemplation. The current method was developed in the 1970’s by Trappist Father Thomas Keating responding to young pilgrims arriving at his Spencer Massachusetts monastery.

Today, thousands of individuals and groups participate in the practice under the umbrella of Contemplative Outreach. Various groups sponsor retreats, workshops and publications which help individuals learn of the practice. The simple steps of the method are to choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. Then settling comfortably you introduce the sacred word and remain quietly attentive within God’s presence. When distracted from your focus by wandering thoughts, you gently return to the sacred word and openness to God. After a set period of prayer time you remain thankful for a minute or two. Two 20 minute periods a day of practice are recommended, although many have to work up to this standard. This method of directing and sustaining active but receptive openness to God can be extremely challenging for overloaded distracted minds. Repeatedly, a gentle return to God’s presence can be needed—without self-judgment. Yet over time, the meditative experience can become rewarding. It also generates beneficial changes in personality. As one leading practitioner, Lindsay Boyer says, “I have found that God’s presence can often best be invoked with a minimum of God language, or sometimes no language at all. By teaching Centering Prayer I offer the gift of God’s silence, which speaks to the heart.” And seems to convert the mind and will as well.

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I too have felt the transformative power of this ancient but new contemplative prayer. Fortunately, or providentially, this approach to prayer has three appealing advantages for this 21st century’s cultural moment.

One. Centering Prayer is a completely lay and democratic movement with no need for hierarchical church oversight. It has been called “A monastery without walls.” Or perhaps the growth of contemplative practice can be likened to the sea of faith’s incoming tide.

Two. Centering prayer is a self-validating practice that experientially changes its practitioners from within over time. Those drowning in babble and trivial distractions find healing in silence.

Three. Centering Prayer and contemplation is non-doctrinaire and ecumenical. It can be seen as related to Buddhist and other valued forms of meditation and mindfulness.   

Moreover, on a secular note, I have been intrigued as a psychologist to discover how much the practice of Centering Prayer is affirmed by recent developments in neuropsychological research. Today’s science reveals the power of the brain/mind’s attentional system’s to generate mental and physical wellbeing. Nothing can be as productive for human development as learning to discipline and focus attention. Memory, achievement, and even physical health improve. But on second thought, why should we be surprised that resting in God’s love brings blessings? Those who seek, find. Newman’s words prove true, “Heart Speaks to Heart.”

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Tom Helwick
2 years 11 months ago
Father Richard Rohr and Father Thomas Keating who collaborated on the audio book 'Healing Our Violence' both believe on rediscovering our contemplative approach nearly dormant for 500 years. Here's brief description by Father Keating. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IKpFHfNdnE
William Rydberg
2 years 11 months ago
For me the best informational reference that a Catholic person can have read before wading in to the subject is the stellar Vatican teaching document called "Orationis Formas" or in english "LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON SOME ASPECTS OF CHRISTIAN MEDITATION" ( http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html ) in Christ,
Anne Chapman
2 years 11 months ago
Those who read the document at the link above should also read the information given by Contemplative Outreach. http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/faq-item/response-then-cardinal-ratzinger%E2%80%99s-1989-%E2%80%9Cletter-bishops-catholic-church-some-aspects-christ
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 11 months ago
I have been interested in meditation most all of my adult life. If I had been introduced to meditation (or something similar) while I was a teenager I would have latched on to it. From an early age, "prayer" interested me. I started with the Transcendental Meditation courses that were offered in the early 70s. It was a little hokey, but it did give me a mantra and a technique. From there I got some courses offered on tape in Buddhist-Christian meditation. It was not until I discovered Fr. Keating's approach that I settled into a "practice". I learned through books, tapes, online retreats, but I think that the Centering prayer groups that I have belonged to have also helped. Sitting with others. I have tried 3 different Centering prayer groups and find that they are each very different. Two of these group work very well for me. The other group didn't work at all for me. For the longest time (before the age of Pope Francis), my centering prayer practice was my strongest bond to the Catholic Church and where I found the most hope. I did not belong to the parish, but I was faithful to the weekly centering prayer group. Even though there wasn't much conversation, I felt intimately connected to those with whom I gathered for silent prayer. With Francis as pope, I still practice my centering prayer, but it's not the main thing. The main thing is the Gospel. I'm looking outward more from the still place of the prayer.
Anne Chapman
2 years 11 months ago
Centering Prayer is how I stay connected with God - even during those times when the institutional church seems to have little to do with God and I have to move away from it in order to feel God's presence. Silence opens us up to God. Shutting out the cacophony of the world, the words, words, words (yes, including the thousands of words of formal prayer - liturgies, rosaries, litanies) and just sitting in God's presence - we begin to hear. As St. Benedict said, we must listen "with the ear of the heart".
Rudy Siegel
2 years 11 months ago
Here's a wonderful video featuring Cynthia Bourgeault on the theology -- and science -- of centering prayer. Fascinating! http://youtu.be/b2SRVr89GFU
Nancy Stimac
2 years 11 months ago
Thank you for saying that the contemplative movement of Christian Centering Prayer is quietly reviving religious life and faith in society, because it is. Also, thank you for providing a brief "how to." While this ancient but renewed contemplative prayer form is transforming, as you emphasize, it is important to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes this transformation within us over a lifetime of practice when we surrender in faith, hope and love to the divine indwelling and action of grace in our lives. Yes, there are similarities to other meditation and mindfulness practices; however, Centering Prayer stands uniquely separate as a Christ centered prayer. We must not lose sight of the fact that Christianity possesses an element unimagined by non-Christian faiths, which makes it anything but self-validating; rather it is the experience we have of our Christ Identity, our true self, in loving submission to the triadic uncreated energies of God abiding within us, and putting us in immanent relation to our indwelling, triune God - closer to us than we are to ourselves, as we live the experience of being "begotten" by the Father in the Word through the Holy Spirit.

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