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Joseph G. SandmanSeptember 09, 2000

Who could have predicted 25 years ago, when three Trappist monks from a monastery in Massachusetts introduced contemplative prayer to a group of non-contemplatives, that its popularity would grow so dramatically? Today, thousands of believers from a variety of Christian denominations in every state and in dozens of countries practice contemplative prayer daily. In addition, an international network of dedicated volunteers teaches it around the world.

These three monks dreamed of taking the church’s rich, centuries-old tradition of contemplative prayer and distilling it into a simple, easily learned prayer that ordinary people could practice. They believed that the daily practice of this prayer could lead to a more intimate union with God and a more powerful experience of God’s presence in our lives. This active presence heals, transforms and offers freedom and peace. Today, many Christians throughout the world are deeply committed to the daily practice called centering prayer, which they experience as a cornerstone of their lives.

How did this modern practice of contemplative prayer originate? What is centering prayer? How has its practice grown during the last 25 years? What are the fruits of practicing it?

The Origins of Centering Prayer

Centering prayer is deeply rooted in the church’s long tradition of contemplative prayer. In A Taste of Silence, Carl Arico highlights the striking similarities between centering prayer and the prayer of giants like Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton.

Merton in particular made three important contributions to the practice. The Seven Storey Mountain introduced the monastic life and contemplative prayer to a wide secular audience. Before Merton wrote, contemplative living and the experience of prayer without words or images were simply not on the radar screen of most contemporary thought. Second, during the last years of his life, Merton fostered an understanding of Eastern mysticism and how its teachings and practices paralleled and illuminated Christianity. Finally, Merton’s own practice of contemplative prayer foreshadowed centering prayer. He wrote: You rest in [God] and He hears you with His secret wisdom. In a letter to Abdul Aziz, a Sufi scholar, Merton described his prayer as centered entirely on the presence of God and His will and love, and as rising up out of the center of nothingness and silence. It is most appropriate, therefore, that the practice of centering prayer takes its name from Merton’s writings.

The current practice of centering prayer can be traced to the mid-1970’s, St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass., and three monks, Abbot Thomas Keating, William Meninger and Basil Pennington. Their work was a response to the exhortations of the Second Vatican Council to become more knowledgeable about other religious faiths through dialogue with believers from these traditions and to revitalize the path of contemplative prayer in order to help Catholics, especially those who had left the church, to find such experiences in their own faith tradition.

Fathers Keating, Meninger and Pennington entered into intense, sustained dialogue with leaders from other traditions who lived near the abbey. They invited to the abbey ecumenically oriented Catholic theologians, an Eastern Zen master, Joshu Roshi Sasaki, who offered weeklong retreats on Buddhist meditation, and a former Trappist, Paul Marechal, who taught transcendental meditation. The interaction between these Christian monks and practitioners of Eastern meditation helped distill the practice of Christian contemplative prayer into a form that could be easily practiced by a diverse array of non-monastic believers: priests, nuns, brothers and lay men and women.

Thomas Keating was personally disappointed that so many Catholics had left the church because they had no idea it offered meditation practices that could cultivate the inner peace and spiritual union they desired. At a monastery gathering in the mid-1970’s, Keating posed a question to his fellow monks that provided the impetus to the centering prayer movement: Could we put the Christian tradition into a form that would be accessible to people in the active ministry today and to young people who have been instructed in an Eastern technique and might be inspired to return to their Christian roots if they knew there was something similar in the Christian tradition?

William Meninger’s contribution was to develop a simple, easily taught method of prayer based on the 14th-century mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. Believers are invited to enter into a deep, silent state of unknowing during which one expresses one’s naked intent to rest in deep communion with God. Meninger suggested the mental repetition of a single sacred word that symbolizes the believer’s intention to turn completely toward God. This made it easier to let go of the thoughts and feelings that would invariably come into one’s awareness during prayer. An abundance of conferences, retreats, audio and videotapes and publications have followed from these humble beginnings.

The Growth of Centering Prayer

Flowing from Meninger and Basil Pennington’s retreats in the mid-1970’s, the teaching and practice of centering prayer has grown steadily in the United States and abroad. When retreats at Spencer could no longer accommodate all who wished to attend, Keating and his associates trained others to teach centering prayer.

After his term as abbot at Spencer had ended, Keating moved to St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colo., in 1981. There he offered a series of talks on prayer at a local parish in Aspen. These conferences and retreats represent an important seminal event in the growth of centering prayer, for they provide a remarkably comprehensive theological context for the prayer and describe the powerful psychological benefits of practicing it twice a day. Meeting in New York City in 1984, Gus Reininger, Ed Bednar and Keating created a network of individuals and small faith communities called Contemplative Outreach, which is now based in Butler, N.J. The past 16 years have seen a steady, significant growth in the practice of centering prayer around the world. From 1988 to 1999 Contemplative Outreach chapters have grown from a few dozen to 154, and prayer groups have increased from 73 to 439.

What Is Centering Prayer?

Centering prayer is a remarkably simple method that opens one to God’s gift of contemplative prayer. Its practice expands one’s receptivity to the presence and activity of God in one’s life. It is a distillation of the practice of monastic spirituality into two relatively short periods of prayer each day.

The experience of thousands of practitioners has convinced most centering prayer teachers that two periods a day of 20 to 30 minutes each are necessary to enable the believer to benefit fully from the practice. At the start of a session, the practitioner has the intention to rest deeply in God in silence and to let go of the thoughts, emotions, memories, images or sensations that will inevitably come into awareness during prayer. The fundamental dynamic of centering prayer is not to stop thinking or to combat thoughts as they arise, but rather to let them go gently so they can pass through one’s awareness. Thus the believer can return with his or her whole being to an awareness of God.

Keating suggests only four simple guidelines for practicing centering prayer:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting comfortably with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently and introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

3. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

The Fruits of Centering Prayer

A growing body of literature describes the benefits of practicing centering prayer. Since the principal arena for living a spiritual life is not prayer but rather everyday life, the benefits of centering prayer reveal themselves not during periods of prayer, but over time in the way we live our lives.

The essence of centering prayer is consent to the presence and activity of God in one’s life. One opens oneself completely to God and to whatever God wills, even though it may be painful and contrary to our desires. In response to our intention to become more deeply united with the divine presence, God acts within us to transform us, making us more like Christ. One’s intimacy with God deepens and one’s awareness of that intimacy expands. The actual fruits a practitioner of centering prayer experiences will depend on the person’s personality, strengths, vulnerabilities, background, situation and, most important, God’s will. Some may first notice that their life has begun to reflect the gifts of the Holy Spiritcharity, joy, peace, faithfulness, perseverance, gentleness, goodness, compassion and self control.

Another important way of understanding the impact of the practice is with the help of the concept of the false and true self. This concept is based on St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:22-24) and was developed by Merton and later by Keating. Paul writes: So get rid of your old self, which made you live as you used tothe old self which was being destroyed by its deceitful desires. Your hearts and minds must be made completely new. You must put on the new self which is being created in God’s likeness.

Merton described the true self as the deepest part of our being, our center, that is united with God and reflects divine love and grace. For Merton, the false self is out of touch with God’s active presence and, as a result, reflects sin, selfishness and darkness. The essence of the spiritual life, Merton believed, was to become more deeply centered in our true self where God resides, so that God may develop the true self and dismantle the false self.

Keating has expanded the concept of the true self and false self into a cornerstone of the literature on centering prayer. Keating describes a false self system, which begins with needs not met in childhood. We unconsciously compensate for these unmet needs by developing irrational compulsions for things that cannot possibly make us happy: power and control, affection and esteem, survival and security. Our conscious thinking and our behavior attempt to satisfy these exaggerated needs, thus re-enforcing the false self. With remarkable psychological insight, Keating describes how the twice-daily practice of centering prayer enables us to take a vacation from the false self. By letting go of thoughts, emotions and images so we can experience deep silence and cultivate our receptivity to God’s active presence in our life, we make it easier for God to heal the false self in us.

Those who regularly practice centering prayer have identified additional benefits. These include: greater access to God’s own wisdom and energy; a significant increase in creativity; a decrease in compulsive behavior; a reduction of painful emotions and negative thoughts and greater freedom to respond positively to them when they do arise; a greater ability to accept difficult situations with peace and joy; an expanded capacity to accept others on their own terms without judging them or desiring them to change; an ability to love others more selflessly; and a greater awareness of the presence of God in every person and situation we encounter.

Leaders of Contemplative Outreach predict the practice of centering prayer will continue to grow because it is a simple, effective and powerful way to access a deeper relationship with God and because it addresses a deep hunger within the hearts and souls of individuals who long for peace and a deep experience of God in a fast-paced, impersonal, competitive and often hostile world.

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