“But when your pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” (Mt. 6:6.)
[Note: the Aramaic word underlying “reward” in this wisdom-saying of Jesus means “make flourish,” indicating it is about personal transformation and not material prosperity.]
Centering prayer is the form of prayer taught in the medieval spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, adapted for our times. It thus belongs to the ancient tradition of contemplative prayer. Independent of words, and so defying definition, such prayer may be compared to the shared, silent gaze of loving, trustful people. Such prayer, beyond words or concepts, is founded on bedrock Christian beliefs: the indwelling of the Trinity, and the union of souls with and in the infinitely loving Christ. When we pray thus we are simply consenting to the presence and action of God in the depths of our being.
Centering prayer in no way precludes other forms of prayer but rather enriches them. As our relationship with Christ, with the indwelling Trinity, is deepened, our participating in the liturgy, our reading of scripture, and our customary vocal prayers become infused with an awareness of the presence of the Spirit in and around us, and of our oneness in Christ.
St. Paul bears witness to centering prayer in Romans 8:26: “…when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words.”
The sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers from the mid-3rd through the 5th centuries are the first substantial enshrining of this tradition. Their tradition was taken by St John Cassian (d. 435) to the west, where it became the foundation of Benedictine monasticism. St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), the first monk to become pope, called it simply “resting in God.”
The pursuit of an intimate relation with the Lord remained the goal of all Christian spirituality through the middle ages, eventually finding its most teachable expression in The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous manual of contemplative prayer, written expressly for lay people.
Though the 16th century saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are among the best known and most loved of all contemplatives, the contemplative flame seems to have dimmed among the laity from the time of the Reformation until today. Now the Spirit appears to be leading all the churches towards its rekindling.
In this rekindling, the life and work of Thomas Merton (the name “centering prayer” derives from his writing) has been a powerful influence; so too was the turn to the East, particularly by disillusioned young people drawn to its ancient forms of meditation.
In our time there have been two major organized attempts to revive the Christian heritage. The first was the work of a group of Cistercians: William Meninger who adapted the teaching of The Cloud for his retreatants; then Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington. Keating’s work led to the formation of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd., a world-wide organization devoted to fostering centering prayer and contemplative living.
Benedictine John Main began the other major initiative when he introduced a similar method of meditation, based on his reading of St. John Cassian’s Conferences. His work is continued by his fellow Benedictine Laurence Freeman and the World Community for Christian Meditation.
The best way to learn centering prayer is through instruction by someone experienced in the practice. Contemplative Outreach has distilled the teaching of The Cloud into a brochure which is readily available through its bookstore, and is published on its website, along with lists of instructors, prayer groups and much else. The following four guidelines from the brochure form the heart of the practice:
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. [The word should be short: love, peace, Jesus, and Father are common choices.]
- 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. [Thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections.]
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
(New books on centering prayer and meditation appear almost daily. Not all are trustworthy. The following are recommended guides by highly acclaimed teachers.)
- Thomas Keating, OCSO, Open Mind, Open Heart, (Continuum, 2006)
This is a new edition of the best known introduction to centering prayer by its most famous proponent.
- Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, (Cowley, 2004)
A very popular, accessible book by a brilliant teacher.
- Basil Pennington, OCSO. Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form, (Doubleday, 1980)
One of the earliest and best loved books on this prayer with a rich discussion of its history and background.
- Basil Pennington, OCSO, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures, (Crossroad, 1998)
Praying the Scriptures is an essential part of the contemplative life. Here a renowned spiritual master tells us how.
- William A. Meninger, OCSO, The Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and the Cloud of Unknowing, (Continuum, 2007)
A highly recommended companion to The Cloud by the Trappist who adapted its form of prayer for modern use.
- Laurence Freeman, OSB, Christian Meditation: Your Daily Practice, (Novalis, 2007)
A summary introduction to meditation as taught by John Main.
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, (Paraclete Essentials, 2006)
This is one of many translations. Though The Cloud is not the first book to read about centering prayer, all who adopt the practice will soon want to read it. William Meninger’s Loving Search for God provides a good introduction.
- John Main, Words into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation, (Continuum, 1991.
Fundamental reading for those who follow the meditation method of this great spiritual master.
- www.contemplativeoutreach.org. [The website of the worldwide network of those who follow the teachings of Thomas Keating. Links take you to longer explanations of the prayer, to the complete brochure, and to many other resources, including lists of trained teachers, prayer groups, retreats.]
- www.contemplativeprayer.net [This is the website of William Menninger.]
- www.wccm.org. [This is the website of the World Community for Christian Meditation, promoting the work of John Main, OSB and Dom Laurence Freeman, OSB.]
- Invite a practitioner of Centering Prayer to your parish or small prayer group to make a presentation and give a demonstration of Centering Prayer.
- Check out the website, www.contemplativeoutreach.org, click on “centering prayer” and then on informational pamphlet and download this pamphlet, which describes the method of Centering Prayer, and begin on your own.
- Join a Centering Prayer group in your parish or town to find the support to nourish your own prayer.
For further information, feel free to contact Tom Connolly, a member of the Spiritual and Communal Growth leadership team, at email@example.com.