Centering Prayer

02.24.22 | by Kelly Wolfe

    (Much of the below content is copied from Contemplative Outreach's website and brochure on Centering Prayer. As the author of this resource, I have also added some notes/edits/context from my own experience with this practice and those are marked with "Kelly's [Tip, Practice, Edit, etc.]:".)

    What is Centering Prayer? 

    According to Contemplative Outreach, an organization founded by Fr. Thomas Keating — a 20th century Trappist monk who is credited as a central architect of the modern Christian contemplative prayer movement, Centering Prayer is a receptive method of Christian silent prayer which deepens our relationship with God, the Indwelling Presence …  a prayer in which we can experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. 

    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 prayer — verbal, mental or affective 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 Him.

    The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ.

    What Centering Prayer Is and Is Not
    • It is not a technique but a way of cultivating a deeper relationship with God.
    • It is not a relaxation exercise but it may be quite refreshing.
    • It is not a form of self-hypnosis but a way to quiet the mind while maintaining its alertness.
    • It is not a charismatic gift but a path of transformation.
    • It is not a para-psychological experience but an exercise of faith, hope and selfless love.
    • It is not limited to the “felt” presence of God but is rather a deepening of faith in God’s abiding presence.
    • It is not reflective or spontaneous prayer, but simply resting in God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.

    Guidelines for Practicing Centering Prayer

    (Kelly’s Pre-Practice: To mark off the sacred space and time you’re about to enter, you may want to do one of the following to signify to your spirit and body that this is time where there is no need for performance or hustle, a time to be open, vulnerable, settled, and to know you are safe to do so. Options: Light a candle, make the sign of the cross, three deep belly breaths, read/recite a short phrase or one-sentence verse from the Bible, say a short worded prayer asking for God to make Godself and presence known, diffuse an essential oil you associate with spiritual practice/rest/peace, look at an art piece or - if outside- observe the beauty of creation for just a moment. You can do one, more than one, or none of these things — and feel free to create your own thing as well!)

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

    • The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer to the Holy Spirit. Use a word of one or two syllables, such as: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen. Other possibilities include: Love, Listen, Peace, Mercy, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust.
    • Kelly’s go-tos are beloved, shalom, and God’s Love
    • Instead of a sacred word, a simple inward glance toward the Divine Presence, or noticing one’s breath may be more suitable for some persons. The same guidelines apply to these symbols as to the sacred word.
    • The sacred word is sacred not because of its inherent meaning, but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our consent to the presence and movement of God within and toward us.
    • Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period because that would be engaging thoughts.

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

    • “Sitting comfortably” means relatively comfortably so as not to encourage sleep during the time of prayer.
    • Whatever sitting position we choose, we keep the back straight.
    • We close our eyes as a symbol of letting go of what is going on around and within us.
    • We introduce the sacred word inwardly “as gently as laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.”
    • If we fall asleep, we simply continue the prayer upon awakening or pick up the next time we do our centering prayer practice. Shame, pressure, and self-rebuke should find no place in this practice.
    • We may notice slight pains, itches, or twitches in various parts of the body or a generalized sense of restlessness. These are usually due to the untying of emotional knots in the body, (or just the ability to notice them because we slowed down and got quiet.)

    3. When engaged with your thoughts*, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

    • “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including body sensations, sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and spiritual experiences.
    • Thoughts are an inevitable, integral and normal part of Centering Prayer.
    • By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word” a minimum of effort is indicated. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.
    • During the course of Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.
    • During the prayer period, various kinds of thoughts may arise: Ordinary wanderings of the imagination or memory; Thoughts and feelings that give rise to attractions or aversions; spiritual, emotional, or psychological Insights or breakthroughs; Self-reflections such as, “How am I doing?” or, “This peace is just great!”; Thoughts and feelings that arise from the unloading of the unconscious. 
    • Kelly’s Tip: Once you become aware that you’re engaging these thoughts, don’t chastise yourself for being distracted or mind wandering, and don’t try to stop thinking them. That’s the best way to stay distracted. Notice them, acknowledge them, and try to visualize them as if they were just floating past you in a river. With gentleness and self-love, simply return to the sacred word.

    4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a short additional stretch in order to bring the quiet rest of silence into your day.

    • Kelly’s Practice: To signal to your spirit and body that the time of prayer has ended, you may opt to read a selection of scripture, recite the Lord’s Prayer, make the sign of the cross, blow out your lit candle, or whatever closes the loop of the activity you did to mark of the beginning of the time when you started.
    How long should I do Centering Prayer for? How often?

    Contemplative Outreach recommends a minimum of twice daily for twenty minutes each time. (Keep reading.)

    *Kelly’s Edit: I’ve been doing this practice for four years and haven’t made it up to 20 minutes even once. That's okay! This recommendation from the Contemplative Outreach Center does not factor in

    • the mental, physical, and spiritual capacity limitations of life in a pandemic
    •  family life
    • neuro-divergency like ADD/ADHD and autism
    • novice level, lack of experience with this practice

    Monks designed this initially for other monks to practice — who had been well acquainted with practices of silence, stillness, solitude, silent prayer, meditation, and communing with God. Being new at this - and human, busy, needed elsewhere, mid-pandemic etc. - means you should give yourself the spacious generosity of knowing this takes PRACTICE. It may feel difficult, awkward, uncomfortable, boring, or uneventful at first / for a while / at times. I recommend starting with two minutes, with or without using the app mentioned below, and getting used to that first, then — when you’re ready and it serves you well — either slowly increasing the duration or frequency of your practice. However long and/or often you can engage Centering Prayer without it becoming a chore or a shame-inducing taskmaster, that’s what I recommend — no more, no less. God is not thwarted by time limits and deadlines; God is utterly delighted at your desire to commune and your offer of receptive consent to God’s presence, love, work, healing, repair, restoration, revelation, creation, refining, and transformation. 

    Best Practices

    1. During this prayer, we avoid analyzing our experience, harboring expectations, or aiming at some specific goal such as: Repeating the sacred word continuously; Having no thoughts; Making the mind a blank; Feeling peaceful or consoled; Achieving a spiritual experience.

    2. The principal fruits of Centering Prayer are experienced in daily life and not during the prayer period. If you finish your prayer time without feeling transformed or renewed or affected in any way, that’s okay and normal and to be expected. You are in fact being transformed and changed by the presence and work of God, and once in a while you may have a prayer time that feels “powerful” or insightful or deeply intimate. Great! Just don’t put pressure on you for any kind of outcome. It is God who is active in this time; you are a passive recipient.

    3. An app is recommended below - and it is a great resource - but if you will have a device near you for this practice, I suggest turning on Do Not Disturb for the duration of your prayer time so that even a vibration notification doesn’t disturb or distract you.

    Recommended Resources

    Centering Prayer App: After customizing the below aspects, you will press begin. The app will then guide you through the entire time of prayer from beginning to end. You set up/have options for:

    1. Vestibule: meaning do you want the 4  guidelines (above) to appear on your screen for review when you begin
    2. Opening and Closing Prayers: a large selection of scriptures, quotes, prayers, etc from which you can choose & they will appear on your screen
    3. Silence Duration: a timer where you can select the seconds and minutes of how long you want to spend so you don’t have to watch a clock (aka engage thoughts about the time)
    4. Beginning and Closing Sounds: to mark off the time as mentioned above - options are piano, lute, the Lord’s Prayer, gongs, chimes, singing bowls, chants, and more; 
    5. Background Image selection: a few options of various images to help still or focus your mental space - a candle, stones on water, landscapes, etc.

    With all options selected, tap Begin. If you opted to have the guidelines display, you’ll need to hit Continue. Once the beginning sound screen appears/sound plays, you can set your device down and don’t have to look at it again until the end. 

    Contemplative Outreach website: Full of resources, history, training events, retreats, other contemplative practices like Lectio Divina and Welcoming Prayer, etc.

     Centering Prayer Brochure from Contemplative Outreach

    Stay tuned for the next post in this series, looking at Breath Prayer.