Centering Prayer is an ancient form of Christian contemplation given modern form by Father Thomas Keating, an American Trappist monk born in 1923. In contrast to most current understandings of prayer as active conversation with God (“praying with our understanding”), silent prayer (“praying with our spirit”, 1 Cor. 14:15) accomplishes something different and complementary for the Christian eager for personal transformation.
To appreciate this we have to get in touch with our instinctive compulsions toward control, approval, and security…and then recognize the primary tool for trying to meet these legitimate needs as the mind. Our minds are constantly, unconsciously engineering our internal worlds in order to feel powerful, accepted, and safe—and it is this mental activity that most obstructs God’s design for meeting those very needs. Because this is all we’ve ever known, we have to train our minds with time and practice in the grace of letting go and simply being present to God and ourselves. This is the great gift of Centering Prayer.
For those ready to experiment with this form of contemplative prayer, start with just 10 minutes in silence and as your capacity grows, gradually increase your daily practice to 20 – 30 minutes. There are the four movements:
- Positioning. Settle physically into a peaceful, undistracted location and make yourself physically comfortable. Choose a “sacred word” that feels meaningful in this season of your spiritual formation; it may be an overtly spiritual word like one of the names of God or it may not. The word itself will not be the focus of your meditation but merely a tool for returning your attention to Presence. Then set a timer for the amount of time you wish.
- Noticing. As you enter into your time of prayer, you will soon become aware of a host of thoughts attempting to hijack your attention. This is not an enemy to be resisted as much as a habit to become aware of. We are habituated to constantly assess, brood, plan, and evaluate…so to simply pay attention to our thoughts without being owned by our thoughts is a significant step in formation. We think…but we are not our thoughts. Our essence or presence is our deeper, truer self. Learn to notice your thought sequences with neither judgment nor attachment.
- Returning. Once you notice the thought that wants to dominate, your invitation is to release it and return your inner gaze to God’s presence. This is where your sacred word comes into play; the brief inner repetition of this word gently leads us back from wherever our minds were trying to take us, back into the present moment where we just are. And where God is. Not thinking about God; just being with God. Pure presence. The entire practice of Centering Prayer consists of this: not freeing ourselves from thought, but noticing the thoughts and letting them go. It is the act of returning that, over time, breaks the tyranny of the mind’s programs for happiness.
- Confirming. Once your prayer time is up, take a brief moment to gently reawaken to the world. Invite a deeper breath, wiggle your fingers and toes, and softly give thanks for these minutes of being without doing. My personal favorite way to seal this practice and confirm God’s activity is by saying the Lord’s Prayer aloud. Then move on.
The practice of Centering Prayer is one of the most simple acts you can imagine; don't make it complicated. The most common challenge is feeling disappointed or frustrated as we realize how extensively the mind dominates our consciousness. Don’t give way to competing or judging. The gift is in the returning! Over time this prayer practice will infiltrate your “normal” moments of the day, helping you hold your thoughts in the midst of work and life with the freedom to return to Presence there too. The end game is a pervasive freedom and fellowship.