Guide to Centering Prayer
Centering Prayer is a method of contemplative prayer in which we rest silently in the presence of God. It is a very simple method that is easy to learn. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words, but this is not the only form of prayer.
In the 1970s a group of Trappist monks noticed that young people were increasingly turning to eastern forms of meditation. The monks - Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington - knew that there were contemplative prayer practices from the Christian tradition that had at one time been used in monasteries but were unknown to the broader public. They set out to recover these practices and make them more widely available, developing the simple method of centering prayer based on their knowledge of Christian spiritual classics like The Cloud of Unknowing, writings by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, and Christian scripture, in particular Jesus’ saying in Matthew, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Thomas Keating describes centering prayer as “a way of saying ‘Here I am.’ The next step is up to God. It is a way of putting yourself at God’s disposal; it is God who determines the consequences.”
• Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Sit with your back straight. You can sit on a cushion or on a chair. Set a timer, if you have one. Two sessions of 20 minutes each day are recommended, but if that is too much for you, begin with five or ten minutes. Allow your body to relax. Begin to notice your breath flowing in and out at its natural speed.
• Choose a sacred word of one or two syllables as the symbol of your intention to be open to God’s presence. Choose any word with which you are comfortable to remind you to be present to God. Examples of a sacred word: Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Holy, Glory, God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen, Love, Listen, Peace, Mercy, Let Go. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, silently begin to repeat the sacred word, which points you gently towards God’s presence. When you are ready, you can let go of the sacred word and simply rest in God.
It is also possible to practice centering prayer with a sacred breath as the sacred symbol instead of a sacred word. When using the sacred breath, you do not follow the breath, as in Zen meditation, but simply notice it, touching it gently with your attention.
• When you notice that you have become engaged with your thoughts, gently disengage yourself and turn towards God’s presence, returning to the sacred symbol if necessary.
• At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. This is an important transition time for bringing the prayer into daily life. If you would like, you can simply rest in silence, dedicate the period of prayer to a person or concern, silently say a prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, or visualize yourself in your daily life as a way of transitioning from the prayer into life.
As long as your intention is to be with God and let God act upon you, you can’t do the prayer wrong. Let go of expectations for the time of prayer and don’t worry about whether the period of prayer is “good” or “bad.”
Centering Prayer can be used by those in twelve step programs as an eleventh step practice and is so well suited to this purpose that it may feel like a kind of missing link for those in the twelve step movement who have been searching for a way to deepen their relationship with God through prayer and meditation. Contemplative Outreach has developed a number of ways of offering Centering Prayer to people in twelve step fellowships. The 12 Step Outreach website offers numerous resources on Centering Prayer as an eleventh step practice.