Centering Prayer: Prayer for all Christians — by Brother Denis O’Sullivan

Centering Prayer (CP) is an ancient form of Christian prayer, which was first introduced to the West by John Cassian (365-435). He had learned it as a young man from the old monks of Scete.  Although this form of prayer has a long history in the contemplative tradition of the church, CP has not been well known among lay people, clergy or religious, until recently. Christians have been asking if the Church has any simple method of prayer in its tradition.  Among the reasons for these inquiries are: St. Paul’s admonition to “never cease praying (1 Thess. 5:17),” the universal call to holiness issued by The Second Vatican Council, and the popularity of Eastern forms of meditation. 

At the request of Pope Paul VI, the Trappist monks, Frs. Basil Pennington, William Menninger and Abbot Thomas Keating, have developed and taught a simple method of Christian meditation to meet the desires of Christians for contemplation. Fr. Basil Pennington has written that there is a simple method of entering into contemplative prayer which is called “Centering Prayer,” a name, he says, inspired by Thomas Merton who stressed that the only way to come into contact with the living God is to go to one’s center and from there pass into God.

Abbot Thomas Keating, describes CP as a renewal of the traditional prayer of the Church which centers one’s attention on God’s presence within and moves on to discover his presence everywhere else.  The technique of CP is borrowed from The Cloud of Unknowing which was written C.1370 by an unknown English priest. CP is always a response. St. John has written: “Not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us (1 John 4:10).”  We have not merited God’s love for it has been freely given.

The Book of Revelations teaches that every prayer is begun by God. The Son of Man says:”Here I stand, knocking at the door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with him, and he with me (Rev.3:20).”  The technique of CP provides a means of responding to God’s invitation to participate in the messianic banquet. Because each human relationship is unique, there are only guidelines rather than precise rules. “The Spirit blows where he wills (John3:8).” 

Christian prayer depends on the Holy Spirit rather than on any natural technique or formula. St.Paul puts it perfectly: “The Spirit too helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech (Rom. 8:26).”  CP is a method of disposing those who are receptive to the action of the Holy Spirit.

The intent of those who practice CP is to be present to God rather than seeking enlightenment, peace, or any predetermined benefit. Thoughts, images, memory, ideas and concepts cannot transmit the full impact of God. They may even distort it or point to God, but they are not God.” In CP,  we go beyond thought and image, beyond the senses and the rational mind, to that center of our being where God is working a wonderful work.”

The practice of CP requires that a few preliminary procedures be followed in preparation, though these are not part of the prayer itself. The following are recommended:

  • select a quiet place where one will not be disturbed.
  • sit upright and relaxed in a straight backed chair.
  • select a bible passage or use a crucifix to help set an atmosphere conducive to prayer.
  • engage in two twenty-minute periods of (CP) each day (“Centering Prayer–Prayer of Quiet” pp.656-7).

As a result of hundreds of workshops, retreats, conferences as well as writings, Fr. Basil Pennington and his colleagues have distilled the technique into three rules or guides.  Once seated in a relaxed and quiet manner:

  1. Be in love to God who dwells in the center of your being.
  2. Take up a love word and let it be gently present, supporting your being to God in faith-filled love.
  3. When ever you are aware of anything, simply, gently, return to the Lord with the use of your prayer word.  Let the Our Father (or some other prayer) pray itself.

Rule One. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends: “Center all your attention and desire of him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.” Strenuous and complicated preparations are not needed.  However, individuals usually develop their own routine and variations. The Second Vatican Council teaches that through his revelation, the invisible God, out of the abundance of his love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that he might invite and take them into fellowship with himself.  Christians are invited to seek a unity of love with God and to experience his love.

Rule Two. Rather than using images, ideas or emotions which are human filters, CP uses a “love word” to enter into the immediate presence of God. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing advises: “If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain,choose a short word rather than a long one; but choose one that is meaningful to you (p.56).”  The sacred word is not a mantra given by a guru which must be repeated without interruption in a precise manner for the entire time of the prayer. Christians usually choose one of the divine names but there is no need to be concerned about which word is used. A one syllable meaningful word is best. The word is used only to provide a means of returning to God’s presence. It has no supernatural quality of its own and should not be a source of intellectualizing or distraction. The word is not used to clear the mind, to bring peace or to help us feel good, though these may be among the fruits of CP. Through the use of the sacred word, thoughts, images and emotions are allowed to erupt and pass by. Even though the self expresses itself through thoughts, images and emotions, it is prior to them.  Contemplation is a gift, but it is not an additional gift because it is part of our nature to be contemplative.

Rule Three. The intent of those who practice CP is on God, not on the sacred word. The word is not to be used like a hammer to drive out annoying and irritating thoughts, images and emotions. It is a means of dealing with the interruptions that normally interfere with prayer. The rule is to simply return to the word whenever one becomes aware of anything.  Awareness of the act of centering indicates that one is not centering. Awareness is entertaining an image, a thought or an emotion “We use the prayer word when we need it and to the extent we need it, always gently. ((CP) p.55).”

Distractions are a problem in any human endeavor.  As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says:”No sooner has a man turned toward God in love when through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care (p.52).” Fr. Basil Pennington describes five varieties of distractions: the simple, the catching, the monitor, the bright idea, and the stressful thought.

The simple distraction is one of the millions of thoughts, images and feelings that continuously flow through our consciousness with greater or lesser intensity. The catching thought which comes in the form of noises or strong feelings pulls one out of the presence of God and demands immediate attention. The monitor distraction comes in the form of checking on how well one is doing. Human beings feel the need to be productive and to make progress. The bright idea presents itself as the solution to one of life’s problems or concerns. The stressful image, thought or feeling originate from the stresses and strains of our everyday activities and obligations (Centering Prayer pp. 80-85).

During CP one deals with all distractions by gently returning to the sacred word. Rather than actively suppressing them with the word, they are allowed to elapse. Actively engaging distractions allows them to emerge from the background and take over. Prayer should be refreshing rather than exhausting, something Jesus taught us in saying: “Come to me, all you who find life burdensome and I will refresh you (Matt. 11:28)”.

One of the interesting concepts in dealing with distractions and resistance to CP is the theory of the false self.  Unlike the true self, the false self is hollow in that it does not allow God at its center. The false self is an actor, a hypocrite.  It develops from shame, the inability to deal with feelings and maintaining survival techniques whose usefulness is past. It is a defense against the feeling of being flawed, but the message of Christian salvation is that God loves us as we are. According to Fr. Pennington, the false self identifies with what we do, with what we have and with what others think of us. It is our security program which prevents us from being open to God.  The true self is the image and likeness of God However, our concepts and ideas about the true self are no more accurate about it than they are about God

CP is a means of being open to the action of the Holy Spirit and this a threat to the false self. To meet God at the center of our being the false self must, in the words of John the Baptist, decrease while he increases (John 3:30). Jeremiah, the prophet, recognizes in himself the ambivalence that human beings experience about being intimate with God. Jeremiah says: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became the joy and the happiness of my heart (Jer.15:16).” But he later says: “You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook, whose waters do not abide (Jer. 15:18).”  True intimacy begins with the ability to share with the other person what frightens one about the relationship. Even though, relationships provide a sense of belonging, they also create a sense of obligation to the other person.  Moreover a relationship might also create a sense of being overwhelmed which is a threat to freedom. Job, like Jeremiah, was able to honestly assert and articulate what he felt when he pleaded with the Almighty (Job 31:37). Both experienced themselves as selves in God’s presence which is an experience of the true self. 

If through a program of CP, a Christian decides “to taste and see how good the Lord is (Psalm 34:9),” Five preparatory steps are necessary:

  1. Decide what one wants out of life: A person who wishes to be intimate with God, invests time and energy into the relationship In CP one simply puts oneself in God’s presence and allows the Holy Spirit to intercede for one.
  2. Determine what is lacking in knowledge, virtues and self-discipline in one’s life. 
  3. Investigate what is preventing one from getting what ones wants.
  4. Arranged one’s so that time is provided for the two daily twenty minute periods of Centering.
  5. Take time for reading and studying scripture. Retreats and liturgical celebration must be included in one’s daily program.

     A planned program of CP requires changes be made in one’s daily habits and activities. Some activities and habits will be found to be counter-productive to the practice of CP which demands a certain type of asceticism and faithfulness. It requires a change from false self-centeredness to true self-centeredness.  As Abbot Thomas Keating has written, a very delicate but intimate kind of self-denial is necessary in this prayer. It is not just an experience of rest and refreshment—a sort of spiritual cocktail hour.  It involves the denial of what we are most attached to, namely, our own thoughts and feelings—our very selves (p. 13).

     Like all Christian prayer, CP is interpersonal.  It must be nourished by the constant reading of Scripture and be founded on the best of the tradition of the Christian Community. Without Scripture and Tradition individual Christian prayer may become eccentric rather than like “A tree planted near running water (Psalm 1:3).” On the other hand, public prayer without personal or private prayer is often empty.  CP is a simple but demanding technique. While it can be learned from books and articles it is more effectively transmitted by someone who has practiced it for some time in light of Jesus` promise to be with those who gather in his name (Matth.18:20) alike-minded partner or group provides support.

   Unlike physical growth, which peaks and declines, spiritual growth is dynamic and rises CP provides a means of awakening to the reality in which we are immersed and of responding to God’s invitation to an unlimited future with him as “sharers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).