Spiritual Practice: Centering Prayer


If you ask three people what prayer means, you’ll probably get four answers. Some may say it’s regular conversation with God; for others a spiritual emergency hotline. Many prefer practicing it in solitude while others like to be led communally through their congregation.

Centering Prayer, a contemplative approach popularized by Thomas Keating, gives us yet another facet in which to view our communion with Christ. Although Eastern Christian traditions have embraced similar styles of prayer, the West has started to incorporate this important approach into their spiritual rhythms.

Keating says that, “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.”

We’ll come back to that last sentence. But first, let’s talk about how Centering Prayer works.

The Contemplative Outreach’s Comprehensive Guide defines it as, “the opening of mind and heart - our whole being - to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing, closer than consciousness itself.”

Here’s their simple guidelines for the practice:

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

  2. 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.

  3. When engaged with your thoughts, body sensations, images, and feelings, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Pretty simple, right? Yet incredibly powerful! We Americans find ourselves immersed in a culture that pushes us to ascend, do, perform, attain, excel. And here’s a practice that simply asks us to sit, be present, and return to a word? After all, aren’t we’re human beings, not human doings?

Even within the typical “quiet time” paradigm we grade ourselves. Did I pray long enough? Did I use the right words? I’m sure God has bigger things to deal with than my graduate exam. I haven’t prayed in two weeks, and now I’m ashamed to come back.

Although the typical Western view of prayer can be quite fruitful, Centering Prayer strips us of all criteria in which to criticize our performance. Step 3 anticipates that our minds and bodies will stray. Built into the very fabric of the practice is allowance and grace for our lack of adherence. “Returning again to the sacred word is another chance to say ‘Yes’ to God,” as Richard Rohr puts it.

Now let us return to that last line from Keating. Centering Prayer is movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him. It drags us out of the comfort of our heads and mouths and into an intimate silence with Jesus. Again, Centering Prayer does not replace other forms of prayer, but provides an alternative and contemplative way to commune with our Creator.

Give this simple approach a try. Find a sacred word. Like Christ, it’ll always be patiently waiting for your return.