Centering prayer can be one of the most difficult prayers to engage in because it requires stillness and silence, which are completely countercultural and counter-ego. Stillness and silence are countercultural to our drive-through, drive-by, and driven society that fosters a jittery nervous system and type A(DHD) personalities. Many people, therefore, think of stillness, silence, and solitude as alien planets too far outside their solar system to explore. Additionally, the notion of sitting still—doing nothing in many people’s minds—is not going to skyrocket one’s career and win the esteem of a culture that values and honors the doers, the go-getters, and the fast and furious.
Centering prayer is also counter-ego because, when the brightness of God’s loving floodlight shines on our wounded souls, it can disrupt what we know and believe to be true about God, ourselves, and the world. And since the ego likes sameness and the status quo, it tends to run away from the brightness of God’s floodlight the way little bugs scurry away when someone lifts a rock and exposes them to the sun. The ego is deathly afraid of change because it sends a person into the unknown. Even if the change God invites us into is beautiful, good, and liberating, our self-protective ego tends to prefer what is familiar, even if it is ugly, sinful, and binding.
For the most part, contemplative prayer is meant to be wordless yet full of the Word (Logos). Thomas Merton, a well-known Catholic writer, contemplative, and Trappist monk, reminds us of the wordless level of prayer. He writes, “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless . . . beyond speech . . . beyond concept.” In this type of prayer, words, which are humanly constructed, are not as important as communication coming straight from one’s spirit directly to the Holy Spirit. The sacred word that is used in contemplative prayer, which we will explore shortly, is mostly a reminder to be present in this wordless space.
On the other hand, it is a Word-full space. The gospel of John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Prayer is meant to be communion with the Word, who is Jesus Christ and the liberating Spirit who animates every form of existence. In contemplative prayer, we are less interested in quoting Scripture or making requests, both of which are perfectly fine in other contexts. We are much more interested in being still in the presence of the Word, allowing ourselves to be captivated by the loving ground of all being.
Origins of Centering Prayer
Centering prayer has its origins in the teachings of Jesus. It is a specific type of praying that is based on a verse in the Sermon on the Mount: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). Centering prayer was developed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were devout God-lovers and ascetics who lived in Egypt around the third century AD. Thomas Keating, a contemporary Trappist monk and priest, popularized the approach and formalized the prayer in an understandable and easy-to-follow format.
In a metaphorical sense, Keating postulated that the inner room can be thought of as the deepest place of your heart where you shut out every form of distraction and cacophonic sound, while shutting in the very presence of God. This inner room is where a mysterious and profound dance takes place between God’s Spirit and your spirit, God’s heart and your heart. It is a place where the reward, or present, is God’s presence.
Centering prayer also has roots in Ephesians 3:14–19:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
God wants to meet you in the deep broken places of your heart and strengthen you. In the quiet place produced by centering prayer, God’s desire is to increase your faith in the beauty of Christ and to infuse you with his vast love. God wants your inner roots to reach down deep to his presence through centering prayer where they can absorb the necessary nutrients to grow and bear fruit—so you, as well as those with whom you come in contact, can enjoy it.
Centering Prayer in a Nutshell
Keating recommends practicing centering prayer twice a day for about twenty minutes.3 It is common for some people to engage in centering prayer when they get up in the morning and before they go to bed. Some, including me, use a timer with a soft bell to signal the end of the twenty minutes. And yes, there is an app for that.
Here’s what the practice looks like:
1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. This could be any word. I personally have used Jesus, Abba, Love, Peace, and others. You can ask the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart, or you can search the Scriptures to find a word that resonates with you. Throughout the centering prayer, whichever word you choose will serve to anchor you to your intention when thoughts distract you. When you are thinking about how miserable you feel or how much your ex is pond scum, for example, your sacred word will gently refocus your mind on being in the presence of God.
2. Sitting comfortably and with your eyes closed, settle yourself, and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within. Make sure you are in a comfortable position and have all your electronic devices turned off. Unless you’re using an app, it is preferable to set your devices out of the room to avoid unnecessary distractions. Be relaxed, but not so much that you could easily fall asleep (though if you do, you probably needed to). Close your eyes and say the sacred word to yourself.
3. When engaged with other thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word. The word thoughts, here, is all-encompassing. It includes feelings, images, bodily experiences, memories, smells, and brilliant new revelations you think you are receiving. Don’t judge yourself if they arise; gently bring your attention to your sacred word and let go of the thoughts, allowing yourself to come back to God’s presence. Picture your thoughts as if they are on clouds that are floating away, or on lily pads floating downstream. You might get lost in thoughts a dozen times, but gently bring yourself back to God’s presence.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. The last guideline is to transition back into your routines peacefully and with reverence. It is an acknowledgment that you have just experienced a special moment with God. Feel free to end this time with one of your favorite verses or the Lord’s Prayer.
It Takes Practice
Most people avoid such intimacy and vulnerability with God for a reason. Keating writes, “Thoughts are integral, inevitable, and a normal part of centering prayer. They contribute to the unloading of our childhood wounds and help clear the emotional debris of a lifetime.” You may encounter a lot of emotional stuff when you engage God in this way, such as repressed memories, painful sensations, anxiety, and uncomfortable emotions. This is normal.
Being still and silent while spending time with God can also be difficult because you might already be experiencing intense emotion and rampant negative thoughts. If you try it a few times but are unable to stay seated for the entire twenty minutes, then go easy on yourself. People who begin a running program with a ten-mile goal in mind may be able to run only half a mile at first. It’s the same with centering prayer. Developing your silence and solitude muscles takes practice.
My Own Centering Prayer Journey
When I started learning how to connect with God through centering prayer, it was really difficult. As I sat silently in prayer, focused on the sacred word and enjoying intimacy with God, painful mom-and-dad memories often rose to the surface. Not my idea of fun, especially right after I had experienced a painful breakup. It was God’s way of helping me heal and freeing me from the extra baggage I had been carrying around for many years.
There were also many times I set my intention and began the prayer, and twenty seconds into it a million thoughts raced through my mind, many of which were about people who had offended me. In a matter of seconds I went from saying, “He is a child of God and deeply loved” to “He is the spawn of Satan and I hope he gets what he deserves!”
Sometimes, I was in the God-zone, experiencing the blessedness of solitude, and then moments later I found myself salivating over thoughts of greasy cheeseburgers and a pint of cookies and cream ice cream I had in the freezer.
Initially, sitting still and silent was like climbing Mount Everest in blizzard conditions, wearing worn-out tennis shoes and carrying a one-hundred-pound knapsack. It seemed impossible. With years of practice, I have come to highly value and appreciate that special intimate time with God. Although it can still be hard to sit still, I know that praying is how my heart cries out for home, and it is where God whispers, “Welcome home, my beloved; I missed you.”
Thirsty? Then Drink
The psalmist writes, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1–2). Is this the cry of your heart? If not, that is okay. Everyone is in a different spiritual space. God loves you where you are. If you have a deeper hunger to connect with God, then take a risk and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). If you have a deeper thirst to experience the love and tenderness of God, then centering prayer can help you encounter the One who said, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
Leanne Payne, a contemporary contemplative author and speaker who recently passed away, wrote beautifully concerning prayer. “In God’s Presence, we’ve come before the One who speaks worlds into being, who delights in speaking new worlds of being into our very souls, affirming, as He does so, those very parts of ourselves that have (for whatever reason) not been called forth and blessed in our families and earthly relationships.”
I am convinced that God’s desire is for every person to be able to shout with confidence, “I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me” (Song 7:10). May you find a deeper place of intimacy with God as you journey, through the practice of centering prayer. May you be strengthened and encouraged. Although this may be a difficult season in your life, may you experience the new life-giving words God is whispering into your being, fortifying your identity as his beloved child.
Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: Selected Essays, ed. Patrick F. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), 238.
Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (New York: Amity House, 1986).
Thomas Keating, Centering Prayer: A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2009), 24.
Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence: How God’s Grace Can Work in You to Bring Healing in Your Broken Places and the Joy of Living in His Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 61.