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Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer

Centering prayer is a modern Christian form of what in the East would be known as meditation. Along with Christian meditation, a parallel practice developed by Dom John Main, it offers contemporary Christians the opportunity to engage in this ancient and universal spiritual discipline within a fully Christian context.

The practice was developed in the early 1970s by a group of Trappist monks at St. Joseph's Abbey, in Spencer, Massachusetts, partially for their own spiritual rejuvenation and partially in response to the increasing attraction of younger Christian seekers to Eastern meditational paths. Though the method itself was first formulated by Father William Meninger, its development and popularization have been largely the work of his two prominent colleagues, Father Basil Pennington and Father Thomas Keating.

In offering centering prayer as a contemporary spiritual practice, these monks insisted that they were merely recovering and presenting in an accessible, updated form the living core of their own contemplative heritage. Father Menninger claims to have developed the method of centering prayer directly from the fourteenth-century Christian spiritual classic of Juliana of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Thomas Keating bases his own exposition of the method largely on the desert fathers (particularly John Cassian) and St. John of the Cross.

Like all forms of meditation, the goal of centering prayer is to move beyond the "faculties" (memory, imagination, reason, and affective emotion, which tend to reinforce the self-defining mechanisms of the ego) and to open to God at the most primordial level of the soul. This aspiration, well attested in Christian mystical tradition, is known as the as the apophatic path, or "via negativa." But centering prayer is innovative in its approach. Traditional meditation practice prescribes the use of a mantra, a word or a phrase repeated continuously throughout the period of meditation as a focal point for attention. In centering prayer the "sacred word" is used not continuously but only discretely, when one is aware of being attracted by a passing thought, emotion, or sensation. Like a piece of string tied around one's finger, it serves as a simple mnemonic device to remind one to let go of the thinking and to rest in the bare presence of God.

Because the mental band in which centering prayer operates has significant overlap with the dream state, there is a tendency for the unconscious to become significantly engaged, far more so than in more traditional forms of meditation. Thomas Keating noticed this tendency (which he identified as a "purification of the unconscious") and recognized its enormous implications for the integration of ancient spiritual practice and modern psychological insight. Upon this cornerstone he constructed his highly influential teachings on the idea of "the divine therapy."

While centering prayer has found broad acceptance within the Roman Catholic and Protestant mainstream, it is not without controversy. Like other forms of Christian meditational prayer, it has periodically come under attack from the Religious Right as a thinly disguised attempt to introduce "Eastern" spiritual practices into the Christian milieu. But it has raised concerns among some in the meditation camp as well, who look with alarm on centering prayer's instruction that it is acceptable to let go of the sacred word—a permissiveness, purists claim, that can lead to a state of fuzzy, diffuse spiritual perception known as "sinking mind." Centering prayer adherents counter that letting go of thoughts (and it is thoughts one lets go of, not the sacred word) is intended as a gesture of spiritual surrender. Theologically it resonates with Christ's prayer in the garden of Gethsemani, "Not my will but thine be done, O Lord." The goal is not a still or clear mind, but an attentive heart.

Despite its naysayers, centering prayer has gained ground steadily in thirty years. Now numbering tens of thousands of practitioners worldwide (well organized in a network called Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.), it has emerged as a significant force in the contemporary spiritual renewal.

See alsoDivinity; Dreams; God; Mainline Protestantism; Mantra; Meditation; Mysticism; Roman Catholicism.


Bourgeault, Cynthia. "From Woundedness to Union: The Psychology of Centering Prayer." Reviewfor Religious 58, no. 2 (March 1999): 158–167.

Keating, Thomas. Intimacy with God. 1994.

Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love. 1992.

Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart. 1987.

Pennington, Basil. Centering Prayer. 1980.

Cynthia Bourgeault

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