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Posted June 30, 2003

Centering Prayer

by Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O.


The grace of Pentecost affirms that the risen Jesus is among us as the glorified Christ. Christ lives in each of us as the enlightened One, present everywhere and at all times. He is the living Master who promised to send the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and to bear witness to his resurrection by empowering us to experience and manifest the fruits of the Spirit and the beatitudes both in prayer and action.

Lectio divina is the most traditional way of cultivating the friendship of the risen Christ. It is a means of listening to the texts of Scripture as if we were in conversation with Christ and he were suggesting the topics of discussion. Daily encounter with Christ and reflection on his teaching lead beyond mere acquaintanceship to an attitude of friendliness, trust, and love. Conversation simplifies and gives way to communing, or as Gregory the Great summarizing the Christian contemplative tradition put it, "resting in God." This was the classical meaning of contemplative prayer for the first sixteen centuries.

Contemplative prayer is the normal development of the grace of baptism and the regular practice of lectio divina. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Contemplative prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart our whole being to God, the ultimate reality, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. We open our awareness to God, who we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing, closer than consciousness itself. God is the ground in whom our life emerges at every moment.

Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a relationship initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. Our way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place that empowers us to perceive, relate to, and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence and action in, through and beyond everything that exists.

Centering prayer is a method designed to facilitate the development of contemplative prayer by preparing one's faculties to cooperate with this gift. It is an attempt to present the teaching of earlier times in an updated format and to give a certain order and regularity to it. It is not meant to replace all other kinds of prayer; it simply puts other kinds of prayer into a new and fuller perspective. During the time of prayer it centers one's attention on God's presence within. At other times one's attention moves outward to discover God's presence everywhere else.

Centering prayer is not an end in itself but a beginning. It is not done for the sake of enjoying spiritual consolation but for the sake of its positive fruits in one's life: charity, joy, peace, self-knowledge, compassion, inner freedom, humility. To benefit from these fruits, centering prayer must be done regularly, preferably twice a day for about half an hour each time. T maximize these fruits, practices for use during one's ordinary occupations can be added, e.g., repetition of a prayer sentence, unconditional acceptance of others, letting go of upsetting emotions as soon as they arise.

Outline of the Centering Prayer Method

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to open and yield to God's presence and action within. The sacred word could be one of the names of God or a word that you feel comfortable with, e.g., presence, silence, peace, stillness, oneness.

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 you become aware of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word. This is the only activity you initiate once the period of centering prayer has begun.

4. The term "thoughts" includes any perception at all, e.g., sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, reflections, and commentaries. During the prayer time, avoid analyzing your experience, harboring expectations, or aiming at some specific goal, such as having no thoughts, making the mind a blank, feeling peaceful or consoled, repeating the sacred word continuously, or achieving a spiritual experience.

5. At the end of the prayer time, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. This gives the psyche a brief space to readjust to the external senses and a better chance of bringing the atmosphere of interior silence into the activities of daily life.