Centering prayer

Centering Prayer is a method of meditation used by Christians placing a strong emphasis on interior silence. The modern Centering Prayer movement in Christianity can be traced to several books published by three Trappist monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the 1970s: Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating.[1] The name was taken from Thomas Merton's description of contemplative prayer (a much older and more traditional practice) as prayer that is "centered entirely on the presence of God".[2] In his book Contemplative Prayer, Merton writes "Monastic prayer begins not so much with 'considerations' as with a 'return to the heart,' finding one's deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God".[3]

The creators of the Centering Prayer movement claim to trace their roots to the contemplative prayer of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism, to the Lectio Divina tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and to works like The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Advocates of Centering Prayer say it does not replace other prayer but encourages silence and deeper connection to God.[4] Also advocates of Centering Prayer say it helps people be more present and open to God.[5] Father Thomas Keating has promoted both Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer.[6]

However, some people consider Centering Prayer controversial. Some authors argue that Centering Prayer contradicts the teachings of the Carmelite saints.[7] Others also argue that Centering Prayer is a distortion of the teachings of the Desert Fathers and The Cloud of Unknowing, and is in contradiction to Lectio Divina.[8][9] Some consider it to fall afoul of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's caution against similar prayer forms in their Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.[10]


Claimed originsEdit

Seeds of what would become known as contemplation, for which the Greek term θεωρία theoria is also used,[11] were sown early in the Christian era.

The earliest Christian writings that clearly speak of contemplative prayer come from the 4th-century monk St. John Cassian, who wrote of a practice he learned from the Desert Fathers (specifically from Isaac[citation needed]). Cassian's writings remained influential until the medieval era when monastic practice shifted from a mystical orientation to Scholasticism. During the 16th century, Carmelite saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross wrote and taught about advanced Christian prayer, which was given the name infused contemplation.

The 20th century Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton was influenced by Buddhist meditation, particularly as found in Zen. He was a lifetime friend of Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, praised Chogyam Trungpa who founded Shambhala Buddhism in the United States and was also an acquaintance of the current Dalai Lama. His theology attempted to unify existentialism with the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith.[12] As such he was also an advocate of the non-rational meditation of contemplative prayer, which he saw as a direct confrontation of finite and irrational man with his ground of being.


Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 1960s and 1970s at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centres, including the well-known Theravada Buddhist centre, Insight Meditation Society. Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph's by accident, many of them born Catholic, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work. He found many of them had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within Christianity and set out to present those practices in a more accessible way. The result was the practice now called Centering Prayer.[13]


Fr. M. Basil Pennington suggests these steps for practicing Centering Prayer:[14]

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

In addition, Fr. Keating writes, "The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts".[15]

In Centering Prayer, the participant seeks the presence of God directly (aided by the Jesus Prayer, perhaps) and explicitly rejects discursive thoughts and imagined scenes. The participant's aim is to be present to the Lord, to "consent to God's presence and action during the time of prayer."[16] Centering Prayer advocates link the practice to traditional forms of Christian meditation, such as on the Rosary, or Lectio Divina.

Although the practice makes use of a "sacred word," Thomas Keating emphasizes that Centering Prayer is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one's attention on something (such as a mantra), but rather is concerned with intention and consent.[17]

In practice, the "sacred word" can integrate with breathing in and out. Thus, rather than being a tool to quiet the mind, consent to the presence and action of God within and "just be" with God, it can become too prevalent during the practice of Centering Prayer.


From other CatholicsEdit

Critics note that traditional prayers such as the Holy Rosary and Lectio Divina engage the heart and mind with Sacred Scripture, while Centering Prayer is "devoid of content".[18] The Holy Rosary and Lectio Divina, in contrast, have some contemplative goal in mind: with the Rosary, the Mysteries of the Rosary are contemplated; with Lectio Divina, the practitioner thinks about the Scripture reading, sometimes even visualizing it.

Critics also dispute the claim that Centering Prayer is in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Carmelite saints, saying that traditional Catholic contemplative prayer is not so much a method of prayer as a stage of prayer in which God's action predominates.[18] They cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church as evidence that meditation and contemplation are two different expressions of prayer.[19]

From the Holy SeeEdit

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) issued Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.[20] The letter addresses problematic elements found in some modern prayer methods, many of which have been influenced by Eastern religions and the New Age movement. Contemplative Outreach, which was founded by Fr. Keating and others to promote Centering Prayer, denies that this letter applies to Centering Prayer and states that Centering Prayer is connected to the Holy Spirit.[21] Opponents of the method, however, point to similarities between the teaching of Fr. Keating and his colleagues and specific criticisms made by the CDF.[22][23]

In 2003, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Culture published Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the "New Age".[24] Critics of Centering Prayer once again say their concerns were addressed in this document.[25] Centering Prayer practitioners respond that Bearer of the Water of Life does not have doctrinal authority, and neither Vatican document mentions Centering Prayer, Contemplative Outreach, or Fr. Keating by name.

Pope Francis has not commented on Centering Prayer directly but has spoken very highly of Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton described contemplative prayer as prayer "centered entirely on the presence of God."[2] Pope Francis listed Thomas Merton as one of four great Americans in a speech before the U.S. Congress in September 2015 and encouraged sowing dialogue and peace in "the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."[26]


Research has been conducted on the Centering Prayer program, indicating that it may be helpful for women receiving chemotherapy,[27] and that it may help congregants experience a more collaborative relationship with God, as well as reduced stress.[28]

Andrew B. Newberg explained one study that examined the brains of nuns who engaged in Centering Prayer, which is meant to create a feeling of oneness with God. The nuns' brain scans showed similarities to people who use drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, Newberg said, and both experiences "tend to result in very permanent changes in the way in which the brain works."[29][unreliable medical source?]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Centering Prayer Overview". Contemplative Outreach Ltd. Archived from the original on 2006-11-04. Retrieved 16 November 2006.
  2. ^ a b "History of Centering Prayer". Contemplative Outreach Ltd. Retrieved 2016-12-13.
  3. ^ Merton, Thomas (2009). Contemplative Prayer (First paperback ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-307-58953-8.
  4. ^ "Centering Prayer: Contemplative practice for the 21st century". America Magazine. 2014-12-03. Retrieved 2016-12-13.
  5. ^ "Godtalk: Centering Prayer". Jesuits in Britain. Retrieved 2016-12-13.
  6. ^ "Lectio Divina". Contemplative Outreach Ltd. Retrieved 2016-12-13.
  7. ^ Rossini, Connie (17 October 2015). "Why Centering Prayer Falls Short of True Intimacy With Christ". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  8. ^ "The Danger of Centering Prayer". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  9. ^ "Quick Questions". 2016-05-26. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  10. ^ "Centering Prayer Meets the Vatican". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  11. ^ Johnston, William (2004). The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion. Harper Collins. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-8232-1777-9.
  12. ^ "Christian Existentialism".
  13. ^ Rose, Phil Fox. "Meditation for Christians". Patheos. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
  14. ^ Pennington, Fr. M. Basil. "Centering prayer: Refining the Rules". Review for Religious. 45 (3): 386–393.
  15. ^ Keating, Fr. Thomas (2006). Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th Anniversary Edition. London: Bloomsbury. p. 21.
  16. ^ Thomas Keating (2009), "Intimacy with God: an Introduction to Centering Prayer," 23.
  17. ^ Thomas Keating (2009), "Intimacy with God: an Introduction to Centering Prayer," 15-28.
  18. ^ a b Rossini, Connie (17 November 2015). "Why Centering Prayer Is Not Christian Prayer". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 2016-07-27.
  19. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church - Expressions of prayer". Retrieved 2016-07-27.
  20. ^ "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation".
  21. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Contemplative Outreach Ltd. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  22. ^ Rossini, Connie (2015). Is Centering Prayer Catholic? Fr. Thomas Keating Meets Teresa of Avil and the CDF. New Ulm, Minnesota: Four Waters Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0692518489.
  23. ^ "What does the Vatican say about Centering Prayer". / Catholic Spiritual Direction. 2010-10-18. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  24. ^ "Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the "New Age"".
  25. ^ "Priest and Former New Age Enthusiast Warns Catholics Away from Eastern Meditation". Women of Grace. Retrieved 2016-07-27.
  26. ^ "Visit to the Congress of the United States of America". Washington, D.C. 24 September 2015. Retrieved 2018-12-27.
  27. ^ Mary E. Johnson; Ann M. Dose; Teri Britt Pipe; Wesley O. Petersen; Mashele Huschka; Mary M. Gallenberg; Prema Peethambaram; Jeff Sloan; Marlene H. Frost (2009). "Centering prayer for women receiving chemotherapy for recurrent ovarian cancer: A pilot study". Oncology Nursing Forum. 36 (4): 421–428. doi:10.1188/09.ONF.421-428. ISSN 0190-535X. PMID 19581232.
  28. ^ Jane K. Ferguson; Eleanor W. Willemsen; MayLynn V. Castañeto (2010). "Centering Prayer as a healing response to everyday stress: A psychological and spiritual process". Pastoral Psychology. 59 (3): 305–329. doi:10.1007/s11089-009-0225-7. ISSN 0031-2789.
  29. ^ Buxton, Ryan (2015-05-28). "Neuroscientist Explains the Similarities Between the Brains of Praying Nuns and Psychedelic Drug Users". Huffington Post.

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