We’re one week into the season of Lent.
Have you been praying with us? Each week during Lent we’re exploring a different type of contemplative prayer together as a community. It’s called #40DAYSTOPRAY, and every Wednesday on the blog I’m sharing background information on a type of contemplative prayer as well as steps to practice and resources to go further. Some of these prayers are new and others are ancient, but one thing is certain: they’ll bring you closer to the heart of God.
Last week we welcomed in the season and all that comes with it with Welcoming Prayer, and I shared some of my experience on Instagram. Welcoming Prayer offers a great entry point to other types of prayer, “clearing the space” so to speak and inviting us into the present moment so we can encounter God. It’s also a practice of the pilgrim, teaching us to welcome the stranger or “other” in the world by first cultivating a practice of welcoming the stranger within.
The 40 days of Lent mirror the 40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, and I can imagine Jesus practicing a form of Welcoming Prayer during that trying season—welcoming the hunger, discomfort, and resistance into the presence of God and allowing them to become teachers. Can you, too? In this way, it’s not simply a prayer practice to engage in once a day, but rather a tool at the ready when we need it most and a reminder that all is welcome in the presence of God.
This week we turn to Centering Prayer—another practice with roots in the Contemplative Outreach community and one that has been near and dear to me for many years now. (Read about my own practice here.) Will you join me this week in the silence?
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ABOUT CENTERING PRAYER
The practice of Centering Prayer, though ancient in roots, is modern in design. Based on the contemplative practices of the Desert Mothers and Fathers of early Christian monasticism and modeled after the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina, wherein practitioners prayerfully engage passages of scripture, the method of Centering Prayer as we know it today was developed by Fathers Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, and William Menninger in the 1970s.
With a desire to make contemplative prayer more accessible—an ancient posture of prayer and practice which emphasizes abiding in the presence of God, leading to union with the Divine—Fr. Keating and his colleagues created a practice which would utilize the style of the contemplative practices of the East that were so popular with seekers at the time while still being rooted in the Christian tradition.
Like the practice of Lectio Divina or praying with prayer beads, Centering Prayer is a meditative practice. However, it does not focus on words but instead on the places of interior silence and stillness where God abides, inviting practitioners toward a deeper connection with Christ Incarnate, the perfect union of human and Divine. The lack of words involved with the practice of Centering Prayer has become a point of controversy (do a Google search—I dare you), and it is not uncommon to come across critics who mistrust the foundation of the practice. But it is Jesus himself who says in Matthew to not be obsessed with prayers filled with words, but to rather “go into your inner room,” which could also be interpreted as the inner room of the soul.
This is the invitation of Centering Prayer, a practice which, when engaged regularly, slowly transforms us at our very core in a way that is beyond words, teaching us to not only abide in the presence of the Divine but also cultivating a sense of inner silence and stillness. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with words, both without and within, centering prayer is a difficult practice. However, it is also a forgiving one that in reality requires of us little: simply our consent and the willingness and faith to continue to create space when we face distractions. And, when practiced regularly, it is a gift that keeps on giving.
HOW TO PRACTICE CENTERING PRAYER
- Start in a seated position. Either sitting on a chair with your feet rooted to the floor or sitting cross-legged directly on the floor, come to a comfortable and rooted position.
- Set a time for your desired length of prayer. If you’re new to meditation, you can start with five minutes, but traditionally centering prayer is practiced for twenty minutes at a time, twice a day. However, this is only a tradition and shouldn’t keep you from practicing. You certainly don’t have to do it twice a day, but I encourage you to go out on a limb and give the twenty minutes a try. You’ll survive even if it’s your first time, I promise. Yes, your mind will inevitably wander during this time (mine always does), but what matters is that, despite your many wanderings and returns, you continue the practice for your chosen amount of time. Set a timer so you’re not tempted to peek! (I use the Insight Timer app.)
- Chose a Sacred word or phrase that reflects your intention. You will use this word to help you return to stillness when your mind becomes distracted. I use the words “peace” and “presence.” You could also use a phrase, such as “Lord, hear my prayer,” or “Here I am.” There’s no formula to choosing a Sacred word—simply choose a word or phrase that is meaningful to you and significant to your intention and offering. This will be your Sacred word each time you practice.
- Begin your practice. If you’d like, you can ease into the practice by reading a poem or psalm or by breathing in and out fully and deeply. After a few rounds of breathing, you might repeat your Sacred word to yourself silently. Then let your mind settle into the presence of the Divine. I find it’s easiest to create space by literally imagining a clearing in my mind—a space of Sacred communion where thoughts and memories might dance on the outside, but aren’t allowed to enter.
- Continue to return to God’s presence. It’s likely that you’ll regularly be distracted by the thoughts vying for your attention in your peripherals, and that’s okay. It’s all a part of the process. When this happens, I find the following helps me to leave my thoughts behind and return to my original intention: become aware of the distraction, label it accordingly (thinking, rehashing, planning, etc.), dismiss it back to your periphery, and refocus on your mind’s clearing and your offering by repeating your Sacred word a few times. Someone once told me to not feel guilty about the number of times I am distracted during this practice, but rather to be encouraged by the number of times I return, since returning is a great exercise of faith (and an appropriate practice for the pilgrim, no doubt).
- End your time. When your timer goes off, be gentle. Slowly awaken your senses to the world around you, and close your time with the Lord’s Prayer, another poem or psalm, or a few final deep breaths.
Contemplative Outreach on Centering Prayer
Phileena Heuertz on Centering Prayer (video)
Centering Prayer app
The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice by Cynthia Bourgeault
The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God by David Frenette
Journey to the Heart: Centering Prayer for Children by Frank Jelenek