This week’s contemplative practice: Centering Prayer
I’ll admit it: I turn into the worst version of myself when my husband travels. Is it the extra carpooling during peak traffic hours? Or, is it that my son gets ready for school at a mind-numbing, geriatric pace? Who knows? But, when my husband took a trip during a particularly demanding season… to say I was merely unhappy about it would be a vast understatement. To battle the tsunami of resentment beating at my brain, I decided to pray daily for him in the hope he wouldn’t return to a she-bear on steroids. After a few days, it dawned on me that I was praying my bruised ego and bitterness! The words in my heart weren’t ones of healing or hope… but accusation. I didn’t have the inward capacity to pray in a manner that invited the work of the Holy Spirit into my heart or marriage. In fact, my words were putting up walls to all that. This is why I love Centering Prayer. It’s a subversive practice, bypassing our egos, our defenses, and our self-assuredness that my perspective is the right one… and allows the Spirit to hover over the chaos of our lives, silently knitting something beautiful into being.
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).
What is Centering Prayer?
Simply put, it’s Christian meditation.
Christian Meditation – silent and receptive attentions to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit
Many practitioners say Centering Prayer is the most challenging of the contemplative practices. Its fruit appears slowly, after months of habitual practice, in your daily life… rather than in the time of prayer itself. It’s a modern adaptation of ancient Christian practices and those described in the writings of the Christian mystics. Most importantly, Centering Prayer is based on Jesus’ instruction:
“…when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you” (Matthew 6:5,6).
Is it Biblical?
It has been said, this generation is the most distracted in history1. With the invention of the smart phone, humankind’s capacity for stillness and silence has become endangered. We approach God from this distracted space, demanding instant gratification, answers, and entertainment. We want results now because we have lost the spiritual discipline of waiting. Even more, we’ve lost the simple ability to focus our attention on any one thing for any length of time. Scripture shows us that waiting, solitude, and silence are necessary for true God-hearing and God-seeing… which is why Jesus withdrew to pray so often. Contemplatives throughout Church history insist inner silence and stillness is the foundation for all Christian disciplines and service.
“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 47:10).
“But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:3).
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
Is it Transformational?
Scientifically, meditation has been proven to have great health benefits. It reduces stress and anxiety and lessens the reoccurrence of clinical depression2. It improves cardio-vascular health3 and increases your attention span4 ; it’s used for managing chronic pain, etc. We cannot deny the fact that human brains and bodies benefit from meditation. Other faiths have adopted meditation and made it their own because it works! I’d like to encourage my fellow Christians not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” by rejecting this beneficial practice for fear of spiritual deception. With guidance, that need not be the case. The question isn’t should Christians meditate, but how. (Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:2; 4:4; 19:14; 49:3; 104:34; 119; Philippians 4:8).
“Whenever the Christian idea of meditation is taken seriously, there are those who assume it is synonymous with the concept of Eastern religions. In reality, the two ideas stand worlds apart. Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind.” – Richard Foster
Christian meditation is similar to other forms (breath, a mental focus on silence, posture, a repeated phrase, etc.), but it differs in many ways. According to Thomas Merton, the purpose of our meditation is not to deliver us from ordinary struggles and suffering of human existence, or to elevate us to a privileged spiritual state, untouched by matter or passion. In Christian meditation, we remain grounded in the incarnation, the cross, the Word. Centering Prayer is helpful because it places some boundaries around the expansive world of meditation to keep it within biblical parameters.
“We practice the spiritual disciplines to shape our nervous systems but with the goal of Love to bring us back to life” – Dr. Chris Hall
How do I do Centering Prayer?
I’ve adapted the following instruction from Contemplative Outreach (link below) and added in some of my own reflections. It’s suggested you begin with 20 to 30 minutes per day, twice a day! If you find that daunting (most do), carve out 20 minutes and give it a try:
- Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer. (Example: Jesus, Abba, Love, Peace, Silence, Trust, etc.)
- Sitting comfortably, with your back straight and eyes closed, settle your mind and your body. Take three full deep breaths and give yourself permission for the next 20 to 30 minutes to be nowhere else but fully present to God. When you’re ready, silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within. Focus your attention entirely to this silent communion.
- When your mind wanders, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. This is the only activity you initiate during the time of Centering Prayer. Intruding thoughts will be inevitable, and it’s normal for a large portion of your practice to involve taking “every thought captive”. This frustration is actually a part of the transformative process. (It helps me to lean into the moments of silence when they happen, presenting myself to God. I even have a timer; a bell sounds every two minutes to remind me to center my focus again.)
“We should not, however, judge the value of our meditation by ‘how we feel’. A hard and apparently fruitless meditation may in fact be much more valuable than one that is easy, happy, enlightened and apparently a big success.”
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes, bringing an atmosphere of silence into your everyday life.
Inward Contemplation has Outward Impact:
Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Prize winning anti-apartheid activist) is reported to have spent up to 6 or 7 hours per day in contemplative prayer practices requiring silence, solitude and liturgy. Tutu said if the government had been aware of how subversive this kind of prayer really was, they would have banned it. According to him, contemplative prayer played a large role in defeating apartheid. His life makes Richard Foster’s words ring just a bit deeper: “In fact, meditation is the one thing that can sufficiently redirect our lives, so we can deal with human life successfully.”
Lectio Divina (See Pt. 2) – Imagine someone you disciple opens up about her life. Instantly, all five of your senses heighten as you put yourself inside her story; listening attentively, aware of God’s presence and reflecting on how He wants to reveal Himself to you both.
Breath Prayer (See Pt. 3) – Imagine you’re teetering on the precipice of a fight with your spouse. You take a deep breath to calm yourself… and your body begins to automatically pray. Awareness follows… awareness of God with you as well as increased self-awareness.
Centering Prayer – Imagine you’re at the dinner table with relatives and politics come up. Every button inside you is triggered, but you also become aware of a quiet space within. If you lean into it, you have the capacity not to react, but to invite Holy Spirit to hover over the chaos of this meal time.
How we pray shapes how we live and how we extend God’s kingdom.
- Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton
- An Invitation to Silence and Solitude by Ruth Haley Barton
- Celebration of the Disciplines by Richard Foster
- Headspace app (basic training for meditation)
- Contemplative Outreach Centering Prayer Instructions
- Canlis, J. Lent to the Rescue: How this Ancient Practice can Rescue us from our Modern Obsessions [Audio podcast]. ↩
- Morgan, D. (2003). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse, Psychotherapy Research. (13:1, 123-125) ↩
- Levine et al. (2017). Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6(10). ↩
- Modesto-Lowe, V., Farahmand, P., Chaplin, M., & Sarro, L. (2015). Does mindfulness meditation improve attention in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? World Journal of Psychiatry, 5(4), 397-403. ↩