When I signed up for a workshop on centering prayer, I was hesitant. Unfamiliar with the practice, I wasn’t sure how to think about it.
During the workshop, I listened: “Sit in a comfortable seated position. Choose a sacred word. Close your eyes, and repeat the sacred word. If your mind has thoughts, just let them drift away.” Even though I heard that centering prayer comes from ancient Christian practices like lectio divina, it sounded eerily like meditation with “God” thrown in a few times. My body tensed and walls went up.
Throughout my life I had been told by extended family and by my church community that meditation was evil; at the same time, meditation was part of my life at an early age.
When I was five years old, I met my first meditation teacher. (My dad had been meditating since he was a teenager and he introduced me to a meditation instructor in order to share the practice with me.) After a few sessions, my teacher gave me my first mantra, a word that is repeated during meditation until it disappears. I could now be like my dad — he disappeared for 20 minutes twice a day, to the garage apartment behind the house we shared with my grandparents.
As only a child does, I absorbed the tense words and sharp glances coming from my grandparents when my dad went to the garage to meditate. Eventually I learned the reason for these garage trips: my grandparents did not want him to meditate in the house. Meditation was sinful, “of the devil,” and would not be tolerated in a Christian home. We were to meditate on the Word of God, not sit quietly opening up our minds to evil influences.
Even as I joined my father in the practice of meditation, I continued to question it with friends at my Christian school and later with friends and mentors at church. They seemed to consider anything that requires you to still your mind and body an opening for evil. Because of this, I stopped my daily practice of meditation. By the time I sat in the workshop on centering prayer years later, meditation had taken its place under the category “evil.”
Despite my strong reservations about centering prayer, I listened. The inner and outer actions of centering prayer are essentially what I was taught with meditation, with one major difference. The goal of centering prayer, I learned, is to commune with God: to open yourself up to God’s voice, which is hard to hear when your mind is running one hundred miles per hour. Despite what I had thought I knew, I learned that silence is a primary language of God. That was the piece I was missing when I first learned how to meditate.
I returned to the workshop the next day with an open mind. We practiced centering prayer together in the room. Nothing magical happened, but the fear that meditation was evil began to dissipate.
As I researched centering prayer, I found answers to the questions troubling me. Because the practice seemed the same as meditation, I needed help to understand how it could deepen my relationship with God. When I practiced meditation, I was fearful of what I was opening myself up to, without actually ever inviting God into it. With centering prayer, I was reminded to invite God in.
Centering prayer has now become a new practice in my life. I tend towards anxiety, and praying my concerns to God in the traditional form of prayer sometimes makes me more anxious. With centering prayer, I release my concerns to God without talking through all of them and invite him to fill me with his love.
I’ve found centering prayer to be a discipline I turn to often, especially when I’m busy, exhausted, anxious, or worried. The more I practice it, the more I long for it. Through centering prayer, I grow closer to God in silence and am reminded of his abiding presence. Before centering prayer, I’d go months without feeling like God was active in my life; now I am able to notice him more often. As I experience my first year of graduate school, centering prayer reminds me that God speaks in the silences. Through it, I am able to better release my concerns to him.
Centering prayer has been called the “Prayer of Consent” by Thomas Keating since we consent to being open and available to God when we practice it. In a time when so many are multitasking and frantic, this practice draws us back to God, stilling our minds and helping us to connect with him more deeply. The Center for Contemplative Outreach describes centering prayer as “a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.” It is not only or even in the moments of centering prayer that we feel closer to God, but in the time afterwards as well.
You don’t need to attend a workshop to learn how to practice centering prayer. It can be done any time. Twenty minutes is recommended, but you can shorten or lengthen the time depending on your needs. You can practice it alone or in a group. If in a group, read a passage of Scripture or a spiritual quote together before beginning.
To practice centering prayer (adapted from Contemplative Outreach):
- Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and work within you. You might try God, Jesus, Abba, love, peace, stillness, or something else.
- One- or two-syllable words work best since they are less distracting.
- Start your session by reading a line of Scripture.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and silently introduce the sacred word.
- When thoughts come to mind, return gently to the sacred word.
- When the time is up, remain in silence for a few more minutes. You may wish to read a passage of Scripture or worship God through song or prayer.
Don’t worry about whether or not you are praying properly. Thoughts may arise while you are praying — you may receive insights from God or you may be reminded that you need to go to the grocery store. Either way, avoid analyzing the thoughts, and return to your sacred word. May your time of centering prayer deepen your communion with God as you practice.
“Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
Recommended resources for continued study:
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating