The Method of Centering Prayer

For those who could not join us at the park for worship, here is one of five spiritual exercises used this past Sunday to draw us close to God.

Centering Prayer is a method of prayer, which prepares us to receive the gift of God’s presence, traditionally called contemplative prayer. It consists of responding to the Spirit of Christ by consenting to God’s presence and action within. It furthers the development of contemplative prayer by quieting our faculties to cooperate with the gift of God’s presence.

Centering Prayer facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. It emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God. At the same time, it is a discipline to foster and serve this relationship by a regular, daily practice of prayer. It is Trinitarian in its source, Christ-centered in its focus, and ecclesial in its effects; that is, it builds communities of faith.

Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient prayer practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, Lectio Divina, (praying the scriptures), The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.. It was distilled into a simple method of prayer in the 1970’s by three Trappist monks, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist Abbey, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.

The Guidelines

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  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.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Explanation of the Guidelines   

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.”

  • The sacred word expresses our intention to be in God’s presence and to yield to the divine action.
  • The sacred word should be chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable for us.
  • Examples: Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother (Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Shalom)
  • Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period, for that would be to start thinking again.
  • A simple inward gaze upon God may be more suitable for some persons than the sacred word. In this case, one consents to God’s presence and action by turning inwardly toward God as if gazing upon him. The same guidelines apply to the sacred gaze as to the sacred word.

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.”

  • By “sitting comfortably” is meant relatively comfortably; not so comfortably that we encourage sleep, but sitting comfortably enough to avoid thinking about the discomfort of our bodies during this time of prayer.
  • Whatever sitting position we choose, we keep the back straight.
  • If we fall asleep, we continue the prayer for a few minutes upon awakening if we can spare the time.
  • Praying in this way after a main meal encourages drowsiness. Better to wait an hour at least before Centering Prayer. Praying in this way just before retiring may disturb one’s sleep pattern.
  • We close our eyes to let go of what is going on around and within us.
  • We introduce the sacred word inwardly and as gently as laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.

3. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

  • “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, reflections, and commentaries.
  • Thoughts are a normal part of Centering Prayer.
  • By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word”, a minimum of effort is indicated. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.
  • During the course of our prayer, the sacred word may become vague or even disappear.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.”

  •  If this prayer is done in a group, the leader may slowly recite the Lord’s Prayer during the additional 2 or 3 minutes, while the others listen.
  • The additional 2 or 3 minutes give the psyche time to readjust to the external senses and enable us to bring the atmosphere of silence into daily life.

Some Practical Points

  • The minimum time for this prayer is 20 minutes. Two periods are recommended each day, one first thing in the morning, and one in the afternoon or early evening.
  • The end of the prayer period can be indicated by a timer, providing it does not have an audible tick or loud sound when it goes off
  • The principal effects of Centering Prayer are experienced in daily life, not in the period of Centering Prayer itself.

Physical Symptoms:

  • We may notice slight pains, itches, or twitches in various parts of the body or a generalized restlessness. These are usually due to the untying of emotional knots in the body.
  • We may also notice heaviness or lightness in the extremities. This is usually due to a deep level of spiritual attentiveness.
  • In either case, we pay no attention, or we allow the mind to rest briefly in the sensation, and then return to the sacred word.
  • A support group praying and sharing together once a week helps maintain one’s commitment to the prayer.

Points for Further Development

  • During the prayer period various kinds of thoughts may be distinguished.
    • Ordinary wanderings of the imagination or memory.
    • Thoughts that give rise to attractions or aversions.
    • Insights and psychological breakthroughs.
    • Self-reflections such as, “How am I doing?” or, “This peace is just great!”
    • Thoughts that arise from the unloading of the unconscious.
  • During this prayer, we avoid analyzing our experience, harboring expectations or aiming at some specific goal such as:
    • Repeating the sacred word continuously
    • Having no thoughts.
    • Making the mind a blank.
    • Feeling peaceful or consoled.
    • Achieving a spiritual experience.

What Centering Prayer is not:   

  • It is not a technique.
  • It is not a relaxation exercise.
  • It is not a form of self-hypnosis.
  • It is not a charismatic gift.
  • It is not a para-psychological phenomenon.
  • It is not limited to the “felt” presence of God.
  • It is not discursive meditation or affective prayer

 

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