Centering prayer is a Christian contemplative practice, a form of meditation. While many contemplative practices involve putting your attention on something — counting, a mantra, the rosary, a guided visualization, or even just heightened awareness — centering prayer takes a gentler and more radical approach. As thoughts go by, you don’t label them, watch them or push them away. You simply let them go and re-surrender to the silence. Centering prayer cultivates and trains this gesture of surrender, through which we let go of our desire to control and manage and understand everything. While its goal is relationship with the divine, in this way it is also training for a life with more serenity, less anxiety — a useful antidote to this often ungrounded modern world.

The Roots of Centering Prayer

Centering prayer is rooted in a long history of Christian contemplative practices. Lectio divina, a method for listening to the word of God in scripture, is a traditional way of cultivating a relationship with God, and its contemplatio phase is part of the foundation of centering prayer. The example of Jesus in the Gospels, who often went off alone tos pend time in prayer, forms another part. Centering prayer is also inspired by classic writings of the Christian contemplative tradition, including the The Cloud of Unknowing, and the works of John Cassian, Symeon the New Theologian, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton.

As abbot of St. Joseph’s Abby in Spencer, Mass. in the 60s and 70s, Father Thomas Keating met many Christians turning to Eastern religions for contemplative work. He was frustrated that they didn’t know of the rich contemplative tradition in Christianity. Father William Menninger, his retreat master, derived the basic method of centering prayer from medieval monastic practices, and Father Basil Pennington built the group and workshop model. They borrowed the name “centering prayer” from Thomas Merton. In 1984, the first introductory workshop was held at St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue in New York City. In the early 90s, Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Anglican priest and Camaldolese Oblate who had worked closely with Fr. Thomas, began teaching centering prayer in Maine.

What happened?

For 1,600 years in the Christian tradition, prayer was understood to include formless contemplation. Starting in the 1200s and deepening in the 17th century, there was a shift towards scholasticism and rational study, away from the mystical and contemplative, until most Christians thought it something only for the odd mystic. Several orders never let up, among them: the Carthusians (featured in the film Into Great Silence); the Trappists, including both Fr. Thomas Merton and Fr. Thomas Keating, and the Camaldolese.