Centering Prayer is rooted in the word of God, both through Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. Anchored in four basic guidelines, the method is designed to facilitate the development of contemplative prayer by preparing you to receive it. Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; rather, it casts a new light and depth of meaning on them. The focus of Centering Prayer is Christ.
Centering Prayer is fundamentally two things at the same time: first, the deepening of your personal relationship with Christ; and second, a method of freeing you from obstacles that prevent faith, hope, and love from unfolding within you. It reduces the tendency for over-activity in prayer, and excessive dependence on concepts or ideas in order to think your way to God. In short, it allows you to become sensitive to the subtle inspirations of the Holy Spirit that lead to intimate relationship.
Centering Prayer is based on the wisdom of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount:”
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 reward you. —Matthew 6:6
The inner room is that place within you that is always accessible to you, wherever you are, whenever you choose to access it. The method and discipline of Centering Prayer teaches you to relax and open in this inner room. What happens in the inner room is a process of growing in “the deep knowledge of God” referred to in Colossians 1:11.
Through the method of Centering Prayer, this sacred relationship begins to unfold. First, you are invited into the inner room—the spiritual level of your being. This room is always available to you, because it is within you. It’s a place where you are not doing anything, but rather just being—resting in relationship with the Divine Indwelling. As you allow yourself to simply rest, you close the door to
the physical world; that is, you let go of your attachment to ordinary occupations—to the immediate environment, the people in your life, and your endless list of activities and distractions. You leave your interior dialogue outside the door—your thoughts, emotional reactions, and perceptions. You lower the curtains on all of your usual psychological imagery, preoccupations, and rationalizations so that finally, in this private place, you may even cease thinking about yourself.
In the inner room, you pray to your Father in secret—without words, but with intention. Seeing the intention of your heart in secret, the Father rewards you. This process continually unfolds: You open your heart, God reads your heart, and the relationship is deepened further. There is no effort required except your consent. In fact, the heart and soul of Centering Prayer is the act of consenting to God’s presence and action within.
Here are the four guidelines of the Centering Prayer method:
(1) Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
(2) Sitting comfortably 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 engaged with your 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.
Guideline #1: Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within
Before beginning Centering Prayer, you’ll need to choose your sacred word. This single word symbolizes your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. It is sacred not because of its inherent meaning, but because of the meaning you give it.
What makes an appropriate sacred word? There are no strict guidelines, but a word of one or two syllables is recommended in The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century contemplative Christian classic that was part of the inspiration behind the creation of Centering Prayer. The important thing to keep in mind is the intention the word carries for you—to consent to the presence of God. Examples of sacred words include:
Jesus Abba mercy yes trust peace love Mother Father
There isn’t a good word, a bad word, a better word, or a more sacred word. Remember, the sacred word is a symbol that expresses your intention to consent, so whatever word you choose is the right word for you. This becomes your grounding point during prayer when you are challenged by thoughts. You can gently return to your sacred word and reestablish your original intention to be with God as often as needed during your Centering Prayer time. That’s the simple purpose of the sacred word. It has no surprise meaning, no trick effect on your psyche, no profound stirring of the subconscious or the unconscious. It simply signifies your intention—that you are willing and open to be with God during the time of Centering Prayer.
Once you choose your sacred word, make a commitment to use it for a period of time. Many people choose a sacred word, and when they discover that their Centering Prayer period is filled with thoughts, they think that their chosen word isn’t “working” and move on to choosing a new word. Don’t get caught up in the misunderstanding that the word has some special power or that choosing the “right” word will propel your Centering Prayer to unimaginable depths. The sacred word is nothing more than the meaning you give to it. This doesn’t mean your sacred word won’t change over time. Most importantly, don’t change your sacred word in the middle of the Centering Prayer period. To do this would be to engage with thoughts, and cease the process of consenting.
Guideline #2: Sitting comfortably with eyes closed, settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
The second guideline helps you begin the formal period of Centering Prayer, and prepare your body and mind for the practice. Once you find the right posture, gently close your eyes as a symbol of letting go of everything around and within you. Then, begin to introduce the sacred word inwardly, as if you were gently laying a feather on a piece of soft cotton.
Notice that the gestures described in Guideline #2—a relaxed, receptive posture; closed eyes; and the introduction of the sacred word—are all symbolic acts of your intention to consent. By engaging in these acts, you lay the groundwork for the only activity that you will engage in during prayer—consenting to Christ’s presence within.
Guideline #3: When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
The third guideline helps you let go of thoughts and return to your commitment to consent throughout the Centering Prayer period. The word “thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including body sensations, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and even spiritual experiences. Thoughts are an inevitable, integral, and normal part of Centering Prayer. They aren’t thought of as “bad” or something to punish yourself for when they arise. By following this guideline, you are directed gently back to the activity of consent. The sacred word serves as a reminding gesture to let go of thoughts, to open, and to consent once again.
Notice that returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word indicates a minimum effort. There is no fighting or struggling, no judging or punishing. Returning to the sacred word is what we call “the return” and is the only activity you initiate on your own during the time of Centering Prayer. At times, the sacred word may become vague or even seem to disappear. Don’t worry; your intention is still there. Guideline #3 is a reminder to simply notice when you’ve become engaged with your thoughts and to return ever-so-gently to your sacred word.
Guideline #4: At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
This last movement in the method of Centering Prayer offers you a reverent and peaceful transition out of your Centering Prayer period. Think of Centering Prayer as your special time with God. After spending sacred time resting in God’s presence, it only seems natural to gently close that special time with a few moments of silence. This also enables you to gently bring the atmosphere of silence and stillness into the activity of your everyday life.
Understanding Centering Prayer
Before you begin your practice of Centering Prayer, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what Centering Prayer is and what it is not:
♣ It is not a “technique,” but instead a way of cultivating a relationship with God.
♣ It is not a relaxation exercise, though it may help you release stress and feel refreshed.
♣ It is not a form of self-hypnosis—it is a way to quiet the mind while maintaining its alertness.
♣ It is a path of transformation in and through Christ.
♣ It is an exercise of faith, hope, and selfless love.
♣ It is simply resting in God—beyond thoughts, emotions, sensations, or any felt experience of God.
The “Four Rs of Centering Prayer”
♣ Resist no thought: Don’t try to reach a state of no thoughts. Don’t push away thoughts. Don’t struggle against the thoughts that arise.
♣ Retain no thought: Don’t become attached or attracted to certain thoughts, however pleasant, inspired, or meaningful. Like boats on a river, simply let them float by.
♣ React emotionally to no thought: Don’t get attached to the positive or negative emotions that might arise during the prayer or to the positive or negative sensations in the body.
♣ Return ever-so-gently to the sacred word when engaged with your thoughts: When you realize that you are engaged to any one of the different kinds of thought, simply return to the sacred word without judgment or undue energy. This simple return to our intention to consent opens us to the indwelling presence of God.