Centering Prayer – Be Still and Know that I Am God

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

When a desert abba once said, “Watching means to sit in your cell and be always mindful of God,” he could have been talking about Centering Prayer. An ancient practice that may lead to contemplation, Centering Prayer helps practitioners, through silence, learn to rest in God – and know God. It is stunningly simple.

Referenced as early as the 5th century by the monk John Cassian, Centering Prayer has its roots in the desert, where abbas and ammas withdrew from the roar and clamor of civilization to seek God in silence. Although contemplative prayer fell out of favor for a period of several centuries, it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past several decades.

Similar to meditation
“Centering Prayer is a way of being with God without words,” Benedictine Sister Audrey Cleary, retired St. Ambrose University Spirituality Center director, says. “It’s an opportunity to get out of your busy mind and into quiet, inner consciousness. By cultivating interior silence, you make space for God within you.”

In fact, Centering is very much like the eastern tradition of meditation, but the goal is different. The goal is contemplation, or union with the Divine. Although many paths lead to contemplation – prayers that employ silence, such as the Jesus Prayer and Lectio Divina, for example – Centering Prayer is extraordinary in its simplicity and appeal.

“Centering Prayer is a method of refining one’s intuitive faculties so that one can enter more easily into contemplative prayer,” Thomas Keating, OCSO, writes in his seminal book on the subject, Open Mind, Open Heart. “Centering Prayer as a discipline is designed to withdraw our attention from the ordinary flow of our thoughts. We tend to identify ourselves with that flow. But there is a deeper part of ourselves. This prayer opens our awareness to the spiritual level of our being.”

How to do it
To experience Centering Prayer, choose a quiet place and time of day. Sit comfortably, back straight. Begin by saying a short prayer first, to prepare yourself for this sacred time. Close your eyes and take up a sacred word – choose a one- or two-syllable word like Peace, or God – to signal your intention to withdraw from the everyday world and go into the deepest part of yourself. Thoughts will surface, but when they do, gently take up your word again and return to interior silence. Begin with 20 minutes at a time.

Don’t be disheartened by how many thoughts fill your head at first. By intending to rest in God, you allow God to take charge. In this way, Centering is radically different from any other form of prayer.

“In Centering Prayer, you consent to the presence of God and the action of God within you,” Benedictine Sister Catherine Cleary says. “You don’t say any words. You let go of thoughts, emotions, feelings, day dreams. This prayer is an act of will; it is not effort but consent. The will consents to God's presence, to grace. It consents to let God do the work.”

Closer than words
Benedictine Oblate Chris Kraft, Moline, likens Centering Prayer to an experience she had as a child. “My dad traveled most of each week for work,” she remembers. “When he was home, my mom would say, ‘Don’t bother your dad. He is tired.’ So I would crawl up on the side of his armchair and sit with him not speaking. He would acknowledge my presence by putting his arm around me and allowing me to nestle inside as he continued to read. I rested in his presence. No words.

“There are so many times that I cannot find adequate words to pray,” she continues. “Centering Prayer is a method of prayer that moves beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him. The silence of Centering Prayer draws me closer than words. I am blessed with grace that makes me more aware of the Divine Indwelling.”

Illinois Contemplative Outreach Coordinator Florrie Dammers says Centering Prayer is available to everyone. “Some people may feel called to Centering Prayer at a certain point in their spiritual journey,” she says. “They may experience a desire for silence or solitude, or find that their current methods of prayer are no longer satisfying. However, we are all called to deep intimacy with God. Centering Prayer, as a preparation for the gift of contemplation, helps us move into that intimacy.”

As two friends sitting in silence
Centering Prayer can represent a particularly compelling practice for those who are ready to take another step on their spiritual journey. Sometimes that readiness is expressed by a sense of restlessness, sometimes by a growing feeling that the familiar prayers – the Rosary, say, or word prayers – are no longer enough.

“People have come to me in spiritual direction to ask, What can I do? I feel like these prayers aren’t working anymore,” Sr. Catherine says. “They may be feeling a need and readiness to deepen their relationship with God. Centering Prayer is a good way to do that.”

Don’t look for results, however. Although you may feel relaxed or energized afterwards, that’s not the point. Centering Prayer is, as Keating says, a “very gentle kind of activity” designed to open yourself to God.

“Do not want to achieve something,” he writes. “This is the aim of the future. Centering Prayer is designed to bring you into the present. Allowing ordinary thoughts to pass by, while waiting without expectation, is sufficient activity. … (View it as) two friends sitting in silence, simply being in each other’s presence.”

An expectation of results aside, those who practice Centering regularly do seem to have a quiet peace about them. Ask them why, and they use the word relationship.

“I have grown in my relationship with God,” Kraft says. “Many times I find myself being more Christ-like than Chris-like in my daily life and interactions. The practice of centering prayer has been such a blessing in my life.”

And for others. As Sr. Catherine points out, Centering Prayer is not just a prayer "for God and me. It draws one to greater love of neighbor, greater awareness of the world, and a growing desire to help change where change is needed."