Centering Prayer and Deep Formation in Christ

Brian D. Russell

“In a revealed religion, silence with God has a value in itself and for its own sake, just because God is God. Failure to recognize the value of merely being with God, as the beloved, without doing anything, is to gouge the heart out of Christianity.” (Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church and Mankind [Paulist Press], 118)

The practice of centering prayer changed my life. In a dark time, I discovered the power of silence. Or more truthfully the silence discovered me. Sitting in silence before God brought me back from the brink of deconstruction and awakened me to the depths of God’s unconditional love previously unknown to me. Over the last decade or so, those closest to me have witnessed positive transformations as God has used my time in silent meditative prayer to help me grow even deeper in love for God, neighbor, and self.

I first learned about centering prayer in my mid-40s. The old proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” captures the moment well. In the spring of 2011, I was in the midst of a painful divorce after twenty years of marriage. My emotions were in tatters. My faith was hanging on by a thread. Fear gripped me. I wondered if I’d lose my job as well as daily contact with my daughters. Stress and anxiety kept me wired enough that sleep was difficult.

One day, during a phone conversation with a friend, he told me that I sounded as though I were losing my mind. I always talk rapidly but that day I was in hyper-drive. Hearing the concern in my friend’s voice prompted me immediately to go outside and take a walk. Fortunately, it’s beautiful in central Florida during the spring. I headed out without an iPod. It was just me and my thoughts. As I walked along the sidewalk through my neighborhood where I’d walked many times before, something happened that changed the trajectory of my life. I heard a bird singing.

The sound broke the thought loops that had me walking in a trance-like state. I looked up and time froze for a moment. I noticed the sheer beauty of the flowering tree where the bird perched. I experienced a peaceful stillness as my soul quieted momentarily. In the silence, I sensed God’s love in a new way. I also perceived inwardly that God’s love was enough for me and that there was enough abundance in the world to get me through my time of darkness. I look back on this moment as my initiation and invitation to embrace silence and solitude practices.

Soon thereafter another friend introduced me to centering prayer. I’ve been sitting daily in silence ever since. By 2018, I began a series of reflections on what I had learned in silence and this body of writing slowly grew into what became Centering Prayer: Sitting Quietly in God’s Presence Can Change Your Life (Paraclete Press, 2021).

What Is Centering Prayer?

If you are unfamiliar with centering prayer, it is best described as a type of silent meditative prayer. It is prayer without words, thoughts, feelings, or images. It doesn’t replace the need for regular types of prayers. Its principal human component involves our sitting in silence with the sole intention of surrendering our thought loops to God and a willingness to abide quietly and openhanded in the presence of the Triune God who created us and loves us. We’ll get more specific about the “how-to’s” of centering prayer shortly.

Centering prayer as a contemplative practice dates to the early 1970s when three Trappist monks—Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Menninger—began to teach a method of silent prayer that could be used by priests and laypeople outside of a monastic setting. But the foundations of centering prayer are ancient and find their origins in the silence and solitude practices of the fathers and mothers of the desert traditions. Keating, Pennington, and Menninger also drew on the writings of later medieval Christian mysticism, including the works of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, as well as on their close contemporary Thomas Merton. According to contemplative outreach, the practice is named centering prayer after Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer as being “centered entirely on the presence of God.”

How to Practice Centering Prayer

Centering prayer is a type of silent meditative prayer. To begin, set your intention to sit silently and wait for God. The biggest impediment to the silence will be your thought stream. You’ll find yourself constantly distracted, interrupted, or even disturbed by your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Our only action is to surrender whatever captures our attention to God. The goal is to sit in silence with God and perhaps, God willing, to experience the real presence of God apart from your conscious thoughts. The experience of God’s presence praying within us is called contemplative prayer. However, we cannot control whether we experience God’s presence. It is always God’s gift to us. Our part is to show up and surrender whatever distracts us from waiting on God.

To facilitate centering prayer, choose a short prayer word. We will use it to recenter whenever we become enamored with the tapes playing inside our minds. I encourage practitioners to use “Jesus” or “Father” or “Spirit.” The prayer word is not a mantra that is rapidly repeated. Rather it serves as a way of breaking up the thought loops in our minds whenever we realize that we are lost in a thought. The surrendering of our thoughts (whether they be profound, beautiful, mundane, or difficult) is our sole contribution. God does the rest.

Within the Christian tradition, centering prayer involves a journey on the via negativa. It rests on the foundations of the beliefs and images of the Christian faith as established through Scripture, the Rule of Faith, the sacraments, and the other ordinary means of grace. But as part of the via negativa, centering prayer has a purifying function. It strips away idolatrous ideas about God and illusions about the self. As Wesleyan Christians, we confess that God is holy love. God is a purifying light that illuminates the darkness and unconditional love. I’ve found that my time in centering prayer has made visceral my understanding and experience of God. As I wrote in Centering Prayer,

[F]or too long the God I’ve worshiped has been more a construct in my mind than the lover of my soul and the object of my own soul’s affection. I’m not confessing the harboring of some heretical belief. I’m not suggesting that I’ve lived in rebellion against God. I’m simply sharing the growing edge of my spiritual life. As I’ve grown in grace in recent years, I’ve experienced new depths of God’s love for me. Sensing God’s love for me has been so transformational that it almost feels as though I’ve experienced conversion all over again. (7)

The work of God’s Spirit in the silence strips away ideology and superstition. It becomes more difficult to make God an object rather than the subject. Through centering prayer, God unites our head, heart, and hands into an instrument through which God prays love into us and ultimately into others through us.

Some Simple Instructions

  • Set a timer for fifteen to twenty minutes. The precise time is less important than your intention to be in silence for a season. Thomas Keating suggested a baseline of twenty minutes, but you can start with three to five minutes. Or you can stay in silence for as long as you have time. My advice is to honor your commitment using whatever time is available.
  • Sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and be still.
  • Whenever you find yourself lost in a thought, silently utter your prayer word to gently return to the silence. You will likely use your prayer word multiple if not dozens of times during a session. It is not a mantra to be repeated mindlessly. You use it whenever you become aware that you have become too attached to a narrative or film running in your head.

Centering Prayer and Our Thoughts: The Four R’s

The four R’s are the classic advice to practitioners of centering prayer on how to think about and surrender our thoughts while in silent prayer. They go back to Thomas Keating. They are reminders of what to do when we recognize that we are in a stream or loop of thoughts.

  • Resist no thought.
  • Retain no thought.
  • React to no thought.
  • Return ever so gently to Jesus with our prayer word.

The Four R’s are full of wisdom. They assist us in operationalizing the core principles of centering prayer—the surrender of our thoughts and our return to the intention to sit in silence before God. We cannot control our thoughts. They may be beautiful. They may be embarrassing. They may be random. They may be traumatic. Regardless, when we recognize that they’ve grabbed our attention, we release them and return to the silence with our sacred word.

  • Resist no thought. Recognize that we spend most of our days lost in loops of thought. Our minds bounce endlessly from one thought to another as if we live in a trance. Buddhists call this the “monkey mind.” To practice centering prayer does not mean fighting against thinking. The goal is not to erase our minds. This is impossible. You will likely have hundreds of thoughts during a centering prayer session. The key is recognizing when this happens and then surrendering anew. This leads to the next “R.”
  • Retain no thought. During centering prayer, we release our thoughts whenever we find ourselves paying attention to one without allowing it simply to float through our awareness. It’s fairly easy to let go if it’s a random thought about dinner or about a sound from outside. But, if we generate a helpful solution to a problem we’ve struggled with or have an idea for a sermon, it is harder to let go. But let go we must. Good or bad or neutral, we surrender each thought and return to the silence.
  • React to no thought. Thoughts are just thoughts. We have little control over what moves into our conscious mind. We may encounter beautiful thoughts or disturbing ones. A painful memory may emerge from the depths of our souls. We may get caught up in a fantasy. Regardless, the practice of centering prayer involves our commitment to make no judgments regarding our thoughts. Instead, we release them to God.
  • Return ever so gently to the sacred word. The elegance of centering prayer is its simplicity. It’s all about our intention to spend time with God in silence. The sacred word serves as a means of breaking our attention to thoughts, words, images, and feelings so that we can return to the silence.

The Deep Healing of Centering Prayer

Let me give an additional warning about not reacting to a thought. The thoughts most likely to incite a negative reaction are those carrying trauma, guilt, shame, and fear. Evagrius Ponticus (5th century) recorded eight evil thoughts that he observed in himself and in the early monastics under his supervision. These evil thoughts are greed, gluttony, lust, anger, sloth, sadness, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius’s list became one of the foundations of the “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Read over the list again. If you spend enough time in silence and solitude, you will be confronted by several if not all of these desires. They are common to all of us but lay buried often in our unconscious. They are the hurt and disordered parts of ourselves. They are the result of our inward bent to sin. When we become aware of these types of disordered desires, our tendency is to run and hide as Adam and Eve did in the garden (Gen 3). But remember God’s word to his lost image bearers: “Where are you?” When we encounter the broken parts of ourselves in silence, we must not run or even try to deny these aspects. Instead, we hand them over to the God who loves us through their conscious surrender with our prayer word. The good news is that the Spirit’s ongoing work of sanctification slowly roots out these dark crevices inside of us. Over time I’ve seen the darkness hiding within my cold heart slowly being brought into God’s healing light and replaced piece by piece with a warm love for God, neighbor, and even myself. This is the deep work that has changed me. I’m pretty sure God can do the same for you if you are willing to risk a posture of surrender in silent meditative prayer.

The Missional Formational Possibilities of Centering Prayer

The pandemic has demonstrated the need for the Christian spiritual formation tradition. Now is a real moment for the church to help its members find renewal as well as offer spiritual depth to a world desperate for the peace, healing, and justice that only God can provide.

Christ-followers have an open door to the culture through spiritual practices such as centering prayer. Reintroducing silent meditative prayer provides the church a moment to dust off millennia-old Christian practices and begin offering them to believers and seekers. The wider culture is looking for spiritual depth. Our divided world longs for practices that tangibly transform men and women. Christians today struggle with meaning and hunger for more of God’s love and grace. The church already has these resources. What would it look like if churches offered group weekly centering prayer sessions and even weekend spiritual retreats that teach centering prayer as well as contemplative approaches to Scripture like lectio divina?

Thank you for the privilege of sharing my experience and understanding of centering prayer with you. Let me end with this challenge. Experiment with centering prayer (or some other contemplative practice) for the next thirty days. Be consistent. But be careful—it may just change your life too!

Posted Nov 09, 2022