One feature of contemplative Christianity is an embracing of Mystery – the notion that God is somehow bigger than words can convey; and a way of quiet, reverent, stillness in the presence of the Divine fosters encounter with this Divine mystery. The most common form of this is known as CENTERING PRAYER. It draws from practices from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing, and is inspired by Psalm 46:10 – “be still and know that I am God.” The Hebrew word רָפָה, transliterated into English as raphah, is translated in most English language versions of the Bible as “be still” – yet that’s arguably too passive. Instead, the word has a more commanding tone that demands an immediate and abrupt response: “Stop it! Drop it! Halt! Surrender! Leave me/us alone! Cease and desist!” Contemporary vernacular might word it as “Stand down!” “Attention!” “Wake up!” “Pay attention!” or even “Shut up!” …and know that I am God.“
Centering prayer is a deeply reverential and experiential silent practice that was originally a practice intended for monastics (monks and nuns) and clergy (priests) until the 1960s when Thomas Merton – aka Father Louis – began to share about his experiences of what he called contemplative prayer in his writings. Merton and his brother monks often engaged in it side by side the Vietnamese Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, and his fellow monks as they engaged in meditation. After years of shared practice and discussion, they concluded that they are doing the same thing and recognized one another as fellow monks and brothers – universal.
After Merton’s tragic death in 1968, and in response to the Vatican II call to revive certain contemplative teachings of early Christianity and offer them in contemporary expressions, three Trappists monks and Catholic priests in the U.S. – Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington, and Abbot Thomas Keating – introduced the practice widely to the laity of the Church, calling it “centering prayer.” This was an homage to Merton’s remark that it is a form of prayer that’s “centered entirely on the presence of God.” I will add that paradoxically, centering prayer helps us to discern more rightly who we truly are. According to the Hebrew scriptures, when God visited Moses in a burning bush, the Divine told Moses “I Am who I Am” and sent him to Pharaoh with, “Tell him I Am sent me to you.” With this in mind, and with the understanding that I am the space between my thoughts, Centering prayer is where “i am” meets “I Am.” This nods to the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush and invites us to drop into our essential selves, embracing our Imago Dei, and to meet the Divine with that within us that is divine. God is saying, “Namaste now let’s be with each other deeply and meaningfully.” Like the eastern practice of meditation, centering prayer isn’t about getting a spiritual high. As Chogyam Trungpa says, “Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility, nor is it attempting to be a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes.”
The centering prayer practice fosters favorable conditions for a heart-to-heart experience with Spirit, with the field of Love, with the Universe, with God. Again, you aren’t talking to God in this form of prayer, you’re being in God’s presence and letting God be in yours. While you don’t say anything, it’s allowed that God may well say something to you. This tends to be subtle and rare. It’s mostly being in silence, for 10-45 minutes. The story is told of how, now retired, CBS news anchor Dan Rather, once asked Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu what she said during her prayers. She answered: I listen. So, Dan turned the question and asked: Well, then, what does God say? Anjezë smiled with confidence and answered: He listens. For an instant, Dan didn’t know what to say. Anjezë added, “And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.” Spiritual teacher Adyashanti shares this insight:
“When we sit without a demand on this moment, without waiting for the next moment, without waiting to get it – whatever “it” is – when we are not waiting to get enlightened or to get love, peace, or a quiet mind, and when we stop demanding anything from ourselves – then the sacred opens up simply because there is no demand being made upon it.”
I’ll restate this more simply: Silence is God’s primary love language; contemplatives seek to become fluent in it. Centering prayer is the language lessons.
The practice involves the following steps: Sitting down and being still. Gently saying a chosen prayer word, quietly under your breath, to indicate your intention and willingness to rest still in God’s presence. The prayer word is a word that is simple, conveys the holy, is typically only 1-2 syllables, and works to help you to remember your intention to be with the Divine “Love, Spirit, God, Goddess, Abba, Ama, Presence,” etc. The period of time for a centering prayer session is generally 15-45 minutes. You simply sit, preferably with spine upright, shoulders relaxed, down and back, and jaw loose, and enjoy sharing some quiet, sacred time with God.
When, not if, thoughts and feelings start to appear in your mind, you don’t judge it or feel badly about it. You just notice that thoughts are showing up, and you remember your intention to not sit thinking (or feeling) about things – but to simply bask in God’s presence, to center yourself in the Divine. Rather than attacking a thought and trying to banish it, you acknowledge it with an inward smile – “thought” – then gently utter that same prayer word that you began the session with to invite yourself to simply being with God in silence once again. You repeat this over and over. In a 20-minute session you might find yourself saying that prayer word 20-200 times. There is a temptation to think that a session where you only say the prayer word a handful of times is better than one where you found yourself needing to say it closer to 1000 times. I was blessed to hear Fr. Keating speak when I lived in Colorado. At his funeral a few years ago, I heard someone remind us about how in response to centering prayer practitioners anxiously describing this, Fr. Keating would say, with much animated joy and delight, “How marvelous! A thousand chances to return to being centered in the presence of God!”
The practice isn’t rocket science. Again, it is simply choosing to sit still and be with the Divine for a chosen period of time; beginning by saying a prayer word; then being still in the presence of Spirit. When thoughts arise; notice them; perhaps try not to entertain them and know you don’t have to be a slave to those thoughts, you don’t have to be caught up in identifying with them and the feelings they evoke; and then when you remember your intention to sit still and be with Divinity, you gently say that prayer word again in your mind; and repeat as necessary. It’ll be necessary.
It often takes me a bit to really “drop in” to the practice, and I sometimes go off script for a minute, and pay attention to my breathing, 4 counts in… and 4 counts out… 6 counts in… 6 out…, etc. for about 15 breaths before I truly surrender to just being consciously present to Presence, to truly say the prayer word as needed and engage in true centering prayer. Similarly, after a centering prayer session, it is best to give yourself a couple of minutes to transition back into your “normal” mode of life. Some folks quietly say the Lord’s Prayer – “The Our Father” – under their breath as a means to facilitate that transition or return to noticing their breathing – in and out. An alternative might include memorizing and saying these words from the Jewish Talmud and the book of Micah, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” or these words from the Hindu Upanishads, “Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth; lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust; lead me from hate to love, from war to peace. Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe. Peace. Peace. Peace.”
In time, this practice will change your “normal” mode of life. You will likely notice a less anxious disposition and increased capacity to do things with intent and purpose instead of from habit, reaction, or irritation. I have observed that in the weeks where I am doing centering prayer on an almost daily basis, I feel far more grounded, calm, cool, and collected, and I think other people find me to be more open-minded, gracious, and easy to be with and relate to. I think their nervous systems are less on guard and they’re more relaxed and available to connecting – and sharing silence without anyone needing to fill the space with talking is increased. I’m less identified with my ego (and its various personality parts) and therefore less defensive and more open and expansive to truly living life. I notice that I enjoy my own company more, I like myself better, and I’m more prone to laugh at my follies, foibles, triggers, pet peeves, and hang-ups. I also feel less lonely when I’m by myself – as I more easily “feel/know” that I’m sharing life with, and in, God.
It should be noted that the prayer word isn’t a “mantra” as used in certain forms of meditation. You aren’t repeating the word over and over. You only utter it in your mind as often as you need to bring yourself back to centering in the presence of God. This practice is one which allows for the possibility, rare though it may be, that God will talk to you. But, unlike more conventional petitionary or intercessory forms of prayer, we aren’t talking to God, we aren’t thanking or asking God for anything. It’s metaphorically like sitting in the presence of a beloved grandparent with whom you don’t have to say a word. You just enjoy the heck out of being in each other’s presence, enjoying a time of sacred companionship on holy ground. Our presence is being present to presence – to the Presence. It’s a tapping into Source – an experience with the field of Love that surrounds us.
When your thoughts start racing, and worries appear, you aren’t having a “bad session of centering prayer.” God isn’t judging you or thinking less of you. Again, metaphorically, if a beloved grandparent is holding their infant grandchild in their lap, and that infant starts squirming or fussing, s/he doesn’t think less of the child, but simply loves them just as they are – however they happen to be showing up. That loving of us – just as we are – provides us with the love we need. All the love we need. It’s exactly what we need to settle down and to just be. To more and more be a human be-ing and less a human-doing. Again, keeping with our theme of fire, another analogy is apt. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement within Christianity, held that there is “an inner light” within each of us, like a small candle of divine light, and centering prayer is in sync with the Quaker tradition of nurturing that inner flame through simply being still in silence. It’s a way to tend our light and “trim our wick” in order to be the best light we can be in the world.
A Slice of Centering
Even though centering prayer is a simple practice, if it’s something that you’ve never done before, it might feel a bit awkward at first. It may be helpful to share about the inner workings of my heart and mind during the session I had earlier today. After two weeks of not being able to sit centered for more than 8-10 minutes at a time, I’ve been feeling busy and preoccupied lately, I had a sit that went close to 90 minutes. Again, 20-45 is the typical range, and even 10 minutes a day is plenty. I’ll provide an approximate “transcript” of portions of it:
I light a candle on a wooden stand in front of me (not required), then sit still in my chair facing it. I close my eyes and say, “Love.” A flood of thoughts race in… I’m behind on my writing. I’ve got that bill to pay to that car rental company… Wait. I’m supposed to be centering. “Love.” Some moments of silence and quiet mind… You really should pay that bill you know. If you don’t pay it within a 30-day window it’ll probably cost more. “Love.” Okay. Breathing in slowly for 4 counts, 1, 2, 3, 4; breathing out slowly for 4 counts, 1, 2, 3, 4. Breathing in for 4 counts… out for 4… In for 4, out for 4. In for 5, out for 5. In for 5 out for 5. In for 6.. out for 6… In for 6… out for 6… “Love.” Stillness for 40 seconds. What’s that sore spot I’m feeling in my butt? Ah walking all those stairs at that building downtown yesterday. That’s probably it. Or maybe I’m just getting old. I’ve been doing too much on the treadmill. My body needs me to workout less and rest more in between. Getting older sucks. ..That bill… “Love.” Stillness for 30 seconds. I hear a dog barking. Ah, that elderly couple down the hall must be down below in the parking lot with that little dog of theirs. I really should get to know them better. I’m not liking that I can’t even remember their names. “Love.” ….45 seconds of silence. I miss Holly. I wonder how she’s doing. I wonder if she’s done any meditating or centering prayer lately. I really do miss her. I can see her on her cushion with sunlight coming through the window. Dude, get over it. Wait… “Love.” 20 seconds of still mind. It’s too bad about Kobe Bryant and his daughter dying like that yesterday. Geez. What a way to go. And there were other people on that helicopter too – such a tragedy. …The scores in NBA games are out of control, always triple digits like 118-113. They oughta change the rules, the players are all really tall now and they haven’t raised the rim since the game was invented.. maybe they should raise the rim 4 inches and reduce the diameter of the hoops by a ¼ inch. That would change things up! …Oh. “Love.” 60 seconds of quiet mind. God! There you are! I am feeling you. I’m feeling you loving me despite my monkey mind. God this feels good. Thank you. Okay, I know… “Love.” 70 seconds of quiet mind and felt presence. I wonder if I’m gonna have time to write today. I’ve got that phone call coming up, and then another one later, and I should go for a run or move my body a bit sometime today. “Love.” … 4-5 minutes of something different… noticing colors, magical, like tie-died t-shirt colors woven into clouds of celestial smoke, overlaid by the geometric webbing of a phosphorescent onion bag that is in a constant state of motion and transformation… familiar…, yeah, this strange subtle field sometimes shows up… I look into one tiny speck of one of the colors… and whoosh… I feel connected to what seems to be this different reality that seems to underly all things… beautiful… wow… this. Fluorescent webbing, like a cosmic multi-color fishnet stocking, with curves, wormholes, fractals, and patterns, the longer I stare at one point, the sooner it becomes everything else…. Hmm. Are these smoky cosmic webbing colors God? Where does God end and I begin?… Wait… those are thoughts. I don’t need to be thinking now. I’m just here to center… “Love.” …. More cosmic color noticing, more bounteous beauty appreciating, increased sense of being in the presence of Presence, increased sense of well-being and that “all is well,” …more thinking about basketball, and that bill to pay…. more saying, “Love.”
It went on for around 90 minutes. I don’t think I had more than 3 or 4, four-to-five-minute periods where I felt truly dropped in and present and still. And there were many minutes (most of them) where I had, I mean “got,” to say my prayer word 3-6 times in those minutes. And then, at some point, I felt like the Divine and I had enjoyed enough of each other’s company, and I quietly uttered the Lord’s Prayer … silently at first, and then gradually whispering, and then very gently speaking… “…For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.” I blew out the candle, got up, and went on with my day. It is a good idea to set a timer for 10-20 minutes to help you sit for the time you intend to on any given day. I recommend having a chime alarm that starts out quietly and slowly builds up to ease the transition.
That bit where I shared about “noticing all the colors” rarely happens to me in centering prayer sessions that are less than 15 minutes – or even all that frequently in ones that are longer. It takes a while for me to truly settle, and until I do, I’m mostly just a twitchy, squirmy, monkey-minded thought machine – which is perfectly fine. It may be a bit like getting a runner’s high, something that doesn’t show up, if it does, until maybe at least 10 miles or so have been run. It’s best not to overstate or overthink this. It is right to say that Spirit meets each of us differently in ways that we each need. And, even when I do experience “the colors” – when I find myself thinking about it, I realize that I’ve deviated from centering prayer. So, I say my prayer word and go back to being centered. There may be a risk that by sharing things so matter-of-factly. I’m either mystifying or de-mystifying it, that I’m making it seem too pedestrian and ordinary, or too esoteric and woo-woo. But I think letting you see what’s behind the curtain, at least my curtain, helps normalize the sorts of things that may well happen for you. I think this transparency may help you to not get up from centering prayer too quickly thinking in your mind, “Gosh I’m thinking a lot! I must suck at this kind of contemplative prayer. I’m not holy enough, etc.” Yes, you are. Just as you are – monkey-mind and all. Besides, it’s more about God than it is about us. That said, centering prayer often helps us realize and experience our “divinity” – our sonship, our daughtership, our birthright – that we truly are loved and accepted children of God.
These words are an excerpt from Chapter 2 “Beauty of Broken Clocks,” in my soon to be released book “Discovering Fire: Spiritual Practices That Transform Lives.“ The book will be published by Quior April 4, 2023.
Here’s a video of me guiding a 14 minute Centering Prayer experience. Enjoy. (start at the 4:15 min mark)
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a certified Spiritual Director, United Methodist pastor, and serves on the Board of Directors of ProgressiveChristianity.Org. He is a contributing writer for the Progressing Spirit newsletter, and author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity
Discovering Fire: Spiritual Practices That Transform Lives, releases April 4 2023.
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Here’s a video of Roger leading another guided contemplative prayer experience – “Presence Prayer”
 “7503. raphah,” Bible Hub, accessed November 17, 2022, http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7503.htm
 Exod. 3:4-15, quoted from Bible Gateway, accessed November 17, 2022, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus%203&version=NIV
 aka Mother Teresa.
 Adyasanti, Emptiness Dancing, quoted by sunearthwater, “Trust, Faith, and Letting Go,” Rising Beyond, April 21, 2019, http://risingbeyond.blog/2019/04/21/trust-faith-and-letting-go
 My words, inspired by the words of St. John of the Cross, “God’s first language is silence,” as well as those of the recently departed Fr. Thomas Keating, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”
 Alan Moser, “History of Hymns: ‘The Lord’s Prayer’” Discipleship Ministries: The United Methodist Church, July 28, 2021, http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-the-lords-prayer