The Recovery of Christian Contemplation

Centering Prayer

The Recovery of Christian Contemplation
Sunday, February 12, 2017

There are numerous forms of contemplative prayer. Each Saturday, following the summary of the week’s meditations, I introduce a new “Practice” that I invite you to try. I also hope you’ll sink your roots deeply into one particular practice for a long period of time. Only by practicing daily, allowing contemplation to reveal our habitual and egoic thoughts, can our minds be re-wired so that contemplation becomes a way of life more than a momentary state of consciousness.

This week Cynthia Bourgeault, a member of CAC’s core faculty, explores the unique method of Centering Prayer in depth, beginning with its origins.

Centering Prayer, along with its sister discipline Christian Meditation, made its appearance in the modern Christian world in the mid-1970s. As early as the 1960s, Thomas Merton was writing books calling for a recovery of Christian contemplative prayer not only within the monastery but beyond it. Thomas Keating and John Main responded to Merton’s prophetic call, developing simple meditation methods solidly rooted in the Christian spiritual tradition and suitable for use not only within the cloister walls, but in a world hungry for the recovery of its spiritual roots. All three of these men recognized meditation not as a newfangled innovation, let alone the grafting onto Christianity of an Eastern practice, but rather, as something that had originally been at the very center of Christian practice and had become lost.

In the case of Centering Prayer, Thomas Keating noticed the number of young people in the 1960s who had been raised Christian and were flocking to Eastern traditions in order to find a “path”—a meditation-based practice that actually changes the way you perceive reality and live your life. Frustrated, Keating issued a challenge to his Cistercian monastic community: “Is it not possible to put the essence of the Christian contemplative path into a meditation method accessible to modern people living in the world?” One of the monks, Father William Meninger (the official “founder” of the method of Centering Prayer), took Keating up on the challenge. In his well-thumbed copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century spiritual classic by an anonymous English monk, Meninger found the following instructions:

[Lift] up your heart toward God with a meek stirring of love. . . . For a naked intent direct to God is sufficient without anything else.

And if you desire to have this aim concentrated and expressed in one word in order that you might be better able to grasp it, take but one short word of a single syllable . . . and clasp this word tightly in your heart so that it never leaves no matter what may happen. [1]

This became the cornerstone of what was first called “Prayer of the Cloud,” but “Centering Prayer,” originally coined by Thomas Merton, seemed to offer a more inviting description. The practice caught on, particularly among lay retreatants, and has grown steadily ever since. [2]

Gateway to Silence:
Return to God.

References:
[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, introductory commentary and translation by Ira Progoff (New York: Delta Books, 1957), 76.
[2] Contemplative Outreach, an international network founded by Fathers Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington, provides opportunities for the teaching and practice of Centering Prayer. Learn more at contemplativeoutreach.org.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications: 2004), 55-58.

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