For a little more than a month now, I’ve been in one of those limbos we fall into when we’re waiting for a biopsy. Now the surgery is scheduled — finally! — for next week. But it’s had quite an effect on my prayer life, and I’m practicing something I call “emergency room spirituality” (like a civilian version of foxhole spirituality). Instead of a reflective stroll through lectio divina or Ignatian contemplation, I’m down to praying for trust and acceptance — I journaled about it HERE. Trust in my doctors, trust that whatever they find will be treatable. And acceptance of the uncertainty that comes with waiting.

So my ears perked up when I read Fr. James Martin’s explanation of something called centering prayer. As he explains it in Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone (New York: HarperOne, 2021), it’s very simple. Basically you just repeat a “prayer word like ‘love,’ ‘mercy,’ or ‘God’ to help you focus.” Over and over again. Not exactly a mantra. But (at least in my non-expert opinion) close enough.

“Centering prayer moves us to our center,” says Martin, “where God dwells, waiting to meet us. […] As you would expect with this form of prayer, it’s simple and straightforward.”

Simple and straighforward is exactly what I’m looking for at the moment!

To use Martin’s word, centering prayer isn’t as “content-heavy” as lectio or Ignatian contemplation, and it has points in common with “Zen Buddhism, transcendental mediation, or yoga.” That means the practice can be controversial in some quarters, where it’s seen as New Age-y, but as a self-identified “Zen Lutheran,” I perked up again when I read it in Wikipedia’s article at:

Wikipedia has long been my summa theologica, my summary of all knowledge on matters theological — and just about everything else. So when Wikipedia cited psychological research “indicating that it may be helpful for women receiving chemotherapy, and that it may help congregants experience a more collaborative relationship with God, as well as reduced stress,” my ears really perked up.

Centering prayer was developed in the 1970s by Abbot Thomas Keating, OCSO, and other Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., but it has its roots in Christian practice going back to the Fathers and Mothers of the early Church. (OCSO, by the way, refers not to a Midwestern drugstore chain but to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, aka the Trappists.) Fr. M. Basil Pennington of St. Joseph’s suggests these steps for centering prayer:

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

There’s more to it than that. A lot more. And I only read about it Saturday night, so I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. But it seems to work, and normally I’m about as meditative and contemplative as a cocker spaniel puppy. Trust me on this.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not doing it right. (Fr. Martin is big on the idea “there is no ‘right’ way to pray,” and I take heart in that.) And I intend to learn more about this kind of prayer and meditation. But I’m finding that at least focusing on a sacred word — mine at the moment is “trust” — keeps my mind from concocting worst-case scenarios. If nothing else, I’m getting back to sleep when I wake up at 3 in the morning.

And I think maybe I’m feeling a little more trusting of life in general.

Not to mention trusting the whole idea of centering prayer. I tend to over-intellectualize and chatter on when my time might be better spent thinking — or doing. A Trappist meditation developed by people who have a high regard for contemplative silence might just do me good.

Quoting from another essay of Pennington’s, Martin says his method “combines what we might think of as the first and last steps, how we begin and how we end the prayer.” I think of it as an intro and outro, and Pennington describes it like this:

At the beginning of the prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith and love to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the Our Father.

Faith is fundamental to the process. “When you move to the center,” Martin says in Learning to Pray, “you trust that you’re moving toward the God who is nearer to you than you are to yourself.”

Trust. There’s that word again.

So I’ve been scouring the internet for material on centering prayer, printing out some of it and pledging to keep reading — and, more important, to keep finding time to quiet myself and keep repeating “trust” as I breathe in and out. Rather than trying to pontificate about something that’s so new to me, I’ll just close with a couple of quotes from my reading so far that spoke to me — copied here so I won’t forget them — and some links I want to follow up on.

From Keating’s obituary in the National Catholic Reporter Oct. 26, 2018:

Fr. Carl Arico, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, also helped found Contemplative Outreach, and has done extensive teaching and outreach with contemplative prayer forms.

The priest told NCR a key insight he gained from Keating, whom he had known since 1969: Centering prayer “is more heartfulness rather than mindfulness. It is rooted in the Christian tradition, which emphasizes the relationship with Christ which is its source.” [Link in the original.]

I like that word: Heartfulness.

From a November 2018 article on the America magazine website by Tim Shiver, co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and chair of Special Olympics, writing shortly after Keating’s death:

I was lucky to spend an hour with Father Keating two months before his death. In our last conversation, he emphasized trust. He heard my confession and stopped me when I said I was struggling to trust in these times of fear and violence and division. “Focus on trust,” he said. “When you trust that we are all part of something beautiful beyond our wildest imagination, you will find healing.”

As we neared the end of our time, he gave me an instruction in prayer: “Keep returning to silence. It’s God’s first language, and everything else is a poor translation. And say just one Hail Mary, but say it slowly so you can feel the unconditional trust that made it possible for Mary to allow God’s love to take over her life…. Meet her and understand her model of trust in God and let her heal you.”

I left him moments later. “Til we meet again” were his final words to me, yet another expression of a man who trusted in the totality of God’s love and who taught prayer as an act of surrender, an act of presence, an act of love. Have the audacity to trust that we all belong to God: It may seem like an unlikely call to action in 2018, but it may be the only call that can start the healing in our divisive and fearful times.

There’s that word again.

From an article for the Copper Beach Institute newsletter, West Hartford, Conn., by the Rev. Lindsay Boyer, an Episcopal priest and adjunct professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary:

[…] I have found that God’s presence can often best be evoked with a minimum of God language, or sometimes no language at all. By teaching Centering Prayer I offer the gift of God’s silence, which speaks directly to the heart. 

On my own journey I have sometimes needed to give myself permission to let go of aspects of my faith in order to discover what I really believe. Questions, doubts and struggles are roads that lead deeper. At one point I found it helpful to describe myself as a Christian with a Buddhist practice. Today when I teach Centering Prayer, I try to welcome everyone, Buddhists attracted to Jesus’ teaching, atheists tormented by the presence of God, Christians who dislike Christianity, as well as those who find Christian faith and worship deeply satisfying. Together we listen in the silence for a voice that calls us without words. 

Boyer has quite an online presence; she teaches digital media at General Theological Seminary and once “chanted daily passages from the New York Times interspersed with passages from the psalms at News of the World Lectio Divina[the link is hers, and it really intrigues me]. 

From the Wikipedia article on Thomas Keating, quoting a 1993 article in which “Keating suggests that Jesus describes a panentheistic rather than pantheistic view of God” [links and citation in the original]:

Pantheism is usually defined as the identification of God with creation in such a way that the two are indistinguishable. Panentheism means that God is present in all creation by virtue of his omnipresence and omnipotence, sustaining every creature in being without being identified with any creature. The latter understanding is what Jesus seems to have been describing when he prays “that all might be one, Father, as we are one” and “that they may also be in us” (John 17:22). Again and again, in the Last Supper discourse, he speaks of this oneness and his intentions to send his Spirit to dwell within us. If we understand the writings of the great mystics rightly, they experience God living within them all the time. Thus the affirmation of God’s transcendence must always be balanced by the affirmation of his imminence both on the natural plane and on the plane of grace.[6]

A couple of points from Jim Martin’s Learning to Pray that didn’t fit into the discussion above:

  • Martin says creative prayer can be controversial with self-identified conservatives. But it has much in common with the negative way of Christian mystics threough the millennia. Even St. Ignatius describes a practice that, “at least in its technique, sounds similar to Zen meditation as well as centering prayer.” Ignatius calls it the “third method,” and it centers on breathing rather than a prayer word. [My link — see references below.]
  • Adds Martin: “Other Christians see centering prayer as suspect, because it’s seen as dangerously close to Zen Buddhism and other Eastern practices. (The misguided idea that Christians couldn’t learn anything from Eastern spiritualities used to be a great source of frustration for Thomas Merton.) But the more I read about centering prayer, the more foolish my objections became — for the idea of God dwelling within us is a foundational Christian belief.”

Links and Resources

Lindsay Boyer, “Centering Prayer and My Faith Journey: Listening for the Voice That Calls Without Words,” Copper Beach Institute newsletter, 2014; rpt. Boyer’s website at

Marina Berzins McCoy, “The Third Method of Prayer,”, Loyola Press, Chicago

James Martin, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone (New York: HarperOne, 2021), 274-83; and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (New York HarperOne, 2010), 162-67.

Dan Morris-Young, “Thomas Keating, pioneer in centering prayer, interfaith dialogue, dies at 95,” National Catholic Reporter, Oct 26, 2018

Tim Shriver, “Father Thomas Keating’s parting wisdom for a divided church and country,” America, Nov. 21, 2018

Wikipedia articles on centering prayer, General Theological Seminary, Thomas Keating, mantra, outro (in music), M. Basil Pennington, Summa Theologica and Trappists.

Also my post to this blog, “Praying for trust, acceptance and other graces in the emergency room, ‘singing softly … like the south wind blows’,” Sept. 11, 2022

[Uplinked Oct. 11, 2022]


2 thoughts on “Centering prayer: A ‘Zen Lutheran’ chatterbox meets a Trappist meditation when he needs to be still — and to trust

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