Editor’s note (Oct. 17). I started this a couple of days before I had a tumor removed from my bladder. But I ran out of time, and I was in no mood last night to stay up late journaling before a 5:30 a.m. check-in time today. The procedure went off as scheduled; I’m home now beginning to recuperate; and now we’re waiting on the biopsy report. In the meantime, the spiritual practice described here helped me get a fairly decent night’s sleep last night.

I don’t think I’m going to write this up for JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine — a statistical sample of one is kinda small, and I haven’t controlled for intervening variables — but my blood pressure is down a few points since I began experimenting with centering prayer a couple of weeks ago. Still not where I’d like it to be, but better.

This much I can say — it’s helping me stay, well, centered … as I face surgery (and a biopsy) Monday.

Centering prayer was developed in the 1970s by Fr. Thomas Keating and other Trappist (Cistercian) monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. As Wikipedia relates the story, “Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them born Catholic, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work. He found many of them had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within Christianity and set out to present these practices in a more accessible way. The result was the practice now called Centering Prayer.” They also appealed to spiritual-but-not-religious 12-steppers.

Writing for the Jesuit magazine America, psychologist Sidney Callahan says it’s “a practice of silent prayer that is a stripped-to-essentials form of Christian monastic contemplation.” Here’s how it works:

The simple steps of the method are to choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. Then settling comfortably you introduce the sacred word and remain quietly attentive within God’s presence. When distracted from your focus by wandering thoughts, you gently return to the sacred word and openness to God. After a set period of prayer time you remain thankful for a minute or two. 

There’s more to it than that. A lot more. Some of it can be gleaned from the website of Contemplative Outreach, an umbrella group for practitioners, at:


But the way to learn it, I’m gathering, is to practice it. I’ve been trying to since the beginning of October, when I came across it in a popular how-to book by Fr. James Martin, editor-at-large of America, on prayer. (I blogged about it HERE.) It looked like exactly what I needed at the moment, so I read on. Things I’m learning — so far — about centering prayer:

  • It’s best seen as a supplement or complement, (or both), to spiritual practices like lectio divina and the Jesuit exercises. In fact it’s specifically designed to link up with lectio.
  • It’s broadly ecumenical. Cynthia Bourgeault, a leading author on the subject is an Episcopal priest and a core faculty member of Fr. Richard Rohr’s Franciscan Center for Action and Contemplation, and several Lutheran congregations, like this one in Ohio, have centering prayer groups.
  • It specifically involves the heart more than the head. To slightly misquote Fr. Keating, it’s “heartful,” not “mindful.”
  • It seems to work.

A footnote (Oct. 17). Contemplative Outreach has a Q&A section on its website. On Oct. 6, 2021, a reader asked, “Is it ok to do the Centering Prayer just before bed?” Father Carl answered:

I decided to consult with our ecumenical Centering Prayer group at Saint Vincent’s church, Bayonne New Jersey, which has been gathering for over 15 years, with many of the original members still with us. When I asked the question to the eight participants, the overall answer was “pray as you can”.

I think that’s very much in the spirit of the movement. There’s no one “right” way to do centering prayer, and the Q&A item was headlined, “Pray as You Can” (you can find it at https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/2021/10/04/z-pray-as-you-can/). Father Carl added:

Some commented that as they got older, the body reacted in different ways to the sitting process, so adjusting the times of their prayer was necessary.

The suggestion was offered that if during the night, one could not sleep, this may be a call to prayer or a perfect time to do a session of Centering Prayer. In fact, Fr. Thomas recommends this.

That especially spoke to me, for reasons that should be obvious.

[Updated and uplinked Oct. 17, 2022]

4 thoughts on “What’s the right way to do centering prayer? ‘Pray as you can’: A stripped-down Trappist spiritual practice for today

  1. Hi, Pete,
    Enjoyed the puns Debi shared! Hope you did, too! Those puns were just what I needed to lighten the day! But then so is your info on Centering Prayer adding to the enlightening as well as lightening my day! Thanks for sharing that! A much needed reminder for me.
    I pray you are recovering well from your surgery! Miracles happen! I pray you experience one or two – at least!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thanks, Sister! I *am* recovering, and hope to have a biopsy report and the beginnings of a treatment plan when I meet with the urologist tomorrow. Prayers very much appreciated!

      And, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Debi’s puns! She’s been my rock in a weary land. I suspect you’ll be seeing more posts on centering prayer, too; I sent off for Fr. Keating’s book, and it arrived in the mail over the weekend.


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