Reflections On Centering Prayer

Throughout Christian history, there have been two major traditions of prayer: kataphatic and apophatic. Big words, I know. However, most of us were raised in the kataphatic tradition of prayer, that is, the use of words, thoughts, and symbols in the practice of prayer. It was only in seminary that I was introduced to the concept of apophatic prayer, namely, prayer without the use of words, thoughts, and symbols, or prayer of the heart, as the Eastern Orthodox have called it. Such prayer, based on the incomprehensibleness of God, includes renouncing our tendency to control or define God on human terms and the acknowledgement that we can do nothing without him. However, I could not grasp how this kind of prayer was even possible, let alone relevant, as I had grown up in a ministry orientation with a bias towards activity. To me, success, often misidentified as “fruitfulness,” was attributed to the result of zeal and hard work. In this orientation, spirituality was equated with “doing,” rather than “being.” Because kataphatic prayer fit well with this ministry orientation, “prayer” became just another aspect of “doing” for me. If I prayed well and long enough, I believed that this would lead me into “fruitfulness” as defined above. It seemed like apophatic prayer would lead me in the opposite direction, as to empty my mind of all thoughts seemed like a wasting of valuable time.

The title of Thomas Keating’s classic book, Open Heart, Open Mind,[1] provides a summary description for apophatic prayer or “centering prayer” as he calls it. Rather than trying to lift one’s heart and mind to God in prayer, centering prayer is an act of letting go in trust and surrender. It requires the placing of a person’s mind and heart in a posture of receptivity. In my kataphatic tradition, the focus of prayer still seemed to be on my efforts. This is not entirely wrong in itself; for example, Jesus said, “Ask… and you will receive,” but I was out of balance. In this vein, Keating introduced centering prayer to me not as antithetical to my kataphatic tradition, but as complementary. Indeed, Keating’s involvement in the Catholic Charismatic tradition affirmed the kinds of prayer I had practiced much of my life. However, Keating argues strongly that without the apophatic tradition, the Charismatic movement would wither. He, along with Henri Nouwen in his book, The Way of the Heart,[2] attribute the loss of the apophatic tradition in western Christianity to the “anti-contemplative climate” of the enlightenment era where the mind was exalted to an undue degree. Nouwen likens the recovery of centering prayer to the monastic movement of the early Christian centuries where the desert fathers and mothers had to flee from the “compulsive socialization”[3] of their society in order to know who they really were. Similarly, my lack of contemplation results in me being more enamoured with “selfies” and “Instagram photos” of life, rather than simply enjoying real life for itself. I’ve sometimes fought the tendency in ministry where the world becomes a stage.  In contrast, centering prayer, through solitude and silence, has provided a “portable cell,” that is, a way of escape from this stage and a means for me to die to the false selves that tend to emerge.   


Keating’s introduction to the actual practice of centering prayer is most helpful because he provides practical advice that can help us overcome the common discouragements that occur when embarking on this kind of prayer. What I have regarded as my “wandering mind,” he describes as a “stream of consciousness,” that is, a constant flow of thoughts that are passing through my mind that I have little control over. He likens them to “boats” that are floating by me as I stand on the bank of a river. For example, today at our East Van Ministerial, there was some light construction going on in the same room where we were meeting. I had to work hard to focus on the speaker with the sounds of hammering and sawing in the background. Every time I heard a new sound, it was tempting to be distracted. I have often passed the whole time of centering prayer with my imagination moving from one scenario to another. These scenarios have included:  grappling with an issue or problem, planning for events, thinking of details such as calls I need to make or people I need to see, or imagining a good sermon illustration, and so on. It was tempting for me to have a pen and paper in hand because it seemed I could get some good planning done while trying to practice centering prayer!

To help me return to the “unknowing” loving adoration of God in my heart when I became aware that my mind was wandering, Keating encouraged me to employ the use of a “sacred word” that I return to. I have found that this return by means of the sacred word at these moments involves a profound act of surrender and letting go of my need to control. It has required a volitional choice for me that has been surprisingly difficult due to the “delicious” nature of the distractions. Wonderful theological insights can come that can “bait” me away from my loving attention to God. I may even feel that I need to pray for someone even though this is not the time for it. One of the most difficult struggles I have had is something which seems “all important” may come to my mind that I need to attend to accompanied by the fear that I will forget to attend to it. Then, there are “glamourous problem solving thoughts!” Keating likens these distractions to the temptation to “climb on board a flashy boat on the river and have a look around,” rather than allowing the boat to pass by. I am learning that these distractions are simply expressions of my false self, propped up by an instinct to possess or control. I have often finished my prayer time feeling that I have wasted the whole 20 minutes in daydreaming. However, even here, Keating encourages loving self-acceptance, which is in itself another act of surrender from my need to perform well in spiritual practices. Even if those moments of being free from my thoughts seem few and far between, I am learning to enjoy them “like a balloon gently landing” and then bouncing again.

I am finding that the practice of centering prayer is having an impact on my whole life. I am feeling more quiet and present to the moment. With less effort, my heart is feeling more surrendered to God in loving adoration. I am feeling a deeper peace even amidst the greatest times of stress when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Anger, reaction, and frustration are loosening their tentacles around my heart as I surrender to the loving and unearned embrace of God, an embrace that has always been there for everyone, but was often unperceived by me. 

None of us have time for this practice. We have to make time.  May I encourage you to flee from the compulsions of our culture through this rich tradition that goes back to the desert fathers and mothers. Keating has posted this centering prayer summary link with instructions on how to get started. As you do, may you be filled with all the blessings of this holy week. 

[1] Keating, Thomas, Open Heart Open Mind: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, Continuum International Publishing, Inc., New York, NY, 2002.           
[2] Nouwen, Henri J.M., The Way of the Heart: Connecting With God Through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, Ballantine, Toronto, 1981.
[3] Thomas Merton, quoted by Nouwen in The Way of the Heart