July 22, 2011

Centering Prayer from the Christian Monastic Tradition

Dan Webster is an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, an Anglican/Episcopal monastic order of men and is a trained presenter of centering prayer. He is an Episcopal priest living in Maryland who practices centering prayer daily (well, almost).

How would you like to learn God’s first language? Fr. Thomas Keating says that language is silence.

Centering prayer as taught by Keating and other Trappist monks comes from the early Christian monastic practice of Lectio Divina; a slow, methodical way of reading sacred scripture.

For nearly a 1,000 years, men and women living in community would read a passage from scripture, reflect on it and then, enter into a period of contemplation. Keating calls it, “resting in God.” During the 16th century events brought an end to that practice.

A revival of sorts occurred during the late 20th century. Now thousands of practitioners around the world spend time in silent prayer. Many of them have been taught by Contemplative Outreach teachers.

This is a discipline of letting go of thoughts, not engaging them as in normal conscious practice, but simply using a sacred word or image as your intention as consent to God’s presence and action within you. Centering prayer can lead to contemplative prayer, says Keating.

We are programmed for happiness, Keating says, which is divine union. But what we learn in early childhood get in the way of that union. We actually develop a “false self” more interested in power and control; safety and security; esteem and affection. By dismantling that false self we can find true happiness in being united with the God who created us to be happy.

Silent prayer or meditation can be found in many spiritual and religious traditions. Centering prayer is grounded in the grace of the Pentecost experience; the Holy Spirit “empowering us to experience and manifest the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes both in prayer and action,” writes Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart.

Sitting in silent prayer, says Keating, will allow you to develop an ear to hear the cry of the poor. Many practitioners attribute centering prayer as a motivator in becoming more involved in social justice ministry.

Time and again in the gospels Jesus separates himself from the busy routine of his ministry to pray. He was doing that when the disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. Early monastics saw that practice as praying like Jesus did. Contemporary monastics, both in traditional community or not, are doing the same.

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