Pennington was an alumnus of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas Angelicum where he obtained a licentiate in Theology in 1959. He also earned a licentiate in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Pennington became known internationally as one of the major proponents of the Centering Prayer movement begun at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, during the 1970s.
Pennington's book Centering Prayer was first published in 1980, and had sold more than a million copies by 2002. Translations of this work have been published in Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, and Italian.
Pennington entered the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at St. Joseph's Abbey in June 1951. At St. Joseph's Abbey, he was appointed professor of theology in 1959, professor of canon law and professor of spirituality in 1963, and vocation director in 1978. In 2000, he was appointed superior at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri, and later that same year, he was elected abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. He returned to St. Joseph's Abbey after retiring in 2002. He died on June 3, 2005, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, from injuries sustained from a car accident.
Bernard McGinn wrote that Pennington "not only wrote effectively about centering prayer, but he also traveled across the United States and the world spreading the practice through lectures and workshops. The renewal of contemplative prayer in the last decades of the twentieth century owes much to these efforts.":98
In Pennington's obituary, McGinn stated that "For those who never met Basil Pennington, reading the published form of the journal he kept during [a visit to Mount Athos] will provide a good sense of the man in all his humanity and irrepressible goodwill.":98
Pennington published over 60 books, including:
- Pennington, M. Basil (1980). Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-14562-4. (222 pages)
- "Monastic Journey to India" (1982, 1999)
- "Monastery: Prayer, Work, Community" (1983)
- "Called: New Thinking on Christian Vocation" (1983)
- "Daily We Follow Him: Learning Discipleship from Peter" (1987)
- "Mary Today" (1987)
- "Living Our Priesthood Today" (1987)
- "Prayertimes" (1987)
- "Through the Year with the Saints" (1988)
- "Monastic Life" (1989)
- "The Monastic Way" (1990)
- "The Fifteen Mysteries: In Image and Word" (1993)
- "Praying by Hand: Rediscovering the Rosary As a Way of Prayer" (1995)
- "Awake In The Spirit" (1995)
- "Daily We Touch Him" (1997)
- "A Place Apart: Monastic Prayer and Practice for Everyone" (1998)
- "Lectio Divina" (1998)
- "Centering Prayer in Daily Life and Ministry" (1998)
- "Centered Living: The Way of Centering Prayer" (1999)
- "Living in the Question: Meditations in the Style of Lectio Divina" (1999)
- "True Self/False Self: Unmasking the Spirit Within" (2000)
- "Eucharist: Wine of Faith, Bread of Life" (2000)
- "Listening: God's Word for Today" (2000)
- "The Bread of God: Nurturing a Eucharistic Imagination" (2001)
- "A School of Love: The Cistercian Way to Holiness" (2001)
- "The Abbey Prayer Book" (2002)
- "20 Mysteries of the Rosary: A Scriptural Journey" (2003)
- "Call to the Center, Revised: Gospel's Invitation to Deeper Prayer" (2003)
- "Who Do You Say I Am?: Meditations on Jesus' Questions in the Gospels" (2005)
- Lynn Garrett & Jeff Zaleski (2002). "Writings of spiritual leaders". Publishers Weekly. Reed Business Information / Reviews. 249 (43): 68. ISSN 0000-0019.
- Jana Reiss & Jeff Zaleski (2002). "Religion notes". Publishers Weekly. Reed Business Information / Reviews. 249 (45): 61. ISSN 0000-0019.
- Jonathan Shear, ed. (2006). The experience of meditation: Experts introduce the major traditions. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House. ISBN 978-1-55778-857-3.. On page 275: "Father Pennington helped formulate Centering Prayer... and his book Centering Prayer has sold over 1 million copies throughout the world."
- Pennington, M. Basil (1986). La oración centrante: renovación de una antigua manera de orar (in Spanish). (Carmen Fernández Aguinaco, trans.). Narcea. ISBN 978-84-277-0713-9. (235 pages)
- Pennington, M. Basil (2006). La prière de silence: Renouveler une forme traditionnelle de prière chrétienne (in French). (Bernard Dionne, trans.). Novalis. ISBN 978-2-89507-684-1. (261 pages)
- Pennington, M. Basil (2003). Modlitwa prowadząca do środka: Powrót do starochrześcijańskiej metody modlitwy (in Polish). Homini. ISBN 978-83-87933-91-3. (280 pages)
- Pennington, M. Basil (2002). Oração Centrante (in Portuguese). Palas Athena. ISBN 978-85-7242-041-9. (296 pages)
- Pennington, M. Basil (2007). Preghiera centrica (in Italian). Gribaudi. ISBN 978-88-7152-903-5.
- Bernard McGinn (2006). "Let us now praise... M. Basil Pennington, OCSO (1931-2005)". Theology Today. 63 (1): 96–99. ISSN 0040-5736. OCLC 1587753.
- M. Basil Pennington, O Holy Mountain! Journal of a Retreat on Mount Athos (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978)