Most authors trace its roots to the contemplative prayer of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism, to the Lectio Divina tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and to works like The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The modern "Centering Prayer" movement in Christianity can be traced to several books published by three Trappist monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the 1970s: Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating.
Seeds of what would become known as contemplation were sown early in the Christian era.
The first appearance of something approximating contemplative prayer arises in the 4th century writings of the monk St. John Cassian, who wrote of a practice he learned from the Desert Fathers (specifically from Isaac). Cassian's writings remained influential until the medieval era, when monastic practice shifted from a mystical orientation to Scholasticism. Thus it can be plausibly argued that contemplation was (one of) the earliest meditational and/or devotional practice of Christian monasticism, being later supplanted in dominance by the scholastic theologians, with only a minimal interest in contemplation.
The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton was influenced by Buddhist meditation, particularly as found in Zen — he was a lifetime friend of Buddhist meditation master and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, praised Chogyam Trungpa who founded Shambhala Buddhism in the United States and was also an acquaintance of the current Dalai Lama. His theology attempted to unify existentialism with the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. As such he was also an advocate of the non-rational meditation of contemplative prayer, which he saw as a direct confrontation of finite and irrational man with his ground of being.
Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers, including the well-known Theravada Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society. 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 those practices in a more accessible way. The result was the practice now called Centering Prayer.
The actual practice of centering prayer is not entirely alien to Catholics, who are advised to meditate in some form daily — such as on the rosary, or on Scripture through the practice of lectio divina. However, although the practice makes use of a 'sacred word,' Thomas Keating emphasizes that Centering Prayer is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one's attention on something (such as a mantra), but rather is concerned with intention and consent. The participant's aim is to be present to the Lord, esto "consent to God's presence and action during the time of prayer." The above methods, in contrast, have some contemplative goal in mind: with the rosary, the Mysteries of the Rosary are contemplated; with lectio divina, the practitioner thinks about the Scripture reading, sometimes even visualizing it. Centering Prayer is more akin to the very ancient practice of hesychasm as understood in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which the participant seeks the presence of God directly (aided by the Jesus Prayer, perhaps) and explicitly rejects discursive thoughts and imagined scenes.
Research has been conducted on the Centering Prayer program, 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.
Newberg explained one study that examined the brains of nuns who engaged in "centering prayer," which is meant to create a feeling one oneness with God. The nuns' brain scans showed similarities to people who use drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, Newberg said, and both experiences "tend to result in very permanent changes in the way in which the brain works."
- Contemplative Prayer. by Thomas Merton. Image Books, 1996. ISBN 0-385-09219-9.
- Active Meditations for Contemplative Prayer, by Thomas Keating. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997. ISBN 0-8264-1061-8.
- Foundations for centering prayer and the Christian contemplative life, by Thomas Keating. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. ISBN 0-8264-1397-8.
- Open mind, open heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel, by Thomas Keating. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. ISBN 0-8264-1420-6.
- "Centering Prayer Overview". Contemplative Outreach Ltd. Contemplative Outreach Dublin, Ireland, opened in October 2007. Sr. Fionnuala Quinn is Coordinator for Dublin. It is located at the Dominican Resource Centre in Cabra, Dublin. Retrieved 16 November 2006.
- Rose, Phil Fox. "Meditation for Christians". Patheos. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
- Thomas Keating (2009), "Intimacy with God: an Introduction to Centering Prayer," 15-28.
- Thomas Keating (2009), "Intimacy with God: an Introduction to Centering Prayer," 23.
- Mary E. Johnson, Ann M. Dose, Teri Britt Pipe, Wesley O. Petersen, Mashele Huschka, Mary M. Gallenberg, Prema Peethambaram, Jeff Sloan & Marlene H. Frost (2009). "Centering prayer for women receiving chemotherapy for recurrent ovarian cancer: A pilot study". Oncology Nursing Forum 36 (4): 421–428. doi:10.1188/09.ONF.421-428. ISSN 0190-535X. PMID 19581232.
- Jane K. Ferguson, Eleanor W. Willemsen & MayLynn V. Castañeto (2010). "Centering Prayer as a healing response to everyday stress: A psychological and spiritual process". Pastoral Psychology 59 (3): 305–329. doi:10.1007/s11089-009-0225-7. ISSN 0031-2789.
- Contemplative Prayer and The Cloud of Unknowing
- The Cloud of Unknowing
- Kyrie Centering Prayer Index
- A Gift From the Desert
- Jesus Prayer
- Merton, Thomas: "Zen and the Birds of Appetite" (russian)[dead link]
- About Centering Prayer