Centering Prayer is a popular method of meditation used by some Christians, placing a strong emphasis on interior silence. Users identify Centering Prayer as "contemplative prayer," but this identification is disputed. Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis recognized as a great American Catholic, practiced contemplation similar to Centering Prayer.
The creators of the Centering Prayer movement 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. Advocates of Centering Prayer say it does not replace other prayer but encourages silence and deeper connection to God. Also advocates of Centering Prayer say it helps people be more present and open to God. Father Thomas Keating has promoted both Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer.
Some people, including former Pope Benedict, find Centering Prayer controversial. These authors argue that Centering Prayer contradicts the teachings of the Carmelite saints. They also argue that Centering Prayer is a distortion of the teachings of the Desert Fathers and The Cloud of Unknowing, and nearly the opposite in method to Lectio Divina. Furthermore, they claim that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) cautioned against prayer forms like this in Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.
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 earliest Christian writings that clearly speak of contemplative prayer come from the 4th century 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. During the 16th century, Carmelite saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross wrote and taught about advanced Christian prayer, which was given the name infused contemplation.
The 20th century 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.
Fr. M. Basil Pennington suggests these steps for practicing Centering Prayer:
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God. 2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you. 3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you. 4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
In addition, Fr. Keating writes, “The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts.”
Centering Prayer advocates link the practice to traditional forms of Christian meditation, such as on the rosary, or Lectio Divina. Critics, however, note that these traditional prayers engage the heart and mind with Sacred Scripture, while Centering Prayer is "devoid of content." 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, to "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. Yet, Orthodox Christian authorities argue that there is a gulf between the Jesus Prayer and non-Christian meditation techniques. The standard criticism of Centering Prayer is that it is essentially non-Christian meditation. Unlike the Jesus Prayer, critics argue, Centering Prayer can be and is practiced by non-Christians.
In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) issued Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. The letter addresses problematic elements found in some modern prayer methods, many of which have been influenced by Eastern religions and the New Age movement. Contemplative Outreach, which was founded by Fr. Keating and others to promote Centering Prayer, denies that this letter applies to Centering Prayer and states that Centering Prayer is connected to the Holy Spirit. Opponents of the method, however, point to similarities between the teaching of Fr. Keating and his colleagues and specific criticisms made by the CDF.
In 2003, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Culture published Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life, A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.” Critics of Centering Prayer once again say their concerns were addressed in this document.
Centering Prayer practitioners respond that Bearer of the Water of Life does not have doctrinal authority, and neither Vatican document mentions Centering Prayer, Contemplative Outreach, or Fr. Keating by name.
Critics also dispute the claim that Centering Prayer is in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Carmelite saints, saying that traditional Catholic contemplative prayer is not so much a method of prayer as a stage of prayer in which God's action predominates. They cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church as evidence that meditation and contemplation are two different expressions of prayer.
Pope Francis has not commented on Centering Prayer directly but has spoken very highly of Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton described contemplative prayer as prayer "centered entirely on the presence of God."  Pope Francis listed Thomas Merton as one of four great Americans in a speech before the U.S. Congress in September 2015 and encouraged sowing dialogue and peace in "the contemplative style of Thomas Merton." 
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."
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- 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.
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- Contemplative Prayer and The Cloud of Unknowing
- The Cloud of Unknowing
- Kyrie Centering Prayer Index
- A Gift From the Desert
- Jesus Prayer
- About Centering Prayer