Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Cynthia Bourgeault on Centering Prayer

As we grow up, our minds grow more complex and more settled in our own orbits. We spend so much of our adult energies thinking, planning, worrying, trying to get ahead or stay afloat, that we lose touch with the natural intimacy of God within us. The gift of silence gradually recedes in the face of the demands of daily life, so that when we do re-encounter contemplative prayer as adults, it may seem like a strange and inaccessible inner terrain. Lenten and Advent quiet days at the local church, or a retreat at a monastery are wonderful ways of doing just that.

But stopping the inner noise is another matter. Even when the outer world has been wrestled into silence, we still go right on talking, worrying, arguing with ourselves, daydreaming, fantasizing. To encounter those deeper reaches of our being, where our own life is constantly flowing out of and back into the divine life, what first seems to be needed is some sort of an interior on/off switch to tone down the inner talking as well.

That’s probably the simplest way to picture what Centering Prayer is, and to describe its relationship to contemplative prayer. At root, it is a very simple method of reconnecting us with that natural spiritual aptitude for the inner life, that simplicity of our childhood, once our adult minds have become overly complex and busy.

It’s very, very simple. You sit, either in a chair or on a prayer stool or mat, and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists. Whenever a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase, knows as a “sacred word,” such as “abba” (Jesus’ own word for God) or “peace” or “be still” to help you let go of the thought promptly and cleanly. You do this practice for twenty minutes, a bit longer if you’d like, then you simply get up and move on with your life.

What goes on in those silent depths during the times of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, “God is closer to your soul than you are to yourself.” Your own subjective experience of the prayer may be that nothing happened—except for the more-or-less continuous motion of letting go of thoughts. But in the depths of your being, in fact, plenty has been going on, and things are quietly but firmly being rearranged.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader. When she is not traveling, she lives in a hermitage in Maine. This excerpt is from her book, “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.” To learn more, click here.

Consider: Do you have a meditation form that you practice? If so, will you tell us about it? Have you ever practiced Centering Prayer? What was your experience?

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