It’s tempting to add a whole lot of “doing” to your life, in an effort to better yourself. But sanctification is not our work. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of doing more—learning a language, working out, or practicing self-care—consider stripping things away. Make quiet space inside yourself and rest in God’s presence. Tia Norman provides an introduction to centering prayer.
I understand the ache and desire to know what your purpose is; to sit inside of the question, “Why am I here?” It’s an uneasiness I can relate to well.
I remember sitting at my desk several years ago, working what some may consider to be a dream job, and having the feeling that there had to be more. I wanted freedom and flexibility in my work schedule, so I leaned into tips from Tim Ferriss’s book The 4‑Hour Workweek to create exactly that—and then I realized my discontent wasn’t just about wanting freedom alone, it was about the work itself.
I felt out of place and confused about my purpose. Even in the newfound freedom, I was suffocating in my work. At the same time, I felt a strong tug in my heart to something completely new—ministry. After nearly a decade in the world of professional sports and entertainment, this heart-tug made no logical sense.
What this meant is that I had to slow down and pay attention to all that was going on inside of me. I had to be aware of the evidence in my daily life that was inviting me to live more fully. This ache was inviting me to stop, breathe, and listen.
How meditative spiritual practices make space for God
We often think of our heart as the storehouse of our emotions—big enough to hold love and yet fragile enough to break. The contemplative dimension of the gospel invites us to both deepen and broaden how we define, listen to, and are motivated to action by our heart.
The late priest, author, and theologian Henri Nouwen offers a reminder of what the word heart means within its biblical context. In his book The Way of the Heart, Nouwen writes, “But the word heart in the Jewish-Christian tradition refers to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional and moral energies. … It is this heart that is the place of prayer.”
This heart, the heart that Nouwen describes, is the place where God dwells—the place of the divine—within each of us. It is our inmost being.
Contemplative prayer practices help maintain a posture of heart in which we are moved and motivated by the Spirit, and they provide the space to witness what is going on in our interiors. Each practice is characterized by some degree of stillness, silence, and solitude.
In stillness we can discern, in silence we hear, and in solitude we become present to our lives.
Examples of practices include:
- Ignatian examen: St. Ignatius of Loyola developed this memory-based prayer, which helps us recognize the presence of God in our daily experience.
- Labyrinth: A labyrinth is a walking journey that moves both inward and outward, in which one “loses oneself to find oneself.”
- Welcoming prayer: This prayer practice can help us respond rather than react. It includes bringing awareness to the feelings, emotions, thoughts, and sensations in our bodies as a way of healing and letting go.
- Lectio divina: In this practice, Scripture “reads” us. Lectio divina means “divine reading” and includes reading (lectio), reflecting (meditatio), response (oratio), and resting (contemplatio) in God.
- Centering prayer: This kind of prayer incorporates all three characteristics of contemplative prayer practices: silence, solitude, and stillness. It moves beyond conversation with God to communion.
The Practice of Centering Prayer
Centering prayer in particular is designed to help us remember and reconnect to our sacred heart center. It was developed by Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating, to reclaim what had originally been at the center of Christian practice and lost; making what was traditionally experienced within monastic life available to contemporary Christians seeking a spiritual path. The prayer method involves dismantling the false-self system (or ego) that develops in early childhood and unconsciously influences our everyday actions as we age and grow.
The method has its theological roots in a verse many may be familiar with. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). This layered movement, from the outside in, leads us to a place beyond words to communion with God. It is a time based on intention rather than attention. The intention is to consent to God’s presence and action within. It is a form of receptive meditation in which spiritual attentiveness is birthed as we withdraw our attention from our ordinary flow of thoughts.
The biggest myth about meditative practices
One of the biggest misconceptions about centering prayer as a method of meditation is that all thinking is supposed to come to a halt, that our mind will clear and we’ll experience something similar to floating on clouds during our time of silence. (Another misconception is that meditation does not have a place in Christianity, despite numerous biblical mentions of Jesus going away by himself to pray.)
Frustration can set in when we find the reality of our meditation time is, in fact, the exact opposite: we seem to be bombarded by thoughts and our time can feel anything but restful. That experience can lead us to believe, especially early on in our practice, that we are doing something wrong.
Centering prayer nips this misconception in the proverbial bud by acknowledging from the onset that thoughts will arise. It’s important to know that, even as thoughts come and go, rest is still taking place at the spiritual level of our being.
How to practice centering prayer
How do you actually begin to practice centering prayer?
Before beginning, you might find it beneficial to first consider what it is you believe about the nature of God. Is God loving? Or do you think of God as a harsh judge? Considering these beliefs prior to engaging in the practice can open you up to the God who loved you first: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Then, enter into the time of prayer. Here is how Father Thomas Keating teaches centering prayer:
1. Choose a word.
This word, called a sacred word, should represent your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within you. Choose a word in prayer by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A word of one or two syllables is best, such as God, Jesus, Abba, Father, love, listen, peace, mercy, let go, faith, or trust. Instead of using a word, you may prefer to notice your breath or to glance inwardly toward God’s presence. Whatever you select, don’t change it during the time of prayer because that would be engaging thoughts.
2. Introduce the word.
Sit comfortably and with your eyes closed. Briefly take the time to settle yourself. Then silently, inwardly, introduce the sacred word.
3. Settle deeply into prayer.
Continue to sit quietly, simply resting in God’s presence. As you sit, you may notice sensations in your body, feelings, images, reflections, or other thoughts. As you become aware of these things, gently return to the sacred word.
4. Gently conclude the time of prayer.
At the end of the time of prayer, remain in silence with your eyes closed. Once the prayer is over, gently return to the room by opening your eyes. You may want to end the time of prayer by reciting the Lord’s Prayer aloud. (This is especially common if you are praying in a group setting.)
It is suggested that you practice centering prayer twice a day for 20 minutes. This will create a steady stream of spiritual rest. If this seems like quite the undertaking, then begin where you’re comfortable, perhaps with 5 minutes, and then expand from there. And remember, there is no limit to the number of times you can return to your sacred word. It helps to think of each return to your word as a return to God.
How God can use centering prayer to change your life
The benefits of centering prayer, as with other contemplative practices, go beyond the time of prayer itself. The time of prayer is likely to be riddled with thoughts, and you’ll end up prompting yourself to return to your sacred word again and again. Eventually, the sacred word will find its way into your active life, creating space for your to respond when historically you would have been inclined to react. As you rest in God, the Holy Spirit can heal the emotional wounds of a lifetime, unblocking the obstacles that inhibit the free flow of God’s grace.
What I know today as a pastor, speaker, and contemplative leader is that the tug in my heart made complete sense. I only needed to be present enough to capture small moments that were inviting me to live more fully. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he is talking about an experience of the infinite nature of the present moment. This moment.
If a longing for purpose causes you to ache, let it. That ache is inviting you into your life right now—a moment that is rich with information. A moment that is filled with purpose.