Origins of Centering Prayer
Centering Prayer is a method of prayer that comes out of the Christian tradition, principally The Cloud of Unknowing, by an anonymous 14th Century author and St. John of the Cross. The historical roots of Centering Prayer go back to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusettes, where Fr. Thomas Keating was abbot from 1961 to 1981. During this time the Holy See was encouraging inter-religious dialogue. Fr. Keating, Fathers William Menninger and Basil Pennington became acquainted with groups from other spiritual traditions who lived in their locality. They invited spiritual teachers from the Eastern religions as well as some ecumenically skilled Catholic theologians to visit and speak with their community. About the same time a Zen master applied to visit the monastery. The monks bravely invited him to speak to the community and later to give a sesshin, which is a week-long intensive retreat. For many years following Fr. Keating attended sesshins with this Zen master.
Exposure to this and other traditions such as the Hindu tradition and Transcendental Meditation raised many questions in Fr. Thomas’ mind namely, why so many people were looking to the East when in our own tradition we had a rich heritage of Christian contemplative tradition.
By the 1970’s Fathers Keating, Menninger and Pennington were looking to revive the ancient sources of this Christian contemplative prayer cultivated by the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Teresa of Avila, Meister Echart and John of the Cross into a modern-day method of contemplative prayer for contemporary people. This method came to be known as Centering Prayer – a reference to Thomas Merton’s description of prayer that is “centered entirely on the presence of God.”
Over time, the monks offered Centering Prayer workshops and retreats to both clergy and lay people. Interest in the method quickly spread so much so that in 1983, the contemplative Outreach organisation was formed to support the growing network of Centering Prayer practitioners.
Today Centering Prayer is practised by people from all over the world with many networks of small faith communities such as Contemplative Outreach Ireland who in communion with many other networks from around the world are contributing to the renewal of the Christian contemplative dimension of the Gospel in everyday life.