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  • Rev. Annie McMillan

Spiritual Practices: Centering Prayer

Updated: Mar 19

Centering Prayer

Most faith traditions have some form of meditation or contemplation. When we meditate, we are resting in the glorious presence of God, completely enveloped in love. “Centering Prayer” is a spiritual activity with roots in the ancient monastic practice of “Lectio Divina,” which is Latin for “divine reading.” When Vatican II sought to revive the contemplative practices of early Christianity, three Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts (Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating) developed a simple method of silent prayer for today’s faithful. The prayer came to be known as “Centering Prayer,” referring to Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer as “prayer that is centered entirely on the presence of God.”

Centering prayer is about setting apart time specifically and exclusively to gain intimacy with the Divine. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault writes that even though we can perhaps find ways to stop “outer noise” it is much more difficult to still the “inner noise”. Centering Prayer is a powerful spiritual practice that helps to slow our racing thoughts. It provides a space to listen to and connect with God.


Steps of Centering Prayer

Step 1: Choose a sacred word

This is a word or short phrase that helps you to let go of thoughts. It is a reminder of your intention to remain open to the silence. A sacred word can be just about anything that is on your heart. Some people embrace the word “God” or “Jesus.” But your word can be “holy,” “joy,” “help”— again, anything that is on your heart that speaks to you can be your sacred and centering word. Generally sacred words fall into one of two categories: “God” words/phrases such as “Abba”, “Jesu, “Mary”, “Reality”, “Come Lord” or “state” words/phrases such as “love”, “peace”, “be still”. Sacred words are not used as mantras, as in constantly repeating them, but as a reminder of your intention to remain open.


Step 2: Sit with that word

• Find a quiet space where you are unlikely to be disturbed.

• Sit in a way that allows you to be relaxed in body and alert in mind. Use a chair, meditation cushion or prayer rug, according to your own physical needs and preferences.

• Gently close your eyes.

• “Allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists”

introduce the sacred word into your thoughts, presenting it to God and praying over it.


Step 3: Remain with the word

Don’t worry if you get distracted during this prayer time. Whenever you become aware of a thought, no matter what its nature, let it go. Gently return to the word or phrase you have chosen to center your prayer on. When you are done praying, remain still and silent for a few more minutes before reengaging with the world.



God who spoke through prophets and mystics, may we hear your beautiful voice speak to us this day as we turn back to you and make time to be still and listen. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.


Thoughts on Centering Prayer

Your sacred word: Some people try out a few sacred words until they settle on one that feels right. Once you start a sit using a particular word, continue using it during that sit. As much as possible let your word or phrase find you. In other words, don’t try to control this process.


Timing sits: Set a vibrating or very quiet timer of some sort to tell you when your sit is over without startling you. For those with smartphones, there are some good apps available.


Starting the sit: Make sure you are as comfortable as possible; sitting upright is best but if do what you need to do to be comfortable. Close your eyes. Some practitioners like to preface their session with a very short invocation, chant or prayer that reminds them of their intention to be fully open and present to the Divine. Some like to take 2-3 deep breaths. Keep in mind that Centering Prayer is never about deliberately trying to change or control your body or mind.


Physical sensations during a sit: As much as possible treat physical sensations in the same way as you do thoughts: let them go by simply and gently returning to your sacred word. If a sensation becomes unbearable, gently allow yourself to return to outer awareness, make necessary adjustments, and return to your sit.


Thoughts during your sit: It is common to have thoughts of various kinds during a sit. They might involve your plans for the day, or give you some psychological insight into your behavior, or be about the nature of the Divine; you may find yourself with pleasant thoughts, or angry feelings, or notice yourself trying to create a particular mood in your practice. No matter the type or nature of thoughts and feelings the response is the same: gently return to your sacred word, and then let go. Do not analyze, label or judge thoughts or feelings. Simply, gently, let them go.


To end a sit: Many like to end a sit by bowing in place, thus stretching out their backs. Some may say a very short prayer of thanks. It is then time to return to your daily routine without dwelling on the experience of your sit.


Breath Prayer adapted from Presbyterians Today article by Diane Stephens Hogue 

“Breath prayer” is a spiritual practice that traces its roots to the desert fathers and mothers in the third century AD. Deep breathing (aka abdominal breathing or belly breathing) is as straightforward as filling the lungs by inhaling deeply through the nostrils, holding for three counts and exhaling slowly through the mouth. In the past few years, the healthcare profession has been touting breathwork for improved health. All the while, religious traditions worldwide have known for millennia the benefits of breath awareness.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we understand that we are animated and enlivened by the breath that was breathed into us at Creation; the Hebrew word for “breath” and “spirit” are the same: ruach. In our Christian faith, we know the power of prayer. If we turn our attention to God, we can catalyze our deep breathing with breath prayer. This prayer invites us to synchronize our breathing with sacred words. The psalms, sacred poetry, and hymn texts all work well.

Breath prayer is simple to do, requires minimal preparation and can be done anywhere. The repetition of words that mean something combined with our breathing engages our body, heart, mind and soul. We rest in the Spirit and discover new dimensions of trust in God.


Practicing Breath Prayer

●       Choose a sacred phrase of up to 12 words.

●       Divide it into two parts. You will be praying the first part on the inhale and the second on the exhale. For example, take words from Psalm 23 and as you inhale, pray, “beside still waters” and as you exhale, say, “you lead me.” Or these words from Romans 8:38–39 : (inhale) Nothing can separate us, (exhale) from the love of God.

●       Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Tune out any distractions.

●       Take three deep breaths, slowly. Resume your normal pace of breathing.

●       When ready, introduce the first part of your prayer on the inhale. Exhale the second.

●       Repeat the phrase in the silence of your heart as you breathe naturally, up to 20 minutes.

●       Slowly let the words fall away. Tend to your breathing. Open your eyes and reorient.

●       Carry your breath prayer with you as God’s word to you today.


Praying in Color adapted from

Praying in Color is the intersection of prayer and doodling. It is a visual, active, meditative, and playful way to pray. Here’s how it began for Sybil MacBeth:

When a dozen friends and family members received scary cancer diagnoses, I prayed for them. But my verbal prayers seemed puny and repetitive. “Please, God, let Sue live to see her children graduate from high school.” “Heal your servant Chuck.”One day I carried a basket of colored markers and pencils to my back porch. I love to doodle as a playful, creative way to relax. On a piece of paper, I drew an abstract shape with a black pen. The pen took me for a stroll around the shape. Dots, lines, arcs, and color noodled in and around it. Without any conscious thought, I wrote the name Sue in the doodle. Sue, my sister-in-law, had stage four lung cancer. I continued to doodle and add color, keeping my eyes and attention on Sue’s name. When the doodle felt complete, I realized I had prayed for Sue. God, Sue, and I were in the room together; my worry disappeared. The doodle was my visual prayer; each stroke, each swath of color was a way to release Sue into God’s care. No elegant words or artistic skill were necessary. I prayed for other people the same way. The page, covered with designs and names, was a visual prayer list, a reminder to pray for my friends and family members—with or without words– every time I looked at it. This was the beginning of Praying in Color.

All you need to Pray in Color are paper, pen, colored markers or colored pencils or colored gel pens, and a table or clipboard or book to put your paper on.


Here’s a simple way to start:

1) Write your name for God on a piece of paper. Draw a shape around it or just start to doodle. Let your pen take you for a walk. The drawing becomes a prayer space, a small prayer closet.

2) Add marks and shapes. Focus on the name you chose. Ask God to be part of your prayer time. If words come to you, pray them; if not, rest in the silence. Think of each stroke as a nonverbal prayer.



3) To pray for a person, write their name somewhere else on the page. Draw around the name. Add

color. Keep drawing as you release the person into God’s care.


4) Add other people to your drawing. Think of each stroke of your pen as a

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