Session 1

Prayer Practices Overview

In this session, we will look at methods of prayer that may be new to us.

Christian contemplative tradition
Centering Prayer
Welcoming Prayer
The Active Prayer Practice
Lectio Divina

Christian contemplative tradition

“Though it has acquired other meanings and connotations in recent centuries, the word contemplation had a specific meaning for the first 16 centuries of the Christian era. St. Gregory the Great summed up this meaning at the end of the 6th century as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. For Gregory, contemplation was both the fruit of reflecting on the Word of God in scripture and a precious gift of God. He referred to contemplation as “resting in God.” In this “resting,” the mind and heart are not so much seeking God, as beginning to experience what they have been seeking. This state is not the suspension of all activity, but the reduction of many acts and reflections to a single act or thought in order to sustain one’s consent to God’s presence and action.

In this traditional understanding, contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is not something that can be achieved through will, but rather is God’s gift. It is the opening of mind and heart – one’s whole being – to God. Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation. It is a relationship initiated by God and leading, if one consents, to divine union.”[1]

Christian Contemplatives and Contemplative Practices Throughout History

“Contemplative prayer is by no means a modern addition to Christianity. Contemplative Christian prayer has representatives in every age. A form of contemplative prayer was first practiced and taught by the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria including Evagrius, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great in the West, and Pseudo-Dionysius and the Hesychasts in the East.

In the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clarivaux, William of St. Thierry and Guigo the Carthusian represent the Christian contemplative tradition, as well as the Rhineland mystics, including St. Hildegard, St. Mechtilde, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroek and Tauler. Later, the author of The Imitation of Christ and the English mystics of the 14th century such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich became part of the Christian contemplative heritage.

After the Reformation, the Carmelites of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux; the French school of spiritual writers, including St. Francis de Sales, St. Jane de Chantal and Cardinal Berulle; the Jesuits, including fathers De Caussade, Lallemont and Surin; the Benedictines, like Dom Augustine Baker and Dom John Chapman, and modern Cistercians such as Dom Vital Lehodey and Thomas Merton, all cultivated practices in their lives that they believed led to the spiritual gift of contemplation.”[2]

Modern Contemplative Practices

“In the 20th and 21st centuries, initiatives have been taken by various religious orders, notably by the Jesuits and Discalced Carmelites, to renew the contemplative orientation of their founders and to share their spirituality with laypeople. In addition, several monks, such as Fathers Thomas Keating and John Main, have pioneered efforts to answer the call of Vatican II to return to the Gospels and to biblical theology as the primary sources of Catholic spirituality. The product of these initiatives is a myriad of modern prayer practices based on historical contemplative teachings.

Prayer of Faith, Prayer of the Heart, Pure Prayer, Prayer of Simplicity, Prayer of Simple Regard, Active Recollection, Active Quiet, and Acquired Contemplation are all names of modern practices based on historical practices and meant to prepare their practitioners for contemplation. The practices around which Contemplative Outreach was built, Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, are two such practices. Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina are closely derived from ancient contemplative Christian practices and are attempts to present these practices in updated formats that appeal to the lay community.

In many cases, modern Christian contemplative practices serve as a bridge in East/West dialogue as well as a way home for many Christians who have gone to the East in search of spiritual wisdom.”[3]

Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a receptive method of Christian silent prayer which deepens our relationship with God, the Indwelling Presence …  a prayer in which we can experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself.[4]

Contemplative Prayer

“We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. In the Christian tradition contemplative prayer is considered to be the pure gift of God. It is the opening of mind and heart – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing, closer than consciousness itself.” [5]

Centering Prayer

“Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate the development of contemplative prayer by preparing our faculties to receive this gift. It presents ancient Christian wisdom teachings in an updated form. Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; rather it casts a new light and depth of meaning on them. It is at the same time a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. This method of prayer is a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with him.”[6]

Theological Background

The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. It tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.[7]

The Root of Centering Prayer 

Listening to the word of God in Scripture (Lectio Divina) is a traditional way of cultivating friendship with Christ. It is a way of listening to the texts of Scripture as if we were in conversation with Christ and he were suggesting the topics of conversation.  The daily encounter with Christ and reflection on his word leads beyond mere acquaintanceship to an attitude of friendship, trust, and love. Conversation simplifies and gives way to communing. Gregory the Great (6th century) in summarizing the Christian contemplative tradition expressed it as “resting in God.” This was the classical meaning of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition for the first sixteen centuries.[8]

Wisdom Saying of Jesus

Centering Prayer is based on the wisdom saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (MT 6:6). It is also inspired by writings of major contributors to the Christian contemplative heritage including John Cassian, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.[9]

History of Centering Prayer

“Centering Prayer was developed as a response to the Vatican II invitation to revive the contemplative teachings of early Christianity and present them in updated formats. In this way, the method of Centering Prayer is drawn from the ancient practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the traditional monastic practice of Lectio Divina and the practices described in the anonymous fourteenth century classic The Cloud of Unknowing and in the writings of Christian mystics such as John Cassian, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton. Most importantly, Centering Prayer is based on the wisdom saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“…when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.”

Matthew 6.6 (New American Bible)

In the 1970s, answering the call of Vatican II, three Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, looked to these ancient sources to develop a simple method of silent prayer for contemporary people. The prayer came to be known as Centering Prayer in reference to Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer as prayer that is “centered entirely on the presence of God.” The monks offered Centering Prayer workshops and retreats to both clergy members and laypeople. Interest in the prayer spread, and shortly after the first intensive Centering Prayer retreat in 1983, the organization Contemplative Outreach was formed to support the growing network of Centering Prayer practitioners.

Today Centering Prayer is practiced by people all around the world, creating local and global networks of Christians in communion with Christ and each other and contributing to the renewal of the contemplative dimension of Christianity.”[10]

Method of Centering Prayer

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within
    • The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
    • The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer to the Holy Spirit. Use a word of one or two syllables, such as: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, and Amen. Other possibilities include Love, Listen, Peace, Mercy, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust.Instead of a sacred word, a simple inward glance toward the Divine Presence, or noticing one’s breath may be more suitable for some people. The same guidelines apply to these symbols as to the sacred word.The sacred word is sacred not because of its inherent meaning, but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our intention to consent.
    • Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period because that would be engaging thoughts.
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
    • “Sitting comfortably” means relatively comfortably so as not to encourage sleep during the time of prayer.
    • Whatever sitting position we choose, we keep the back straight.We close our eyes as a symbol of letting go of what is going on around and within us.We introduce the sacred word inwardly as gently as laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.
    • If we fall asleep, we simply continue the prayer upon awakening.
  3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
    • “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including body sensations, sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and spiritual experiences.
    • Thoughts are an inevitable, integral, and normal part of Centering Prayer. By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word” a minimum of effort is indicated. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.
    • During Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
    • The additional two minutes enables us to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.
    • If this prayer is done in a group, the leader may slowly recite a prayer, such as the Lord’s Prayer, while the others listen.[11]

Some Practical Points

  1. The minimum time for this prayer is 20 minutes.  Two periods are recommended each day, one first thing in the morning and the other in the afternoon or early evening. With practice the time may be extended to 30 minutes or longer.
  2. The end of the prayer period can be indicated by a timer which does not have an audible tick or loud sound when it goes off. There is a free Centering Prayer mobile app timer available.
  3. Possible physical symptoms during the prayer:
    • We may notice slight pains, itches, or twitches in various parts of the body or a generalized sense of restlessness. These are usually due to the untying of emotional knots in the body.
    • We may notice heaviness or lightness in our extremities. This is usually due to a deep level of spiritual attentiveness.
    • In all cases we pay no attention and ever-so gently return to the sacred word.
  4. The principal fruits of Centering Prayer are experienced in daily life and not during the prayer period.
  5. Centering Prayer familiarizes us with God’s first language which is SILENCE. [12]

Points for Further Development

  1. During the prayer period, various kinds of thoughts may arise:
    • Ordinary wanderings of the imagination or memory.
    • Thoughts and feelings that give rise to attractions or aversions.Insights and psychological breakthroughs.Self-reflections such as, “How am I doing?” or, “This peace is just great!” Thoughts and feelings that arise from the unloading of the unconscious.
    • When engaged with any of these thoughts return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
  2. During this prayer we avoid analyzing our experience, harboring expectations, or aiming at some specific goal such as:
    • Repeating the sacred word continuously.
    • Having no thoughts.Making the mind a blank.Feeling peaceful or consoled.
    • Achieving a spiritual experience.[13]

Welcoming Prayer

The Welcoming Prayer is a method of consenting to God’s presence and action in our physical and emotional reactions to events and situations in daily life. The purpose of the Welcoming Prayer is to deepen our relationship with God through consenting in the ordinary activities of our day — “consent-on-the-go.”[14]

“Deliberately dismantle the emotional programs of the false self.”

With these words, Fr. Thomas Keating instructs practitioners of Centering Prayer in his classic work on the contemplative dimension of the Gospel, Open Mind, Open Heart. The Welcoming Prayer provides a method for living Fr. Keating’s teachings. [15]


The Welcoming Prayer is a method of consenting to God’s presence and action in our physical and emotional reactions to events and situations in daily life. [16]


The purpose of the Welcoming Prayer is to deepen our relationship with God through consenting in ordinary activities. The Welcoming Prayer helps to dismantle the emotional programs of the false-self system and to heal the wounds of a lifetime by addressing them where they are stored — in the body. It contributes to the process of transformation in Christ initiated in Centering Prayer. [17]

Freedom from the False Self

The practice of Welcoming Prayer is an opportunity to make choices free of the false-self system — responding instead of reacting to the present moment. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, our practice empowers us to take appropriate action as freely and lovingly as possible in any situation that presents itself in our lives. [18]


Mary Mrozowski, one of the founders of Contemplative Outreach, formulated the Welcoming Prayer. She based it on the 17th century French spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade as well as Fr. Keating’s teachings and her own lived experience of transformation with its underlying attitude of surrender. The practice was so powerful in bringing about inner change that it soon spread throughout the Contemplative Outreach network.

“To welcome and to let go is one of the most radically loving, faith-filled gestures we can make in each moment of each day. It is an open-hearted embrace of all that is in ourselves and in the world.” – Mary Mrozowski[19]

Welcoming Prayer Method

  1. Feel and sink into what you are experiencing this moment in your body.
  2. “Welcome” what you are experiencing this moment in your body as an opportunity to consent to the Divine Indwelling.
  3. Let go by saying “I let go of my desire for security, affection, control and embrace this moment as it is.”[20]

The Active Prayer Practice

The active prayer—an aspiration drawn from Scripture for us in daily life — is short, usually six to twelve syllables. The saying of the syllables is synchronized with one’s heartbeat. While some people like to use a variety of aspirations for this purpose, it is easier to work a single aspiration into the subconscious. The great advantage of this practice is that it eventually becomes a “tape” similar to the “tapes” that accompany one’s upsetting emotions. When this occurs, the aspiration has the remarkable effect of erasing the old tapes, thus providing a neutral zone in which common sense or the Spirit of God can suggest what should be done.

The active prayer has to be repeated again and again at free moments in order to work it into the subconscious. The old tapes were built up through repeated acts. A new tape can be established in the same way. It may take a year to establish one’s active prayer in the subconscious. It will then arise spontaneously. One may wake up saying it or it may accompany one’s dreams.

Go about this practice without anxiety, haste, or excessive effort. Do not blame yourself for forgetting to say it on some days; just start up again. It should not be repeated when your mind is occupied with other things such as conversation, study, or work requiring concentration.

Examples of the active prayer:

O Lord, come to my assistance.
Lord, increase my faith.

O God, make haste to help me.
Not my will but thine be done.

Holy Mary, Mother of God.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.

Abide in my love.
Open my heart to Your love.

My God and My All.
Jesus, my light and my love.

My Jesus, mercy.  
May my being praise you, Lord.

I belong to you, O Lord.
Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Open my heart to your love
Holy Spirit, pray in me.

Lord, I give myself to you.
Lord, do with me what You will.

My Lord and my God. 
Speak Lord, Your servant is listening.

Bless the Lord, my soul. 
To you oh Lord, I lift my prayer.

Excerpted from Thomas Keating’s, Open Mind, Open Heart[21]

Lectio Divina

“Lectio Divina, literally meaning “divine reading,” is an ancient practice of praying the Scriptures. During Lectio Divina, the practitioner listens to the text of the Bible with the “ear of the heart,” as if he or she is in conversation with God, and God is suggesting the topics for discussion.”[22]

History of Lectio Divina

“Lectio Divina is an ancient practice from the Christian contemplative heritage. It was made a regular practice in monasteries by the time of St. Benedict in the 6th century. The classical practice of Lectio Divina can be divided into two forms: monastic and scholastic. The scholastic form was developed in the Middle Ages and divides the process of Lectio Divina into four hierarchical, consecutive steps: reading, reflecting, responding and resting. The monastic form of Lectio Divina is a more ancient method in which reading, reflecting, responding and resting are experienced as moments rather than steps in a process. In this form, the interaction among the moments is dynamic and the movement through the moments follows the spontaneous prompting of the Holy Spirit. To allow for this spontaneity, Lectio Divina was originally practiced in private.
The current resurgence of Lectio Divina owes much to the reformations of Vatican II and the revival of the contemplative dimension of Christianity. Today, Lectio Divina is practiced in monasteries and by laypeople around the world. New practices have also been inspired by the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, such as praying the scriptures in common, which uses the scholastic form of Lectio Divina for a group experience of praying the scriptures. Though the method of Lectio Divina has taken slightly different forms throughout the centuries, the purpose has remained the same: to enter into a conversation with God and cultivate the gift of contemplation.”[23]

Method of Lectio Divina

  1. Reading (Lectio): Read a Scripture passage listening with the “ear of your heart.” What word or phrase captures your attention? Repeat it gently.
  2. Reflecting (Meditatio): Reflect on and relish the words. Be attentive to what speaks to your heart.
  3. Responding (Oratio): As listening deepens, allow responses to arise spontaneously — praise, thanksgiving, questions, petitions.
  4. Resting in (Contemplatio): Simply “be with” God’s presence as you open to deeper meanings of the Word of God for you.[24]

In Lectio Divina we read a passage of scripture either alone or in a group and hear it and how God is speaking to us through that reading. When done in a group, different voices read the same passage and each time we can focus on different aspects. I have seen this done with three readings of the text:

  1. The first time through we focus on the word God is giving us and when we respond we give only that word,
  2. The second time is a phrase or sentence and when we respond we give only that phrase,
  3. The third time through we leave ourselves open to God and respond with whatever God has put on our hearts.

























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