Faith

Centering Prayer: What It Is and How to Do It

Written by Erin Martinsen

True confession: I hate prayer lists. I know some people—some especially faithful and loving people—have the self-discipline to pray through a list of all their loved ones’ needs, to confess each of their sins, to mention with gratitude each of a thousand blessings. I, on the other hand, have so many lists in my life, lists that I need just to survive, that praying through yet another turns prayer into one more chore. Every time I try to use a list, either literal or mental, I start to dread prayer—and I’m pretty sure this is not the goal.

I don’t want prayer to be a chore; I want it to be a source of life, an encounter with God that makes my days luminous and light. Fortunately, last year I learned about centering prayer, and, incidentally, the last year has been one of the best of my adult life. Centering prayer is the opposite of list-based prayer. It is about receiving God’s presence into your mind rather than talking with him. It’s about stillness rather than activity. And my experience has been that the days I begin with centering prayer are more likely to be days of lightness and joy.

Here’s what I enjoy about centering prayer, although I’m willing to believe that my love for it is in part a personal preference. In other words, it may not suit everyone (but it may suit other people like me!).

  1. Centering prayer is (mostly) non-verbal. As a fairly anxious introvert, my mind is always running. Did I do the right thing? Did I say the right thing? What is the best way to resolve this problem? Did I just embarrass myself? If I plan ahead, can I avoid this next time? This chatter is so loud that I often think it keeps me from hearing God. Because centering prayer is almost entirely non-verbal, it quiets my over-active mind and allows God to move within me.
  2. Centering prayer is about being, not doing. Praying through a list always feels like accomplishing a set of tasks (check, check, check). Centering prayer is about opening yourself to God’s presence and simply resting in that. This may be purely personal, but for me centering prayer feels like receiving God’s gracious presence rather than earning it.

So here’s what you do:

  1. Find a place where you are comfortable but where you won’t fall asleep. I like to be sitting up with my palms open and facing upward in an attitude of receiving.
  2. Focus on your anchor word or phrase, which should be very short. Some options include Jesus, Lord, God, Spirit, love, shalom, peace, mercy, faith, etc. Most people keep their anchor word for several months or years. Mine is “Yes, Lord.” This word is the symbol of “your consent to God’s presence and action within you.”
  3. Let your mind be absolutely still. If you become aware of any thoughts whatsoever, gently refocus your mind on your anchor phrase.
  4. Try to pray for twenty minutes. However, you can start with a shorter period and work your way up if necessary. I’ve found even ten minutes in the morning to be enormously helpful in framing my whole day.

Remember that centering prayer isn’t supposed to be the end of your prayer life but rather the beginning. It’s a way to receive God into your mind, opening the door for a more vibrant experience with him throughout the day. Often I pray for the requests that would otherwise go on my list as I fall asleep at night, confident that I abide in God and he in me.

About the author

Erin Martinsen

Erin is a loyal Midwesterner, born and raised in Kansas and currently living in Michigan. She and her husband Philip enjoy caring for any living thing, and their current responsibilities include two cats and a large garden full of vegetables. When she’s not gardening, Erin is usually either working as a copyeditor or studying for her master’s in theology—but her first loves are spending time with family and reading good books. And also cats.

Erin and her husband blog about life and literature at http://humandramathing.com/