What Contemplatives Think of Their Prayer Practice (and What We Can Do To Grow in Prayer)

Over the years I’ve had the privilege to speak to many people who practice, or are interested in practicing, Christian forms of silent prayer. Since I myself practice Centering Prayer, I’m thinking primarily about Centering Prayer practitioners, but I imagine that the issues we’re going to look at are equally common among people who practice other methods of silent or interior prayer, like the Jesus Prayer, or Christian Meditation, or the Prayer of Quiet.

Sometimes people confide in me that they are unhappy with their experience of Centering Prayer. Usually in conversations like this, really only two concerns arise. Pretty much everyone who feels dissatisfied with their silent prayer practice feel that they are making one or both of these mistakes:

  1. “I’m not doing it right;”
  2. “I’m not doing it enough.”

Let’s look at these each in turn.

Honing Your Practice of Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer, on the surface, looks almost ridiculously simple (and easy). It’s a basic four-step method, the guidelines quoted here verbatim from Contemplative Outreach:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
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.
3. When engaged with your thoughts,1thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Simple, right? But anyone who tries this apparently-simple way of praying soon discovers how challenging it actually. We all have distracted minds that are prone to wandering, easily lost in daydreams, memories, worries and hopes. Songs or conversations can stuck within, seemingly on an infinite loop. We get drowsy and perhaps even fall asleep — or conversely, get fidgety and antsy, finding it impossible to simply relax into the time given to prayer. The instructions are so simple: “When engaged with thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word,” but sometimes minutes or even the entire prayer period can seem to go by before we remember that simply mandate to return to the word!

What seems even worse, for so many of us (I know this has been my experience), is that even after years of Centering Prayer, I’m still prone to any or all of the above. Yes, some days I seem to gently sink into a place of peaceful rest, trusting God’s hidden presence in the silence — but I’m just as likely to get caught up in another distracted-and-distracting train of thought that seems to lead anywhere but a sense of prayerful consent to “God’s presence and action within.”

Ergo… it’s easy to draw the conclusion “I’m not doing it right.”

What can we do — to do Centering Prayer “right”?

I have a few thoughts on this topic, and hopefully one or more of these perspectives might help you to have a more constructive relationship with the Centering Prayer method.

  1. Remember, “thoughts” are part of the process. The third guideline is very explicit: “When engaged with your thoughts…” — it doesn’t say “If” engaged! The guidelines for Centering Prayer assume that you, and me, and everyone everywhere who ever practices this form of silent prayer, will have to deal with distracting thoughts. And the footnote to Guideline 3 is also important: “thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections.” So just about anything that draws your attention away from silence and/or the sacred word falls under this category of “thought.” You feel itchy somewhere? That’s a thought. Drowsy? Another thought. Having an involved daydream about meeting somebody cute in the Bahamas? Just another thought. Centering Prayer uses the word “thought” in this specific way to refer to any or all distractions in our conscious awareness. So having such thoughts — even a lot of them — during Centering Prayer is not a problem. If you deem it is a problem — well, that’s just another thought!
  2. Silent Prayer always teaches humility. Humility not in the secular sense of humiliation, but in the classic contemplative sense of down-to-earth and unassuming. The point is simply this: if we practice Centering Prayer, or other forms of silent prayer, we will not be perfect at it. One medieval book of contemplative instruction, The Cloud of Unknowing, suggests that we have highly distracted/distractible minds because of original sin. If that kind of traditional theological language leaves you cold, just chalk it up to “the human condition.” Like it or not, we have minds that are prone to wander, and limited capacity to simply rest in open, unfocused silent awareness. Now, I do believe that persevering in the practice of silent prayer will help us to become, relatively speaking, less distracted and more present to silence, but there will always be the experience of imperfection (which is why even seasoned practitioners get frustrated with their thoughts). So what do we do with this? We learn to accept it. This is not easy, especially for someone who may be affluent, highly educated, successful in their career, and used to excelling at anything they try. This simple, gentle, silence-based spiritual practice proves to be their match. They cannot “master” it, no matter how hard they try. In fact, putting a lot of effort into “mastering” silent prayer, typically backfires and leaves the mind more distracted than ever. Ironically, the best response to feeling like you’re a failure at this method of prayer is learning to focus your attention on God’s love rather than on the quality (or lack thereof) of your response. The more you focus on God’s love, the more you come to see that this is what really matters when praying in this way.
  3. Sometimes the thoughts can be a blessings. Once again, this may see counterintuitive, but it is a theme that many contemplative teachers return to. In her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault describes a prayer practice called the Welcoming Prayer, originally developed by Mary Mrozowski. The Welcoming Prayer is a simply process of responding to overwhelming or emotionally charged thoughts that can arise during silent prayer. It’s a simple process and I’ve written about it elsewhere. For now, let’s just observe that, once again, thoughts are seen as an ordinary part of a silent prayer practice — even powerful, emotionally charged thoughts. In fact, much of Fr. Thomas Keating’s teaching involves recognizing that silent prayer creates the space in our hearts for the Holy Spirit to heal us of our hidden wounds, traumas, painful memories and sins. As we seek to heal these old wounds and challenges, they typically bubble up — especially during prayer. The takeaway: distracting thoughts are not necessarily a problem during prayer, they can actually represent a deep healing process within, below the threshold of our awareness.

There’s much more to say about each of these perspectives, but hopefully this post represents a start: instead of judging our prayer as “we’re not doing it right,” we can bring a gesture of acceptance, humility and trust toward the process, warts and all.

Balancing Centering Prayer With the Rest of Life

“I’m not doing it enough.” “I don’t spend enough time on it.” “I wish I were more disciplined.” These comments can come from both beginning and seasoned silent prayer practitioners, and seem to be pretty much universal: I’ve heard this from folks who are struggling to get started, as well as from folks who have been dedicated to contemplative living for many years. Those who don’t pray every day wish they did. Those who only pray 10 minutes a day wish they would give 20 minutes; those who do it once a day think they ought to do it twice. Just like everyone wishes they made (or had) more money, everyone wishes they were more dedicated to a stable, daily, robust prayer practice.

But I compared prayer to money for a reason. Most people with some sense of spiritual values understands that money can be a trap — as someone once said to me, “If you make $500 an hour, you’ve got $500-an-hour problems.” The person with only $10 in the bank wishes they had $1000, while the person with $1000 wishes they had a million — and the millionaire wishes they had a billion. In money, “enough” doesn’t exist, until each individual decides for themselves, “this is okay.”

Perhaps Centering Prayer works in a similar way. We can get caught up in measuring ” how much we do it” as if we can quantify how we respond to infinite, unconditional Divine Love. Our culture worships at the idol of “Bigger is Better” and so we bring this sensibility to our prayer practice. So the first question we have to ask ourselves: is the impulse to prayer more simply a manifestation of my own avariciousness, here expressed in a spiritual way? If the answer is yes, then perhaps we need to learn letting Centering Prayer be “enough” no matter how frequently or infrequently we practice.

Sometimes, the desire for “more” can be ego-driven. I want to be the “best.” Or it can be a subtle way of trying to escape some other problem (“I’m miserable in my marriage, but if I pray enough, then I can cope). Taking the time to honestly and vulnerably admit to ourselves what is really going on in our hearts can be an important part of establishing and maintaining a satisfying prayer practice.

But if, after careful discernment, we truly believe that the Spirit is stirring our heart to grow a more consistent and stable prayer practice, then our task is to frame this not as a judgment on our current deficiencies, but as an invitation to future growth.

I think it’s a beautiful thing to want to pray more. So I hope that anyone who ever feels “I should be praying more” (whether referring to silent prayer or any other form of prayer) can take some time to reframe this away from self-judgment (“I should be”) and toward spiritual longing (“I want to open my heart — and my days — more fully to Divine Love”).

I suspect that for many of us, simply reframing our spiritual desires as desires rather than as self-judgment may be all that it takes to recalibrate our lives to allow more time for prayer on a more regular basis.

But there is also the matter of resistance.

I may genuinely desire more prayer. I may have thought this through and am careful not to judge myself for not being where I’d like to be. Still, it seems that something always comes up, or there’s always a fire to put out on my calendar, or for whatever other reason, I just never get around to actually praying, or on the rare occasions when I do, I feel so rushed and squeezed for time that I can barely pay attention to the fact that I’m praying!

If this is where you are, then I encourage you to pray about this (verbally — have an honest chat with God) and to confide in a friendly spiritual director. Talking over your resistance can be one way to become less resistant, and sometimes another person can offer us insights into how our behaviors can sometimes be self-defeating or self-limiting. If all else fails, your spiritual companion can be an accountability partner, gently (without shame) inviting you to remain true to your commitments, day after day.

A Final Thought

Both “I’m not doing it right” and “I’m not doing it enough” have the same inner yearning encoded in them: a desire to be closer to God, more intimate with God, and more fully present with God. That is a beautiful desire, and well worth cultivating.

So if you are concerned that your Centering Prayer practice isn’t what it could be, take heart. Recognize your desire for God, a desire that was planted in your heart by God, as a mirror image of God’s yearning for you. Rest in that yearning. It is the flow of love that will sustain you for all eternity. It is a good place to be.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.