HAMDEN – Once a month, a group of laypeople and women religious gathers at the Caritas Christi Center to deepen their relationship with God through a method of silent prayer called centering prayer.
They are just a few of a growing number of people who are seeking a more intimate union with God and experience of God’s presence in their lives through a form of prayer that draws upon the church’s rich, centuries-old tradition of contemplative prayer.
“It’s growing because people are hungry for God … people are hungry for silence,” said Sister Carolyn Severino, an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who is coordinator of the Connecticut Chapter of Contemplative Outreach Ltd. She paved the way for the chapter’s birth at Caritas Christi in 2001.
“It brings you to an awareness of the divine presence within,” she noted. “It’s another way of prayer. It doesn’t replace other prayer; it enhances it.”
Beginners are encouraged to practice centering prayer twice a day for 20 minutes. Carving out that time, given daily distractions and busy schedules, can be difficult. So, weekly or monthly community groups enable members to practice together, share personal experiences and deepen their understanding of centering prayer.
The chapter is part of Butler, N.J.-based Contemplative Outreach Ltd founded in 1986 by Father Carl Arico, current president; Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler; and Father Thomas Keating, one of the architects of the modern Christian contemplative prayer movement.
Its roots can be traced to the ’70s when Father Keating attended a meeting in Rome during which Pope Paul VI called on the members of the clergy to revive the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in the lives of both monastic and laypeople.
Taking the call to heart, he, along with the other Trappist monks Father William Meninger and Father Basil Pennington at St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass., developed a modern method of Christian contemplative prayer.
They drew upon works such as The Cloud of Unknowing, a manual often reserved to those more advanced in the spiritual life because it can easily be misread by beginners, as well as the prayer of great saints and Catholics such as Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton.
Leaders note that centering prayer is not to be confused with Transcendental Meditation, Hindu or Buddhist methods of meditation or New Age techniques, but is rooted in Scripture and a form of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer called lectio divina, or divine reading.
“Centering Prayer, so popular today, is only a new name for one of the techniques for entering apophatic prayer. Both ‘apophatic’ and ‘kataphatic’ are Greek derivatives, signifying two approaches to prayer,” explains Msgr. David Q. Liptak, executive editor of the Transcript. “Both forms are solidly anchored in the tradition, having their origins in the apostolic age. Any authentic course in spirituality (also known as ascetical theology or mystical theology) includes the study of both forms.”
Jesuit Father Frederick G. McLeod suggests using centering prayer as a means to apophatic prayer. He suggests that one “choose a simple word [e.g., God] and then reject whatever thought, image or feeling that may well up so as to center one’s attention solely upon the reality beyond the word. This state is called the cloud of forgetfulness. For it blocks out every creature …. from one’s awareness and turns to confront the cloud of unknowing hovering between God and self.” (Spirituality Today, Spring 1986)
“It’s a monastic practice that comes out of the ancient, contemplative tradition,” said Mrs. Fitzpatrick-Hopler, who estimated that Contemplative Outreach has about 150 chapters worldwide with 25,000 to 30,000 people “on our email list…and it keeps on growing.”
“We encourage the weekly and monthly groups as a way to get involved, find support and recommit to the daily practice,” she said. “People today don’t even stop for five minutes … they juggle five or six electronic devices; so making space for 20 minutes in their life seems like a long time.”
It takes discipline for beginners to find a time and place to sit in silence and prayer, she explained, and open themselves to contemplative prayer. “But over time, people see changes in their lives and attitude toward living. They begin to listen, really listen to themselves and not just react automatically.”
At Caritas Christi, participants typically gather for two hours on the last Saturday of the month to watch a teaching video of Father Keating, sit in silence for 20 minutes of centering prayer, and meditate on the coming Sunday’s Gospel with lectio divina.
“People come because they’re seeking to deepen their relationship with God,” said Mrs. Fitzpatrick-Hopler, who noted that many Catholics turn to centering prayer before or after Mass, or during adoration. “Maybe they’ve tried other things. Or they feel they’ve been called to silence and the ‘still soft voice in the wind’ like the prophet Elijah.”
Father Bill Sheehan, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who has directed many centering prayer retreats at Caritas Christi, agreed. “There’s a real interest, a real thirst,” he said, and “a basic yearning, a desire within the human heart for God.”
“As Saint Augustine reminded us, ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,’” he wrote.
The fruits of this prayer, he continued, are becoming more aware that “God is very present in our lives moment by moment.”
“That awareness becomes a motivating force for putting on the mind and heart of Christ, putting love into our lives and building up a community of peace, justice and love,” said Father Sheehan.
Other centering prayer groups meet in Litchfield, West Hartford and Middletown. As part of the prison outreach ministry, Sister Carolyn also offers centering prayer at the New Haven jail where she serves as a pastoral minister.
“I think it’s growing because the world is so busy, we need something…we need help,” said Mrs. Fitzpatrick-Hopler. “And this is one of the helps.”