The Difference Between Centering Prayer and Contemplation — And Why It Matters


Q: I have a question about Centering Prayer, that has come to me after rereading David Frenette’s book about Centering Prayer. He talks as though Centering Prayer may, and sometimes does, morph into contemplation. I’ve also read I think, that Fr. Keating called Centering Prayer “the lowest rung on the ladder.” So my question is: What’s the difference between Centering Prayer and contemplation, and why does this matter?

A: Thanks for this question.  The difference between Centering Prayer and contemplation is subtle and important.  There are two ways that this matters, practically, for us.

The first way this matters has to do with how we relate to Centering Prayer.  There are many approaches, methods or practices that open us to the much broader gift of contemplation.  For example, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, and the Prayer of the Heart are all specific practices with instructions and actions that can be communicated in words, while contemplation is the more experiential resting that is communion in God’s life, beyond the instructions and actions of any practice.  Acknowledging the difference between practice and contemplation matters so we don’t make an idol of our method, so we don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself, so we are always ready to be drawn further by God along a journey beyond the literal words and actions of any methodology.  We don’t want to become Centering Prayer fundamentalists!

The second way this matters has to do with what we do in Centering Prayer. In beginning Centering Prayer we need to act, to do some very simple things.  Mostly though, at the beginning of Centering Prayer we need to receive the guidance of our unseen partner, God, in contemplation.

According to mystical theology, there is a difference between acquired and infused contemplation.  The first is based more on what we do, and the second on what God does in prayer.  Practice and gift – doing the simple guidelines of Centering Prayer and being open to being led by God in contemplation.

I recall Fr. Keating saying decades ago that this distinction becomes blurred in the long-term practice of Centering Prayer.  Like when two partners have more experience dancing together.  At the beginning of the dance it needs to be clear who is the leader and who is the follower.  As the dancers become more experienced and intimate it becomes less evident who is leading and who is following, who is receiving.  There is just the dance, one action. Improvisation happens.

In prayer God really is the source of our actions, although we may not experience this at the beginning.  Knowing so matters because then we can trust even more so in God’s presence and action in Centering Prayer, in activity, and in human nature. So what really matters in Centering Prayer is learning to live in the paradox of the co-mingling of action and gift, all held in God.

I hope this description is helpful.  And good wishes on your Centering Prayer, at its beginning as you are being led, and at its most intimate as you learn how to let God’s presence act in you.

– David Frenette