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Connecting Centering Prayer and The Spiritual Exercises

Connecting Centering Prayer and The Spiritual Exercises

Two watershed experiences in my own spiritual journey were a 30-day retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts in July, 1976, and a 14-day intensive centering prayer retreat that took place at the Lama Foundation located in the mountains of northern New Mexico in 1983 led by Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. In this article I would like to identify some points of convergence that I experienced between the spiritual exercises and the practice of centering prayer. These points of convergence have become more apparent to me as I reflect upon some of the more recent insights in the writings of Keating.

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The Inner Room

Seeking to identify a core scriptural text that supports a contemplative practice like centering prayer, Keating points to Matthew 6:6, “But 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.” With this foundational text he raises an important question: if we feel attracted to the inner room, then how do we begin to access it? In other words, how do we begin to go beneath ordinary psychological awareness to a deeper level of spiritual attentiveness where we experience our union with God? Keating points out that if we desire to enter our inner room, we need to embrace a spiritual practice like centering prayer that will begin to move us from the head to the deepest level of the heart.

Once we begin to access our inner room through the practice of centering prayer, Keating raises another significant question, “What begins to happen when we enter our inner room?” He describes three moments that begin to unfold. The first moment is that we allow God the opportunity to affirm us in the very core of our being. Through its receptive nature, the practice of centering prayer allows us to receive, that is, the consent to the continuous inflow of God’s love that is being shared with us at each moment. The only activity in centering prayer is consenting to the love, presence, and action of God within us and to let go of all thoughts and just be.

Receiving and Consenting

It is in this initial moment of being in the inner room that I experienced the first point of convergence between the spiritual exercises of Ignatius and the practice of centering prayer. I recall that during my thirty-day retreat, as I prayed over the principle and foundation, I was encouraged to pray for the grace to accept the gift of God’s unconditional love. As I prayed over Scripture texts like Psalm 139, Isaiah 49, or John 15, the power and presence of God’s Word seemed to bring me to “my inner room.” The awareness of God’s unconditional love, revealed through God’s word seemed to arise now from within my heart. There came a point in this experience that I was given the grace to accept, or as Keating would say, to consent to the gift of God’s unconditional love. It was as though I experienced a “transfiguration moment” in which I felt a deep sense of God’s love. For me this moment was an acute awareness of being radically connected to God and creation. This was a special grace as I felt very secure and a new kind of communion with God.

Growing in Trust

The second moment in the inner room is identified by Keating as the willingness to deepen our capacity to trust God. Growing in trust begins to arise out of the experience of being loved in the way in which God desires to love. This means being loved on God’s terms, not my own. In this second moment I experienced yet another point of convergence between the spiritual exercises and the practice of centering prayer. Both forms of prayer have allowed me to experience being loved by the One who created me. As I consented more and more to God loving me as I am, my capacity to trust God also grew.

Facing the False-self

The third moment in the inner room comes when we allow God the space to begin to “soften up” the hard core of the false-self system. In centering prayer and the Spiritual Exercises the false-self is seen against the light of God’s unconditional love. This brought for me a recognition of my need for healing. Keating describes this healing in the book Open Mind, Open Heart. He states that there are various types of thoughts that may occur in centering prayer. One type of thought is psychological unloading. This has to do with the hurts we have absorbed in a lifetime. These undigested or unprocessed hurts remain buried within our unconscious. These hurts become interior blocks that can hinder the free flow of God’s love. In the practice of centering prayer God begins to soften up the hurtful material of our lives which have been absorbed in the body. This material begins to emerge to the level of conscious awareness in the form of highly charged emotional thoughts. As we become engaged in these thoughts, the practice of centering prayer encourages us to let go of these emotionally-charged thoughts by returning ever so gently to our sacred word, the symbol of our consent to the love, presence, and action of God. The practice of returning to the sacred work gives God the space in our minds and hearts to heal the wounds at their very core.

The third moment in the inner room comes when we allow God the space to begin to “soften up” the hard core of the false-self system. In centering prayer and the Spiritual Exercises the false-self is seen against the light of God’s unconditional love. This brought for me a recognition of my need for healing. Keating describes this healing in the book Open Mind, Open Heart. He states that there are various types of thoughts that may occur in centering prayer. One type of thought is psychological unloading. This has to do with the hurts we have absorbed in a lifetime. These undigested or unprocessed hurts remain buried within our unconscious. These hurts become interior blocks that can hinder the free flow of God’s love. In the practice of centering prayer God begins to soften up the hurtful material of our lives which have been absorbed in the body. This material begins to emerge to the level of conscious awareness in the form of highly charged emotional thoughts. As we become engaged in these thoughts, the practice of centering prayer encourages us to let go of these emotionally-charged thoughts by returning ever so gently to our sacred word, the symbol of our consent to the love, presence, and action of God. The practice of returning to the sacred work gives God the space in our minds and hearts to heal the wounds at their very core.

Another way Keating describes this same process is that Jesus as Divine Healer invites us to accompany him back through the stages of our human growth and development. With our consent in the practice of centering prayer Jesus begins to heal the wounds we may carry within a particular stage. As I mentioned above, these developmental wounds begin to emerge on this level of conscious awareness in the form of highly-charged emotional thoughts. We acknowledge these emotions and thoughts, then let go of these through the use of our sacred word. In doing this we again allow God the interior space to heal these wounds.

Sinfulness and Healing

In the third moment in my inner room I experienced another point of convergence between centering prayer and the Spiritual Exercises. Keating’s teaching on psychological unloading and Ignatius’s encouragement to pray for the grace to experience one’s own sinfulness are very similar.  During my thirty-day retreat I was able to experience a renewed connection with the gift of God’s unconditional love. My director encouraged me to pray for the grace to experience my own sinfulness. In response to this grace a painful memory began to emerge before me part-way through the retreat.  This memory involved a breakdown in a family relationship because of a natural misunderstanding. As this memory began to surface with all of its emotional intensity I began to relive this past experience. My director suggested that I was being asked by God to forgive the one who contributed to such hurt in my life. I could feel the emergence of a strong resistance to forgive. Again the director encouraged me to pray for the grace to forgive so that I would be healed of the hurt that was deeply embedded in my psyche. Fortunately, working through the exercises brought about divine healing for me. This was very much like Keating’s description of psychological unloading.

I have been practicing centering prayer since 1983. Consistently I notice the overlaps with the Spiritual Exercises. Both of these prayer forms have reinforced within me the sense of being deeply loved by God. The fact that I have been able to rely on both forms of prayer has provided me with a level of spiritual strength to trust God. Such trust has allowed for other healings in my life. Now 24 years later I am profoundly grateful to God for the blessing that these prayer forms have been for me. Not only have they enriched my life as a religious and a priest, but they have substantially strengthened my conviction that God-in-Christ is experienced in living life to the full.


Recommended Reading

Barry, W.A. God’s Passionate Desire and Our Response. Notre Dame, Indiana. Ave Maria Press, 1993.

Barry, W.A. What Do I Want in Prayer? New York: Paulist Press, 1994.

Keating T. Intimacy with God. New York: Crossroads, 1999 Lantern Books, 2005.

Keating, T. Manifesting God.  Lantern Books, 2005.

Keating, T. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. New York: Continuum, 1992.


This article first appeared in Human Development, Volume 28, Number Two.

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Centering Prayer and Spiritual Exercises

William Sheehan
William Sheehan

Rev. Bill Sheehan, OMI, is an experienced retreat director and has led many Centering Prayer workshops and retreats. He has participated in Contemplative Outreach, founded by Fr Thomas Keating, OCSO, since 1983, and has practiced centering prayer and guided others in this way of prayer for more than 25 years. Fr. Bill has a rich background as a pastor, director of ministry to priests, director of formation, and director of the Oblate House of Theology. He is a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and lives in an Oblate House of Prayer in Lowell, Massachusetts.