Teaching Centering Prayer: The Prayer of the Heart

TIP: For more ideas on prayer see my book The Catholic Way to Pray in the Store here.

Grandma and Grandpa sit for hours on the porch in silent communication watching the leaves fall, the squirrels play, and the sun set. No words are necessary. They bask in the sure, steady flow of their love for each other.

Three-year-old Julie crawls onto her dad’s lap while he is watching football. He holds her until she falls asleep. Their love is expressed and strengthened by their presence to each other.

This same nonverbal love that human beings experience is the core of the prayer of the heart or centering prayer. Centering prayer is basically loving attention to God dwelling within us. It has its roots in the prayer tradition of the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers and incorporates the prayer techniques of the Eastern Church. I believe that we should teach our students this simple form of prayer. Some may already be practicing it, but not identifying it as centering prayer. Others might be drawn to centering prayer if they only knew about it.

Following is a lesson plan to introduce junior high students to centering prayer. In the lesson, they read a playlet (at the end of this article) that explains centering prayer. Then, guided by the catechist, they pray for about ten minutes and reflect on their experience.

Materials needed are copies of the playlet for the students; this scripture verse written on the board or a large poster: “Be still and know that I am God”; large index cards for each student; pencils, crayons, and black or blue tempera.

How to Proceed

On the board write person, place, and thing. Tell the students that though God is everywhere, we are sometimes most conscious of him in a certain person, place, or thing. We sense God’s presence there in a special way. Ask the students to recall a time when they felt very close to God. After a few minutes, invite them to share their experiences. Then ask: Have you ever sensed God’s presence in yourself? Point out that we know that God is within us from scripture, (John 14:10–21 for example). Explain that it is logical that the easiest way to get in touch with God would be to find him in ourselves. There is a form of prayer called centering prayer in which we do just that. It is quite different from the prayers we usually say.

Now follow these steps to prepare your class for doing centering prayer.

Tell this story or a similar one to introduce centering prayer:

Long ago in France, St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, noticed that an old man spent hours in the parish church. The peasant would sit motionless, doing nothing. Finally one day the priest asked him :What are you doing when you sit here?” The man replied, “I look at him and he looks at me.” In centering prayer we look at God and block out everything else from our minds.

Distribute the sheets “Prayer of the Heart.” Tell the students that this playlet will explain to them how to do centering prayer. Call on volunteers to take the five parts in the play. have them read from the front of the room. Instruct the class to listen for aspects of the prayer that appeal to them. When the play is finished =, ask a=students what they like about this approach to prayer.

List on the board the five steps of centering prayer. Elaborate on each one with the help of the following comments:
Quiet down. The best posture is upright in a straight-backed chair so your head is well supported by your spine. Your eyes should be gently closed so that you don’t waste energy seeing. To relax, you might try breathing slowly three times: exhale, take in fresh air, hold it, then exhale again.
Move towards God with you. Think only of God who is living deep within you and ponder his love for you. Be present to God Let his overwhelming love and goodness attract you. Rest in God’s presence.

Respond with a prayer word (or phrase). Some suggestions are “I love you,” “My Lord and my God,” and “I long for you.” Repeat the prayer word slowly in your mind.

Attend to God and enjoy his presence. When you know you are aware of things other than God, use your prayer word to bring you back. Don’t stop to think about how you’re doing. Let God take care of that. Just focus on giving your loving attention.
Pray a prayer. Use the Our Father of orther prayer to make the transition out of centering prayer.

Now guide the students as they pray the prayer of the heart. Offer these directions:

Notice the scripture quotation on the board: “Be still and know that I am God.” We will spend the next few minutes doing that.
Sit straight and still. Close your eyes and think only of God dwelling deep within you. Think of his great love for you. Pray with me: “Jesus, I believe that you are present in the center of my being, loving me. In these next few minutes I want to remember that I am all yours. Let me come into your presence. Draw me to yourself, Jesus.”

Remain still. Repeat the word “Jesus” or a another prayer word in your mind. Stay with Jesus who loves you. (Allow five or ten minutes of this quiet time.)

Now pray the Our Father silently and slowly.

Follow-Up Activities

  • Invite the students to write their responses to the experience of centering prayer. Did they like it? What did they feel like? Could they sense God’s presence? Then let some students respond orally if they choose to.
  • Explain to the students that if they practice centering prayer every day, even for only five minutes, they will appreciate it more and more and miss it when they skip it. Have them decide on a time and place when they personally will do centering prayer. Ask how many would like to do it in religion class again.
  • Have the students make a prayer card with their prayer word as a reminder to practice centering prayer. Distribute the index cards and have the students fold them so that they stand. Have them choose a prayer word and with pencil design it in large letters on the front of the card. Instruct them to color in the letters heavily with crayons and then paint over the entire surface of the card with black or blue tempera. The paint will adhere to the background completely, but leave only streaks on the letters. Encourage the students to keep their cards in an easy-to-see place in their rooms at home.

Prayer of the Heart: A Short Play

Background: Father Jim took the officers of St. Mary’s youth club to a cottage for the weekend to plan the year’s activities. After a day of brainstorming and swimming in the lake, the group sat on the beach and began to talk.

Characters: Father Jim, Amy, Gina, Tim Paul

Tim This has been a great day! I feel really close to God here.

Amy Me, too. Closer than when I pray my night prayers or the rosary.

Gina Father Jim, what’s your favorite kind of prayer?

Father Well, Gina, I’d have to say centering prayer.

Paul Centering prayer—what’s that? Is there a St. Centering I don’t know about?

Father No, Paul. Centering prayer is an ancient form of prayer that is becoming popular again. It takes its name from the fact that in doing it, you center all your thoughts and feelings on God, who lives in the center of your being.

Tim How do you do that?

Father Do you really want o know?

All Sure. Yes.

Father OK. The first step is to quiet down, close your eyes, and think of God within you. You empty your mind of all other thoughts, feelings, and pictures.

Tim That ought to be easy for Gina. her mind’s pretty empty already.

Gina Quiet, Tim. I want to hear this.

Father As I was saying, you think of God, believe in him and love him. You ask God to let you experience his presence, love and care.

Paul How long does this take?

Father Just about a minute. Once you’re in God’s presence, you just rest there, responding to his love with love. You use a prayer word or phrase to keep your mind on Jesus.

Amy What’s a prayer word?

Father It’s a word or phrase that expresses your feelings for God. You can probably think of one yourself.

Gina Well, when my sister talks in her sleep, she says her boyfriend’s name over and over. But I think I’ll say “Jesus” as my prayer word.

Father Wonderful. You repeat this word in your mind while you enjoy God’s presence. You say it whenever other things come into your mind. It will bring your thoughts back to Jesus.

Gina Don’t you think about anything else during this prayer—like a Gospel story or a problem you have?

Father No, you just give God loving attention and let him surround you with the ocean of his infinite love. It’s something like the swimming you did in the lake today.

Gina That sounds beautiful.

Father It is. It is so beautiful that you should end this prayer gradually, perhaps by praying a prayer like the Our Father slowly.

Paul Otherwise it’s like suddenly having the lights turned on when you’ve been in the dark.

Father You’ve got it.

Amy I don’t know if I can do this prayer. It sounds like the deep stuff the gurus are into.

Father It’s really simple, Amy—just give yourself to God and remain in his presence. it’s like a little child sitting on a father’s lap. The father is so happy that the child loves him that it makes no difference if the child says nothing or even falls asleep.

Amy I see. The important thing is that you’re spending time with your friend.

Paul Giving yourself to him.

Father Exactly.

Tim Why don’t we plan a day of recollection for the club and teach everyone centering prayer?

Father Good idea, Tim. But don’t you think you’d better try it yourself first?

Gina What’s stopping us from doing it now?

Father Nothing. Let’s pray.