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Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening

A Review

by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

“Centering Prayer” is a Christian practice that has spread around the Christian world and opened new doors to interspiritual relationships and experience. Thomas Keating is considered the ‘co-founder’ of the Centering Prayer movement, and his pioneering work continues to be an important resource for anyone interested in spiritual practice. Cynthia Bourgeault is recognized as one of the best Centering Prayer teachers, and she has simultaneously been building bridges between Christianity and other traditions, focusing on spiritual practice, wisdom, and the perspective of nonduality. Her Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004) is reviewed here by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, founders and directors of Spirituality and Practice, where the review was first published. Below the review you’ll find a compelling 53-minute video introduction to Centering Prayer from Rev. Bourgeault. And don’t miss the quotation from her book on the heart and this practice on the right. Ed.

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Cynthia Bourgeault has studied and taught in a number of Benedictine monasteries in the United States and Canada. An Episcopal priest, she is well known as a retreat and conference leader, a teacher of prayer, and a writer on the spiritual life. She is the author of Mystical Hope, Love Is Stronger than Death, and The Wisdom Way of Knowing. In this paperback, Bourgeault salutes Centering Prayer as the key to interior awakening. She has been a practitioner of this devotional discipline since 1988 and considers Thomas Keating as her teacher and mentor. He has written the foreword.

There are chapters on the method, the tradition, the psychology of Centering Prayer, and a final one on how it leads to inner awakening; the latter covers attention of the heart, working with the inner observer, the welcoming prayer, and Centering Prayer’s relevance to Christian life. Bourgeault has some thought-provoking things to say about silence, intention, apophatic prayer, self-emptying, and the purification of the false self.

We love Thomas Keating’s characterization of meditation as “taking a brief vacation from yourself.” We also are buoyed by the observation that Centering Prayer is a passport to freedom. Instead of building up the false self which is always looking after itself, this “Divine Therapy” challenges us to give it all away and empty ourselves. Seeing this devotional practice as a way of nurturing the heart is very helpful indeed.

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About the Heart

From Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault, pp. 163-64

In the modern West we are accustomed to thinking of the heart as the center of our personal emotional life and affectivity, but in the classic traditions of inner awakening, this is not so. The heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception.

The modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski gives a succinct description of the heart as it has been classically understood in the Western inner spiritual tradition:

We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. Beyond the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification because they are operating best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection with the cosmic mind. This total mind we call “heart.”1

In this beautiful definition, emphasis is placed on the heart’s capacity to create a spontaneous inner alignment between the human individual and the “cosmic mind,” or God. Its job is to look deeper than the surface of things, deeper than that jumbled, reactive landscape of ordinary awareness, and to beam in on that deeper, ensheltering spiritual world in which our being is rooted. As the heart becomes strong and clear and you are able to follow its promptings reliably, you come into alignment with divine Being and are able to live authentically out of your true self.

This is why, across the board in the three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the heart is seen as the core of the human person, the uniquely precious expression of his or her essence. That is true. But it is not because the heart, per se, is the authentic human being, but because in its role as the aligning agent, it Allows that authentic being to manifest.

1 Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self (1992), p. 157.