While writing Centering Prayer: Sitting Quietly in God’s Presence Can Change Your Life (Paraclete Press, 2021 https://amzn.to/3tEQuHe), I had the privilege of reading close to one hundred books and articles on the topic. Below are my favorites. I’ve divided them into three categories: ancient, classics, and second generation books.
Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer https://amzn.to/3y1lELF
Evagrius was a 5th century monastic. He studied carefully the growth opportunities and challenges faced by women and men who had moved into the desert to devote themselves to simplicity, silence, solitude and stillness in the presence of God. His systematization of the inner life and how to grow deeper in God’s grace sounds a timely as it did almost 1500 years ago. Evagrius describes the “eight evil thoughts” that will afflict in some form most persons who desire to devote themselves to God. I highly recommend this volume. This edition comes with introductions to both sections that will give you additional background information on the life, times, and theology of Evagrius. The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer are brief and can be read in a long sitting or as I’ve done read devotionally bit by bit each day.
Cloud of Unknowing https://amzn.to/39yqHJX
Written by an anonymous contemplative in medieval England, the Cloud of Unknowing is one of the main sources used my Thomas Keating and his fellow monastics to formulate the ideas behind the contemporary practice of centering prayer. The author of the Cloud uses the imagery of a cloud of forgetting and a cloud of unknowing to describe the silent spaces between our thoughts/feelings/mental-tapes in which we may encounter the God who loves us in deep contemplation. You’ll be inspired by the descriptions of the inner-world as well as the practical wisdom for deepening your prayer life with God.
Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation https://amzn.to/3HBzPKE
New Seeds is Morton’s classic guide to the inner life of contemplation. He wrote before the phase “centering prayer” was coined but his book is a must read for anyone interested in a deep life of prayer. Merton captures the psychology of what happens to us internally from practicing silent meditative prayer including the burning away of idolatrous ideas about God and being transformed for even more loving service in the world. New Seeds is one of those books in which you can literally highlight almost ever single line. I’d advise reading it slowly so that you can ponder deeply Morton’s wisdom.
Keating, Thomas. Open Heart, Open Mind https://amzn.to/3N2ULuM
Thomas Keating was one of the founders of the centering prayer movement. He worked with a group of fellow Trappist monks to formulate and teach a method of silent prayer that could be taught to persons outside of a monastery. He produced a large number of books (all of which are valuable and helpful) but Open Heart, Open Mind is his classic. I highly recommend it as a place to start reading about centering prayer.
Second/Third Generation Centering Prayer Guides:
Bourgeault, Cynthia Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening https://amzn.to/3y0c8bo
Cynthia Bourgeault is a scholar and a Protestant voice in the centering prayer movement. She learned from Keating and the other first generation centering prayer teachers. Bourgeault’s books are not always easy to read as she writes in a more academic fashion than others on this list. But her insights and ability to tie centering prayer to its earliest Christian roots are always helpful and enriching. Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is my favorite of her books because it focuses specifically on the inner transformation that God works in centering prayer. She reflects deeply on what Keating coined the “divine therapy” that God conducts on us in our times of silent contemplation.
Arico, Carl. Taste of Silence: Centering Prayer and the Contemplative Journey https://amzn.to/3ykJ6Dx
Fr. Arico was an early student of Thomas Keating and continues to teach centering prayer today. Arico’s book is practical, accessible, and offers an in depth discussion of inner purification that leads us to lay aside the false self and live more out of our authentic true self. He also includes helpful historical and biographical insights into the forerunners of centering prayer as well as a helpful discussion of the connections between lectio divina and centering prayer. Great book.
Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Practice of Christian Contemplation https://amzn.to/3xytiLT
Laird offers a rich description of the inner life. He is one of the clearest writers on the actual experience of sitting in silence with God. He uses a powerful metaphor of three gates to describe the challenges and the depths of the contemplative experience. He offers a masterful guide to deploying a prayer words of different types to help us release our attachment to our thoughts/feelings as a means of experiencing the depths of contemplation. Laird offers several compelling case studies of persons achieving significant growth through the contemplative prayer time. In my opinion, Laird’s book is among the best of the best of recent authors because he combines deep insight with ease of reading.
Lewis, Rich. Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self Through Centering Prayer https://amzn.to/39B3C9C
Lewis offers one of the most practical guides to the practice of centering prayer. Lewis is a lay person and writes as a practitioner from the “real” world of work and family. He shares from his own experiences as a father and husband. Rich’s journey to God is shared with the reader. I appreciate his clear writing and his ability to make centering prayer and its fruits accessbile to the world. Here is one of my favorite passages: “Centering prayer helps me reconnect. It helps me remember who I truly am. I am loved by God. God loves me just the way I am. I no longer need to feel anxious. That is not who I am. That is not who God sees” (p. 142). By the way, Rich and I collaborate on a monthly centering prayer gathering that we offer free of charge to anyone interested. You can find out more by signing up for updates at Rich’s site: www.silenceteaches.com or my contacting me at the link at the bottom. You can also check out the interview that I did with Rich: https://youtu.be/Ii42SY2KN0Q.
O’Madagain, Murchadh Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious https://amzn.to/3mXOZQF
Fr. O’Madagain’s book was the first centering prayer book that I read. One of my mentors in centering prayer shared a copy of it with me. I devoured it. Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious is a revision of the authors doctoral dissertation. Don’t let this scare you. It’s readable and provides an outstanding introduction into the historical/theological roots of centering prayer, offers a critique of it, and also defends centering prayer against those who would argue that it’s more new age or eastern mysticism than an authentically Christian practice. O’Madagain’s book is one of my true favorites. I had the privilege of interviewing him on my podcast so check it out if you are interested: https://youtu.be/O-W99AxYdZw.
What are your favorites? What books would you suggest that I add or subtract from the list?
If you are interested in learning more about centering prayer, sign up for updates from me, invitations to centering prayer gatherings, and videos to help you build/strengthen your practice: www.centeringprayerbook.com or if you have questions about centering prayer, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Brian D. Russell, Ph.D.