On the use of the prayer word
(from Centering Prayer by Basil Pennington )

I do not think it is too gross an oversimplification to say that there are essentially two kinds of prayer or meditation: the effortful and the effortless. Zen, especially of the Rinsi school, is effortful. The meditator adopts a very rigid posture, one that calls the whole being to a certain keenness of attention. The eyes are kept partially open. The meditator is goaded on with the stick. The mind works relentlessly with its enigmatic koan. Finally there is the breakthrough. The chick pierces the shell. The Risen Lord bursts from the tomb. The meditator enters into the universal compassion of the cosmic Christ.

The discursive meditation of many of the later Christian methods is of this effortful sort. The meditator works with intellect and affections until suddenly the truth breaks open and reveals itself in all its wonder, and then he or she can be present to it in contemplative awe and adoring love.

Transcendental Meditation and the mantric type of prayer taught by Father John Main are of the effortless type. One simply lets go, employing as gently as possible the assonance of a specially chosen sound-word to facilitate the letting go, ever ready to let the mantra itself go.

Centering Prayer also is of the effortless type. That is why it is important to relax, to find the place, the posture, the chair that facilitate this, and gently to close the eyes, for it is estimated that twenty-five percent of our psychic energy is expended in seeing. (p.66-67)


If we have a real relation going with God, then we have a name for him that quite spontaneously comes to mind when we turn our attention to him. And that is, often times, the word that best serves us as our prayer word. It is not infrequent that for a Christian the prayer word is the holy name of Jesus. And it is then, when the prayer word is Jesus,  that the two great traditions, springing from the one source, reunite. Centering Prayer and the Jesus Prayer are once again one, as they were long ago in the hearts of the Fathers of the Desert.

The prayer word, then, might well be a name or a vocative word; yet it need not necessarily be. I know a very beautiful sister for whom the prayer word is "let go." That expresses the whole essence of her relation with her Divine Beloved. It is true that such a prayer word is more than one syllable, it is more than one word. And such a sentence might well lead to a certain amount of intellectual or conceptual activity. We have to take care. As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing has said: "If your mind begins to intellectualise over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity." We can be quite free in choosing a prayer word that is meaningful to us.

Here is perhaps something of the difference between Eastern techniques and Christian prayer. "Where the Spirit is, there is freedom”. The typical Eastern technique, seeking to achieve something in itself by the very activity of the one performing it, demands absolute fidelity to the technique until the end is attained. For the Christian, prayer is always a response. God initiates the activity and indeed is the source of our response. We, the prayers, move with the Spirit of God. "We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit prays within us. . . ." We are human. We are incarnate. We can and do we methods. But we can use them with the greatest of freedom. And the use of a prayer word is a method most suitable for us as Christians. God has spoken to us. We have received the Revelation. We have received the Word. If God speaks his love to us most totally and eloquently in a human Word that is divine, we can most aptly respond in a human word that is divinised by faith and love in the action of the Holy Spirit.

The mantric type of prayer taught by Father John Main, while retaining this essential Christian note, and in this way appealing to the same, Cassian tradition, yet approaches more closely the Eastern techniques. Indeed, in his writings and talks Father freely acknowledges his dependence on the experience he had at the feet of a Hindu master during his service in the East - an experience that was brought to fullness when he became a Benedictine and came into contact with the teaching of St. John Cassian. Thus, instead of having the meditator choose his or her own meaningful prayer word, Father encourages each to use the word ‘Mar-an-ath-a’, a word chosen for its assonance and because for most Christians it does not have strong conceptual connotations. And this word is to be repeated constantly during the time of prayer. Father concludes his remarks in one article:

As to frequency, you must say the mantra for the entire time of your meditation to the rhythm you find for yourself. You will be tempted to rest on your oars. . . . The way to transcend the temptation is absolute fidelity to the mantra. This is the condition of rooting it in your heart.

This approach is quite different from that of Centering Prayer. As the third rule of Centering Prayer states:

Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else we simply gently return to the Presence by the use of the prayer word.

We do not use the prayer word constantly. It sort of hovers in our mind, somewhat like white sound. In an office or library or bank, we sometimes find quiet background music. It is not there for people to stop and listen to it. Rather, it is there to block out or blur other sounds so we can be more free to attend to our errand. And so the prayer word, recalled at the beginning of our meditation, lies quietly in our consciousness, leaving us free simply to attend to the Lord of our love. We do not make any effort to repeat the prayer word. We certainly do not turn it into an affective ejaculation. Nor do we make an effort not to repeat the word. We certainly do not judge the perfection of our prayer either by the frequency or infrequency with which we use the word. We do not make it the aim of our prayer to decrease the frequency with which we use the word. We simply seek to be wholly present in love to God present to us, and whenever something draws us away from that Presence, we very gently employ the word to return fully to the Holy Presence.

We may indeed find that some days we seem to have to use the word constantly. No matter. This should cause us no distress. We just repeat the prayer word as gently as possible. To begin to get distressed, or to try to use the word forcefully to eliminate thoughts will only take us more out of the Prayer. 'The gentle repetition of the word will, on the other hand, place us ever more deeply and to-tally in the Prayer, the movement into God that goes on underneath the thoughts and surface activity. (p.72-74)


In Centering Prayer we sink down into the quiet depths, where there is only a simple, peaceful flow from our Source into the Ocean of Infinite Love. What serenity, what tranquillity, what peace; what vitality, what power, what refreshment! But, on the surface, a lot of activity is still going on. Thoughts are still careening along, feelings are being evoked, sounds are hitting our eardrums. And every once in a while, a flashy vessel or a particularly interesting one arrests our attention and we find ourselves surfacing-or perhaps we have fully surfaced and all but climbed aboard the enticing boat before we are aware of having left the peaceful depths.

It is at this point that we use our prayer word. We do not so much turn from the thought or feeling. We do not think (another thought) of letting it go. We simply - with the gentlest repetition of our prayer word, maybe only the faintest recollection of it - return to the Presence. The author of The Cloud says, "It is best when this word is wholly interior, without a definite thought or actual sound." We simply, peacefully sink again into the depths. It is as gentle and effortless as that: a sinking down into the depths. If we but let ourselves go, we have a natural propensity to rest quietly in our Source. And so, throughout our prayer time, the thoughts, the feelings, the sounds, the images continue. We just let them flow along. Our attention is elsewhere. (p.75-76)


We use the prayer word when we need it and to the extent we need it' and always gently. The thoughts and feelings and images will always be there. But it is only when we become aware of them, when they have drawn our attention away from the depths, from the Beloved, to themselves, that we need to deliberately-but always gently-employ our prayer word to return to the Presence. For the rest, we let the word simply be there. It may repeat itself, faster or slower, stronger or weaker; it may take up the rhythm of our heart or of our breath (though we do not in any way seek to bring this about, or give any attention to either of these), or it may fuzz out and be more of a silent image than an actual sound. No matter! Our attention is to the Presence, known in faith, embraced in love; the word is incidental, a useful means, used when a means is useful.

In prayer we seek God. We do not seek peace, quiet, tranquillity, enlightenment; we do not seek anything for ourselves. We seek to give ourselves, or, rather, we do simply give ourselves, even without attending to ourselves, so whole is our intent upon the one to whom we give: God. He is the all of our prayer. If thoughts and images and feelings careen around in our head and in our heart, little matter. We pay no attention to them. We do not seek to get rid of them any more than we seek to entertain them. As we give ourselves in our loving attention to God, we also give them to him. And let Him do with them what he wants to do with them.

And that is the point of them..... Contemplative prayer does call for a quite different attitude toward thoughts than does active or discursive prayer. Here, in the totality of our gift to God, we simply give him all, even the thoughts and images and feelings that flow through our minds. All are given simply to him to let him do what he wants with them. (p.76-77)