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Spreading the (Quiet) Word on Centering Prayer

September 20, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

It's a quiet -- how could it be anything else? -- but growing trend. About 5,000 people are active in the Christian contemplative prayer movement in Southern California, with more than 80 groups meeting weekly.

This according to statistics compiled by Contemplative Outreach, an international ministry founded by Thomas Keating. The 80-year-old Trappist monk is the father of the modern centering-prayer movement, a Christian response to Eastern religions' contemplative traditions.

Keating, who lives at a monastery in Snowmass, Colo., will hold a daylong seminar on contemplative prayer Saturday in San Diego.

The public session featuring Keating, author of the best-selling "Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel," is part of a five-day international conference sponsored by Contemplative Outreach, an ecumenical nonprofit devoted to spreading centering prayer worldwide.

Centering prayer, a quieting of the mind to allow for God's presence and guidance, was developed by Keating and two other Trappist monks in the 1970s. They based it on classic contemplative traditions in Christianity, including those of the ancient church fathers and the practices of 16th century mystics St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

With contemplative prayer, "our private, self-made worlds come to an end; a new world appears within and around us and the impossible becomes an everyday experience," Keating wrote in "Open Mind, Open Heart."

"Yet the world that prayer reveals is barely noticeable in the ordinary course of events."

Following the Reformation, Roman Catholic Church leaders restricted its contemplative prayer tradition to selected priests and nuns as a protection against what the Vatican said were post-Reformation heresies by mystics within Catholicism.

With Vatican blessings, Keating and his fellow monks dusted off the practice in the 1960s and '70s at a time when the Catholic Church was losing parishioners who felt drawn to the contemplative practices of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism.

It's the same longing that boosted Contemplative Outreach's numbers in Southern California since it began locally in San Diego in 1995. The group said that about 56,000 people in 44 states and 22 countries have signed up for its newsletter.

"Something deep inside me was looking for this quieting prayer that is beyond words," said Marie Howard, a Marina del Rey resident and volunteer for the 19-year-old Contemplative Outreach. Keating has drawn "the blueprint for the spiritual journey of an adult."

Devotees pray for 20 minutes at a day, twice daily. The idea is to allow distractions, worries and emotions to drop away, leaving you alone with God and receiving direction for your life.

"It brings a change in attitude," said Marlene Rogers, who volunteers at the San Diego chapter. "You're less judgmental. You don't expect so much of others. You're more inclined to reach out."

The centering prayer is being taught to inmates in Southern California jails and in 12-step addiction programs, Rogers said. Contemplative Outreach also holds frequent introductory seminars and retreats.

Organizers say more than 600 have signed up for Saturday's Day of Enrichment, whose theme is "Finding Peace at the Center: A Contemplative Response." Besides Keating, Wayne Teasdale, author of "A Monk in the World," is scheduled to speak. The day will also include times for prayer, discussion and lunch.

Tickets are $70; $75 at the door. Information: (619) 226-6000 or

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