SP2527 Spiritual Life and Leadership
Spring, 2010
San Francisco Theological Seminary

Topic: Centering Prayer

Description: Centering Prayer is a spiritual discipline designed to facilitate our ability to listen and respond to God’s presence more fully in our lives. It develops an ancient prayer form of meditative prayer (as presented in The Cloud of Unknowing) in a contemporary idiom. Centering Prayer is an apophatic form of prayer that can help us to co-operate with God’s gift of grace by moving beyond thoughts, words, images and feelings into the silence of our hearts. It is there, at the center of our being, that we learn to attend to the Spirit of God who dwells within. It is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer, and it in fact depends upon the regular practice of cataphatic forms of individual and corporate prayer that rely on thoughts, words, and images. During the time of Centering Prayer, our intention is simply to rest in God’s presence and consent to God’s action within. At other times, our attention and intention moves outward to discover and respond to God’s presence in the world. Centering Prayer is a discipline to be learned and practiced regularly as an integral part of our spiritual life in the community of faith.

During this semester, we will practice Centering Prayer in plenary and small groups, exploring the importance of silent listening to God for our daily lives and our ministry in the church.

Place:  Geneva 100, San Anselmo
Time:  Wednesday, 8:30-10:10 a.m.
Staff Kijung Nam (G 317), Sarah Walker Cleaveland (G 320), Daeseop Yi (G 312), Samuel Hamilton-Poore, Elizabeth Liebert

Required Reading

Anonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing. Edited and introduction by James Walsh. Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2004.

Recommended Reading:

Reininger, Gustave., ed. Centering Prayer in Daily Life and Ministry. New York: Continuum, 1998.
________________, ed. The Diversity of Centering Prayer. New York: Continuum, 1999.


Course Objectives:

  1. To learn the practice of Centering Prayer; demonstrated through attendance and weekly practice during class, in both large and small groups.
  2. To be able to lead Centering Prayer in a small group setting; demonstrated by taking at least one turn leading Centering Prayer within the small group setting and receiving feedback from the members of the small group.
  3. To understand the theological and historical roots of Centering Prayer, and to articulate a place for this and similar apophatic spiritual practices in the Protestant Christianity; demonstrated by small group discussions of The Cloud of Unknowing and in final reflection paper.
  4. To engage in small group spiritual guidance as a forum for spiritual formation in a congregational context; demonstrated through regular attendance, discussion and debriefing in the context of a small group.
  5. To learn and practice spiritual reading as a method of spiritual formation, as we read selections from The Cloud of Unknowing.

Student Requirements/ Expectations:

  • Attend regularly, since the process is the content and the small groups cannot function effectively with unstable membership. Notify Beth Liebert and Daeseop Yi or your group facilitator in advance of an unavoidable absence. (Objectives 1, 3, 4)
  • Show up on time at 8:30 for scheduled large group practice so as not to disturb others’ prayer. The outside doors will be locked at 8:35 until prayer is finished.
  • Actively participate in your small group. Share your experience, wisdom and questions and listen carefully to others. (Objectives 2, 3, 4)
  • Read the required readings reflectively and spiritually (see below for directions). While these readings should expand your understanding of the process we are experiencing, we will not generally employ much class time to de-brief them—they are about the experience but they are not the experience itself. You may feel free to raise points from the reading during the small-group time, so prepare one paragraph response to the reading and submit it to your small group leader (Feb 17, Mar 3, Mar 17, Apr 7). The readings should show up explicitly in the integration paper at the end of the semester. (Objective 5)
  • Write a reflection/integration paper. This paper is to be a dialogue between the student, the semester’s reading, and the actual experience of Centering Prayer in the course— insights, attitudes, skills, personal spiritual intentions, adaptations for ministry settings and so on. Due April 21. Length: 4-6 pages double spaced (12 point font). Please Provide 2 Copies of This Paper. (Objective 3)

Grading:  Pass/fail only. Timely and regular presence is essential. To receive credit, participants are expected to be on time for class, and no more than two excused (and no unexcused absences) may be incurred. These requirements exist for two reasons: skills cannot be learned without practice—the content is the process—and groups cannot reach their necessary depth without stable membership. If it is necessary to seek an excused absence, please contact either Beth Liebert or your small group leader before the session that you will have to miss.


Process for Reflective (Spiritual) Reading:

  • Allot a separate ½ hour sitting, if possible at a time and place in which you will not be disturbed. Begin each session by allowing yourself to relax and let go of the events of the day. Notice that the style of reading that you are about to undertake will engage different aspects and levels of your person than the way you usually read assignments. This style is more in the nature of “listening” from the heart than comprehension with the mind alone. 

  • Pick up the work and read slowly, ruminating as you go. Explore it as long as it speaks to you. Continue with the chapter or article, proceeding without hurry. When you reach a place that draws and captures your attention, pause and explore it. Proceed through the chapter or article, spending the entire time reading and pondering. If it helps to write about your reflections, do so. Do not take more than one chapter or article at each sitting. You may not finish a chapter in a single sitting. If this be the case, simply begin where you left off at your next sitting.

  • Repeat this process at your next time designated for spiritual reading, giving ½ hour to the next chapter—or simply resume where you left off the preceding time. Continue until the assignment is completed. If you have done any journaling while you read, you may want to look over your notes before the next class.


Course Outline:

February 3: Brief Introduction to and Initial Practice of Centering Prayer, Course introduction and orientation: participants, syllabus, readings, plenary and small group process, organization of items relative to spirituality concentration.

February 10: The Method of Centering Prayer; small group covenanting and discussion.

Assignment: Bourgeault, Ch. 1-3,

February 17: Historical Introduction to Centering Prayer; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment: Bourgeault, Ch. 4-7

February 24: Theological Introduction to Centering Prayer; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment: Bourgeault, Ch  8; Introduction to the Cloud, pp. 51-62, Cloud, Prologue, and Ch. 1- 4

March 3: Biblical Images in Centering Prayer; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment: Introduction to the Cloud, pp. 62-67, Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 5-13

March 10: Psychological Introduction to Centering Prayer; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment: Bourgeault, Ch. 9-10, Introduction to Cloud, pp. 67-69, Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 17-23.

March 17: Centering Prayer as Counter-Culture; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment: Introduction to the Cloud, pp. 69-75, Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 24-30


March 31: Centering Prayer and Protestant Christianity; plenary and small group practice.

Introduction to the Cloud, pp. 75-78, Cloud of Unknowing, Ch, 31-34

April 7: Centering Prayer and Discernment; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment: Introduction to Cloud, pp. 87-90; Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 50- 61

April 14: Centering Prayer for Cultivating Self and Benefiting Others; plenary and small group practice.

Assignment:  Bourgeault, Ch. 11-13

April 21: Centering Prayer and Daily Life; plenary and small group practice. (Daeseop)

Assignment: Bourgeault, Ch. 14, Epilogue

Semester REFLECTION PAPER due. Please hand in TWO copies.

April 28: Centering Prayer and Ministry, Leading Centering Prayer in the Church; Closing reflections; bookkeeping and course evaluation