Step One: Choosing a Word

I thought I’d share some more thoughts on the four simple steps to centering prayer I posted about the other day.

Step one, as you may remember, is picking a “sacred word” to focus on when your mind becomes distracted. It doesn’t have to be a word, of course, if your mind focuses better on an image, the sound of your own breathing, or something else that heightens your awareness of the divine presence. But for me, words work well, and they are also well situated within the Christian tradition where the Word (both book and Person) is so important.

Short words are best, according to the anonymous author of the classic fourteenth-century work on contemplative prayer The Cloud of Unknowing (which will most definitely be featured in a future Book of the Week post). In fact, he says a one-syllable word is better than a two-syllable word. Why? Because a one-syllable word is “an expression of the deepest intentions of your spirit.” Much like shouting “Help!” or “Fire!” in an emergency, a short word focuses the urgent desires of your heart. The number of syllables isn’t set in stone, of course. Some people even use several words – your mileage may vary. However, I find the general principle behind this advice helpful – in choosing a word, I try to distill what my heart most needs into the shortest possible word or phrase.

Anonymous also cautions us not to overthink choosing a sacred word, which again I think is sound advice. You don’t need to look it up in the dictionary or analyze all the layers of its meaning. Those may come to you later, in your active life, but in contemplative moments you should be as right-brained as you can about it. There will be plenty of time to think later – contemplative prayer is not about that, just presence and relationship.

Where to find a good word? As a Christian, I think Scripture is always a good place to start. Centering prayer pairs well with the practice of lectio divina, which basically consists of reading Scripture slowly, carefully, repeatedly, until a word or phrase consumes your attention. You can try this with favorite passages or with other texts that have deep meaning for you. Try to distill them down to their essence, to listen for their call. Again, rather than using logic, let your heart lead.

Or you can always just pick one! Here are a few suggestions:

  • God/Abba/Yahweh
  • Jesus/Christ
  • love
  • listen
  • peace
  • hush
  • grace
  • [name of someone you’re praying for]

A note about changing words: some people focus on one word for a long time, while others change often, sometimes even from day to day. I have done both, and I think there’s merit in both. Perhaps especially when starting out, there’s something very helpful about picking one word and sticking with it for awhile. Many dimensions of the word may be revealed to you, and it may shape your mind in surprising ways.  That said, it can also be great to pick a word related to what you are going through in the moment, particularly if you have urgent prayer needs or are having a hard day spiritually.

So that’s my spiel on word choice. As with everything else I say about prayer, my biggest hope is that it inspires you to pray, whether for the first time or more often!

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Snatched in the 15 minutes when I was home in an empty house… well, except for the cat. Grace was the word I chose to center on today, and even though my prayer didn’t feel very focused at the time, the word “grace” popped up unbidden in my head later in the evening: when I was being critical of myself, and when I was being critical of others, encouraging me to give grace in both situations. Love when my prayers bear fruit like that!

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.


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