The “Prayer of The Cloud” is a title given to an approach to prayer based upon The Cloud of Unknowing, a devotional book written in the mid to late 14th century in England, by an anonymous author. This prayer has a beautiful simplicity to it, offering a simple, childlike way to be present with God through praying a simple phrase or even a single word.
In the 1970s, several Christian writers began calling “the prayer of The Cloud” by a new name, Centering Prayer. In M. Basil Pennington’s (OCSO) signature book, Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form, he writes about a time prior to 1970 when he and others “had been speaking of ‘the prayer of The Cloud‘– referring to The Cloud of Unknowing, the primary written source we were employing – or simply ‘a method of contemplative prayer.'”
Pennington describes how to pray in this simple way of prayer, quoting from the author of The Cloud: “A one-syllable word such as ‘God’ or ‘love’ is best.” Pennington writes, “During the progress of the prayer [of The Cloud], we seek to employ . . . the subtlest and most human of symbols, a very simple word.”
Pennington offers four guidelines for praying the prayer of The Cloud, of learning Centering Prayer:
Guideline One: “At the beginning of the Prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in or depths.” As Paul writes to the Church in Colossae, “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27).
Guideline Two: “After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take up a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.” As the writer of Ecclesiastes warns, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” The most often used prayer phrase is often called “The Jesus Prayer,” or “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The prayer phrase I pray is Jesus’ invitation in John 15:4. “Abide in me, and I in you.”
Guideline Three: “Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence [of Christ] by the use of the prayer word [or phrase]. The Lord our God invites us to return and find our rest in His Presence, as we hear in Isaiah 30:15. “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength.'”
Guideline Four: “At the end of the Prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” [The Lord’s Prayer] or some other prayer.” (quotes from Centering Prayer by M. Basil Pennington, Doubleday, 1980; pages 41, 42, 45)