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The contemporary form of centering prayer was discovered, initially taught, and developed while Trappist monk Thomas Keating was serving as abbot of his order's mother house in Spencer. Keating had been very involved in reforms resulting from the Second Vatican Council's call for spiritual renewal in the Catholic Church. He had also observed that young Catholics were leaving the Church in droves to join Hindu ashrams and Buddhist sanghas. In 1971, he attended a meeting of Trappist superiors in Rome. Addressing the monks, the late Pope VI invoked the spirit of Vatican II. The pontiff declared that unless the church rediscovered the contemplative tradition, renewal couldn't take place. He specifically called upon the monastics, because they lived the contemplative life, to help the laity and those in other religious orders bring that dimension into their lives.

Keating came away from the meeting determined to make a contribution. He asked the monks at St. Joseph's to search for a method rooted in Christian tradition that would make contemplative prayer more accessible to those outside the monastery. The novice master at St. Joseph's Abbey, William Meninger, found a simple technique in the 14th-century Anglican classic, The Cloud of Unknowing

. Meninger called it the "Prayer of the Cloud" and began teaching the method to retreat participants at the abbey guest house. Another St. Joseph's monk Basil Pennington began teaching it to religious men and women. At the very first workshop given to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Pennington frequently quoted his friend and correspondent Thomas Merton who often used the term "center" when describing prayer in his writings. By the end of the workshop, participants were referring to the technique as "centering prayer."

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