Prayer words help focus heart and mind

One of the most challenging things to do in a fast-paced world is to pray.  We can go a whole week before we realize that the only time we prayed was at church or over a meal or two.  When St. Paul instructs us to “pray unceasingly,” we wonder whether he really meant it.

Perhaps it would help if we considered that there are different types and methods of prayer.

Take, for instance, the various forms of prayer.  The most common is intercessory prayer in which we pray for others.  Then there are prayers of gratitude: “God is great, God is good…”

A more difficult type of prayer is silent, reflective prayer, also known as centering prayer.  Centering prayer is simply a time to be with God and to give Him undivided attention.

Centering prayer, unlike the others, emphasizes method and form.  And, as mentioned before, it is rather difficult. Our society values noise, stimulation, and entertainment–we must always be busy!  Centering prayer promotes just the opposite–it is silent, restful, and (at times) boring.  In fact, it can feel like a total “waste of time.”

But it is not a waste of time.  Ever spent quiet time with a loved one and realize that being quiet was actually a valuable use of time?

Spiritual forefathers and foremothers in the Christian tradition have come up with certain techniques to encourage centering prayer.  One is to use a “prayer word.”  This is a word that helps focus one’s wandering, distracted mind back to God.

For example, when we are trying to pray, we may find ourselves thinking about that load of laundry we forgot in the washing machine.  You are no longer “centered” in prayer with God; you are distracted.  By saying your prayer word, you get back on track and focus your attention back on God.

A prayer word should come to mind easily and not create another set of distractions altogether.  Author and spiritual director, Cynthia Bourgeault, states that a prayer word should be “emotionally neutral.”  It does not intend to replace prayer or even be prayer.  According to Bourgeault, it acts like a yarn around your finger: it brings you back to God.

In scripture, we find that Jesus referred to God as “Abba” throughout his ministry.  Although it is a stretch to call this Jesus’ prayer word, we may use it as an example of how even our Lord used a consistent, albeit unique, grammar to begin prayer.

Throughout history, spiritual masters have come up with some interesting prayer words, including love, faith, listen, be still, abide, and so on.  Whatever your word is, it should be concise, no longer than one or two syllables.

Bourgeault also recommends using a prayer word over a long period of time.  The more you use it, the more it becomes a friend that helps you find your way back home to God.

I can affirm this from personal experience.  Recently, my mind was dizzy with thoughts after a long day of ministry.  I still had so much to do, and I was anxious about my daily agenda.

I knew that I needed to quiet my mind and turn to God.  I immediately shut my eyes, took a deep breath, and thought of my prayer word.  Since I have had the same prayer word for about three years now, it quickly helped me push those nutty thoughts aside and find a place of rest with God.

Although having a prayer word may be foreign to many Christians or denominations, I encourage you to develop a prayer life that utilizes this little technique.  It may make a difference and help you experience God in a whole new way.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

4 thoughts on “Prayer words help focus heart and mind

  1. Dear Pastor Joe,

    I’ve taken the liberty of posting all of your short essay on my blog and have given you all the credit for your wholesome encouragement. All of this is in response to a conversation I had with a young man last evening. You can see the context at Thanks for your witness and gracious writing.

  2. When Michael Bush was pastor at Conyers Pres., he invited a monk from the monastery to come and teach a class to the staff on centering prayer. It didn’t make the use of a prayer word, but of sitting in a circle and being completely quiet for a long time. I believe it was about an hour. It was a great exercise in that you never realized how much your world was focused on speed and going to the next thing – but you weren’t supposed to! It took a lot of discipline to stay with it, but it was meaningful once you began to do it.
    Michael practiced centering prayer daily.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: