Contemplative Outreach has its roots in the wish of three monks living at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the early 1970s. Inspired by the decree of Vatican II, the monks wished to develop a method of Christian contemplative prayer that was appealing and accessible to laypeople. With no idea that their wish would eventually result in an international organization, Fathers Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington embarked on an experiment. Today their experiment is called Contemplative Outreach.
As abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey, Fr. Keating attended a meeting in Rome in 1971. At the meeting, Pope Paul VI called on the members of the clergy to revive the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in the lives of both monastic and laypeople. Believing in the importance of this revival, Fr. Keating encouraged the monks at St. Joseph's to develop a method of Christian contemplative prayer with the same appeal and accessibility that Eastern meditation practices seemed to have for modern people. A monk at the abbey named William Meninger found the background for such a method in the anonymous fourteenth-century classic The Cloud of the Unknowing. Using this and other contemplative literature, Meninger developed a simple method of silent prayer he called The Prayer of the Cloud.
Meninger began to offer instruction on The Prayer of the Cloud to priests who came to the monastery for retreats. The prayer was well received and as word got out, more people wanted to learn the prayer, so Fr. Keating began to offer workshops to the lay community in Spencer. Another monk at the abbey, Basil Pennington, also began to teach The Prayer of the Cloud to priests and sisters at retreats away from St. Joseph's. At one retreat, someone suggested that the name of the prayer be changed to Centering Prayer, alluding to Thomas Merton's description of contemplative prayer as prayer that is "centered entirely on the presence of God...His will...His love...[and] Faith by which alone we can know the presence of God." From then on, the prayer was called Centering Prayer.
In 1983, Fr. Keating gave the first "intensive" Centering Prayer retreat at the Lama Foundation in San Cristobal, New Mexico. One of the participants of the retreat, Gustave Reininger, previously had met with Fr. Keating and a man named Edward Bednar to discuss starting a contemplative network. After their meeting, Bednar wrote a grant proposal, which he called Contemplative Outreach, and received funds to start parish-based programs in New York City that offered introductions to Centering Prayer. This marked the beginning of the Contemplative Outreach Centering Prayer Program and a milestone in Contemplative Outreach's birth as an organization.
Other participants of the retreat at the Lama Foundation also played a large part in the growth of Contemplative Outreach. In 1985, participants David Frenette and Mary Mrozowski, along with Bob Bartel, established a live-in community in the eastern United States called Chrysalis House. For 11 years, Chrysalis House provided a consistent place to hold Centering Prayer workshops and retreats. Many Centering Prayer practitioners and teachers who now carry on the work of Contemplative Outreach were trained and inspired at Chrysalis House.
In 1986, the three monks' experiment was incorporated as Contemplative Outreach, LTD., and the first official board of directors was named. Fr. Keating served as the first president, Fr. Carl Arico as vice president, Gustave Reininger as treasurer, and Mary Mrozowski and Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler as directors. At first, the organization was run from Gail Fitzpatirick-Hopler's dining room table. After several necessary expansions, the network's international headquarters now offices in 2000 square feet of space in downtown Butler, New Jersey with the help of six full-time and part-time employees, and, of course, the ever-present guidance of the Holy Spirit.