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Centering Prayer Meets the Vatican

by Dan DeCelles


The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of' the Faith warned about the dangers of blending Christian prayer and Eastern methods of meditation (e.g., Zen, Transcendental Meditation and yoga). Although Some Aspects of Christian Meditation does not single out any persons or schools of thought by name, many of its warnings apply to the centering- prayer literature, including the writings of Abbot Keating and his spiritual disciple Father Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. Both have backgrounds in Eastern meditation methods and cite those experiences favorably as instructive for today's Christians.

Larger Work

New Heaven/New Earth

Publisher & Date

Unknown, April 1990

Contemplative prayer has a long and venerable history among the many forms of Christian prayer. Centering prayer, by contrast, is the new kid on the block. It claims to be a technique of prayer that helps a person enter quickly and almost effortlessly into contemplation. (See below for fuller descriptions of each.) According to its advocates, anyone, at any stage in the Christian life, can use centering prayer with spectacular results.

Abbot Thomas Keating, O.C., one of its main proponents, says, "To move into that realm is the greatest adventure ... a new world appears within and around us and the impossible becomes an everyday experience."

Last December the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of' the Faith warned about the dangers of blending Christian prayer and Eastern methods of meditation (e.g., Zen, Transcendental Meditation and yoga). Although Some Aspects of Christian Meditation does not single out any persons or schools of thought by name, many of its warnings apply to the centering- prayer literature, including the writings of Abbot Keating and his spiritual disciple Father Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. Both have backgrounds in Eastern meditation methods and cite those experiences favorably as instructive for today's Christians.

Early in the document the author, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, describes how the church Fathers combated early "errors" that affected the way Christians thought about prayer. He says, "Such erroneous forms, having reappeared in history from time to time on the fingers of the church's prayer, seem once more [today] to impress many Christians, appealing to them as a kind of remedy, be it psychological or spiritual, or as a quick way of finding God."

Several elements of these ancient errors find expression in centering prayer. At the end of this article, we'll look at two of these: a mistaken understanding of "union with God" and an overemphasis on the experiential dimension of prayer. First, though, I want to call attention to the phrase "a quick way of finding God." This phrase indicates the most obvious problem centering prayer has.

When God bestows the gift of contemplative prayer, it is normally to more mature Christians. The word "normally" is important. God is sovereign and gives his graces as he chooses, but normally he reserves this gift for those who have made some progress fighting vice and growing in virtue and in the fruit of the Spirit. This usually takes time.

Centering prayer, on the other hand, promises any Christian at any stage access to contemplative prayer. The impression its promoters give is that a person only has to read a brief description of the method, find a quiet room and, after a few minutes of "centering," experience a deep, contemplative sense of God's presence.

The promise of quick results may help to explain the popularity of centering prayer, but it cannot be dismissed as a mere sales gimmick. It is a direct antidote to what its promoters regard as a problem afflicting modem Western culture. Says Abbot Keating, "To the objection that we might be introducing contemplative prayer (to people] too soon, my answer is that our contemporaries in the Western world have a special problem with discursive meditation because of the ingrained inclination to analyze things [which] has led to the repression of our intuitive faculties.... This conceptual hang up ... impedes the spontaneous movement from reflection ... into contemplative prayer." What's needed, he suggests, is a method like centering prayer, a "means of exposing people to the actual experience ... essential to get beyond the intellectual bias."

People looking for a quick way of finding God are likely to run into two temptations that have plagued Christians from the beginning: to take a negative view of the material world, and to think contemplation is something they can attain all by themselves.

First, let's look at the proper way a Christian values the material world. God chose to come to us through the material world. He chose to reveal himself to us in the spoken words of the prophets, in his sovereign interventions in human history, and, above all, in Jesus, his eternally begotten Son, made man in time and space. He chose to redeem us through the physical death and resurrection of this man. He chose not to take us out of this world after we are united to him in baptism, but to leave us in the world. God even chose the physical sufferings we endure on this earth as a way we can draw closer to him, following in the footsteps of his Son.

It should not surprise us, then, that God wants the believer to approach him in and through the material world. "To grasp the depths of the divine," says Cardinal Ratzinger, the Christian meditates on the earthly life of Jesus. God reveals these depths "through the human-earthly dimension." When the Christian sees Jesus, he sees the Father (jn. 14:9); he grasps "the divine reality in the human figure of Jesus, his eternal divine dimension in its temporal form."

However, this sort of "human-earthly" meditation is considered a hindrance in centering prayer. "in centering prayer we go beyond thought and image, beyond the senses and the rational mind, to that center of our being where God is working a wonderful work," says Father Pennington "just sitting there, doing nothing. Not even thinking some worthwhile thoughts or making some good resolutions-just being." Abbot Keating goes further, "if you are aware of no thoughts, you will aware of something and that is a thought. If at that point you can lose the awareness that you are aware of no thoughts, you will move into pure consciousness .

Cardinal Ratzinger has reservations. He warns about methods which "try as far as possible to put aside everything that is worldly, sense perceptible, or conceptually limited." An approach of this sort to prayer may actually be "an attempt to ascend to or immerse oneself in the sphere of the divine, which as such is neither terrestrial, sense perceptible nor capable of conceptualization."

Besides the temptation to reject the material world in this approach there is another problem-indicated by Cardinal Ratzinger's use of the word "oneself" in the last quote-the temptation to ascend to God by one's own power or strength. In fact it is God's choice, not ours, whether we enter the sphere of the divine. "God is free to 'empty' us of all that holds us back .... to draw us completely into the Trinitarian life of his eternal love," but this gift is granted "not through our own efforts."

In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila noticed that as some Christians prayed they tried to stop thinking pre-mature, before God had given the grace of contemplation. In Interior Castle she said, "be careful not to check the movement of the mind ... and to remain there like a dolt." A century later, the church was confronted with a still more passive form of prayer in the teachings of Miguel de Molinos. It did not take long for "quietism" to be condemned.

Centering prayer's advocates occasionally remind their readers that contemplation is indeed a gift from God, but their clear and constant message is that God will give the gift. Every time. To everyone who uses the method. Their insistence that anyone can master the Centering-prayer technique and their virtual guarantee of success will lead many to a do-it- yourself approach to contemplative prayer.

Centering Prayer

Rule 1: At the beginning of the prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the "Our Father" or some other prayer.

Rule 2: After resting for a bit in the center in faithful love, we take up a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.

Rule 3: Whenever in the course of the prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by the use of the prayer word.

(Centering Prayer, by Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., pg. 65)

Contemplative Prayer

[When Gods calls a person to contemplative prayer] the soul is no longer inclined to meditate by itself, to reason on the great truths of faith so as to arouse itself to acts of love of God. It receives "a supernatural recollection" which it could never acquire by its own efforts and "which does not depend on our own will." It is no longer the soul recollecting itself, it is God who recollects it and draws it toward the inner sanctuary. This is the beginning of contemptation, properly so called; it is infused since we cannot procure it for ourselves by our activity aided by grace.... In contemplation "the soul understands that the divine Master is teaching it without the sound of words." - - - Under this infused light "the soul is inflamed with love without comprehending flow it loves."

(Christian Perfection and Contemplation, by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., pp. 244-2.46, quotations are from various works of Teresa of Avila.)

In the beginning of this article we saw that centering-prayer advocates promise quick results. They create in people the expectation that the loftiest of contemplative experiences is theirs for the asking, with Little or no preparation required. We showed how this can lead to a do-it-yourself approach to contemplation, and to an unhealthy contempt for the material world.

The second major area of problems with centering prayer has to do with its notion of union with God. Both Father Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating speak of recasting ancient Christian wisdom on contemplative prayer in a 'new package' more acceptable to modern Christians. (Whether what they've packaged is the genuine article is debatable.) In their zeal to sell centering prayer they overemphasize the role of the contemplative dimension of the Christian life.

Union with God is objectively brought about by baptism. It is deepened daily through our obedience to him and our death to self, and through various means of 'grace available to us in the church. A Christian's personal experience of this union-the subjective aspect-varies from day to day, even from hour to hour. At times we are more subjectively aware of our objective union with God. Thus, even when he is in the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2), the mystic is not necessarily more united with God objectively than is the construction worker when he faithfully toils for his family's livelihood.

In a recent document, Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger uses the example of Jesus' earthly life to support this point. What sustained Jesus in his eternal union with his Father was doing his Father's will. "My food is to do the will of my Father" On. 4:34). Of course, Jesus went off to pray in solitude, but this, too, was part of doing his Father's will "By the will of the Father he is sent to mankind, to sinners, to his very executioners, and he could not be more intimately united to the Father than by obeying his will"

Union with God, then, comes precisely from doing God's will in the whole of life, in all its aspects, minute by minute in all one's activities. Union with God does not result from the effects of a singular or special experience, but from the fact of one's whole life.

Contemplative prayer, notes Cardinal Ratzinger, is only one aspect of a life lived in union with God. "The person who prays can be called, by a special grace of the Spirit, to that specific type of union with God which in Christian terms is called mystical."

The proponents of centering prayer, however, talk about union with God as though it meant the contemplative experience alone. In any lesser state of consciousness (say, when concentrating on one's work at the factory), one is not in full union. This blurs the distinction between the objective and subjective senses of union with God and, in effect, it devalues the normal day-to-day life of the Christian. Yet it is through-and perhaps especially through-the burden some aspects of this life on earth that God brings us into deeper and deeper union with himself. Contemplative prayer, when it is God's will for us, is never the whole of his plan.

Another problem with their concept of union with God has to do with a paradox that has puzzled people for a long time. How can two persons be one? As we become more one with God, do we become less ourselves? Father Pennington says, "Men we go to the center, we leave behind time and place and separateness. We come to our Source and are in the Being from which we ever flow and in which we ever stand and apart from which we are not."

This talk of leaving behind "separateness" puts the centering-prayer people on thin ice, theologically. Lying close underneath is a sea of pantheism, the heresy that God and his creation are of the same substance and essence. Abbott Keating says,

Our basic core of goodness is our true self. Its center of gravity is God .... God and our true-Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing.

In a section describing early Christian-errors that still tempt us today, Cardinal Ratzinger says they incite us "to try and overcome the distance separating creature from Creator, as though there ought not be such a distance." Discussing the valid Eastern Christian understanding of "the divinization of man," he says that, to grasp that concept accurately, "it is necessary in the first place to bear in mind that man is essentially a creature, and remains such for eternity, so that an absorbing of the human self into the divine self is never possible."

It is likely that Cardinal Ratzinger is primarily concerned here with Christians who borrow from the Hindu teaching on the individual's future immersion in the anonymous Brahma, or impersonal deity. When Christians indiscriminately borrow non-Christian methods of meditation they run the risk of also borrowing the philosophy that the methods both reflect and sustain.

Christian mystics throughout the centuries have found it difficult to describe their experience of union with God in prayer. The German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-c.1328), for example, tended to use imprecise language and was rightly criticized for pantheistic tendencies. It's difficult to say whether the problem with centering-prayer language is due to their dabbling in Eastern meditation techniques or to their reading of certain Christian mystics. It's likely that we are seeing the effects of both influences.

This brings us to a third problem with centering prayer: an over-emphasis on the experientially satisfying dimension of prayer. Father Pennington says, "Prayer should be spiritually refreshing ... it is also geared to be psychologically refreshing. It should moreover be physically renewing and strengthening."

Says Abbot Keating, "through the regular practice of contemplative prayer the "dynamism of interior purification is set in motion." Lest anyone confuse this purification with that described by traditional spiritual writers, he adds, "This dynamism is a kind of divine psychotherapy, organically designed for each of us, to empty out our unconscious...."

Speaking about Eastern methods of meditation, Cardinal Ratzinger says, "Some people turn to these methods for therapeutic reasons.... [They] seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance." Undoubtedly this is true of some of those attracted to centering prayer. Hearing it described as "a kind of divine psychotherapy," they would begin to approach prayer in a way that is basically self-oriented.

When the centering-prayer people instill this expectation of prayer in their followers they run a great risk. "Christian prayer," says Cardinal Ratzinger, "flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual pritvatism which is incapable of a free openness to the transcendent God." The person who comes to prayer looking for a psycho- logical quick-fix may well never encounter God.

One of the frustrating things about reading Father Pennington and Abbot Keating is that they seem relentlessly inconsistent. Just when you think you've got them pinned down on an issue, you come across a statement to the contrary. Perhaps that’s the nature of the topic, not lending itself to careful analysis. Perhaps it's their own background in Eastern thought, and its aversion to Western logic.

In any case, I've tried to isolate some of their more questionable emphases and to show, in light of the Vatican's recent document, why these are potentially dangerous for Christians. Whether they intend it or not, it's just too easy to come away from the writings of Father Pennington and Abbot Keating with a false view of the Christian life in general and of Christian prayer in particular.

The most helpful effect of the centering-prayer movement may be that it reawakens in the Christian people a thirst for a deeper prayer life. It is true that as we mature in the Christian life God calls us to more intimate modes of communion, to drink more deeply from the fountain of life.

When he does we will find the methods of prayer we are accustomed to no longer as fruitful, and to cling to them would be a mistake.

Cardinal Ratzinger is not trying to hold anyone back from progress in prayer. Rather, he says, as we follow the leading of the Lord we should be careful to avoid the temptations that have historically ensnared Christians. The person who thinks God is calling him on to a deeper form of prayer should seek out "an expert in the life of prayer," for counsel and direction. Such a practice has a venerable tradition in the life of the church, he notes. "Christian experience has known of this practice from the earliest times, from the epoch of the desert fathers."

Given the current proliferation of questionable schools of spirituality the possibility of getting some really bad advice is significant. For this reason it is also imperative that one's adviser have a good sense for what is authentically Christian. He must be "an expert in sentire cum ecclesia (perceiving with the church)." Such a "spiritual father," lie says, can "lead his pupil in a dynamic way, heart to heart, into the life of prayer, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit."

New Heaven/New Earth, April 1990

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