Saturday, September 08, 2007

Centering Prayer

People seeking advice on prayer frequently ask about Centering Prayer, and others frequently refer to it (or variations of it) without being aware of it. So it might be worth putting my opinion on line, as the whole question seems topical.

The general idea of Centering Prayer is becoming aware of God as the center of one's being, the principle of life in us. For the baptized, seeking God is not exclusively to be done outside oneself, after all. The awareness of God's sustaining life comes about from detachment from all thoughts. Generally speaking, one chooses a quiet time of day and sits for twenty minutes. As one becomes aware of thoughts or other stimuli, the pray-er notes them, but then allows the thoughts to pass on, uninspected, usually by use of a 'sacred word', itself not to be 'meditated' upon, but simply to help loose our attention from the thoughts that inevitably enter the mind.

First of all, we should be clear that Centering Prayer as taught especially by the Cistercians Thomas Keating and the late Basil Pennington, is fairly nuanced. When I wrote above of people referring to Centering Prayer without being aware of it, often they speak of trying to empty their minds of all thoughts. Strictly speaking, this is more Buddhist than Christian (in fact, it probably more closely related to the state of Nirvana than any normally acknowledged states of mind in most forms of Buddhism). Centering Prayer is perfectly comfortable with thoughts being present. It is normal for our brains to generate thoughts. The question is what we do with them. Monastic practice in Christianity has always had an acute interest in thoughts, and to examine one's thoughts first requires one to become aware of them. In this regard, I find Centering Prayer as potentially very helpful. But we should be clear that those who speak of emptying the mind are giving a distorted view of Centering Prayer.

A second thing that CP is not is a means of attaining high states of consciousness. Again, the sacred word is not meant to induce a trance or some kind of transport. CP is not even aimed at any particular affective result, which puts it in good company in terms of Christian prayer in general. We pray because we are human and need to pray, not because it feels good every day. God is not a drug, but it the Almighty and Infinite Creator. The Desert Fathers considered prayer to be a battle (as does the Catechism--see para. 2275). "War against us is proof that we are making war," taught St. John Climacus. By this he means that most of the time, when we start praying, demonic forces immediately attack us to get us to stop, normally by means of distractions. Centering Prayer assists us so that the one praying pays no particular attention to any thoughts, good or bad. This trains our minds to let go of thoughts when we need to and helps us in the battle against distractions.

So I've mentioned some good points about Centering Prayer. With those as a background, let me now say that I don't normally recommend CP except for those who are fairly advanced in the life of prayer. Why not? In my opinion, the principal missing factor in the writing of Fr Keating and Fr Pennington is asceticism. I don't fault them for the omission, but we as monks should perhaps be attentive to the fact that we tend to live a fairly ascetic life by default and take for granted such helpful givens as community recitaiton of Psalms, lectio divina, spiritual reading at table and elsewhere, fasting, customary works of charity (serving at table, doing dishes) and humility (sitting in statio), obedience, silence, and so on. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote, there is no authentic contemplative prayer without asceticism. The Catechism says this:

"There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle [2015]."
"If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The 'spiritual battle' of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer [2725]."

Centering Prayer, it seems to me, risks losing sight of these realities. By contrast, in lectio divina, one is constantly confronted with challenges to reform one's life and live according to the gospel, often in disconcertingly direct ways. Fr Michael Casey writes, “We who pray ‘forgive us as we forgive’ cannot afford to live in a state of conflict with others.”

Secondly, I believe that one needs to have a very strong personal relationship with God before one can jump to the level of awareness of God as the Ground of Being. God is one who has love affairs with His people, who knows us intimately before we are even conceived in the womb. There is an infinite amount to know about God. Again, I find prayer centered on Scripture and Liturgy brings us closer to God as a Three-Personed divinity, not merely as The Divine Source.

This brings me to the last point about Centering Prayer, that it seems not to take the Trinity into account, particularly the Person of Jesus Christ. "There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ [CCC 2664]." While I don't believe that it is the intention of Fr Keating and Fr Pennington to omit Christ, the technique involved does not sufficiently acknowledge His central place, that we pray in His name.

If there are these problems, do I ever recommend Centering Prayer? I do, in fact, and I even practice it from time to time myself. The reason for this relates to the aim of detachment mentioned above, as well as awareness of thoughts. Often times our minds are so busy that we simply are unaware of the fact that we are thinking. Thoughts go directly to being imperatives without our reflecting on it. As Mother Maria-Thomas Beil once taught me, monks should aim to 'put a deliberate distance between themselves and their thoughts'. We slow down so as to intercept thoughts before we act upon them. CP helps a great deal in this effort.

Secondly, detachment even from good thoughts is part of the Evagrian method of prayer, validated by Cassian. I mentioned above that we do not pray in order to receive spiritual favors from God. Noting our attraction to such favors can help dispose us toward detachment in this realm, prepaing us for potential dryness and even dark nights (though I personally think that genuine Dark Nights are much rarer than many think; usually periods of dryness are just that: the normal valleys that affect any long-term relationship, even a relationship with God, with dullness).

Finally, I only would recommend Centering Prayer as an element within a total discipline that includes more standard types of prayer. Often times, vocal prayer and meditation bring us to a place that seems to be a dead end. CP can help illuminate the way forward. On the other hand, the practice of detachment, assisted by CP, prepares us to re-enter traditional styles of prayer with a larger tool chest, more deeply grounded in the range of possibilities in prayer, more ready to respond to difficult challenges that God has prepared for us.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I do not see how you can have it both ways with centering prayer (the pros and cons)....any prayer that is not centered in Christ and the trinity is not really Christian, IMHO.

My opinion is that Centering Prayer is too far out of the Christian and monastic tradition.
One of many examples: the use of the "sacred word" is seen as a "mantra" to help free the mind from thoughts and images. and authors like cassian are used to show that even early monks did something like this. but i do not think this is the case at all. with the early monks (especially cassian) real conversion and true humility were the goal of all prayer. when early monks cried out to Jesus for mercy (as in the Jesus prayer) or for help ("God come to my assistance")this was a cry "de profundid" from the depths of their povery and misery that cried out to God in real humility. this is a much more existential faith that is raw and rooted in our weakness and poverty.
it is a whole different dynamic from the one used in centering prayer.

also the idea that each person can just pick his own 'sacred word' goes against the whole tradition of invocatory prayer. picking a word is more a technique of self hypnosis. Invocatory prayer is based on the tradition that God is uniquely present in his Holy name that he has revealed. To call upon the name of the Lord out of our poverty and sinfulness in faith is the key to invacatory prayer as a true path of the spiritual life. It is an existential encounter with the Lord who is present in his name, so that a deeply personal encouter is truly possible.

it is almost like centering prayer does not really see how deep and profound the tradition really is and just offers a more impoverished way to people who are hungry for God and who really need to find the person and grace of Jesus Christ who comes to call who call on him in faith from the heart.

It is really hard to see how monks and monasteries take centering prayer as something serious...one could say that this acceptance of the technique of centering prayer is systemic of the superficiality of much of the current monastic spirituality.

an excellent book on all this in a way that stays closer to tradition and human experience is IN THE SILENT LAND.....i can find the author if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

I do not mean to attack centering prayer, i just think a good case can be made that it is not rooted in the catholic tradition. as a technique of self hypnosis or relaxation it may work for some and in our modern life it is necessary to learn some good relaxation techniques. but these techniques that use a mantra type of meditation are more rooted in the spiritual/world views of authors like Eckhart Tolle and Ken Wilbur and the importance of Jesus, his person and unique mission don't have a place in their theories. and this is why CP can be such a detour in one seeking to deepen his life in Christ. catholic prayer is rooted in our broken humanity that opens to the healing mercy that comes in Christ. too many priests and others make meditation some esoteric or gnostic path to God and get all caught up in the methods and techniques. Pope John PaulII made a profound observation in his letter on the rosary, that for many vocal prayer can be a valid path to the heights of contemplation....again it is the existential encounter of our humanity through faith that is important. sorry for these long posts.....but i think the points are valid.

Mr. Potato said...

Centering prayer in a self absorbed and self centered culture stewing in the New Age movement and neo-paganism of "ancient mystery cults" is not a good idea.

Prayer according to the early church fathers centered upon purity of heart, the imitation of Christ on the Cross and the good, merciful love of God who loves us (as He did the good thief) if we but recognize and acknowledge that we are sinful monsters on our own with nothing to give but what He has given us - Love.

In the Vatican's document "Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the "New Age" we read: "All meditation techniques need to be purged of presumption and pretentiousness. Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love, one which “implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from 'self' to the 'You' of God”.(61) It leads to an increasingly complete surrender to God's will, whereby we are invited to a deep, genuine solidarity with our brothers and sisters."

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.


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