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SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Can Centering Prayer be Redeemed? (Updated)

January 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Centering Prayer, Dan Burke, Hesychasm, Prayer

Dear Dan, I recently read your three part series on false prayer practices and, if I read between the lines, it seems like you believe that one can practice centering prayer in a way that is in keeping with faithful Catholic prayer tradition. Is this true, and if so, how would you justify this? 

Dear Friend, you are very perceptive. While a number of Centering Prayer (CP) practitioners attacked me for what I wrote, a few (including a priest who has practiced CP for years) were as perceptive as you are. To get to the punchline quickly, the simple answer to your question is “yes”.

Generally, the common practice of CP is:

  • Sit, breathe…
  • Repeat a sacred word
  • “Let thoughts go” as they attempt to invade your prayer time

Sounds pretty simple right? Well, it is. The challenge is that the stack of CP texts I have reviewed include a great deal more than this simple list. In fact, it is in the teachings of the broad CP movement that the real problems surface. Many Catholics who are either woefully ignorant of Catholic prayer tradition, or who have not done much substantive reading in the CP movement, don’t realize the depth of error that can be found there.


That said, the Catholic Church is never quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this case, we can take that same stance with CP if we can distance ourselves from the rampant heresy in the surrounding tradition and simply focus on a modified version of the method. Here’s how it might look (including some reflection on sound teachings from the Christian East):

Sit and breathe – It is, of course, very good to have a place of prayer where we avoid distractions and it is also good to relax and allow ourselves to separate from the worries of the day in order to turn our attention to the Lord. No problem here. As well, the use of breathing in a way that encourages peace and a rhythm of prayer is in some ways consistent with the teaching of Eastern hesychast tradition.

Repeat a sacred word – In common CP practice, this approach is problematic. Though there are claims that this aspect of CP is in keeping with ancient Eastern Christian hesychast tradition, this is a false claim at best. In order to actually align with tradition (East or West) and redeem the method in this case, the pilgrim can choose a sacred word or phrase but it cannot be “empty” as Jesus critiqued in his rejection of false pagan prayer in the chapter six of the gospel of St. Matthew. Instead, the pilgrim can chose a repetitive word or phrase that is either the name of Jesus Himself or a direct expression of love to God that would be an appropriate focus of the heart (examples for both can be found in the Psalms or you can use the “Jesus Prayer”). This approach at least begins to prepare the heart for authentic engagement with God.

Let thoughts go – In common CP practice, this teaching is gravely problematic. In one Contemplative Outreach CP training session I asked, “What if God introduces thoughts or speaks to me in prayer?” I was given the standard answer offered by CP gurus, “Let it go.” Of course this answer makes an absurdity out of the claim that CP practice is in any way reflective of a personal relationship with God. No sane counselor would ever advise that when the object of our love responds to our love, that we should then ignore them by “letting it go”. Instead, we should seek to direct our hearts to the good, the true, and the beautiful about God and allow ourselves to be drawn to Him in whatever way He desires to draw us.

Note: Don't miss the PS2 at the bottom of this post for a great audio example of the way that this can be done within the beauty of our Catholic tradition.

The astute reader will recognize that my reworking of CP is essentially an abandoning of common practice and results in prayer that is no longer CP but is instead prayer rooted in authentic Catholic or Eastern Orthodox teaching about prayer. You are right! Then why even claim it can be redeemed?

The reason is that there are many people of good-will who have unknowingly been sucked into the CP movement and who have unfortunately been deceived. Their authentic and admirable quest for God has been leveraged by another for a false agenda that is potentially damaging to their souls. The approach I propose is merely one gentle way to redeem a habitual practice that is familiar but problematic as commonly taught, and bring the seeking pilgrim back into the heart of the Church and thus to the heart of God Himself. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but just clean the bathwater and set Our Lord’s beloved baby on the path to intimacy with God.

To learn more about Centering Prayer you can also listen to a recent radio interview with renowned apologist John Martignoni on John’s show, Balaam’s Ride using this link. Be sure to check out all of John’s free resources on his site as well at www.BibleChristianSociety.com. John is one of the most effective and practical apologetics experts in the Church today.

 PS: If you have a burning desire to immerse yourself in the beautiful and untainted expressions of Catholic spirituality provided through the doctors of the Church, check out the courses at the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation.

PS2: Click here for a great example of how this kind of prayer can be properly done within the beauty of our Catholic tradition.

Art: Saint John the Evangelist in Meditation, Simone Canterini, 17th C; Freskenzyklus mit Szenen aus dem Leben des Hl. Martin von Tours, Kapelle in Unterkirche San Francesco in Assisi, Szene: Der meditierende Heilige [The Holy Meditators], Sieneser Schule, Simone Martini (1322-6); both PD-US; Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Pam H

    Reminds me of what Teresa of Avila said about those (in her own time) who were recommending that one empty one’s mind of thoughts. :o)

    • You are exactly right. She explicitly denounces any practice like this in the Interior Castles. The irony is that at the beginning of a recent Centering Prayer retreat that I attended, the Contemplative Outreach material claimed that the method was in keeping with St. Teresa’s thought. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The only way one could believe this claim is if they have little exposure or understanding of St. Teresa’s teachings.

      • Poustinik1

        Thank you Dan. Unfortunately, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross often get cited by CP and it has mislead many. Much appreciate that you mentioned the Eastern Christian method as it is very grounded and rooted in the Jesus Prayer-Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. They pray it so that in time it is prayed with the beating of the heart. Iconographers repeat this prayer thousands of times while writing Icons so that each blessed Icon we behold has been written through the power of the Holy Spirit. Byzantine Priests are very strict in their guidance of this form of prayer so as to protect their spiritual children from mixing it with current new age or CP formulations.

  • Camila

    Thanks Dan.

  • Helen Westover

    Thank you Dan. but isn’t St. Teresa’s “Prayer of Quiet” similar to CP? This doesn’t involve using a mantra, but the mind and imagination are temporarily suspended. I practiced CP for years until I had a horrible experience. I “descended” into a place where it felt as if I had hit an exposed electric wire. This kind of thing never happens during the Carmelite experience.
    This has confused me for some time, and if you have any insights here, I would deeply appreciate it.

    • Helen, good question. The answer is, absolutely not. CP is a method with surrounding teachings. The “Prayer of Quiet” is not a method, but a state of prayer. When we speak of states where the mind is suspended, we are reflecting on the realm of what the Church calls “infused contemplation.” The key word here is “infused.” Why? Because it relates to the work of God in the soul. Infused contemplation can never rightly be equated with a method. Instead, it is completely a work of God. So, if our faculties are suspended, this is the work of God. However, Teresa warns that we should never seek such a state and that God alone can draw us into that state. It cannot be achieved via a method. I would pick up a book by Fr. Thomas Dubay entitled “Prayer Primer.” You can find it in our resources section in the tab in the rust colored bar up near the header of this site. This will give you solid grounding in legitimate prayer tradition of the Church. From there, you can dig deeper into an understanding through Fr. Dubay’s fantastic work, “Fire Within” which we also recommend. It is a treatment of contemplation from a Carmelite perspective and written in an accessible way.

  • LizEst

    Thank you for this, Dan. And, oh by the way, that was a great interview you did on John’s show.

    • I don’t enjoy pointing out the problems in the Church but I feel like we are doing our best and that it is necessary. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve God’s people.

  • patricia

    Hi Dan I was introduced at early adulthood to centering prayer and the cloud of the unknowing and I was confused as I practiced it, but the way you explained it is simple clear and with value, Thank You and God Bless!

    • Patricia – yes, the Cloud is often cited as their central text. The irony is that it is often misquoted and the foundation advice of the author (which is good) is completely ignored. What is used it taken completely out of context and thereby distorted. In the end, the Cloud is used in a way that the author never intended. Aside from that, I don’t believe that the Cloud should in any way be central to any Catholic’s understanding of prayer. The Church, when seeking to understand prayer looks to the spiritual Doctors of the Church – the saints who by their lives and by rigorous vetting, have proven to be faithful guides to the faithful. The central sources for our understanding of prayer should be the Catechism, scripture, and the spiritual doctors of the Church.

      • patricia

        Yes I do believe that how can we turn away when God is speaking to us. That baffled me. Now I understand why we should not we can never be empty because God is always there in our prayers so why should we try to ignore this. This was why I was never good at the centering prayer I learned it completely wrong but now I see the richness and vitality of correct centering prayer this is consoling and helpful thanks for your post. I see the wisdom of the church and her guided maternal paternal direction in discerning what is truly Christian centering prayer. Thanks and God Bless. I look to the saints the doctors the great fathers of the church and now studying at Avila institute helps me a lot to.

        • The Avila Institute is blessed to have you!

          • patricia

            Thank you Dan I am proud and honored to be a student of Avila

  • Sr. Dorcee

    One of the things I appreciate about you, Dan, is that you look for the good while pointing out the false. It sounds to me like a Pope Francis approach . . .

    • God is good. Our faith is, after all, all about redemption.

  • orcasgymnastics

    Thank you – I facilitate a small faith formation group, and many of the participants had been to the centering prayer group led by the Episcopal Church here. In my years away from the Church I had been heavily involved in yoga and different forms of meditation, so what was being described to me as CP sounded too much like my former experiences. My simple explanation to the group was that we do not seek to empty ourselves in prayer, but rather to allow ourselves to be filled. It changed people’s minds about practicing CP, so I hope what I said was correct!

    • You are on target. There is legitimate expression regarding emptying ourselves but it is not to a solitary silence where we realize that we are God and that “there is no other” (often called non-dual thinking). Instead we seek silence but not a solitary silence. We seek to empty ourselves, but not to be empty. We are silent and empty because we seek to be immersed in God and we will find what we seek if we follow the path of the doctors of the Church.

  • Karen Howard

    Dear Dan,
    Thank you for your insights. I guess I didn’t realize there was a CP movement with more radical ideas. I have used it in the past on occasion and usually used the Jesus Prayer as mantra (Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.) Certainly the breathing and the quieting have helped dispel distractions, but as soon as God began to fill the space, I usually ran with it. I certainly wouldn’t kick him out. I thought that was the whole purpose of the prayer. I also thought it was similar to Teresa’s metaphor of the ways of water, especially like the stream beginning to seep into the ground of our souls. Thank you again.
    God bless, Karen

    • Dear Karen – you are a great example of the good and faithful folks who are on the edges of the movement but unaware of what is under the covers. The good news is that you have followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and have been protected from the poison and blessed by the Good and the good. Well done!

  • I have a question, I went on a retreat recently and the director told us to close and eyes and breathe. He told us to be aware of the hum of the airconditioner and other sounds, to calm our minds. After a while, he told us that we were in our own space. Then he told us to imagine a light entering the space.
    After having read posts on centering prayer here, that “our own space” bit spooked me. So when he talked about imagining a light, I quickly imagined it as God’s light or the Eucharist. Later he told us to imagine Jesus or to talk to God.
    My question is, was that part of “our own space” centering prayer? Thank you!

    • Dear Mary – your instincts are good. This is not an appropriate approach to prayer.

      • Thanks! Grateful to know for sure! He is in charge of the retreats every year in my law school though…so am concerned about that…

  • Lydia

    Dan, thanks for this! I think some people want an “experience” of prayer and they think that prayer should be some sort of altered state of consciousness. CP has roots in Transcendental Meditation (TM) which has nothing to do with trying to have a relationship with God – which is what Christian prayer is all about. I researched quite a bit, and until your website came along a few years ago it was really hard to find much good information online about contemplative prayer. it was all Centering Prayer calling itself contemplative prayer. CP purported to be essentially getting to infused contemplation (which truly is only a gift from God) by yourself and your own effort.

    I think it is in vogue, and has been for decades, to think that eastern (not meaning Orthodox Christian but Hindu, etc.) forms of meditation are good, and good for you. That is why you see medical and other sites and advertisements promoting meditation and yoga for relaxation, etc. It is trying to get the benefits of prayer without that pesky Christian God fellow telling you what to do. It is all “God is in me” stuff, meaning “I am God.” Or in the case of Yoga, trying to put yourself in positions to honor multiple Hindu gods (though most don’t know that.)

    Most others I think want Christian prayer, they want to learn to pray, and think this is an easy way to do it. They are led astray thinking CP is it, when in reality it is not. While prayer is not complicated, emptying your mind is not part of the bargain. Good meaning people are taught these techniques (sometimes even in their own Catholic church,) they get attached to them, and get angry or confused when they are told that what they are doing is not true Christian prayer.

    I have noticed that over the years those who are the biggest promoters of CP have toned down the rhetoric they used to use. It is now closer to what prayer is supposed to be and less like TM. This is good, but if you want a true relationship with God skip the gimmicks and learn the real thing.

    Anything by Fr. Thomas Dubay is a great start. He had a whole series about contemplation on EWTN. Go here: http://www.ewtn.com/vondemand/audio/intro.asp and type in “Dubay” into the series search box. You’ll get 6 different series that he did. Click on one, Contemplation is the one I listened to, and you can listen to the all the shows on your computer or download them to listen on your iPod.

    I think your website is fantastic and for a long time it was an oasis in the desert when it came to information on real Christian prayer and learning about the absolute richness and depth of the true teachings of the Church on prayer and relationship with God. I promote it all the time. May your apostolate grow and be blessed!

  • Matt Pantoja

    Thanks for the posts on Centering Prayer! I have been struggling with this in my own life. I first tried CP when I felt extreme dryness in my relationship with Christ. I would feel some consolation at first and for a while, but I hate to say that I would ultimately become depressed and have bad self-thoughts (instead of no thoughts). I’ve read a couple Fr Keating books and David Frennette’s book. I would find something in them that would convince me to try CP again. I would experience the same cycle of consolation – peace – depression -guilt – despair. My instinct was to treat it at bad fruit and to abandon it, but it seemed to keep coming back in my life. Your posts are giving me confidence to abandon it! 🙂
    Also, I need to say that when practicing CP, I feel like my guard dropped and I became curious about things I would not have before like what the New Age is about and etc. When a person practices CP, you are really going out in to the deep with no protection — or with shields down in a Star Trek analogy. Sorry if this is all over the place– Trying to condense a lot into a short post. Thanks again, Dan!

    • Dear Matt – you are welcome. Your experience mirrors the experience of many. The bad fruits were really the gift of God in that the positive you experienced was purely the natural outcome of a relaxation exercise. However, as you discovered, this exercise opened the door to spiritual darkness. Pope Benedict warned us against this false practice of prayer for these very reasons.

  • Jennifer

    Dan, I recently finished a small book called “Into the Silent Land” by Martin Laird. It is now my favourite book. I believe Dr. Laird does exactly what you suggest. He takes the essence of what the early mystics taught and conveys it to the reader in a simple and accessible way. The main goal is to help the faithful to cultivate a disposition of receptivity and communion with God.

    • Dear Jennifer – thank you for your note. After some research into Martin Laird’s works, we don’t recommend him. Our advice is to stick with the catechism and the tested wisdom of the spiritual doctors of the Church and those that know and teach of them.

  • Rachel Gehring

    Dan, can you comment on this topic in relation to the traditional practice of lectio divina (and it’s 4 steps) and in relation to Carmelite tradition of moving from a discursive to contemplative/active to passive state in a truly Spirit led way for advanced persons? Fr. Benedict Groeschel, in one of his books, advises a centering of the heart on the Beloved in response to distractions which I have found sound advice and very helpful. Thanks for added clarification and greetings from Idaho.

    • Good to hear from you Rachel. You are asking for a lot in a combox response! This is worthy of a book – wait – I am working on one… “;-) In summary, the early stages of prayer are characterized by our efforts to draw our hearts to Him. As we mature, we reach the end of what can happen through ascesis (human effort) and God draws us deeper. This is typically preceded by the dark nigh (i.e. John of the Cross) and an inability to meditate by actively drawing our hearts and minds to the person of Christ as revealed in scripture. The dryness and difficulty at this stage is a sign (with proper spiritual direction and diagnosis) that God is drawing us into a deeper kind of prayer. Too much to say, too little time…

      • Rachel Gehring

        Ok…perhaps my thought can be summarized: there seems to be a fine line in all this (what prompted the initial question and answer in the first place). Lectio uses a repeated word from Scripture as a spring board to deeper prayer. Advanced prayer can be imageless and wordless. Perhaps the the difference in CP versus these traditional “methods” is that the traditional is grounded in following the Spirit and accepting how God wishes to relate to us whereas CP starts well but ends by trying to manipulate God through techiqnue into a particular experience that may actually be very far from God. I think I may just be repeating what you just wrote?;-) I like Matt’s comment below of looking at fruits. It seems that the transition from active to receptive prayer is very subtle and possibly tricky as the Spiritual Director needs to be very careful not to redirect the soul to a discursive style as this actually stymie’s the soul and leads to disipation. At least that’s what I have understood from Dubay and other writers.

        • Much wisdom here Rachel. I think the key is that the Christian concept of prayer is one where we seek to have God fill us in such a way as all else is pushed out. So, rather emptying the mind so that fill it, we fill our minds with His glory and then, when he decides, our faculties are suspended. You are right about careful direction during the transition time from ascetical to mystical prayer. John of the Cross spends a good deal of energy on this for good reason.

          • Rachel Gehring

            Thanks, I think your second and third sentence clarify this a lot. Have a great day.

  • In the old days (I’m 68), we used to call what is now referred to as “sit and breathe”, “recollect yourself”. That meant, get quiet in a quiet place and recall the presence of God Who is everywhere.

    I confess that every time I hear the term, “Centering Prayer” I want to run the other way. Perhaps it is because I see it as fake and a waste of time, not genuine prayer at all. As a young child we learned from the Baltimore Catechism that “Prayer is the lifting of our minds and hearts to God.” Now that’s pretty simple. We learned that it is by the grace of God that we can pray, and that He is in charge of leading us. As St. Teresa of Avila writes, not everyone is called to contemplative prayer, so why stress out about it? Keep the approach simple and don’t get esoteric on it. Recall the presence of God. Lift your mind and heart to God. Talk with Him like a real Person. If He wants to take you someplace, take His hand and go there with Him. I’m old-fashioned and it works for me.

    • So am I, Breed. As my SD taught me the other day, Prayer is not about me, it is about God. I present myself to Him and let Him guide me. Like you, I still follow what I was taught that long time ago!!!!

  • Aimliz

    At one time I was being introduced by some friends of mine to try some other sorts of prayer. In short the whole time I was thinking “who am I connecting to exactly.” The answer from within, “was no one you need to be connecting with.” I was still feeling Gods call to me, and had felt there was more to prayer than what I was doing, but I never tried it again. I decided to stay with what I knew to be good and true, instead of try a different unknown avenue. Today I am in spiritual direction, and I am working with good instruction on mental prayer. I never grew up with it, so this is really wonderful for me.

  • sequax

    I’m so glad to read your interpretation of the Centering Prayer. When I was taught the Centering Prayer, the teacher (a young Jesuit!) used exactly the method you describe, with the Jesus prayer as the repetitive element. I LOVED this method. Then I read all kinds of alarming things about the Centering Prayer that I did not detect in his class– and I’m sensitive to pagan elements due to long history.

    Then, a bunch of people told me that this Jesuit teacher was wrong because he utilized breathing “techniques” and that this meant it was Buddhist instead of Christian. But he had said something about Eastern traditions, and they thought he meant the other. But he had also prefaced his teaching with a history of meditation and the differences, but I couldn’t remember enough of it to justify my defense of the man. So I let it go with some regret. Now I have it in writing!

  • Michaelirish

    Dan
    I have been meditating for 5 years under the training of the Christian Meditation movement led by Fr Laurence Freeman.
    You summarise the meditation as (1) Sit and observe your breathing (2) Repeat a sacred word or mantra (3) Let thoughts come and go.
    I am extremely happy with my prayer and it has enlivened my vocal prayers and gives me freedom to celebrate the Eucharist (I am a layman)
    In a word the process allows me to experience the Christ within.
    You take issue with ‘let thoughts go’. You say what happens if you get a thought from God?
    You know as well as I do that our world is sinking in a deluge of noise. Even the Catholic Church is sometimes part of the din.
    Any reference to Buddhism etc seems to cause you offense.
    My own simple attitude is based on the well known and wise statement /be stiil and I know that I am God.
    In my experience God does not come as a thought what that might be. He comes as a person and that usually is in silence when we are aware of our connectedness

    • Dear Michael – thank you for your comments. Regarding quieting the mind, the thoughts from St. Teresa of Avila might be interesting to you in the featured post today entitled, ” St. Teresa, should I strive to quiet my mind during prayer?”. Regarding your comment about my being offended by Buddhism – I have no idea how you come to that conclusion. I don’t mention it in the post and I don’t believe I have ever written a word on the topic. My comments here are in no way driven by offense, emotion, or personal preference. Honestly, it would be easier if prayer were just about a psychological exercise to quiet the mind. My frame of reference is the wisdom and teachings of the Church. In the Catholic Church, we have the fulness of the teachings of Christ (God himself). We need not go elsewhere to learn of him. Regarding how God comes to us – we can reflect our experience but I would be cautious about labeling a feeling or psychological experience as God. You may not be doing this here but it is common that in the CP movement, the feelings of the practitioner and the benefits to the practitioner become the measuring stick. In the world of true faith and true encounter with God, these things matter little if at all.

      • Michaelirish

        Dan
        I am sorry about my comment on you and Buddhism. It really was offensive on my part.
        I find the breathing techniques in other traditions very helpful in arranging the furniture in my house to host my Saviour Christ.
        I totally agree with you that prayer is the be all and end all of the spiritual life.
        Again I am sorry for such an offensive and uncalled for comment.
        The Lord be with you in your work this year.
        I have posted elsewhere on my prayer life.

        • Accepted – no offense taken. Blessings to you.

  • Voice

    Dear Dan,

    I’ve been reading the recent posts on centering prayer, and I was wondering if there is a previous article in the library or if you would mind writing an article on some good practices of how one enters into prayer, which often begins with many worldly thoughts and their is a struggle to enter into deeper intimacy with God. The burdens of life, and the limits of not having a lot of time to pray (e.g., 10 or 15 minutes during a lunch hour) and being able to find quiet, sacred places to meditate often make it difficult reduce distractions or rambling thoughts, concerns. I believe when I have heard people refer to attempts to “clear the mind” they are not referring to the ideology or practice of centering prayer but they are simply trying to move away from or reduce their rambling thoughts from worldly concerns or desires more toward the holy, to being more fully in the presence of Christ. I hope this question makes sense. Simple forms of prayer like the Jesus prayer, which I believe you referred to in an earlier article, seem to be helpful. Maybe an instructive article addressing this concern from a “how to reduce the ramble” perspective would help counter the “what not to do” as it pertains to centering prayer.

  • Pius

    Dear Dan, The post is beautiful. What do you think about the following podcast from carmelites.. http://www.carmelites.net/multimedia/the-daily-disconnect-podcast-january-11-2014/

    • Dear Pius – This podcast is great. In fact, it demonstrates how this approach to prayer can be experienced within the authentic spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church. In fact, I liked it so much, I updated the post and added a “PS2” at the bottom with the link so folks don’t miss it.

  • 1x2y3z

    DANGERS OF CENTERING PRAYER

    Dear Dr. Geraghty:

    Since there have been a few posts about centering prayer, I
    thought that I should share with you and the readers of your excellent forum a
    letter that was sent to the Homiletic & Pastoral Review by Sister M. Antionette,
    P.C.P.A. for Mother M. Angelica, EWTN, 5817 Old Leeds Road, Birmingham, Ala.
    35210 in 1994.

    The text is as follows:

    Dangers of centering prayer.

    Editor: Chris Noble’s article in HPR (March 1994) failed to
    dispel the clouds surrounding the issue of centering prayer. Our Lord and
    Savior Jesus Christ left us a definite message in his Gospel as how we are to
    live and how we are to pray, and he left us his Mystical Body the Church to
    guide us. There is no reason for any Catholic to be confused or deceived.
    Centering prayer may be hazardous to your spiritual health!

    Is centering
    prayer an ancient form of authentically Christian prayer? The origin of
    centering prayer was described by its inventor, Thomas Keating, as the
    outgrowth of a retreat given by a Zen Buddhist master (St. Anthony Messenger,
    February 1992). In Fr. Keating’s own words, “There was nothing comparable
    in the Christian tradition.” Quite correct!

    What harm can
    come from centering prayer if it “helps people to pray?” Can it be
    used simply as “an aid to relaxation?” No fewer than three Cardinals
    as well as our Holy Father have given a definitive answer–such Oriental
    techniques expose the soul to great risk of demonic influence, psychological
    impairment, and even loss of the Faith.

    Joseph Cardinal
    Ratzinger cautions that “not everyone is equally suited” even to
    forms of Eastern meditation which are authentically Christian, stating that
    such forms “can even become an idol . . . can degenerate into a cult of
    the body and can lead surreptitiously to consider all bodily sensations as
    spiritual experiences” (Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, issued from
    the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the Holy Father’s
    approval).

    Jerome Cardinal
    Hamer warns, “I could not understand how Christians who know St. Francis
    or St. Teresa of Avila
    or St. Ignatius of Loyola could be attracted to such methods, which . . . are
    in vain. In the final analysis, the use of these techniques is a waste of
    time” (30 Days, February 1990).

    In the same
    article, our Holy Father quoted St. Teresa’s cry against “some methods of
    prayer that are not inspired by the Gospel and that in practice tend to
    prescind from Christ, in favor of a mental void that in Christianity makes no
    sense.”

    In his book
    Church in Dialogue, published by Ignatius Press, Francis Cardinal Arinze
    devotes an entire chapter to the risks and dangers of Easter prayer techniques.
    He concludes: ” . . . many Christians who enthusiastically embrace an
    Oriental method do not escape receiving some wound on their Christian
    Faith.”

    Further
    information on the evils inherent in centering prayer may be obtained from a
    talk given by Fr. Finbarr Flanagan, O.F.M., at the “True and False
    Spirituality” Conference at Steubenville
    (July 1990). Write to Franciscan University Press, Franciscan Way, Steubenville,
    Ohio 43952,
    and ask for tape #90530.

    To learn more
    about contemplative prayer in its authentically Christian, Catholic context,
    read Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay (Ignatius Press). This holy priest of
    unimpeachable orthodoxy, one of the greatest spiritual directors of our time,
    has also produced a television series on Contemplation, treating the subject in
    a manner accessible to everyone, with charm, wit, and great love for the Holy
    Gospel. This series is available from EWTN on audio or VHS tapes.

  • John Purk

    Dear Dan, Your advice is very wise. No one in the comments has mentioned the rosary yet. The rosary is a great centering prayer and one can be protected from being deceived because Mary, the spouse of the Holy Spirit is present.
    The vocal prayers of the rosary help one to come to a sense of quiet. The meditations supply the mind with thoughts of God. And if God wants to
    reveal himself and provide the meditation, quiet or sense of great peace then
    one should let God give himself to you. In meditation we give ourselves to him in contemplation he gives himself to us. I tried centering prayer (CP) but I was counseled to not let the mind go empty. We are supposed to love God with all our mind. We can let go of the meditation if it becomes difficult to meditate and we have been faithful in prayer and in charity. He is the one we should focus on not the method. The danger in CP is how does one know if they are just encountering their own self in a natural peace and confusing it with God? If God reveals himself one will know it is Him because his quiet and peace are overwhelming. He can reveal himself while walking, like he did with the disciples at Emmaus. Or he can reveal himself while one is involved in a spiritual storm or persecution, like he did with the apostles on the seas.
    He got in the boat and everything calmed down. I find his presence often during a trial or persecution, if I just ask for him. I also have encountered his overshadowing and peace in the sacrament of reconciliation. And before I receive him in the Eucharist and he gives himself to me, I may be having a spiritual storm but when I receive him and he makes me holy with himself, the storm stops and a great sense of peace floods my soul. A priest once said to me that encountering God is like the fish asking where is the water? Our Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are everywhere and they are not constrained by any method, especially a method that we think we are controlling. Check
    out http://www.scripturerosary.com for some references for laity. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  • CatholicKath

    One of the things I find helpful about going to your PS2 suggestion is sometimes for me this is a good way to “settle” before I pray, or I might just chatter to God and forget to listen.

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  • Marcus

    “let go of thoughts”..often this characteristic of the discursive mind hinders the biblical directive of “being still and know that I am God”. Too easily, during silence, we become distracted by the ceaseless chatter of our minds and which takes our focus away from loving attentiveness to God. In my mind, this is why CP encourages us to “let go of thoughts”. We do not repress them, we do not seek them out, we simply acknowledge the thoughts and return to our prayer word which symbolizes our desire for union with God. How can that practice, then, be “un-catholic”. I just don’t get it.

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