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Should We Sit Quietly During Prayer? (Part I of III)

August 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Connie Rossini, Prayer, Silence

 Should We Sit Quietly During Prayer?
Part I of III

JoaquinSorollaSantaEnOracionPrayer2Today I want to begin discussing misconceptions about the place of silence in prayer growth. Since we desire contemplation, should we sit still in prayer and wait for it? Should we try to make it happen by quieting our minds? This three-part series speaks to the differences between Carmelite teaching and Centering Prayer, yoga, and other types of meditation influenced by eastern religions.

Some people falsely equate silence with supernatural (infused) contemplation. They read about the need for interior silence in prayer, and they mistakenly think that if they sit quietly, God will necessarily bestow contemplation upon them. They equate the peace they find in silence to communion with God.

Pope_Benedict_XVI_1In 1989, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), wrote Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Here is what the document says about silence:

“[Some] methods of meditation… including those which have their starting-point in the words and deeds of Jesus, try as far as possible to put aside everything that is worldly, sense perceptible or conceptually limited. It is thus 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.” (paragraph 11)

What does that mean? The CDF criticizes meditation methods that seek to avoid normal sense perceptions and concepts, even if these methods use words from the Gospel. Such methods promote a false type of silence. Quieting all thoughts and going beyond concepts by one’s efforts does not bring about contemplation.

“The meditation of the Christian in prayer seeks to grasp the depths of the divine in the salvific works of God in Christ, the Incarnate Word, and in the gift of his Spirit. These divine depths are always revealed to him through the human-earthly dimension.” (Ibid.)

In other words, true Christian meditation uses the mind. It ponders the work of God, especially in the Incarnation.

One of the perennial heresies is Gnosticism, which devalues the material world. In some forms it rejects even human thoughts and concepts. In contrast, the Catholic Church teaches that creation is good, although fallen. God became a Man. He redeemed creation. Pondering God’s work in Christ is a valuable way to get to know His character and learn to love Him. It inspires us to give up sin and attachments to worldly things. We practice asceticism, not because creation is evil, but because God is so much greater than His creation. He should always be our focus.

DetailThomasKeatingDiscussionWithTheDalaiLamaBoston2012Proponents of Centering Prayer insist the CDF was talking about other methods of prayer, that it was not criticizing their movement. I think even a quick reading of the document makes it clear that the Vatican was criticizing Centering Prayer.  Fr. Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and one of the leading proponents of Centering Prayer, wrote a response to the CDF document. I find his defense of Centering Prayer to be completely unconvincing, when compared with the actual method and teaching of Centering Prayer.  Here is the basic Centering Prayer method, from a document called The Method of Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating (do not try this at home!):

“1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

“2. Sitting silently and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as a symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

“3. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

“4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.”

Now, someone who is practiced in prayer and the virtues might be able to take this outline and make it into legitimate Christian prayer. But in and of itself it has many problems.

The first thing to note is that Fr. Keating here presents Centering Prayer as a method, although elsewhere he protests that it is not a method at all. This is typical of writings by Centering Prayer advocates. They repeatedly contradict themselves, making it difficult to know exactly what they are proposing.

Centering Prayer makes attention to the “sacred word” primary. This word can be Jesus, but also impersonal nouns such as love, mercy, joy, peace, etc. Thoughts become the enemy of the chosen word, and thus the enemy of prayer.TriniteGrandesHeuresAnneDeBretagne3

The Holy Trinity, and especially Jesus, should always be the focus of our prayer time. Not just Jesus’ name, but Jesus Himself. Prayer should never be impersonal. If we don’t commune with our Lord, we are not praying! Whom are we addressing when we repeat the word peace, for example? It’s not clear to me that we are addressing anyone. Where is the conversation in this method? How is it relational?

Detail2TonyNaderAsRajaRamTMHeadThe peace that one feels when repeating a word is not contemplation, nor is it supernatural. Any word will produce the same results. These are natural phenomena. Practitioners of Transcendental Meditation do the same thing and produce the same results with different words. Repeating a sacred word or mantra to the exclusion of all other thoughts and feelings is a form of self-hypnosis. It can never produce contemplation, because contemplation is a supernatural gift.

Step 4 of Keating’s method is typical of hypnosis. The person who has been hypnotized has to be brought back slowly to normal life. In contrast, traditional Christian meditation ends with praise or thanksgiving. There is no need to sit in silence after the conversation ends.

YogaMeditationPos410pxFeatureImageLike Centering Prayer, yoga uses natural techniques to quiet the mind and bring on a peaceful state that has nothing to do with closeness to God or communicating with Him. Here are steps 3 and 4 from an online article on yoga called 5 Steps to Meditate Anywhere. This is yoga adapted for use throughout the day. Notice how these points address the same issues as Keating’s Centering Prayer:

3. Meditate with purpose. It seems ironic, but meditation is a very active process. The art of focusing your attention on a single point is difficult, and it really helps the process to be purposefully engaged with what you are doing. Although there’s no need for repetitive mantras or forceful objectives, it is nice to have a positive intention for each day (even if it’s ‘I really need to relax on this vacation.’)

4. Watch your attention. Your biggest block to meditation is yourself or, more specifically, your mind. This is great news for success because you can control your mind. If you notice yourself getting caught up in a train of thought that pulls you strongly from the present moment, simply bring your attention back to your breath. This truly gets easier with practice.”

Again, the point is to actively focus one’s mind on one thing, and get rid of all other thoughts. This is not prayer. This is concentration through natural means.

The CDF seems to be speaking specifically about yoga when it says:

“Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.” (paragraph 28)

Quieting the mind in order to concentrate more fully on God is a good thing. But the key is the second phrase: to concentrate more fully on God. Yoga and Centering Prayer make the concentration and the feelings it produces the end, instead of the means. They see these peaceful feeling as supernatural, when they are completely natural.

Two kinds of quiet should be included in every authentic Christian prayer:

  1. Setting aside a time and place where we can be alone with God with few distractions is one of them. This doesn’t require any technique.
  2. The second, which Centering Prayer completely ignores, is detachment from sin and from everything that is not God. In concentrating on a repeated word to the exclusion of all else, Centering Prayer actually promotes attachment to things other than God. The mantra becomes an idol. This is not Christian prayer.

In Part II, we’ll examine what Teresa of Avila taught about silence in prayer, and how and when she teaches us to practice it.


Art: Santa en oración (Saint in prayer), Joaquín Sorolla, 1888, PD, Wikimedia Commons.  Pope Benedict XVI, Dan Burke file copy. Detail from Thomas Keating, discussion with the Dalai Lama Boston 2012, “christopher”, 14 October 2012, CCA; The Holy Trinity, miniature from the Grandes Heures [Great Hours] of Anne of Brittany, Queen consort of France (1477-1514). f. 155v. God the Father on left, Jesus on right, holding book with seven seals open to Alpha and Omega passage, dove of Holy Spirit in center, “animal” symbols of Four Evangelists in corners, Jean Bourdichon, 1503-1508, PD-US; Detail from Tony Nader, AKA Raja Ram, leader of the Global Country of World Peace and the Transcendental Meditation movement, Keithbob, 14 July 2010, PD-Worldwide; Yoga Meditation Position, Cornelius383, own work, 25 April 2012, CC; all Wikimedia Commons.

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About Connie Rossini

Connie Rossini gives whole families practical help to grow in holiness. She is the author of several books, including "Trusting God with St. Thérèse". Besides her blog Contemplative Homeschool, she has started a new site discussing errors concerning prayer, named after her book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? She has written a spirituality column for the diocesan press for nearly ten years.

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  • Anne Costa

    Thank you for these clarifications…very informative

  • Liz G

    I have started reading the book, The Cloud of Unknowing. Am I to understand that this book is misleading believers in the practice of contemplative prayer?

    • Connie Rossini

      Liz G, The Cloud of Unknowing is an orthodox book, but it is difficult to understand. Most people who read it without some kind of help from an orthodox teacher or commentary end up interpreting it in a New Age manner. You are much better off reading the doctors of the Church or those who explain them, such as Fr. Thomas Dubay or Dan Burke. Teresa of Avila is our best guide to the stages of prayer growth. Dan’s 30 Days with Teresa of Avila is a great place to start for those who aren’t already well versed in Teresa’s teaching. I would not recommend The Cloud of Unknowing for anyone who does not already have an excellent understanding of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

      • Liz G

        That would explain that I have to keep reading the same first few chapters of TCOU over and over again to understand it! However, I’ve also had trouble with the John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila as well. Maybe, I’m not quite there yet!

        • Connie Rossini

          I had trouble reading Teresa on my own at first too. Few of us have had a good enough education to understand her terms. And then we usually lack the experience too! Don’t be ashamed to go back to simpler interpretations of Teresa by others. Fire Within by Thomas Dubay, and the 2-volume set I Want to See God and I am a Daughter of the Church by Pere Marie-Eugene are books I refer to over and over to make sure I am understanding Teresa correctly.

  • Connie Rossini

    Just to let readers know, I am in the proofreading stage of a short (70-page) ebook about the errors of Centering Prayer. God willing, it should be available within a week on Amazon.

    • LizEst

      Great news, Connie…and might I add, sorely needed, too! God bless you!

      • Connie Rossini

        Thanks, I need the blessing!

        • LizEst

          Me too!

          • Connie Rossini

            I should have said, “God bless you too.” You do so much to advance the Lord’s kingdom.

          • LizEst

            You as well, Connie. To God be the glory!

    • marybernadette

      I agree with Liz, I am so glad about the ebook, I need to inform others too.
      In Toronto Canada where I live, next to St. Augustine’s seminary, there is a place called Scarborough missions. Most of the priests are retired and ,of course, being a missionary is a wonderful calling. Sadly, some of the priests have fallen into (grave error) while reaching out to other ‘religions.’
      Although as a Church our calling is ‘love’ and the need to respect others including their ‘religion; it does not mean we can worship in their ‘temples’ or believe all ‘religions’ are equal. Also, I was reading an article were the writer was shocked to learn about a ‘missionary nun’ who was also a ‘zen master.’ The battle is fierce.

  • DianeVa

    Great article which clarifies much for Catholics. Our church offers centering prayer and when I had my conversion to Christ I attended a few sessions but something inside drew me away. Now I know it was the grace of the Holy Spirit leading me. Why is it that so many parishes offer centering prayer groups and also say zilch about yoga? I am going to share on FB. Thanks again Connie!

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks, Diane. The average Catholic, even the average priest, is not well informed on these matters. Thank God He did not let you get led astray.

    • marybernadette

      Great question Diane, I belong to a Charismatic prayer group and have been ‘sick at heart’ to see in the same Church, a group that practices ‘hatha yoga.’
      The priest, formerly the pastor, locked the ‘prayer group’ out of the Church, which was a shock as they have been there over forty years. The situation has been resolved with the current pastor but it’s very upsetting to know that he allows the practice of ‘yoga.’
      As Connie says, the average priest and catholic are not well informed, I would hope this is the case and not knowingly breaking the ‘First Commandment.’

  • Mark Daoust


    Do you think it is right to equate “quiet” in prayer to centering prayer? It seems as if there are different types of quiet in prayer, and not all should be avoided. For example, affective prayer is marked by a certain quiet. It is still active, but not active in the same manner as say the beginnings of Lectio Divina.

    I only ask because my first impression in scanning your article was that should a person find themselves in prayer and meditation being lead to a quiet affectionate prayer that they may worry and busy themselves with active thoughts rather than letting God work and deepen their prayer.

    I agree with your criticisms of centering prayer, but it almost seems as if you equate “quiet” with centering prayer.

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for your question, Mark, as it will help to clarify this for others as well. Here is an important sentence, “Quieting the mind in order to concentrate more fully on God is a good thing. But the key is the second phrase: to concentrate more fully on God.” When I first wrote this post on my blog, I was intending it as one post, but it got so long, I ended up making it a series of 3. So, the other 2 parts are really necessary to get my full meaning. So often I read posts by people exhorting others to sit quietly in prayer. The writers are orthodox and well-meaning, but they forget that they have often been faithful to prayer for years before they learned to sit quietly in God’s presence. Beginners try this and often fail. It’s important for beginners to have some kind of format to fall back on, if not to follow regularly. But we should definitely allow ourselves to sit quietly in God’s presence if the Spirit seems to be inspiring us to do so–even if we are beginners. The second post in the series will focus on this very point.

      • Mark Daoust

        Thanks for your reply, Connie. I’m looking forward to part II of the series!

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  • MaryofSharon

    Connie, a young friend of mine, with possible aspirations to a religious vocation as a Carmelite found an order of Carmelite sisters in full habits, only to be perplexed by the fact that these sisters actually promote centering prayer on their website, with almost the exact same description of centering prayer from Thomas Keating as you post above. What do you make of this? Maybe not the best place to seek guidance in prayer?

    • Connie Rossini

      Sharon, I replied to your comment on my blog as well, but I am posting here to help others.

      When I was OCDS, Centering Prayer was not viewed favorably in our communities in Minnesota. However, another reader has told me that in the last couple of years there was an article promoting CP in the newsletter of the Eastern Province of the OCDS. This newsletter is published by the Carmelite friars and features various authors. I have not read the article myself. I also know that the late Fr. Ernest Larkin, O.Carm., was a proponent of CP. He went so far as to suggest we scrap the term “contemplative prayer” in favor of “Centering Prayer.” No, thanks! My in-laws are Third Order Carmelites (O.Carm.) and CP has not been pushed in their community, nor from those in authority at the provincial level. So, with all Carmelite communities, I believe you will find some that promote CP and others that don’t. It’s hit or miss. As I detailed in my book Is Centering prayer Catholic?, St. Teresa’s teaching is diametrically opposed to Fr. Keating’s. It is really sad that the Carmelites, who have the best teaching on prayer in all of history in their order’s founders, would turn to a New Age counterfeit.

      For communities that reject CP, I would suggest the nuns in Demontreville, Minnesota. Fr. Robert Altier has said he believes them to be the holiest nuns in the world. My brother used to be with the Carmelite Hermits that serve these nuns. He has many friends among these women. I am certain they are following St. Teresa. They do not have a website. For men, go with the M.Carms.–the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming, who make Mystic Monk Coffee. My brother, Fr. Michael Mary, was a co-founder of this new order with Fr. Daniel Mary, after the two of them discerned the hermits in Minnesota did not fit their calling. They closely follow St. Teresa, basically adapting her rule for men.

      Yes, I would completely discourage your friend from becoming involved with a community that promotes CP in any way. This promotion can only lead to problems–in extreme cases, it may even lead some to embrace a Buddhist or Hindu worldview.

      • MaryofSharon

        Thank you so much for the thorough reply! This will be very, very helpful for my friend who loves Carmelite spirituality, but wants to remain within the bounds of solid Catholic orthodoxy. (I didn’t know the Mystic Monks were Carmelites!)

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