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Centering Prayer’s Misunderstanding of Contemplation

October 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Books, Centering Prayer, Connie Rossini, New Age, Prayer

Centering Prayer’s Misunderstanding of Contemplation

The following is an excerpt from Connie’s new book
Is Centering Prayer Catholic? Fr. Thomas Keating Meets Teresa of Ávila and the CDF.
This excerpt comprises Chapter Five: The Nature of Contemplation.


DetailThomasKeatingDiscussionWithTheDalaiLamaBoston2012Fr. Keating writes, “Contemplation is a fundamental constituent of human nature and hence available to every human being.”[1] This is a serious error. It makes contemplation into a merely human action, like thinking or loving. Fr. Keating says that Christian contemplation and Buddhist meditation “are basically the same thing,” and both employ many methods.[2] He also says, “Contemplation… is not so much a gift as a given.”[3] Contrast this with the Catechism: “Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty.”[4]

What does this mean more concretely? If contemplation is a gift, as the Catechism says, then God gives it as he wills and to whom he wills. Contemplation is really a deeper entering into the life of God through intimacy with Christ. It is not an altered state of consciousness. It cannot be achieved by human endeavor. Although God wills to draw every person into this intimacy, that does not mean that everyone, wherever he may be in the spiritual life, has immediate access to it. Human nature is not enough to make one a contemplative. Even the sacramental grace given at Baptism is insufficient to make one a contemplative. Contemplation requires a special act of God. When the soul has done all it can with ordinary grace to draw near to God, God draws near to the soul. This is the orthodox view.

Letter to the Bishops indicates that Fr. Keating’s mistake is a Gnostic one:

In combating the errors of pseudognosticism the Fathers [of the early Church] affirmed that matter is created by God and as such is not evil. Moreover, they maintained that grace, which always has the Holy Spirit as its source is not a good proper to the soul, but must be sought from God as a gift.[5]

Another error reveals itself in Fr. Keating’s equating of Centering Prayer with the acquired contemplation[6] or prayer of simplicity which is commonly found in Teresa’s third and fourth mansions.[7] Acquired contemplation is produced by a soul who is practiced in prayer and virtue, cooperating with ordinary grace. But this acquired contemplation is essentially different from the infused contemplation that is initiated by God. Acquired contemplation is really just a simplified form of meditation. One looks at a holy card, pictures Christ in one’s mind, or thinks about a truth of faith. Almost immediately one is moved to sit quietly in God’s presence, loving him without using words. This quiet state may last for a few minutes. Then one returns to a sacred picture, image, or thought about God and begins the process again. One always begins with some meaningful content—a thought, a word, or a picture. Knowledge and love, the mind and the heart, lead one to adore God silently. One never begins with striving to silence these faculties.

In contrast, infused (sometimes called supernatural) contemplation cannot be produced or prolonged by human activity—or lack of activity. Meditating on the life of Christ can prepare one for this gift, but it cannot achieve it. Even less so can trying to quiet one’s faculties on one’s own. The essential element of infused contemplation is not the quiet, but the action of God. No merely human action can ever compel God to act. That is why we call contemplation a gift.

Perhaps Fr. Keating’s misunderstanding of the distinction between acquired and infused contemplation explains his teaching that one should ignore every communication from God during one’s centering time. Perhaps he believes that these “communications” are really a product of one’s own psyche, so they can be set aside at will. Teresa of Ávila tried to resist the favors of God at first. She did not understand them, and some spiritual directors cautioned her against them. Here she speaks of the results of this exercise:

By resisting the consolations and favours of God I gained this that His Majesty Himself taught me. For previously I had thought that, if I was to receive favours in prayer, I must go apart by myself a great deal, and so I had hardly dared to stir. Then I began to see how little this had to do with it; the more I tried to think of other things, the more completely the Lord enveloped me in that sweetness and glory until I felt so completely surrounded by it that I could not flee from it in any direction; and thus matters continued.[8]

She was unable to resist, try as she might. All attempts to ignore God were futile. When God communicates with us through locutions or visions, we can try to ignore them and set them aside. Teresa says we will not truly be able to do so. And union with God itself is as impossible to resist as it is to produce. It is outside human control.

IsCenteringPrayerCatholicBkCvrConnieRossiniIs Centering Prayer Catholic? is available as an ebook and a paperback through The paperback is also for sale at other online retailers.

[1]Fr. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th anniversary ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 2.

[2]Fr. Thomas Keating, “An Interview with Fr. Thomas Keating,” interview by Jonathan F. P. Rose, (accessed August 15, 2015).

[3]Open Mind, Open Heart, 120 (emphasis in the original).

[4]Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.). (Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), paragraph 2713.

[5]Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, no. 8.

[6]Teresa calls this type of prayer recollection, but says it is not supernatural. Following Teresa, Carmelites usually call it acquired recollection.

[7]See, for example, Open Mind, Open Heart, 4.

[8]St. Teresa of Avila, Life, E. Allison Peers, translator (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946), 24.2.


Photography: Detail from Thomas Keating, discussion with the Dalai Lama Boston 2012, “christopher”, 14 October 2012, CCA, Wikimedia Commons.  Cover of Is Centering Prayer Catholic? Fr. Thomas Keating Meets Teresa of Avila and the CDF by Connie Rossini used with permission.

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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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  • veritasetgratia

    Great post Connie thanks. I was in Carmel for a while and this is just as you say – Contemplation is God’s initiative. Roy Shoeman’s conversion experience at Salvation is from the Jews documents his own contemplation experience. Totally wonderful to have it happen. God bless!

  • Catherine Nagle

    Thank you, Connie Rossini, for bringing this true understanding here! This helps me so much. For the first time in my life, and after 40 years, I’m just beginning to understand outside human control, and that true contemplation a gift. “Then I began to see how little this had to do with it; the more I tried to think of other things, the more completely the Lord enveloped me in that sweetness and glory until I felt so completely surrounded by it that I could not flee from it in any direction; and thus matters continued.” I’m also enjoying Teresa of Avila’s book so much!

  • Liz G

    I read Open Mind, Open Heart many years ago and tried Keating’s directions for Centering Prayer. Whether I was achieving centering prayer, or not, I don’t know for sure. All I do know .org that I did not like the feeling it gave me. It felt almost like some form of transcendental meditation, or out-.of- body experience. Maybe I just need to feel that I have some control during prayer.

    • Connie Rossini

      It feels odd because it is a rejection of our nature. God gave us thoughts and feelings to use, not to reject. When God overwhelms them with something greater, that’s a completely different thing.

  • Ken R. Anderson

    Thank you for this most excellent teaching that explains the difference so clearly. A much needed clarification for the church.

    • Connie Rossini

      Ken, thanks. On the other hand, I have asked our editor Liz Est to remove your link, because the site you linked to does NOT explain the difference clearly. While it mentions focusing the mind and heart on Christ, it also talks about a “mental void.” These two things are opposite. You cannot have a mental void when you are thinking about something.

      Let me use this opportunity to gently explain the difference between Centering Prayer and acquired contemplation better. So many people of good will are confused about this! As I said in the excerpt, acquired contemplation is a simplified form of meditation. We do not start by trying to create a mental void. We set aside thoughts and feelings that would distract us from God, but not all thoughts and feelings. We focus on a portion of Scripture, we gaze at the Holy Eucharist or an icon, or we picture Christ in our minds. And we continue doing so until our heart is moved to speak to God. This is Christian meditation and should be the norm for mental prayer until God gives us infused contemplation. As we grow closer to God by practicing this meditation and doing his will throughout the day, our hearts are gradually moved toward God earlier in the process. After some time (usually a few years) the meditation part becomes very brief, and we feel called to sit in silent love of God. And whenever our mind starts to wander or our heart grows cold, we turn back to our meditation.

      Although there are similarities with Centering Prayer, we should understand that acquired contemplation is NOT a prayer method. It is a stage of prayer. We don’t just sit down and try to do it by putting aside our thoughts. We sit down with the intent to use our minds and hearts. And we in fact do so, unless the Holy Spirit seems to lead us in another direction by drawing us into quiet. God will suspend our faculties in infused contemplation. We never strive to suspend them ourselves.

      • Ken R. Anderson

        Thank you Connie for your words of exhortation. I may not have expressed it well, but you and I are on the same page. I NEVER enter a state of emptiness; I always focus my heart and mind and emotions on the Lord Jesus Christ.
        Do you recollect on which page I made that unfortunate error?
        If you happen to see anything else on my site that needs correction or that I have expressed inadequately, please let me know.
        My email is on the site and you could correspond with me directly. I pray that my site, on which I have worked long and hard, will be able to meet the standards to enable a link to be safely included.

        • Connie Rossini

          If time permits in my very busy life–in which I need to put my family before my apostolate–I would love to dialog with you through email.

      • LizEst

        Thanks Connie. It was removed even before your note! Thanks for the double check!

  • Barb Schoeneberger

    Connie, I really appreciate your writing about this. I had several conversations with a friend about centering prayer in which she defended the practice – a very well-intentioned lady. When she explained what she was doing and had been taught my stomach tightened and I felt my skin crawl. I kept telling her that it wasn’t right and didn’t comport with St. Theresa of Avila, but I was unable to explain clearly what was wrong. Your posts are excellent because they get to the heart of the matter. It’s sad that Satan takes the desire a person has to be close to God and leads one down a path to darkness, which is exactly the end point of centering prayer. You’ve done a great job of stripping the clothes off the emperor here. Keep up the good work.

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks for the encouragement, Barb! It has taken a lot of study and reflection for me to understand the problems with CP. I am continually seeing it more clearly as I dialog with people who are confused. Yes, the Devil loves to get people who are striving to follow God off on a tangent. Centering Prayer is one of his greatest tools for this in our time.

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  • Karen Bonvecchio

    Connie, thank you so very much for this. I look forward to reading the whole book. I have a several friends who are very keen on centering prayer.
    Three years ago, when our then new pastor arrived at our parish, he asked me to lead a Centering Prayer group. I knew enough to say no, but unfortunately recommended a friend who had previiously expressed interest in CP. She has led the group for 3 years, now, and in public usually very defensively announces that CP is borne from the Church’s long and rich tradition of contemplation. I cringe each time I hear this becaise I know it is false, but, because the group is condoned by our pastor, I keep quiet. I did meet with her privately to try to shed light on CP’s errors, but I wasn’t very effective, in part because I didn’t understand fully myself. Your explanations help immensely. Thank you.
    One thing I would like to know about Centering Prayer is how the error you address is harmful, in other words the dangers of engaging in CP.
    I think I have an idea – (1) that a mental void is an open door for the evil one to come in and wreak havoc, and (2) Teresa’s explanation that it closes the door to and distances us from the very God we want to draw near to – but I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this.
    As for our parish’s CP group, there is some good news, although none of it related to CP. My very intelligent and well intentioned friend also dedicates a significant amount of time in each meeting to traditional meditation, using the gospel reading from the upcoming Sunday Mass. Also, the group has fostered a close connection among its members and between its members and the parish. So all is not lost. Still, I will pray and work to understand the errors contained in Fr. Keating’s writings and to share that light wih them. Thank you for helping me do so.

    • Connie Rossini

      Karen, you and your friend are in my prayers. She should keep meditating on Scripture and drop the CP. I am not sure if Lectio Divina was originally part of the CP movement or not. But it is not part of CP itself.

      How is this harmful? I don’t usually concentrate on the mental void and how it can open you to demonic influences. Some people focus on that. I have not heard the Church speak to that and it seems questionable to me. We would then have to be against all hypnosis too, even that used for legitimate medical purposes. So I just leave that aside. There is plenty more to focus on!

      Here is the harm I see:

      #1. If we misunderstand the goal, how we will arrive at it? So if we think the goal is an altered state of conscious (“no-thinking” as Fr. Keating puts it), we are not very likely to be open to true infused contemplation. Especially when we are told to ignore all communications and inspirations from God. This often means we are stuck in a rut in our spiritual lives. We can’t reach the heights for which God made us.

      #2. Syncretism or indifferentism. Since CP is essentially like eastern meditation, people begin to think that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity have the same goals. (Readers tell me this themselves.) They begin mixing other eastern practices into their spirituality. They lose sight of the vital role of Christ in our salvation.

      #3. That leads to bad theology, which is all over in Fr. Keating’s writing and speaking. Fr. Keating says in an online youtube video that you are not “other” than God and never have been–“You just think you aren’t.” There is nothing remotely Christian about this.

      #4. This is really an example of #3, but it’s so prevalent it warrants its own point. Fr. Keating makes consciousness/awareness primary. So for him, Original Sin is being unaware that we are united to God. Baptism makes us aware that God is in us. Detachment is from the negative thoughts and emotions of our “false self,” rather than from sin and selfishness, In short, there is no redemption in his teaching, only illumination. Why did we need Christ? We could all have just become Zen practitioners.

      Lex orandi, lex credendi. We can’t continually practice a prayer method without it affecting our belief system.

      Hope this helps.

      • Dan Burke
        • Connie Rossini

          Thanks, Dan. What I was really wondering about was not the history of Lectio Divina itself, but whether Fr. Keating recommended Lectio Divina when he first started teaching CP, or whether that was an accommodation that came later, perhaps to make CP appear more Catholic. I have practiced Lectio Divina myself for many years. Any insight on when it was connected to the CP movement?

          • Dan Burke

            Right – I posted it for our readers in case they are curious. Lectio Divina has been long practiced in monastic communities and as Trappists are monastic and follow the Rule of St. Benedict – thus they have probably been praying it since their founding in the 17th century.

  • Judy Silhan

    Connie, thanks so much for so clearly explaining the difference between acquired contemplation and infused contemplation. I did not quite know how to articulate this to my dear Deacon friend. He has followed Richard Rohr for years, is not willing to forgo his meditations (He says he can choose what’s good in them.). Now, he has spoken highly about getting more into contemplative prayer. The problem is that he speaks of learning to totally quiet his mind. When he said this, I, knowing so little, did not want to try and explain my concerns. I look forward to reading the rest of “Is Centering Prayer Catholic?”

    • Connie Rossini

      I’m glad it’s a help to you, Judy.

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