Thursday 30 April 2015

Centering Prayer: Some Reflections

                                            An Old Woman Praying by Nicolaes Maes

Some Christians think that Centering Prayer is an invaluable way to deepen their spiritual lives, others think that it is the work of the devil and many more have never heard of it. For the benefit of the latter I shall briefly summarise it based on this leaflet (pdf)
The Guidelines
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your 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.
On the subject of choosing the 'sacred word'-
The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable for us. Examples: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen. Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Mercy, Listen, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Yes.

The practice is recommended for 20 minutes a time, twice a day. Its proponents argue that it is based on an ancient Christian practice referred to in, for example, the medieval English work The Cloud of Unknowing which is true so far as it goes. It is no coincidence, however, that this practice emerged and was publicised at a time when Eastern meditation techniques based on Hindu or Buddhist mantras were gaining many adherents in the West. Indeed it is strikingly similar to Transcendental Meditation which also recommends two twenty minute periods with eyes closed. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Christianity appropriating and Christianising this or that aspect of non-Christian cultures, philosophies or practices, The key question is always: does this provide a bridgehead to advance Christianity into new areas or a breach to permit non-Christian beliefs to invade the Church? In the case of centering prayer we can only answer that question when we have some sense of its benefits or risks.

Some critics contend that repetitive prayer is wrong and unbiblical. In that I think that they err. Repetitive prayer in a variety of forms has been a continuous practice of the Christian Church, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, for at least 1800 years most widely today in the forms of the Holy Rosary and the Jesus Prayer. The experience of the Church is that such prayers confer immense spiritual benefits on those who use them, on the Church as a whole and on the wider world. There is, however, a difference between  prayer based upon a sentence or phrase which contains a clear meaning and a particular aspiration and praying a single word with no specific content attached to it. It is the difference between active and passive. There is a place for passive prayer within Christianity but it needs to be recognised as a particular category and cannot claim close affinity with its more active cousins.

I suppose the first question to be asked about any form of prayer is- what is purpose does it serve? The first word of the prayer which Jesus gave us is 'our' as in Our Father. This teaches us, among other things, that God does not wish to save us as mere individuals but as individuals in community. All Christian prayer has both a vertical direction towards God and a horizontal one towards our neighbours particularly to those in the family of faith. To pray passively, opening ourselves up to the still small voice of God in our hearts, is a means to strengthen us in our active lives of faith. Practically all the great contemplative pray-ers of the Catholic faith such as St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila were enormously active and creative people who contributed largely to the Christian life of their time. When the emphasis lies in the personal benefits of centering prayer rather than in the contribution it can make to the life of loving service demanded of all Christians then it veers towards a sort of quietist form of therapy which produces undoubted personal benefits like calmness. There is nothing wrong with therapeutic meditation but it is not a form of prayer.

For a prayer to be Christian it requires both its form and content to be in harmony with the faith of the Nicene Creed. The person praying is establishing or strengthening her personal relationship with the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. It cannot then be a matter of indifference what word or words they use in that prayer. The word is only unimportant if it is a sort of background noise to lull the active mind to sleep while the rest of the person rests in a sort of zone of self-induced calm. What a pray-er should seek is a living connection with the living God and the tradition and experience of the Church suggests that pre-eminently the name of the Lord serves that function. Not because it has some magic mystical power but because every time a Christian uses it it calls up within them consciously and unconsciously a memory of all that they know and love about Him and this activates the heart in a movement of love towards Him. The name of the god-bearer Mary can also have a similar effect because by a special gift of the Lord she has been privileged to convey Jesus to us and us to Jesus. This is not to say that other words should never be used but I suggest that we impoverish our prayer when we exclude the names of Jesus and Mary from it.

Looking at the tradition which centering prayer claims to draw inspiration from, The Cloud of Unknowing, the key passage (at the end of chapter 7) is this-
And if thee list have this intent lapped and folden in one word, for thou shouldest have better hold thereupon, take thee but a little word of one syllable: for so it is better than of two, for ever the shorter it is the better it accordeth with the work of the Spirit. And such a word is this word GOD or this word LOVE. Choose thee whether thou wilt, or another; as thee list, which that thee liketh best of one syllable. And fasten this word to thine heart
This seems to be a straightforward enough source to draw upon but I think that it overlooks two key points. Firstly the preceding passage includes this-
Yea, and so holy, that what man or woman that weeneth to come to contemplation without many such sweet meditations of their own wretchedness, the passion, the kindness, and the great goodness, and the worthiness of God coming before, surely he shall err and fail of his purpose. And yet, nevertheless, it behoveth a man or a woman that hath long time been used in these meditations, nevertheless to leave them, and put them and hold them far down under the cloud of forgetting, if ever he shall pierce the cloud of unknowing betwixt him and his God
(apologies for the old English the more modern translations are still under copyright)
Clearly the author has in mind that what we call centering prayer is a late stage in a process of growth in prayer life which is preceded by, among other things, a contemplation of our own sinfulness and the goodness of God. One arrives at the 'sacred word' after perhaps years of contemplation and prayer which helps us to discover just what that singular word might be. To begin centering prayer without this preliminary process might or might not be a good idea but it clearly isn't what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing had in mind.

The second thing overlooked is the monastic context of this form of prayer. Those who used it also prayed the Divine Office (based on the psalms) seven times a day, went to Mass daily, were subject to the authority of a Rule and an Abbot (or Abbess), and had a confessor and/or spiritual director. Not only this but all parts of their lives, including their prayer lives, had a community dimension. Even hermits prayed the Office as a part of the praying Church not purely as individuals. It is certainly reasonable to adapt monastic forms of prayer to the use of people living in the world but that does not mean plucking out this or that attractive aspect of it and dumping all the rest as unappealing. The Church is possessed of much wisdom in such matters and these forms have come into existence and endured because they serve a good purpose. Not least they remind us of the 'our' of the Our Father.

My conclusion is that the practice of centering prayer is valuable and Christian only where the person who uses it situates it within the context of, as it were, a cloud of related practices. Each person should have their own little Rule. Ideally they should not choose that Rule for themselves but accept it from a wise spiritual director or at least from an Institute or organisation steeped in the prayer life and practices of the Church.That Rule should include daily reading or chanting of the psalms. The argument that much of the content of these psalms is difficult or even repugnant to the modern mind is no reason not to use them. Prayer at times ought to be hard work, we do have to make an effort, it is a struggle. Repeated reading of the psalms with the mind of the Church enables us in time to crack the nut and get to the sweet kernel within, if that takes years or decades well then let it take years or decades. The Rule should also include frequent resort to the sacraments since these give us strength and reaffirm our rootedness both in Christ and the community of the Church. And the Rule should make it plain that the object of centering prayer is to know God better, to love Him more and to serve our neighbours with all our strength.

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  1. Meditation isn't always just calming, it can open you to a wilder (scarier) spiritual world. In my experience, centering prayer is safe, but I don't know if that's the case for everyone.

    Passive prayer has an advantage over active prayer in that it tames the tongue. (The Jesus Prayer and Rosary would probably work on this count, being more passive, but maybe in a different way or to a different extent.) The tongue doesn't just deceive and curse (and tell truth to and bless) other people, but also yourself. Sometimes our minds are echo chambers, and all the noise inside produced by our own tongues shuts out other people, or gives us unnecessary opinions (and thus unnecessary enmities).

    In either case (openness to the spiritual world, even to darkness; taming the tongue), it could be good or not to pursue meditative or passive prayer. I would (should) look at myself as an instrument whose function is to love, and see what affected my performance.

    1. Thank you for your comments James. I know some people who simply can't abide meditative forms of prayer and others who love them. In order for the Church to be truly universal it needs to include all personality types within its ranks so there are a diverse range of prayer methods which it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to use. The only point I think that she should insist upon is that all of them are centered on the faith of the Church and have a community dimension to them even when offered in solitude.

  2. Steve, Thank you for this piece. I have to part with you on your assumption that Centering prayer and the diverse range of prayer methods are acceptable for Christians to use. True Christian Contemplation is the by-product of going out of oneself and into God through love. Counterfeit contemplation is the self-generated experience of inner peace and repose for one’s own pleasure or peace of mind. Using methods to still the mind, ‘Christian mantras’ or mental yoga, leads to a mental self-hypnosis or indeed ‘mindfulness’ which as you know is practised in the NHS to relieve severe anxiety and depression. I am all for this therapeutic use, but it is not Christian prayer and does not lead to Christian Contemplative prayer. Quoting the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, the ‘Hesychasts’, ‘Cassian’ or indeed the great Carmelite mystics out of context, simply deceives those seekers who find themselves lost in the stages beyond the prayer of beginners. True Christian Contemplation is Trinitarian and is easily distinguished from the counterfeit, as the Vatican Document states clearly. In ‘Jesus Christ the bearer of the water of life – a Christian Reflection on the New Age

    1. Thank you David. I think you are saying more or less what I am saying. Centering prayer used as its advocates use it is a dead end from a Christian point of view. Nonetheless situated within the context of a firm Catholic faith, used in conjunction with the sacraments and, say, the liturgy of the hours and used with the specific intention of going out to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit then the repetition of the names of Jesus and Mary can be helpful to some. A technique is only ever just a technique, why we do what we do is as important as what we do. My concern really is not to abandon a whole area of prayer and those who practice it to the exclusive control of quietists and theological liberals.

    2. Thank you Steve...... A wise and compassionate reply.

  3. I agree completely with David Torkington. There are more problems with Centering Prayer than you probably realize. First, the creators of Centering Prayer, especially Fr. Thomas Keating, belivef and promote a whole host of serious theological errors, including the belief that there is no real distinction between the soul and God. Repeating the name of Jesus, for example, is a good practice. It's a way that people who have been involved in CP can move back towards the Catholic tradition. But CP's essential element, according to Fr. Keating, is trying to ignore all thoughts, feelings, and even inspirations coming from God. In fact, it elevates a man-made interior silence above real communication with or from the Creator. I have been studying CP writings over the past year and would not recommend anyone try it. Look instead to the prayer practices of the saints.

    1. I think we agree that Centering Prayer used as its advocates suggest is not really a distinctively Christian practice. My approach in this post is aimed really at weaning people of it by suggesting that any prayer form has to be situated within the prayer life of the Church and not apart from or instead of it. I think that when seeking to undermine something a combination of direct assaults and flanking manouveres is good strategy. My contribution is by way of a flanking manouvere yours is a direct assault. The combined effect should be a weakening of attachment to CP. When I put this up on a CP group on Facebook the participants were quick enough to spot that it was a good deal more critical than it was supportive.

    2. Yeah, I agree that we should look at the good in things and help people who are practicing them to come fully into the Church. I respect that. My only concern is that too "soft" a rebuttal of CP might not be enough for people to stay away from it if there are just being exposed to it. If people are attracted to CP, the Jesus Prayer would be a good, thoroughly Christian, substitute. Keep up the good work.