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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Is there anything good about Centering Prayer?

May 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Centering Prayer, Dan Burke, Prayer, PseudoSpirituality

Dear Dan, I know that you are not a fan of Centering Prayer. I did read the document you posted from the Vatican and I think I see the problems, at Centering Prayerleast from the standpoint of what I was taught. Still, isn’t there some good in centering prayer? For instance, isn’t it good to sit still, breathe slowly so you can relax etc.? I have experienced a great deal of good from this practice and little bad that I can see…

You might be surprised that my answer is, “yes,” there are things that are taught by the Centering Prayer movement that are good. As you suggest, it is beneficial for us to use our bodies to help us in prayer. We are not Gnostics after all. We believe that creation is good and that our bodies can be used for good. If it were not so, our liturgy would simply have us remain blithely stationary. Instead, in keeping with the appropriate expressions of prayer in the mass, we respond with all that we are. We kneel with our hearts and we kneel with our bodies. So, the admonition to breathe slowly, to sit in a particular posture, is good, particularly for those who are just beginning their prayer life and need extra help to minimize distractions.

As well, in their misguided zeal for orthodoxy, some have criticized the Centering Prayer movement’s recommendation of these practices because they mirror similar prescriptions offered by those who practice Transcendental Meditation (TM). However, the fact that TM practitioners recommend set times for prayer and use a specific posture or breathing does not mean that these things are bad. If the devil recommends that you go to mass, he’s right, you should go to mass. Now, I don’t recommend that you make a habit of listening to the devil. He’s not on good terms with God and is well known to be a liar. He also has a firm disregard for the teachings of Christ and His Church – not a good model to follow.

That said, the challenge comes not with the question you asked but in an implied question: “Can’t I continue to participate in the Centering Prayer movement? Won’t I continue to get something good out of it if I do?” The answer to this question is not quite so affirming.

Several years ago a protestant friend of mine was struggling with aridity in his prayer life. He had already acquired a distaste for shallow pop-spirituality (similar to those well intended sentiments that birthed and popularized Centering Prayer) and was looking for something more in keeping with the greater tradition and wisdom of the Church. So, he searched and found a book with a remedy for dryness in prayer written by a 17th century Spanish priest. He read it, and it helped him a great deal.

After becoming Catholic he was doing further research on prayer and came across this author again. However, he discovered that the author and his writings had been condemned by the Church because they expressed a particular heresy known as Quietism. After a prayerful review of the literature the Church’s wisdom became clearer to him. As well, when he converted to Catholicism he committed to submit to the magisterial teaching authority of the Church (this is of the essence of what it means to be Catholic). So, in keeping with that commitment and the obvious wisdom of the Church, he decided to set aside the writings of this Spanish priest no matter how helpful they were to him. This was true even though he had not been taken in by the errors of this priest in other areas of his teaching.

During this same period he also came across the writings of a few Carmelite saints on the subject matter he was interested in. These saints and their writings (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross) had passed the muster of the Church both in matters of sanctity and doctrine. Their writings were trustworthy, rich, and without any lack on matters of prayer and the spiritual life. No matter which perspective from which he would choose to evaluate the situation, it made absolutely no sense to cling to the writings of someone who was in obvious error even though some of what the Spanish priest taught was true, and the fact that his brief exposure yielded significant benefit to him.

Why am I belaboring this point? It is simply because many in the Centering Prayer movement have a severely disordered attachment to movement teachers and practices. When they encounter questioning, instead of responding as my friend did, they typically become hostile or emotionally distraught. This reaction in and of itself reflects a disordered attachment and is further indication that the practices are problematic not just the level of objective error, but even to a deeper spiritual level of potential illness in the soul. Catholic Answers had to shut down their forum discussion on this topic because the discourse regularly failed to meet standard of charity in dialogue that they require.

Yes, there are plenty of wonderful people in the Centering Prayer movement. Aside from those who teach it in order to make money, I believe that those involved are well intentioned. However, the good intentions of the participants have nothing to do with the validity or wisdom of the teachings. By pointing out these things I am not judging the sincerity, intentions, or goodness of people (or the reader for that matter). I am judging the doctrine and the practice.

So, should you continue in the Centering Prayer movement if you have found it to be helpful? In my opinion, unless you occupy some prominent position and ability to reform the movement, you should find spiritual sustenance in a manner and means that the Church, in her great wisdom, has already provided elsewhere.

PS: If you know and love Catholics who are potentially falling prey to this appealing deception, forward this post to them and gently and respectfully ask them to consider this post, the letter from the Vatican, and other resources noted below.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the founder of Catholic Spiritual Direction, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and author of the award winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. 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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  • Mary@42

    Thank you Dan.  That is a very sound advice which anyone wishing to walk the right path set by Christ and taught by His Church must take seriously. What a blessing we have for this Website.  God bless you all

  • Camille

    Your post reminded me how often God has “refined” my path by using good things from non-catholic sources and then, when the time is right, showing me their limits and pulling me towards the fuller truth inside the church.   Though you gave a few general “this part is good”, I suggest the person who wrote the comment to spend some prayerful time reflecting on the parts of centering prayer that have brought them closer to God and then ask for guidence to catholic sources that have those aspects.  Likely those sources won’t hold have the yukky bits that nag at you.

    • Anonymous

      Very good advice.

  • Barbaraksanders

    it seems to me that Catholic meditation is about seeking the kingdom of
    God within and Jesus the King.
    Centering prayer is about “whatever” is within and that can be other
    spirits??
    barb

    • Anonymous

      That can be true depending on the person.

  • Totus2us

    Thank you for this post, Dan. 

    I agree and recommend staying away from anything with New Age ties…and this includes centering prayer.  Most of us are not experts in differentiating between the good and the bad aspects of each.  Why not just stay away from it rather than risk the temptation?  It’s kind of like staying away from the occasion of sin.  The occasion itself may not be sin, but it can put us in a dangerous position to do so. 

    Likewise some of the aspects of centering prayer may not be wrong…but it can lead us to something the Church has not approved as good for us.  It’s like diving in the ocean.  You go into the water, swim around underneath, enjoy the fish and the reefs.  Without a good anchor and someone to spot you, when you come up to the surface, it’s very possible that you have drifted completely away from the boat or land or any possible help.  Currents are strong and can run deep. 

    Thank God for the good strong anchor that is the Church, which keeps us from drifting away in the currents of the current time and place!

  • getyourfactsstraight

    Centering prayer is actually a venerable Catholic monastic tradition (even though you wouldn’t find it under that name). We find clear evidence for its practice in the 14th century work “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and even earlier in the works of John Cassian (who was a major influence on St. Benedict and his Rule). Those who charge it with coming from the east are confused. It is likely, on the other hand, that those in the Centering Prayer movement who do compare it with eastern practices have found that these practices are remarkably similar to truly Catholic practices!

    • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Getyourfactsstraight, Thank you for your note. Before I respond it is important to note that we are not hostile to those who practice what many call “centering prayer.” We are not friendly however to distortions about Church teaching and tradition. In this case, you site The Cloud of Unknowing as evidence of the practice. However, any honest examination of the teachings of the author of The Cloud will reveal a radical difference between their teachings and those out of Contemplative Outreach (the primary purveyor of CP myths). For instance, the author of The Cloud strongly emphasizes the necessity of long and deep ascesis as necessary preparation of the heart for contemplation. I have never seen a single citation from a promoter of centering prayer regarding the authors strong assertion on this matter. Instead, they ignore his teachings and focus on a single passage among thousands of other insights and claim it as their own. Unfortunately, this is consistent with most promoters of CP. They use what scholars call eisegesis and proof texting in tradition and Church history. CP as practiced by many is fine and in keeping with Church teaching. However, CP as taught and practiced by many is also riddled with false teaching and heresy of the worst kind (non-duality, you are God, God is everything, etc). No, CP as taught by Contemplative Outreach is not only at odds with Church history and tradition, but it is antithetical to it and dangerous to the soul of the practitioner. I pray that you will rise to your self chosen moniker and discover the truth and thereby come to know and love our Lord in ways you would have never thought possible.

      • getyourfactsstraight

        Thanks for your response. You are right to point out that the author of The Cloud places a strong emphasis on ascesis. However, I’m not convinced that the folks from Contemplative Outreach ignore this. In fact, as early as the second chapter of “Open Mind, Open Heart,” Fr. Keating talks about “self-denial” and “the practice of virtue.” This sounds like ascesis to me. I’m also not convinced that the folks at Contemplative Outreach think that everyone and everything is God. A review of their theological principles as outlined in their vision make no mention of any sort of thing:[Links to organizations that oppose Church teaching are not allowed] Likewise, a review of FAQs on their website should clear up any misunderstanding regarding the relation of their teaching to eastern practices: [their FAQs like many of their speakers mean little because of their practice of spiritual relativism - meaning they use orthodox terms but when you get deep into their teachings you will find they have morphed the meanings of these terms]. I have not read everything everyone at Contemplative Outreach has ever published, but based on this brief overview I cannot find what you accuse them of. Perhaps you could point me to some evidence. If you will, could you comment on the method of centering prayer that they promote at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/private/32977/field-file/cp-english.pdf ? Is this heretical?

        • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

          Dear GYFS, every claim I have made and more can be backed up by video and print communications and will be made public in fully attributed form in the future. In the mean time, you would do better to spend your time in the catechism and the doctors of the Church absorbing the great riches offered by authentic Catholic teachings on prayer and the spiritual life. The more you are exposed to the truth, the more you will easily recognize counterfeit spirituality when you see it. There are many problems with the method they propose not the least of which is what happens when you do attend the CP groups. This is where you will discover, through videos and talks, the root of the heresy provided as a norm in these groups.

          • getyourfactsstraight

            So, you’re not going to actually address the questions I’ve asked?

          • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

            Dear GRFS – I don’t in any way mean to be condescending but this simple question reveals the how little you understand regarding authentic Catholic spirituality. The problems are vast – not the kind you can address in a combox. I really am pleading with you in all sincerity to dig into to the real thing. Begin with the Catechism on prayer.

          • getyourfactsstraight

            Have any bishops condemned Contemplative Outreach or have you done this yourself?

            [Same issue with links]

          • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

            Dear Friend – my appeal is to Church tradition and the clearly revealed teachings of the Church. These same kinds of questions were asked of Reiki before the UCSSB condemned it. Sometimes the Church is slow in dealing with heresy but as with Anthony DeMello and others time reveals all. The article you pointed to is simply a marketing piece by CO. It is clear you are not interested in digging into the real thing so I am going to need to spend my time with folks who are. Be assured of my prayers.

          • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

            Dear Friend – this sad question is the same asked about Reiki before the USCCB condemned it. CO has put up a good front that has deceived many good Bishops, priests, and laity. The truth will be known as it eventually was with Anthony DeMello, and others who had such poor philosophical and theological training that they were not able to distinguish the truth from lies. Again, I don’t mean to be condescending but if you are unwilling to turn to the truth, we can’t help you here. Be assured of my prayers.

          • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

            One document that clearly condemns many central teachings of the CP movement is the 1989 letter from then Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope emeritus Benedict) to all the Bishops of the world on “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” This document should be more than sufficient for the kind of condemnation you are asking for. However, I suspect it will not move you.

          • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

            Absolutely but not in a combox. It will come in the form of about 40,000 words fully documented and explained. Dear Friend – dive into the authentic tradition and your soul will be set free to really know and love the One who made you for Himself.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Dan has done some great research and his facts are right. Like Dan, I have many good friends who practice Centering Prayer and have found the discipline of entering into periods of silence during the day to be fruitful for their lives – a kind of relief from the noise of our busy world. I am confident in their sincerity, and I am even more confident in the faithfulness of Christ who leads us and guides us in tender and delicate ways to the Father’s house. However, after years of research into the sources and authorities of Catholic contemplative prayer, Dan’s position regarding Contemplative Outreach is compelling. The assertion that Centering Prayer (as proposed by the Contemplative Outreach) is an ancient monastic practice is untenable.

      Whatever its value, instead of a return to venerable monastic traditions, much of what is promoted and marketed in Contemplative Outreach is an approach to prayer which fails to rise above the level of a mental exercise. What many proponents point to might look like ancient practice and they might even use ancient texts to appeal to the imagination. Yet, whenever I have read any of those ancient texts they propose in their full context, these texts never really justify their assertions. While one constantly comes across expressions of devotion to Christ in their writings -this devotion and the practices that are proposed remain in tension. Grounded in as yet untested psychological theory, proponents have not fully rooted their teaching in the Gospel of Christ and the metaphysical truth of our existence – indeed, in some cases, they even speak of surpassing the doctrine of the Church and the frailty of our human condition.

      As Dan implies, the ancient practices of our faith were accepted to the extent they were grounded in an understanding of Christian anthropology, the development the life of grace and a whole way of life ordered to the perfection of Christian holiness – charity friendship love of God. Whoever orders his life in this way by rule of faith discovers there is great freedom in methods and techniques of prayer – freedom because these approaches to prayer and any experiences they yield are always secondary to one’s relationship with the Lord. Freedom because, when we live our lives in accord with the Gospel of Christ, we avail ourselves to the purifying and transforming power of God’s love at work in our hearts. It is precisely this freedom that is left ambiguous when some proponents of Centering Prayer suggest that at a certain stage of mastery of this method Church doctrine is surpassed by higher states of consciousness and non-dual thinking.

      Precisely because of this tentative relation to the rest of the tradition on these and many other points, most of the explanations of Centering Prayer are unable to provide a compelling explanation for the uniqueness of the saving truth revealed by Christ and gazed on by the faith of Christian prayer. That “consciousness beyond consciousness” and “non-dual thinking” proponents find in common with other traditions may be interesting human experiences – but such is not what a Christian seeks when he humbles himself in adoration before the wonder of Christ crucified fully alive and at work in the world.

      In the life of the Church, we are invited to participate in the most remarkable conversation of love in which by the surprise of sheer grace the whole of our life is rendered subject to the Son of God who suffered for our sake and who, even more remarkably, calls those who follow Him friends. No other religion, regardless of its similarities in practice, claims to provide such bold access to God. In this friendship, the Catholic contemplative has the astonishing freedom of being satisfied and nourished with the Will of the Father revealed by Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit – a spiritual liberty entirely hidden and inaccessible to unaided human effort and cleverness, but a gift welcomed by those who will humbly follow the Lamb that was slain.