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.
Art: Saint John the Evangelist in Meditation, Simone Cantarini, 17th C; Mirror of Der meditierende Heilige [The Holy Meditators], Sieneser Schule, Simone Martini (1322-6), PD-Worldwide; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.