Centering Prayer practitioners are often very sincere people who are seeking a closer relationship with God. For some, a Centering Prayer group at church was their first introduction to the idea of cultivating a deep prayer life. Others have read the saints’ works about prayer, but have not understood them. Both groups are vulnerable to false teachings about prayer.
Unfortunately for them, they are taught a skewed interpretation of the saints, the fathers, and even the Catechism. Theses errors take root. People become emotionally attached to their method of prayer. It is very difficult to convince them that the practice is not in line with Catholic tradition.
Today I’d like to address a few of common misunderstandings I meet in discussions about Centering Prayer. My hope is that even for those of us who would never practice Centering Prayer, this discussion will lead to a greater understanding about the nature of prayer.
The Place of silence
I have written a whole series about silence in prayer. Today I want to attack this question from a different angle. Centering prayer practitioners fall prey to fallacious reasoning that goes like this:
- Silence is necessary for contemplation.
- Centering Prayer helps one cultivate silence.
- Therefore, Centering Prayer leads to contemplation.
Do you see the error here? Silence is necessary for contemplation, yes. The first statement is more or less correct (though inexact and potentially misleading).
Even if we grant number 1, that does not mean silence causes contemplation. And if silence does not cause contemplation, cultivating silence does not necessarily lead to or even pave the way for contemplation.
I would suggest that the orthodox view is rather different:
- God alone makes a person a contemplative.
- Silence accompanies the gift of infused contemplation, but is not a cause of it.
- The one who seeks God in prayer to the exclusion of all else is drawn more and more towards sitting silently in His presence.
- Seeking God above and beyond all things prepares the heart for contemplation.
- God will grant the gift–when He sees fit–to the heart that has prepared itself.
See the difference?
The place of detachment
Centering Prayer makes a similar error regarding detachment. It goes like this:
- Detachment is necessary for contemplation.
- If I follow my own thoughts and feelings or inspirations during prayer, I am attached to them.
- I must set aside all thoughts, feelings, and inspirations in prayer.
- Doing so creates a void that God will fill with Himself.
But the saints would say:
- Detachment is necessary for contemplation.
- God loves me beyond my wildest dreams and is incomparably greater than any created thing.
- It is foolish to hold onto created things and lose God.
- If I understand God’s love and greatness, I will desire only Him.
- I should seek to understand and experience God’s love and greatness by meditating upon them in prayer.
- Doing so will help me set aside created things and make room in my heart for God.
- If I make room in my heart out of love for God, He will come to me–in His own timing.
Centering Prayer practitioners often insist that if we do not set aside all our thoughts and feelings during prayer, we are attached to them. But detachment is not a matter of setting aside any one thing–except sin. Detachment is a matter of love. Detachment manifests itself in seeking God’s will alone.
The irony of practicing Centering Prayer is that one becomes attached to a forced silence of the mind and heart. Practitioners are told that even if God speaks to them or appears to them during prayer, they are to set that experience aside and return to silence. But what is prayer for? It is for union with God. Why then should an authentic experience of God in prayer take second place to the Centering Prayer method (that is, to unnatural silence of the mind)?
One final error I run into continually. This one is a bit more complicated. It stems from a misreading of the saints and fathers.
Since the earliest years of Christianity, Catholics have recognized that prayer develops in stages. At first, one prays vocal prayers, such as the Our Father or Hail Mary. Then one begins praying in one’s own words (mental prayer). As one practices mental prayer, it becomes simpler. Slowly, one uses fewer words, sometimes lingering in God’s presence for a few minutes without thinking or saying words, simply loving Him.
This simplified stage of mental prayer is called acquired recollection. It is not infused contemplation, but it can sometimes blend into infused recollection, when God sees fit to grant such a gift.
Now, when the saints and fathers wrote about prayer, they did not always write about the earliest stages of prayer. If an abbot or a hermit or a foundress such as Teresa of Avila was writing about prayer, he or she would often assume that readers already knew about these early stages. After all, friars, hermits, and nuns have dedicated their lives to God. They seek Him in prayer daily.
They do not need anyone to teach them the Our Father. They need instruction about more simplified prayer forms. Should their prayer be tending towards simpler expressions? Is it normal and good to experience moments of sitting quietly in God’s presence? What should one do when one feels drawn to God beyond words?
The saints and fathers seek to answer these questions. They tell their readers how to act when they experience acquired recollection, or even the early stages of infused contemplation. They recommend that their readers simply and gently say a word or phrase now and then to help sustain their experience of being in God’s presence.
Now, Centering Prayer advocates read these works and say, “Aha! So we should sit silently in God’s presence and if our minds start to wander, we should say a ‘sacred word.'”
Well, sort of…
But only if you are already practiced in mental prayer. Only if you feel drawn to sit quietly in God’s presence. Only as a means of expressing your longing for God, not as a tool for setting aside thoughts as though that instead of communing with God was the purpose of your prayer.
In other words, you do not just sit down one day and decide to start practicing prayer by trying not to think anything and saying a “sacred word” every time a thought comes into your head. That is not prayer. That is New Age meditation.
Prayer is about drawing close to Jesus. And we begin drawing close to Jesus by praying over the Scriptures, pondering them, expressing our thoughts and feelings to God. And as we naturally begin to desire to listen to Him more and speak less, we use fewer and fewer words.
Do you understand the difference?
Please let me know in the comments box if you’d like me to clarify this further.
Otherwise, happy praying!