Il_Sassoferrato_-_Modląca_się_Madonna

Praying Madonna by Sassoferrato (Wikimedia Commons).

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:

  1. Silence is necessary for contemplation.
  2. Centering Prayer helps one cultivate silence.
  3. 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:

  1. God alone makes a person a contemplative.
  2. Silence accompanies the gift of infused contemplation, but is not a cause of it.
  3. The one who seeks God in prayer to the exclusion of all else is drawn more and more towards sitting silently in His presence.
  4. Seeking God above and beyond all things prepares the heart for contemplation.
  5. 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:

  1. Detachment is necessary for contemplation.
  2. If I follow my own thoughts and feelings or inspirations during prayer, I am attached to them.
  3. I must set aside all thoughts, feelings, and inspirations in prayer.
  4. Doing so creates a void that God will fill with Himself.

But the saints would say:

  1. Detachment is necessary for contemplation.
  2. God loves me beyond my wildest dreams and is incomparably greater than any created thing.
  3. It is foolish to hold onto created things and lose God.
  4. If I understand God’s love and greatness, I will desire only Him.
  5. I should seek to understand and experience God’s love and greatness by meditating upon them in prayer.
  6. Doing so will help me set aside created things and make room in my heart for God.
  7. 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)?

Acquired recollection

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!

Connie Rossini

 

 

Written by Connie Rossini
Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

    18 Comments

  1. Tom Healey May 4, 2016 at 8:30 am

    You think very clearly. Centreing prayer is self centred(original sin)rather than God centred. It must come from Eastern religions influences. It’s all about me. So blind. So foolish.

    • Connie Rossini May 4, 2016 at 10:16 am

      Tom, the irony is that CP practitioners think that by setting aside their thoughts and feelings, they are denying themselves. They can’t understand when we say it’s all about them. But as the CDF said in criticizing New Age practices, these practices that empty the mind end up turning it back on itself. “Prayer” then becomes all about following the method, come what may, rather than communing with Christ. But they think the method IS communing with Christ.

  2. Jessica McMaken May 4, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Oh does the Lord work in mysterious ways. I found your blog because I was looking for stuff about temperaments. And then I see this most recent post on centering prayer. Just last week a friend was recommending this practice to me. I have been experimenting with the idea, but haven’t gotten very far with the practice. I am so happy to have stumbled upon a Catholic look at it before I head to far down a wrong path. Thank you!

    I just purchased one of your temperament books and I can’t wait to read it!

    (And as an aside, it looks like we’re using the same website template. You have great taste. 😉 )

    • Connie Rossini May 4, 2016 at 10:13 am

      Hi, Jessica! Thanks for buying my temperament book. I hope it helps you with your child (I’m guessing a choleric?). Yes, people are confused about CP. I felt this was what God wanted me to write today, so maybe it was meant just for you. Ponder the Scriptures in prayer. That is the way of the saints. God bless.

  3. Roberta Lambert May 4, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Connie, your explanation is very good; peoples’ understanding, in my experience, is not good. I have practiced prayer according to St. Theresa of Avila daily for 16 years and a few hours a week in the 4 years before that. I have passed along the warnings about Centering Prayer that you have posted and the others posted on RCSpiritual Direction by Dan Burke and the other authors on his website.

    My take on this persistent lack of understanding is simply put by saying that what is not understood is that Contemplative Prayer is a LOVE THING. It is all about loving God deeply and it comes about by really getting that “God loves me intimately, personally and passionately.” The union that is sought is not about mixing in some mental prayer because we hear that it is what you should do; or achieving that peaceful feeling that you see others seem to have at the Adoration Chapel; or trying some sort of method like Centering Prayer because we want to reach that Nirvana promised by ‘meditation’ as people call mental prayer. You explained that ‘Detachment is a matter of love’ and that is so true. I find that bluntly stating and re-stating that mental prayer is only about the LOVE THING seems to help (sort of) to clear out a lot of the focus on methods that are oriented to MAKING contemplation happen to you.

    You dispose yourself to God’s desire to have union with YOU. This disposing yourself to infused contemplation does require the 3 items you discussed, of course, but it is even more about what St. Teresa exhorts and taught by Fr. Dubay: to live your life as closely aligned to the Gospel with attachments only to loving God more perfectly.
    I continually tell friends who want to do what is right for a good spiritual life to understand that our entire purpose for being created and living this life is to be in Union with God who desires to ‘marry us’ in a spiritual sense for all eternity.
    It is not as hard for people to understand contemplative prayer and detachment when this EXCLUSIVITY for wanting GOD ONLY is framed in this explanation. I say ‘not hard’ but that is not the reality for my slightly exasperated state when I have said, re-said, re-analogized, re-taught, re-explained the LOVE THING when it comes to contemplative prayer.

    • Connie Rossini May 4, 2016 at 3:00 pm

      Well put, Roberta. The marriage analogy is exactly right. In fact, I believe that is why God made us the way He did–with an exclusive, life-long union being the best for both the spouses and their children. He gave us marriage precisely to teach us about this need to have no other Spouse but Him (to paraphrase the first commandment). Don’t give up on stating the truth. Even if one person hears you and turns away from methods and towards love, you’ll have done a great service.

  4. Frances May 4, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Connie, you’ve done a great service in explaining this with so much more clarity. God bless you!

    • Connie Rossini May 4, 2016 at 2:55 pm

      Frances, good to hear from you! I hope your health issues are under control. I haven’t heard any updates for a long time. Blessings and prayers.

  5. Rich Sobocinski May 4, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    I would like to read this but the page does not display correctly on my Nexus tablet. Words are the RH margin are not available to me. I can’t resize the page or scroll over. The annoying social media buttons on the left cover up the first 3 letters on that margin. I tried 2 different browsers. I can’t be the only one experiencing these issues.

    • Connie Rossini May 4, 2016 at 7:49 pm

      Rich, sorry about that! This theme is supposed to be mobile friendly. I am a very un-techy person and I only use a PC. I just did an online test for viewing my blog with a Nexus device, and I see what you mean. It goes off the screen on the right. I will try to find a fix for that. Maybe I’ll have to go back to support for the theme. As far as the social media buttons on the left, there are arrows that appear when you place your cursor under the block of buttons. You click/tap the buttons and the icons disappear. (See, I don’t even know what passes for a cursor on a handheld device. Sorry. We live very simply here.) If you email me at crossini4774 at comcast dot net, I can send you a copy of the post. I don’t know if that will help?

  6. Arnold Schuff May 9, 2016 at 11:47 am

    Connie – Thank you for all the information you have provided on Centering Prayer. I’ve read your book “Is Centering Prayer Catholic?” and find you’ve provided a great service with the information presented. My wife was regularly attending a Centering Prayer Group at her church for over a year (she is Catholic and I am Lutheran) and she never thought to look into the validity of Centering Prayer as compared to church teachings because her church (like many churches) condones meetings of the Centering Prayer group. Her feeling was that if her church allows it, it must be in line with church teaching. She has now stopped attending the group, and has significant concerns about those that have also joined a Centering Prayer Group without questioning the groups validity with church teaching, as she did.

    My question is, why are these Centering Prayer Groups allowed to operate within a church if what they do is so controversial? It seems that many people will blindly come into them just as my wife did, with the belief that they are in line with church teaching. How can this be allowed by the church? I’ve looked at Contemplative Outreach’s website, and do not see an affiliation with the Catholic (or any) church. It’s as if another denomination/religion has been invited in to teach prayer.

    Thank you again for all the information you have provided.

    • Connie Rossini May 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm

      Hi, Arnold. I’m glad you found my book helpful and that your wife was wise enough to leave the CP group when she realized it had problems. I think a lot of priests just don’t know enough about the subject. Since the Church (i.e., CDF/Vatican) has not issued a document mentioning CP by name, many people are confused about its doctrinal standing. Unless a priest is very well educated on the Catholic spiritual tradition (which he, of course, should be) and the teachings of CP, he probably won’t know there is a problem. Some think that anything that gets people to “pray” must be good. I wish the CDF had taken a further step after the Letter to the Bishops. I suspect they will in the next decade or so. The Church moves VERY slowly, sometimes to the detriment of individual souls. Keep praying!

  7. maryofsharon May 18, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    Connie, I just asked you a question about this on an old post of yours at Spiritual Direction.com, but since this is a new thread, let me ask you again here. A young friend of mine with a possible religious vocation to the Carmelites was seeking guidance in prayer from what appears to be a lovely order of Carmelite nuns. But at the nuns’ website they have an entire page dedicated to centering prayer, citing Thomas Keating, etc. So would you discourage looking to that monastery for guidance? I then did a search for “Carmelites” and “nuns” and “brothers” and “centering prayer” only to find that many, many orders and monasteries of seemingly very traditional brothers and sisters advocate and defend the use of centering prayer. Is this common among Carmelite religious? Are there Carmelite religious in the US that steer clear of centering prayer? Can you recommend some particularly good Carmelite monasteries (nuns and/or brothers)?

    Thank you!

    • Connie Rossini May 19, 2016 at 10:47 am

      Mary, I’m glad you commented here too, because I don’t get notified of comments on old posts at SpiritualDirection. But I’ll try to reply there too to benefit others.

      When I was OCDS, Centering Prayer was not viewed favorably in our communities in Minnesota. However, another reader has told me that in the last couple of years there was an article promoting CP in the newsletter of the Eastern Province of the OCDS. This newsletter is published by the Carmelite friars and features various authors. I have not read the article myself. I also know that the late Fr. Ernest Larkin, O.Carm., was a proponent of CP. He went so far as to suggest we scrap the term “contemplative prayer” in favor of “Centering Prayer.” No, thanks! My in-laws are Third Order Carmelites (O.Carm.) and CP has not been pushed in their community, nor from those in authority at the provincial level. So, with all Carmelite communities, I believe you will find some that promote CP and others that don’t. It’s hit or miss. As I detailed in my book Is Centering prayer Catholic?, St. Teresa’s teaching is diametrically opposed to Fr. Keating’s. It is really sad that the Carmelites, who have the best teaching on prayer in all of history in their order’s founders, would turn to a New Age counterfeit.

      For communities that reject CP, I would suggest the nuns in Demontreville, Minnesota. Fr. Robert Altier has said he believes them to be the holiest nuns in the world. My brother used to be with the Carmelite Hermits that serve these nuns. He has many friends among these women. I am certain they are following St. Teresa. They do not have a website. For men, go with the M.Carms.–the Carmelite Monks of Wyoming, who make Mystic Monk Coffee. My brother, Fr. Michael Mary, was a co-founder of this new order with Fr. Daniel Mary, after the two of them discerned the hermits in Minnesota did not fit their calling. http://www.carmelitemonks.org/ They closely follow St. Teresa, basically adapting her rule for men.

      Yes, I would completely discourage your friend from becoming involved with a community that promotes CP in any way. This promotion can only lead to problems–in extreme cases, it may even lead some to embrace a Buddhist or Hindu worldview.

  8. John Collinson June 5, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Connie, thank you for writing on this important subject. I think a lot of people are attracted to Eastern forms of spirituality because they often have immediate psychological effects (calm, relaxation), and they mistake these psychological goods for truly spiritual goods, and imagine they’ve found the key to drawing near to God. It needs to be understood that God is operating invisibly in our souls, even when we can’t feel Him. We don’t necessarily feel our sins being washed away in Baptism or Confession, but we have faith that it does occur. People need to understand the difference between the substance of the soul and the faculties or powers of the soul (like the senses); God is operating invisibly with the substance of our soul, not in our senses. Just because you have sweet feelings in your senses does not mean that it is from God, and just because you feel dry and abandoned in your senses does not mean that God is not with you; the most perfect form of faith is when you believe without being able to see or feel anything; the most perfect form of love is when you love even when it is dry and difficult – that is when we most imitate Christ in His suffering. It’s a hard saying, but the traditional spiritual writers of the Church teach us that if we really want to love Christ, we should seek out suffering more than pleasure. If you base your spirituality only on what you can feel, there is a danger that you will lose faith, because faith is based on things unseen.

    Connie, here a couple of links on the Quietist controversy, which, as you know, is relevant to this topic of centering prayer:
    http://www.christianperfection.info/tta78.php
    https://archive.org/stream/MN41530ucmf_5#page/n748/mode/1up

    • Connie Rossini June 7, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      John, thanks for the links! I do not have Tanqueray’s book and that is an excellent comparison between Catholic mysticism and Quietism. You’re absolutely right about feelings versus reality.

  9. Arnold August 8, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Hi Connie – I thought I would share this with you. Two Sundays ago, the Pastor at my church gave an excellent sermon that has kept me thinking about what she said since that day. The main point she made was that humanity tends to have an “if / then” mentality toward our existence. That is, “If I do A, then I can expect B to occur”. However, our relationship with God is “because / therefore”. For example, “Because of who God is, we are therefore called to bring His grace into the world and give thanks and praise to Him”. Or, “Because of who God is, we are therefore to remember that everything is a gift from God and we are called to live in His creation and love each other”. I realized that when you apply this concept to Centering Prayer you find that Centering Prayer is an “If / then”, That is, “If I take part in Centering Prayer, then I will be prepared to receive contemplative prayer”. However, the real relationship is “Because of who God is, He alone therefore, will decide if and when I am prepared to receive the gift of contemplative prayer”. This is a very simple, yet strong concept which tells me that Centering Prayer is not of God, but rather, of man.

    • Connie Rossini August 13, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      Great insight, Arnold! I am all for looking at error in a larger context like this, because it really makes the issue clearer.