Should we sit quietly during prayer? (Part 1 of 3)

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 34

Last week I wrote about St. Teresa’s of Avila’s method of mental prayer. Today I want to discuss misunderstandings about prayer from a different angle. Since we desire contemplation, should we sit still in prayer and wait for it? Should we try to make it happen by quieting our minds? Like last Friday’s post, this series speaks to the differences between Carmelite teaching and Centering Prayer, yoga, and other types of meditation influenced by eastern religions.

Some people falsely equate silence with supernatural (infused) contemplation. They read about the need for interior silence in prayer, and they mistakenly think that if they sit quietly, God will necessarily bestow contemplation upon them. They equate the peace they find in silence to communion with God.

The Vatican has cautioned us about certain methods of prayer

In 1989, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Here is what the document says about silence:

Similar methods of meditation, on the other hand, including those which have their starting-point in the words and deeds of Jesus, try as far as possible to put aside everything that is worldly, sense perceptible or conceptually limited. It is thus an attempt to ascend to or immerse oneself in the sphere of the divine, which, as such, is neither terrestrial, sense-perceptible nor capable of conceptualization.” (11)

What does that mean? The CDF criticizes methods that seek to avoid normal sense perceptions and concepts, even if these methods use words from the Gospel. This is a false type of silence. Quieting all thoughts and going beyond concepts by one’s efforts is not a part of traditional Christian prayer.

The meditation of the Christian in prayer seeks to grasp the depths of the divine in the salvific works of God in Christ, the Incarnate Word, and in the gift of his Spirit. These divine depths are always revealed to him through the human-earthly dimension.” (Ibid.)

In other words, true Christian meditation uses the mind. It ponders the work of God, especially in the Incarnation.

One of the perennial heresies is gnosticism, which devalues the material world. In some forms it rejects even human thoughts and concepts. In contrast, the Catholic Church teaches that creation is good, although fallen. God became a Man. He redeemed creation. Pondering God’s work in Christ is a valuable way to get to know His character and learn to love Him. It inspires us to give up sin and attachments to worldly things. We practice asceticism, not because creation is evil, but because God is so much greater than His creation. He should always be our focus.

Silence in Centering Prayer

Proponents of Centering Prayer insist the CDF was talking about other methods of prayer, that it was not criticizing their movement. I think even a quick reading of the document makes it clear that the Vatican was criticizing Centering Prayer.  Fr. Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and one of the leading proponents of Centering Prayer, wrote a response to the CDF document. I find his defense of Centering Prayer to be completely unconvincing, when compared with the actual method and teaching of Centering Prayer.  Here is the basic Centering Prayer method, from a document called The Method of Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating:

1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting silently and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as a symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

3. When you become aware of 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.

The first thing to note is that Fr. Keating here presents Centering Prayer as a method, although elsewhere he protests that it is not a method at all. This is typical of writings by Centering Prayer advocates. They repeatedly contradict themselves, making it difficult to know exactly what they are proposing.

All four of the steps are problematic, but for this post I want to focus on numbers 3 and 4. Centering Prayer makes attention to the “sacred word” primary. This word can be Jesus, but also impersonal nouns such as love, mercy, joy, peace, etc. Thoughts become the enemy of the chosen word, and thus the enemy of prayer.

But Jesus should always be the focus of our prayer time. And not just His name, but Jesus Himself. Prayer should never be impersonal. If we don’t commune with our Lord, we are not praying! Where is the conversation in this method? How is it heart to heart?

The peace that one feels when repeating a word is not contemplation, nor is it supernatural. Any word will produce the same results. These are natural phenomena. Practitioners of Transcendental Meditation do the same thing and produce the same results with different words. Repeating a sacred word or mantra to the exclusion of all other thoughts and feelings is a form of self-hypnosis. It can never produce contemplation, because contemplation is a supernatural gift.

Step #4 is typical of hypnosis. The person who has been hypnotized has to be brought back slowly to normal life. In contrast, traditional Christian meditation ends with praise or thanksgiving. There is no need to sit in silence after the conversation ends.

The silence of yoga

Like Centering Prayer, yoga uses natural techniques to quiet the mind and bring on a peaceful state that has nothing to do with closeness to God or communicating with Him. Here are steps 3 and 4 from an article on yoga called 5 Steps to Meditate Anywhere. Notice the remarkable similarities to Centering Prayer:

3. Meditate with purpose. It seems ironic, but meditation is a very active process. The art of focusing your attention on a single point is difficult, and it really helps the process to be purposefully engaged with what you are doing. Although there’s no need for repetitive mantras or forceful objectives, it is nice to have a positive intention for each day (even if it’s ‘I really need to relax on this vacation.’)

4. Watch your attention. Your biggest block to meditation is yourself or, more specifically, your mind. This is great news for success because you can control your mind. If you notice yourself getting caught up in a train of thought that pulls you strongly from the present moment, simply bring your attention back to your breath. This truly gets easier with practice.”

Again, the point is to actively focus one’s mind on one thing, and get rid of all other thoughts. This is not prayer. This is concentration through natural means.

The CDF seems to be speaking specifically about yoga when it says:

Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.” (28)

The place of quiet

Quieting the mind in order to concentrate more fully on God is a good thing. But the key is the second phrase: to concentrate more fully on God. Yoga and Centering Prayer make the concentration and the feelings it produces the end, instead of the means. They see these peaceful feeling as supernatural, when they are completely natural.

Two kinds of quiet should be included in every authentic Christian prayer. Setting aside a time and place where we can be alone with God and not be distracted is one of them. This doesn’t require any technique. The second, which Centering Prayer completely ignores, is detachment from sin and from everything that is not God. In concentrating on a repeated word to the exclusion of all else, Centering Prayer actually promotes attachment to things other than God. The mantra becomes an idol. This is not Christian prayer.

Next Week: Teresa of Avila’s teaching on silence.

Connie Rossini

Note: Have you read Trusting God with St. Therese? One reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes and Noble will receive a free copy of my next book, A Spiritual Growth Plan for Your Choleric Child. I hope to publish it in the next several months. Please post your honest review by the end of Monday, September 8. Then email the link to crossini4774 at comcast dot net. I will hold a random drawing of all reviewers and announce the winner next week.

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34 Responses

  1. Nancy

    I don’t know how many times I can say “thank you for writing this” without becoming annoying. So I’ll just say it once: “thank you for writing this!” Oops, that was twice. Oh, but thank you for making it so CLEAR.

    • Connie Rossini

      You’re welcome, Cristina. Please share it with anyone you thin might benefit from it. Lots of people are hungry for the truth, but don’t know where to find it.

  2. a solitary bird

    Great explanation! I was always uncomfortable with the proponents of Centering Prayer and the thing that bothered me the most was that there was never any mention of sin, or detachment from sin and everything that is not God. I always knew that my focus in prayer should be on God (the other) not on me. Our Carmelite saints stress this very much as does our Catholic faith. Thanks for the wonderful post.

    • Connie Rossini

      You’re welcome, Rebecca. I’m glad I took the time to research this, because I have gotten a lot of questions. I did not really understand what was wrong with it before either, although I knew it was a false type of contemplation.

  3. Charisse Tierney

    This is great, Connie! I love that it clarifies the facts about Centering Prayer, but I especially love that your article is just a wonderful guide for how to pray! It provides a wonderful perspective on how to properly go about Lectio Divina, as well. Keeping our focus on God and engaging in conversation with Him, whether the conversation began with Scripture, a prayer intention, or just a bad day–thanks for helping us all continue down our paths of prayer in a fruitful way!

  4. Theresa

    Interesting post Connie! You may address this in the future posts, but there are those very frequent times when words just won’t come…you are pulled into that silence. I find that my prayer is not so methodical as laid out by the Carmelites.

    Will be following!

    • Connie Rossini

      Theresa, perhaps you are talking about “acquired contemplation”? When a person has been practicing mental prayer for a while, sometimes he will immediately feel the presence of God when he goes to prayer. That calls for a slightly different behavior. It’s not yet supernatural contemplation, but it is a step beyond meditation. I will talk about that more fully in Part 2. One major difference between acquired contemplation and Centering Prayer is that the will is often gazing at God in the former, but one’s thoughts can at the same time be running all over the place. In fact, that even happens in some forms of supernatural contemplation.

      • Theresa

        Thank you Connie for such a great response. What I find is that I usually use scripture for lectio or Divine Intimacy…but usually they do not spur a conversation. It is more of a desire to rest in His Presence or gaze at Him even though, as you say, my thoughts can be running! And…it is not always/usually a *felt* presence. By knowledge I know He is present but there is not a feeling attached to it. Many times, I don’t feel His presence at all…but the desire is there to be still so I can *listen* and be still enough so He can work!!

        I look forward to the next one : )

        • Connie Rossini

          Talk to your spiritual director about this, Theresa. (You probably have already). I am familiar with what you are talking about. In this case, I would sit and be still, especially if you’re not able to meditate. The beginnings of infused contemplation are very subtle. What Centering Prayer does is suggest that everyone should try to reach contemplation right now no matter where they are in their spiritual lives. It’s a totally different thing when you are more practiced in prayer and virtue. But I’ll still try to talk more about this next time too.

          • Theresa

            Thanks Connie : )

            Yes…even St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa warned about putting ourselves in a *contemplative* quiet state before God led us there Himself! Exactly what you talk about above!

            Have a blessed weekend.

  5. Michelle

    Thank you for learning and sharing the truth, since the subtleties of these things, and especially when they occur in our own parishes, can really be cause for confusion. I have also been pondering that God given “gut feeling” that most times in retrospect, is accurate. Is this the gift of counsel?

    • Connie Rossini

      I’m not sure, Michelle, but I know there have been times when I have not paid attention to the “gut feeling,” and regretted it. I think at least sometimes it’s the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and it’s a good idea to step back and do some discerning.

  6. Maria

    I find this post very fascinating and enlightening. I have never heard of Centering Prayer, but according to its description above it sounds like simple meditation. Simple meditation does not help me. I have tried focusing on a mantra. Personally, for me, I am better off if I say the Holy Rosary. It always alleviates any stress or negative emotions I am harboring.
    Thanks for the insight!

      • Maria

        I’m sorry, it was not my intention to imply that alleviating stress is the purpose of prayer. Perhaps, what I was attempting to say is that I do not understand why an individual would be misled to think Centering Prayer or Yoga practices are prayer. Once implemented it is quite clear that such practices are simple meditation. At least it is clear for me. I used the example of relieving stress because that is what most popular articles focus on when they recommend meditation.

        • Connie Rossini

          Don’t worry about it, Maria. Sometimes it’s hard to interpret comments on blogs correctly, because all we have is type-written words. Sorry I misinterpreted you. I’m glad you were able to see through these practices. Unfortunately not everyone is so savvy.

  7. Mary N

    Hi Connie,
    I’m so glad you are writing this series on prayer. This is an area that has always confused me somewhat and your posts have been very helpful. I’ve always felt that Thomas Merton’s later writing veered off the path as well though I liked his poetry and earlier stuff.

    One of the things that I always know I’ll get from this blog is practical and solid spiritual advice. Same with your books. And that’s something I appreciate. I’ve always disliked “complicated” and so many books complicate the spiritual life to the point where I barely understand what they are talking about. This never happens to me with your books or this blog, you “uncomplicate” things instead. Thank you.

    • Connie Rossini

      You’re welcome, Mary. And your assessment of Thomas Merton is right on. He did veer off at the end. However, I have heard it said that even his earlier works have some errors in them. I confess that tho’ I have some of his books on my shelf, I have not yet read them. Someday I probably will just to help others, but I much prefer to read material that will help me too!

  8. Albert_M

    Hello, Connie,
    I only recently became aware of your blog, thanks to Charlie’s recommendation, and I’ll try to be brief.

    First of all, thank you for this series on prayer. In my experience, there’s a “language problem” between Catholics and most others, where Catholic “contemplation” is more or less equivalent to “meditation” in other traditions, whereas Catholics understand “meditation” as something more driven by the intellect (e.g. Lectio Divina). I congratulate you, therefore, for defining your terms so well. You have cut through a lot of confusion by doing so.

    Second, I’ve been aware of “Centering Prayer” since a couple of decades ago, and I must say that –bottom line– I agree with your assessment. Indeed, I’m somewhat surprised that it’s still around to the degree that you need to debunk it. Nevertheless, you’ve done a good job, and I want to re-enforce your conclusions.

    That said, I’ve got a question: are you familiar with the practice of the “Jesus prayer,” as described, for example, in the book “Jesus Beads” by Abbot David Geraets, O.S.B.?
    Use of the Jesus Prayer by Eastern Orthodox communities is also well attested by tradition.

    From my understanding of these traditions/methods, they don’t fall under the category described in your quoted passage (above) from Cdl. Ratzinger’s “Letter…”

    Any comments would be welcome! Also, when I try to be brief, I often become unintelligible. If you desire further clarification or expansion, just let me know. :-)

    And again, thanks, and keep up the good work!


    • Connie Rossini

      Albert, I found an excellent comparison/contrast of the Jesus Prayer and Centering Prayer here: Briefly, Centering Prayer uses a technique from TM that anyone can use for the same results. The Jesus Prayer only makes sense in the context of a life lived for Christ. Those who pray it are seeking God, not the peace that methods can bring. They are also practicing asceticism out of love for Christ, an area Centering Prayer completely ignores. Teresa of Avila (going back to western tradition) was firm that prayer and virtue grow together. You cannot be a contemplative and live a life of sin. But you could be steeped in mortal sin and still be a practitioner of Centering Prayer.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  9. David

    Thanks Connie. A friend forwarded this post to me and I almost didn’t read it, but I’m glad I did. I like your clear explanation of the danger of centering prayer/yogo, but I especially liked your statement: “In other words, true Christian meditation uses the mind. It ponders the work of God, especially in the Incarnation.” In the past, trying to sit and be silent led me to abandon meditation/contemplation b/c it didn’t seem to work. What you clarify is that true meditation/contemplation (except in the advanced stages of prayer if I recall correctly) requires keeping your mind active in meditating on an aspect of Jesus’ life. I will forward this to my daughter who has just now begun to home school her four young children.

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks, David. Next week I’ll talk about the higher stages of prayer, when we should cease conversing and be silent. But, a you said, Christian meditation is always a conversation, and in the ordinary way of things we must be practiced in that before God grants the graces of higher forms of prayer.

  10. Lydia

    Just excellent! I can’t wait for next week. I learn so much from your posts. You really make it easy to understand. Thank you.

    • Connie Rossini

      I’m so glad you find them helpful, Lydia! We should be hearing this sort of thing from the pulpit, but since we don’t, I’m thankful we have the internet to share the truth.

  11. keithlmh

    I was wondering if you could expand upon the difference between centering prayer versus the method of prayer advocated in The Cloud of Unknowing.

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Keith. At the beginning of The Cloud of Unknowing, the author writes: “I charge thee and I beseech thee, with as much power and virtue as the bond of charity is sufficient to suffer, whatsoever thou be that this book shalt have in possession, either by property, either by keeping, by bearing as messenger, or else by borrowing, that in as much as in thee is by will and advisement, neither thou read it, nor write it, nor speak it, nor yet suffer it be read, written, or spoken, of any or to any but if it be of such one, or to such one, that hath by thy supposing in a true will and by an whole intent purposed him to be a perfect follower of Christ not only in active living, but in the
      sovereignest point of contemplative living the which is possible by grace for to be come to in this present life of a perfect soul yet abiding in this deadly body; and thereto that doth that in him is, and by thy supposing hath done long time before, for to able him to contemplative living by the virtuous means of active living. For else it accordeth nothing to him.” This is a key to the whole book. The author is not teaching a method whereby one at any stage of the spiritual life can prepare for or practice contemplation; he is proposing a way for those who are experiencing infused contemplation to respond to it. He specifically warns beginners and the lukewarm not even to read his book.

      Fr. Keating, et. al., contradict the author of the Cloud on this point, by insisting that spiritual stages are irrelevant for this practice. Fr. Basil Pennington has specifically addressed this point, along with John of the Cross’s teaching that if one leaves behind meditation on Scripture before one is receiving infused contemplation, one is likely to regress spiritually. In short, CP advocates quote from these authors when they agree with them, and dismiss their teaching when it seems to disagree with CP. In the Western tradition, the way to prepare for contemplation is through meditation and aceticism. There can be no skipping over of stages, no democratizing of the spiritual live, because union with God is primarily a union of wills. There can be no true contemplation without a radical following of the Gospel and a certain spiritual maturity.

      Sometimes CP advocates use the analogy of a husband and wife just sitting silently together, maybe gazing at each other with love. No words are necessary. This actually is a very good symbol of contemplation. However, if you were on a first date, and simply sat silently gazing into your date’s eyes, she would probably find it creepy. What is an appropriate response to a deep love-communion is often presumptuous and out of place at an earlier time.

      I hope that helps. If you need further clarification, let me know.

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