More on the prayer of union

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 6


Since I have been studying and writing a lot about Centering prayer lately, I can’t help but compare it to the prayer of union, which occurs in the fifth mansions. I wrote about the prayer of union back in May, before my blogging break. Let’s look at it again.

1. Certitude

As I said last time, the most important sign Teresa of Avila gives that a soul has truly experienced union with God is certitude. Nothing and no one can shake her confidence that her experience was real. It is unforgettable, life-changing.

Let’s contrast this with counterfeit types of contemplation such as Centering Prayer.  Fr. Thomas Keating writes:

Let go of sensible and spiritual consolation. When you feel the love of God flowing into you, it is a kind of union, but it is a union of which you are aware. Therefore, it is not pure union, not full union.”(Open Heart, Open Mind, Ch. 7)

For Fr. Keating, one of the originators of Centering Prayer, the deepest union with God is completely hidden from the soul. For Teresa, the truer the union, the less one can ignore it or explain it away.

One might be tempted to ask how a practitioner of Centering Prayer can claim that it is a good preparation for true union, since he can never know if he has experienced union. Presumably, no one else who has ever practiced Centering Prayer can say for certain that he has reached union with God either. So how can we know that the method works?

2. Beyond understanding

However, this certitude of the soul’s does not mean she understands what is happening. She is like someone blind and deaf. She enjoys God, without being able to figure out exactly what’s happening. On this point, Teresa and Fr. Keating would agree. However, Teresa believes that understanding will come, just not until the seventh mansions.

3. Sustaining the prayer

In earlier stages of prayer, such as acquired recollection, Teresa instructs us to sometimes say a word of prayer to re-fan the flames of love when our recollection waivers. Centering Prayer advocates often point to this as evidence that their teaching is in accord with hers.

But Teresa says that the prayer of union is different. She says in part:

During the time that the union lasts the soul is left as though without its senses, for it has no power to think even if it wants to.” (Interior Castle 5.1.4)

No method can help the soul here. The union comes through God’s power alone, and is sustained by his power alone. The soul is powerless. Practicing Centering Prayer by returning to the “sacred word” one has chosen to repeat would be nearly impossible.

4. Attaining this union

How can we reach this high state of spirituality? Teresa notes that Carmelite nuns enter the cloister for just this purpose, to seek God in prayer and contemplation. Yet reaching union is not a sure thing. Why not?

Few of us dispose ourselves that the Lord may communicate it to us. In exterior matters we are proceeding well so that we will reach what is necessary; but in the practice of the virtues that are necessary for arriving at this point we need very, very much and cannot be careless in either small things or great.” (5.1.2)

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. No matter how weak we are, she says, we just have to give him whatever we have. “He doesn’t make it impossible for anyone to buy his riches.” In this, she sounds remarkably like St. Therese. (Or, rather, Therese sounds like her.)

The more we give God, the more he will give himself to us. So if we want to attain union, we must withhold nothing from him.

This contrasts dramatically with Fr. Keating’s view that “Contemplation… is not so much a gift as a given. (Open Heart, Open Mind 120)”

5. Infused knowledge

Here is another striking difference with counterfeit types of contemplation. True union contains a great paradox. Even though the soul cannot think at all while united to God, she still learns things about God during union.

Teresa says that she learned through the prayer of union that God was “in all things by presence, power, and essence.” A poor spiritual director told her she was wrong, but she was so convinced that she consulted others. Learned men told her she was right. We must remember that Teresa had no theological training. She learned this truth directly from God, not even through meditating on the Scriptures. It was after experiencing union that she suddenly knew this.

So, even though the soul cannot think or ponder while in union, God still infuses her with knowledge as he desires.

In contrast, Fr. Keating insists on an ever-greater obscurity as one grows closer to God. He says that the mature Christian soul neither knows who or what God is nor desires to do so (Open Heart, Open Mind, 66).

There is much more to talk about in the fifth mansions. But I think we will leave the rest for next time.

Connie Rossini


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6 Responses

  1. Alyosha

    Do you object to “The Cloud of Unknowing” — the root text on which Centering Prayer is based?

    • Connie Rossini

      Not at all. The Cloud of Unknowing is completely orthodox, but hard to understand. Perhaps I’ll write a post one day on how Centering Prayer is different from The Cloud‘s teaching. One quick point is that at the beginning the author warns that his teaching is not for everyone–only those who are committed to a life of prayer. Centering Prayer, on the other hand, is offered indiscriminately to all. The thing is, Centering Prayer is not really based on this book. Fr. William Meninger was already helping Fathers Keating and Pennington look for a way they could bring people interested in Eastern meditation into the Catholic Church when he read The Cloud of Unknowing. They had all gone through many Zen retreats by this time and Meninger apparently thought the author was teaching some of the same things they learned from a Zen master. He was mistaken.

      • Alyosha

        Thanks. I don’t know much about either Centering Prayer or Cloud of Unknowing — but read some on the internet about the 14th century text and it sounded interesting.

        • Connie Rossini

          I haven’t read it yet either. As I understand it, it is directed towards people who are at a certain stage in their prayer life, giving them a way to sustain their prayer. But it’s not a way to get TO contemplation or a different level of consciousness. It’s for people in Teresa’s 3rd or 4th mansions.

  2. RMB

    Thank your for those important points. Centering Prayer is now being offered in some Catholic Churches. What are your comments on that? Would this method of prayer be harmful to the body of Christ?

    • Connie Rossini

      RMB, yes, I think that Centering Prayer is very dangerous to the spiritual life. So much so, that I have just written a book on the subject. It is in the proofreading stage and should be available within a week. Centering Prayer turns one’s eyes off Jesus and onto altered states of consciousness. However, some people who say they are practicing Centering Prayer actually have an orthodox prayer method and just use the wrong term.

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