This essay is a catechetical response to the debate about Centering Prayer that is taking place within the Catholic Church, and to some extent in Protestant ecclesial communities. There is a debate as to whether or not Centering Prayer is orthodox Christian prayer or whether it is New Age or too heavily influenced by Buddhist forms of meditation. To examine this debate it is necessary to ask the question of what distinguishes Christian prayer from other forms of prayer, and/or Christian meditation from other forms of meditation.
To examine this question we would be remiss not to rely on the excellent document by then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) titled Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Also, we will rely on some other guiding documents of the Church as well as Sacred Scripture.
2. Some Background
I am in a unique position to respond to this controversy because of my history studying Indian philosophy, in particular Buddhism. Some may think this would make me more apt to tend toward a Buddhistic (I made up this term to represent the primary Western approach to Buddhism, which is tends to be New Age and relativistic. So I call it Buddhistic rather than Buddhist) interpretation of Christian prayer. The opposite is actually true. Understanding the differences between Catholic and Buddhist philosophical positions is essential to responding to this question: what makes meditation Christian and not Buddhist or New Age? (and other related questions).
My own preparation to respond to this question includes the study of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, in academic settings and traditional settings, in India and in the USA with Buddhist clergy. I have studied closely many of the texts that make up what followers of the Buddha call Dharma or teachings as an undergrad and a graduate student. I have around 60 semester credits of undergraduate and graduate study in Buddhist philosophy, East Asian psychology and in the history of Indian philosophy. The high point of my academic study was a semester studying as a non-matriculated graduate student in a seminar with Dr. Collett Cox. Professor Cox is a scholar of Indian Buddhism, Pali, Sanskrit, Philosophy of Religion and Buddhist Studies. She has been involved now for many year in the study of a Gandharan Abhidharma Buddhist manuscript fragment as part of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project on Early Indian Buddhism at the University of Washington. This study helped me gain a more advanced understanding of the history of the contemporary Western appropriation of Indian Buddhism.
Another key aspect of my study included a semester of training at the Library of Tibetan Works Archives in Himachal Pradesh, India. Here I studied Tibetan language as well as some key Indo-Tibetan philosophical treatises with Tibetan Geshes (clergy with more advanced philosophical training). This is where the Tibetan government has remained in exile since the 14th Dalai Lama fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet and military takeover of Lhasa. My experience also included the study and practice of Buddhist meditation in monastery and retreat settings. Many of these were extended (up to a month) and included the traditional disciplines of silence and fasting. All along I participated in many Western Buddhist milieus which made me sensitive to the opinions, desires, and cultural experience of those who participate in them. Further, I know ethnic Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist clergy as well as Western Buddhist clergy personally. When you have a personal relationship with people it is much harder to stereotype them or prejudge them. Without a doubt some of the best and kindest men I have ever met were Tibetan Buddhist monks. I have profound respect for their dedication to the philosophical life and for their singular focus on growing in compassion and insight, even though I disagree with many essential Buddhist philosophical positions.
Having had studied Buddhism in such a close way has also given me insight into Western New Age or what I call Westerners who are Buddhistic – Westerners who see Buddhism as compatible with relativism, scientism and materialism, utilitarianism and gnosticism. It isn’t. Nor would traditional Buddhists have any respect for the abandonment of heterosexual moral norms and basic moral commands such as the prohibition against adultery, intoxication, fornication, stealing, lying, and murder (including abortion). Yet it seems that most Westerners who would call themselves “Buddhist” are more accurately called New Age.
They use techniques for focusing the mind and the body seeking basic psychological health and transcendence from the stress and suffering of life. This is understandable, however what makes it gnostic is that it is divorced from the demands of justice and the natural law. Put another way this is the tendency to seek to feel good apart from what is actually good. What also makes New Age harmful and dangerous is when it lacks discernment in respect to spiritual realities and easily lapses into pre-Christian superstitions, power seeking and magic. In the New Age one is never far from turning the corner into witchcraft, the occult, and satanism. This will be addressed more when we focus on ways of teaching prayer that should give a Christian pause.
From the Western side of philosophy as an undergrad I studied Ancient Greek Philosophy as well as some contemporary philosophy. In addition to that I studied early Christian asceticism and monasticism. I went to a public Liberal Arts college in Olympia, WA, called The Evergreen State College. Evergreen is known for an alternative approach to education that favors choosing focus areas within Liberal Arts and approaching that study through seminar study. My focus areas were Philosophy, Psychology and Religion. It was at Evergreen where I first learned about the relationship between the eugenicist Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood as well as a philosophical conception of God that was reasonable and I could assent to. This was an integral part of my own conversion to Catholicism. It should be noted that my Classics professor, Dr. Andrew Reece, whose Ancient Greek Philosophy seminars opened me up to the Western conception of God converted to Catholicism a year or two after I did.
After graduating with my BA and converting to the Catholic faith two years later I departed from academic religious studies and headed in the direction of Catholic theology, studying for a Master of Theological Studies degree from St. Meinrad School of Theology. After this I did the coursework for a Master of Arts in Philosophy from Gonzaga University. One of the most critical courses in this study was a seminar on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. I am so grateful for this study. Important for this particular work was other graduate courses in the Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Mysticism, and Christian Metaphysics. I am very grateful for the gift of being able to study with the scholar of Albertus Magnus (St. Albert the Great) and River Forest Thomist, Dr. Michael Tkacz. His approach to philosophy, more generally Aristotelian Thomist, is the philosophical orientation that I aspire to, even if I don’t know it near as well as Thomists like Dr. Tkacz. Also, since becoming Catholic I have worked in catechesis in one capacity or another and now have a role in catechesis in the Diocesan offices of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. I am dedicated to passing on the Catholic faith in a way that has integrity and that is guided by obedience to the gift of faith that I received from the Church. As a catechist I seek to pass on my love of the faith, my desire to know Jesus more intimately, and my gratitude for being Catholic. Being baptized, confirmed, and receiving my first Holy Communion as a young adult was the culmination of an intense period of seeking truth. The truth found me and the new life I receive is greater than anything I could have ever desired for myself.
Due to my own personal history and conversion to the Catholic faith via the study of Indian Philosophy I possess a unique perspective to address the controversy around Centering Prayer. I seek to do it in a way that will hopefully make a substantive contribution to this debate and provide a reference point for those seeking one. I could see this being useful for those catechists and clergy in parish work, who are called to teach prayer but sometimes lack a systematic understanding of what makes meditation and prayer Christian. I could also see it being useful for those who want to be better prepared to evangelize and catechize educated Westerners who have been influenced by the increasingly Buddhistic milieu of secular Western culture. Most importantly purpose of this catechetical essay is to help those who serve the Church recognize what makes meditation and prayer Buddhist (or New Age) and the fundamental similarities and differences between it and Christian meditation and prayer. The answers to these questions will come later in this essay. This catechesis is meant to be synthetic, not syncretic, it is meant to add perspective to this debate from the perspective of communion with the Catholic Church in faith and morals.
It has disappointed me to see from the Catholic side, especially from what I would call devotional Catholics, the caricatures and misunderstanding of Eastern meditation and the fear around meditation as such, especially since meditation is a Western, Latin term, not a Buddhist one. I will address some of these caricatures so that we can gain a deeper understanding of the essential differences between Buddhist or New Age and Christian meditation. I have been less surprised to see misguided Western appropriation of Buddhistic methods of meditation. Similar to their approach to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith these seekers take a cafeteria approach to the East, even a materialistic approach.
At the same time we must reverently recognize that all seekers are made by the Creator for divine communion, that their desire for transcendence comes from God. So I will always seek to respect this movement toward transcendence and not lapse into irreverence or an attitude that undermines human dignity. We should praise the Creator for the desire to transcend the merely material – he gave us this desire! As a catechist my aim is to help orient this movement toward its fulfillment in Christ through His mystical body. Without a doubt the majority of these particular seekers lack study and training in the depth and breadth of Christian meditation and prayer and are seeking an experience of the Absolute Reality, of the Holy, of God, in a culture that is materialistic and reductionistic.
It is probably safe to say at this point that the majority contemporary Westerners are agnostic and practically atheistic, even if they have some sort of Christian affiliation and go to Church on Sunday. This means by-and-large people lack the resources to discern proposals for meditation and prayer and lack criteria by which to judge and approach them to know if it will help them grow in the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love), or undermine them. This response will seek a remedy to that. In the next section in this catechetical response to the controversy over Centering Prayer there will be an examination over the question of the necessity of prayer for disciples of Christ.