An Analysis of a Definition of Centering Prayer
Here I will insert the definition of prayer given on the Contemplative Outreach website on Centering Prayer:
Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.
Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.
The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the Indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. The effects of Centering Prayer are ecclesial, as the prayer tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.
A quick read of this definition doesn’t necessarily support the claim of some that Centering Prayer is demonic or that it is subversive or inimical to Christian life.
Now it is true that there are many, many books on Centering Prayer. Some are likely more gnostic than Christian, and many are Protestant in their understanding of prayer, rather than Catholic. As a rule of thumb the more a type of prayer proposal is disassociated from God, from the moral law and life of grace, from the sacraments, and from the Mystical Body of Christ, the more problematic it can become from a Catholic perspective.
One can surmise that there is a way of praying that could be called Centering Prayer, and even make the claim to be a type of Christian prayer, that actually led away from Christ and away from the repentant posture of humility that is essential for Christian prayer. It is in this way, that if a type of prayer leads one away from Christ, away from the moral law, and away from the Church then it seems accurate to note that it may have demonic influences, or is at least rooted in pride. That is why we developed criteria in the previous chapter of this essay to make a judgement about whether a way of teaching prayer is Christian. It is also meant to guide teaching Christian prayer as such.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine everything that has ever been written about a way of praying called Centering Prayer but it should be enough to say that one shouldn’t assume that a way of presenting it does justice to Catholic Christian prayer. We need to be critical. Why?
Because we have a tradition of prayer that is over 2000 years old and rooted in the law and the prophets, we would be remiss not to understand Christian prayer in reference to this vast, and deep tradition. Also, prayer is intrinsic to the narrow road of discipleship and apart from it we cannot be saved, it is intimately bound up with Christian faith.
I chose the selection above because it is so closely associated with the contemporary movement that Centering Prayer came out of. In this way I am not looking through books scouring for the worst examples to make a negative point. Nor am I looking for more egregious definitions of Centering Prayer that come from people who aren’t well trained in Catholic Theology (perhaps not Catholic!) and couldn’t be expected to provide a definition that was Catholic.
Instead, it is assumed that the definition that is up on the website is one that the founders of the movement stand by. Hopefully by looking at this definition we can make an accurate assessment of the good aspects of it but also what could be problematic. To do that I will go through it section by section.
Initially, the first paragraph doesn’t seem problematic and indeed seems good. Basically, Centering Prayer has as its aim to increase a person’s awareness of the presence of God, and it mentions that it is meant to make the person more receptive to the gift of contemplative prayer.
From a critical perspective one might ask, though, how is this set in relationship to the purity of heart necessary to see God?
The path of Christian prayer, grounded in faith, hope, and love, both demands and makes possible purification of the heart through mortification, Sacraments, and Divine Worship.
We can’t really fault the definition for not relating prayer fully to life in Christ – the moral life and the Holy Sacraments – because every time we speak of prayer we aren’t going to be able to talk about all the dimensions of discipleship. However, this is something to be aware of.
If we are teaching a type of prayer that is meant to root us in God, is the fundamental relationship of it to the demands and gifts of discipleship minimized? If so it may be a type of prayer that is approaching something more Buddhistic than Christian. This would lead someone away from the saving faith that proclaims that Jesus is Lord and that He was risen from the dead. The further one is from the communion of faith, the more muted this Gospel is.
Also, I think the experience of God is essential, and it mentions that this way of praying fosters an experience of his closeness. Praise God for this recognition! We need to focus more on a relationship with God as a relationship that is genuinely experienced in the depths of one’s being. Indeed the Fathers from the Synod on the New Evangelization mention this as one important facet of Evangelization in the contemporary context.
However, it is both through faith and reason that we know God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Are the theological virtues subordinated to method, “relationship,” or experience? This is something to be aware of.
Those who are critical of Centering Prayer, I think rightly, mention the concern that if experience or method is more important than faith, one turns away from the gift of faith, and potentially becomes too dependent on self as the principle of salvation. This is very bad for a species with a problem rooted in self-will.
It should be noted, though, that it would be charitable to grant that the authors of this definition consider faith, hope and love in the context of ecclesial faith to be assumed as the foundation of Centering Prayer. An argument from silence (argumentum ex silentio) isn’t the best, or most reliable type of argument and we should give our authors the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, interpreters may not assume this.
In the second paragraph we learn that Centering Prayer is meant to give deeper meaning to all types of prayer. This is great, when prayer lacks meaning to us it is quickly abandoned and we need to pray in a way that is meaningful.
What I wonder about this statement is if Centering Prayer is being confused with interior recollection. Interior recollection is the ancient practice that accompanies prayer whereby a person collects himself to become unified in the Presence of God. By becoming more aware of the Presence of God, and being present to Him, we are more receptive to the spiritual, i.e. deeper meaning of the Word of God, in Scripture and Sacrament.
This point ought not be quickly passed over. In the seminal text on Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Fr. John Croiset, S. J., mentions that interior recollection is one of the four necessary dispositions for union with the heart of Jesus. Sadly, the practice of interior recollection is little understood by the Christian faithful. This may be why people are often drawn to non-Christian forms of meditation, simply because this essential aspect of the Christian spiritual life has been somewhat lost as a living tradition. It has been traded for an activist understanding of spirituality and a rationalistic sense of faith.
Is Centering Prayer, as described above, merely a practice of interior recollection then? We can certainly say that this is perhaps its foremost component. Why not just refer to it in the way the Church has traditionally referred to it then? Is the term Centering Prayer even necessary? Or would it be better to simply teach and practice Christian prayer whose aim was to center one in Christ? These are some questions to consider in the teaching of prayer.
As Fr. Croiset, S.J., writes:
God does not make His presence felt where there is turmoil, “non in commotione Dominus,” a heart completely unguarded, and a soul in continual exterior distraction and occupied with a thousand superfluous cares and useless thoughts, is hardly in a state to listen to the voice of Him who communicates Himself only to a soul, and who speaks only to a heart, in solitude. “I will lead her into the wilderness, and I will speak to her heart.” [Osee 2:14].
Focus and recollection in God is integral to Christian prayer. That is what makes it a difficult discipline we would often much rather avoid. Our merciful God is also jealous, he demands our attention and sacrifice, not because He needs it, but because He created us for communion with Him and will not grant it in a situation of fraud (feigning prayer, honoring with lips but not with heart).
Insofar as Centering Prayer fosters interior recollection, this is a good thing, but why alienate it from the terminology and tradition of Christian Prayer as such?
In the third paragraph, the goal: communion with Christ, is beautifully expressed. So, is the source of this prayer: the Most Holy Trinity and faith in His indwelling in Christians united to His Mystical Body. Also, the goal is expressed as fostering our relationship with the living Christ (which is the first of the seven criteria of Christian Prayer I listed in previous chapter). This is most definitely the central feature of Christian Prayer as such.
However, in the last paragraph perhaps the central problem or concern with the way Centering Prayer is presented is laid bare, it reads:
The effects of Centering Prayer are ecclesial, as the prayer tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.
First, the effects of any Christian prayer should strengthen the Church and make up for what is lacking in the Mystical Body of Christ. However, it seems that prayer whose effects are ecclesial would be explicitly ecclesial from the outset.
If you recall, in the previous chapter of this catechetical essay we said the second necessary criteria of Christian prayer is that, it is an act of communion with the Mystical Body of Christ, i.e., the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.
Its effects will only be ecclesial to the extent that it in an ecclesial act from the outset. And these effects, if ecclesial in the Catholic sense, wouldn’t merely build up communities of faith, they would build up the Mystical Body of Christ, or the Ecclesia Militans. The effect of the prayer itself would be a nurturing of and deepening of ecclesial communion if guided by Christian faith, hope and love as understood by the holy Church.
We can see then, from this brief definition of Centering Prayer that there are some questions. Even if we assume that the missing aspects are implied one wouldn’t get that just from reading the definition.
The definition above satisfies criteria one – the goal of communion with Jesus. However, it doesn’t necessarily satisfy any of the other criteria. It isn’t clear that Centering Prayer as defined here is an explicit act of ecclesial (Catholic) communion, nor is the priority of Christian faith, hope and love, over and above method, apparent.
Further still, on the website promoting the prayer it seems unclear how Centering Prayer as defined is united to the Christian moral life, and the Holy Sacraments.
Without going any further into the other criteria, which are also absent, it seems that this particular definition of Christian Prayer isn’t fully Christian in the Catholic sense. Perhaps it would more likely be in a Protestant evangelical sense. Perhaps this community intentionally wants Centering Prayer to be a way to unify separated Christians, and this is a praiseworthy (and very Christian!) goal.
However, as defined and explained on the website Centering Prayer seems to be a practice that is somewhat divorced from or at least minimizes ecclesial communion as well as the source of unity – the Holy Eucharist – and the moral life.
In this way, those Catholics who have concerns with Centering Prayer are not without reason. That said, out of charity it should be assumed that Catholics who practice it do practice it in a way that is faithful Christian prayer as the Church understands prayer and teaches it. It would be uncharitable to assume otherwise. And the purpose of this essay is not to create an atmosphere of suspicion, but only to examine this controversy in a balanced way to assist in catechesis in respect to prayer.
Nevertheless, it still seems necessary to reframe Centering Prayer within the Catholic tradition of Christian Prayer so that it more clearly reflects that tradition and leads to communion rather than away from it.
That will be the purpose of the next chapter.