Centering Prayer is not true Catholic Prayer
In the movie, “Indian Jones and the Last Crusade,” Indiana enters into Nazi territory in order to save his father who is being held hostage. Using his whip as a rope swing, the hero comes crashing through the window into his fathers holding cell. Mistaking his son as a Nazi, his father smashes him over the head with a huge expensive vase. At that moment, he recognizes that the vase is from the 14th century the Ming Dynasty and laments, not over his son’s head, but over a beautifully expensive treasure that was damaged. The father states that he will never forgive himself for ruining such a rare work of art. Then, to his joy, he realizes that the vase is a fake. As an expert archeologist, he examines it closely under the light and the interior cross sections reveal that it is indeed a fraud, a look alike, worth nothing in comparison.
In the realm of religion and spirituality, the same thing can happen. There are false types of prayer and false spiritual practices that may bear a resemblance to authentic Christian mysticism, but they are fakes. They can be mistaken for the real thing if one is not trained to recognize the differences. This is the case with Centering Prayer which may appear to resemble genuine Christian prayer, but as we take a closer look, we will realize that this practice is a counterfeit, just like the “14th century” vase.
So, let’s do that – let’s take a closer look. This will only be a brief treatment….
Though Centering Prayer (CP) may be found in parishes and retreat centers across the country, it is not authentic Christian prayer. CP was started by Father Thomas Keating who dialogued with Hindus and Buddhists for 20 years and who held week long Zen retreats for his monks each year for nearly 10 years. Keating then sought to merge Catholic mysticism with what he had learned from Eastern Oriental spirituality, and the result was CP.
The whole foundation of CP therefore is flawed, and the beliefs and teachings of Fr. Keating are also problematic. His writings do have truth in them, but many of his viewpoints are New Age and contrary to the Catholic faith. For example, in his book “Open Mind, Open Heart,” Keating states the Hindu concept that God and ourselves are One. Keating states, “God and our true Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing” (Keating, 158; emphasis added). In stark contrast, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes it clear that even though man is made in the likeness of God, he will never be God, nor divine, nor absorbed into divinity as Hindus believe. “In order to draw near to that mystery of union with God, which the Greek Fathers called ‘divinization’ of man, and to grasp accurately the manner in which this is realized, it is necessary in the first place to bear in mind that man is essentially a creature, and remains such for eternity, so that an absorbing of the human self into the divine self is never possible, not even in the highest states of grace” (Some Aspects of Christian Meditation; emphasis added). With basic theology compromised, who can trust Fr. Keating, to direct us properly in prayer and spirituality?
Centering Prayer is Not Prayer
First, Centering Prayer is not prayer! Prayer is praying to Someone, and it is a relationship with Someone – God! CP is not meditation which uses your mind to consider and ponder the life of Someone, Jesus Christ. Also, CP is not contemplation, nor does it lead to contemplative prayer (union with God), though proponents believe that it does.
The whole goal of CP is to achieve this “union with God” by using a mantra, a “sacred word,” for the purpose of erasing all thoughts from one’s mind, even holy thoughts. The sacred word is to be repeated slowly, and it is designed to help the practitioner create a mental void and a blank state in which to “consent to God.” Though they seek to draw closer to God, which is commendable, their charted way of doing so is an impediment. It more resembles Buddhist Transcendental Meditation or Zen where the goal is to completely empty the mind to a blank state rather than the Christian goal of having a personal relationship with their Savior.
The Problem of Centering Prayer
Think about this for a moment, namely, using a mantra to completely empty ones mind of all thoughts, even holy ones. Keating states; “The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during the time of prayer, even the most devout thoughts” (Keating, 21). A few pages later, he says again; “Even if you have a vision, or hear infused words, you should return to the sacred word” (Ibid, Pg. 27). What? If God gives a vision don’t accept it or dwell on it? If God speaks to you, don’t listen to Him but return to the word? There is something very misguided about this. The fact is that in prayer, we should always have our attention focused on God. If our focus is on the word, or worse yet, on nothing, then our focus is very much in the wrong place. If God grants us a vision or speaks to us, we should give Him our fullest attention. After all, the end goal of all prayer is a personal love relationship with our God, not an empty mind! The goal is always an interpersonal communion with Jesus and a submission to His holy will, not sitting in a mental void just “consenting.” Emptying your mind to a blank state is no way to conduct a relationship with anyone, much less the God of the universe. One cannot cultivate communion with God with an empty mind. That is what Buddhists do who do not believe in a personal God.
A quiet mind focused on God is one thing; an empty mind is something else entirely. Even if one reaches the heights of contemplation and the mental faculties are entirely suspended in God, that person is still completely aware of His Majesty and their whole being is caught up in Him. Their whole attention is on Him, though they are not actively doing anything on their part.
Fr. Thomas Dubay, spiritual prayer master of our time, also acknowledges that CP is an obstacle to contemplation and intimacy with God; “If you are in contemplative prayer, centering prayer is a hindrance, because if it is real contemplative prayer, God’s the one giving you the knowing, loving, desiring and thirsting, etc, and your method of working with a mantra is impeding what he’s trying to give” (Article: Centering Prayer can be a Detriment). What we need is a mind that is fully a centered on God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even if not employing the mind actively.
Fr. Dubay continues to warn about emptying the mind; “One should be aware of techniques for emptying the mind to prepare it for contemplation. This is unnatural. Our minds are meant to be filled, not emptied. Nowhere does Scripture advise this. Rather the beginner is told to fill his mind by pondering the word of God day and night (Ps. 1:1-2). … St. Theresa rightly said that when we are ready, God gives us something better than our efforts can produce, namely infused communing with Himself” (155). Pope Benedict XVI, (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) agrees. He says, “Naturally we want to forget the world to concentrate solely on God, but the various [mind] emptying techniques don’t go this far. They stop at the emptying and the emptying becomes the goal.”
Centering Prayer mirrors Zen and Transcendental Meditation (TM) more than Christian mysticism. The goal in Zen and TM is to melt into the universe and achieve an impersonal “enlightenment.” Contrast this with a personal God who loves us and desires a relationship with us. This is why our hearts and minds should never be empty, but focused on and caught up in the personal and loving God. This is the true, time-tested Christian prayer which is necessary to reach union with God; it cannot be reached otherwise. While Eastern Oriental religions do have some truth, their spirituality cannot help us toward this goal nor toward salvation in any way. The two approaches are irreconcilable and they cannot be blended. Unfortunately, Fr. Keating has blended the two, attempting to find a quick way to union with God, and that is his tragic error.
Despite this mistake Fr. Keating advances, there is no quick way to union with God or to contemplative prayer. The Church, the Saints, and mystics of prayer down through the ages confirm this. They state that advanced prayer does not come without continual purification from sin, nor without deep growth in holiness and virtue. You don’t just reach contemplation by doing a technique.
Some people worry that any sort of sitting in silence is false prayer, but this is untrue. Silence is what leads to deep prayer and communion with His Majesty. There is a difference between sitting in emptiness with no thoughts and sitting in silence with a mind that’s clear of distractions and attentively focused on God (even if little is said or thought). Another misconception is that repeating prayers or words of any kind is wrong. Some repeat the word Jesus throughout the day to help them keep focused on God and His presence. Some Eastern Catholic traditions repeat, “Jesus Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner” throughout the day. Notice though, that with these, the focus is on Jesus, on praying, and on His presence around them. Some repeat the word Jesus or “Come Holy Spirit” prayerfully for a few seconds or a few minutes before they begin to pray with the intention of quieting outside distractions and wandering imaginations. This helps enable them to quiet and to focus their minds on God to prepare it for prayer, not to continue emptying it into a blank state which they call prayer.
It is always wise to stay faithful to the wisdom of the Catholic Church, the saints, mystics and those down through the ages. Do not be deceived by rogue priests with Eastern Oriental and New Age influences. These ideas are detrimental to our spirituality and relationship with God. For more information on true prayer, read Fr. Dubay’s book, “Prayer Primer” or his deeper work, “A Fire Within.”
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Don’t forget to check out my Youtube video on Centering Prayer.
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