PART I: Renewing the Christian Contemplative Life  

Chapter 1: John Mains Christian Meditation 

Chapter 2: Catholic Charismatics and the Unconscious  

 Chapter 3: Centering Prayer


Chapter 1: John Mains Christian Meditation

Phil St. Romain: John Main OSB (1926-1982) was a Catholic priest whose travels took him to Malaysia, where he met Swami Satyananda who taught him a simple method of meditation using a mantra (a word or phrase repeated in the mind). He began to use this method in his own spiritual practice, using the phrase maranatha (Aramaic for “Come, Lord”) and meditating with it for two 30-minute periods each day. He found deep peace and awareness from this discipline and was eventually led to embrace the contemplative life of a Benedictine monk. When he described his practice and how he had learned of it to his novice master, he was ordered to stop doing it. He complied, but found the more traditional, intellectual forms of meditation emphasized in the Church to be unsatisfying.

During the course of his later studies of the Christian mystical tradition, he came upon the writings of John Cassian, whom he found to be teaching a meditation form similar to what he had learned from Swami Satyananda. He resumed his meditation practice and, around 1976, began to teach the method to others. The method is simple:

“Sit down. Sit still. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word (“maranatha” is recommended.) Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything -- spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts or images come, these are distractions at the time of meditation, so keep returning to the simple work of saying the word. Meditate each morning and evening between twenty and thirty minutes.” (Light Within: The Inner Path of Medi-tation. Laurence Freeman. 1987. NY: Crossroad, p. xii.)

In 1991, The World Community for Christian Meditation was founded to continue the work of Fr. Main. Directed by Laurence Freeman OSB, the organization sponsors seminars and retreats to teach John Main’s Christian Meditation throughout the world.

Jim Arraj: The Christian Meditation movement, begun by John Main, is spreading around the world and doing great good by introducing people to the life of prayer. In the spirit of gentle inquiry, however, it is possible to address some questions to its practitioners in the hope that any ensuing dialogue would only strengthen this movement.

1. John Main learned to meditate using a mantra from his Hindu teacher, but what goal was his teacher aiming at? Was it the same goal as that of the Christian life of prayer? If not, does this mantra meditation become Christian just because a Christian uses it? Did John Main consider this mantra meditation of his teacher identical with the teaching of John Cassian, and The Cloud of Unknowing?

2. In the terminology of John of the Cross, is this mantra meditation, or contemplation? If it is meditation, why does John Main seem to insist that we must continue using the mantra? What happens when we reach a point when meditation begins to fail? Can this insistence on the mantra be reconciled with the teaching of centering prayer? If this mantra prayer is a very simple form of meditation, should beginners be introduced to it indiscriminately before they have gained experience in more discursive forms of meditation? If it is contemplation in the sense of John of the Cross, how can it be recommended to everyone?

3. It would seem that the deliberate simplification of discursive activity that takes place in this kind of meditation would have the psychological result of excluding energy from consciousness, and thus activating the unconscious. Does the Christian meditation movement make any provision for this activation?

Unitas responds: In response to the questions posted here concerning John Main’s Christian meditation teaching, sixteen people met at Unitas and spent a day in discussion and reflection. Unitas is an ecumenical centre for spirituality and Christian meditation, formerly the Benedictine Priory of Montreal founded by John Main. The sixteen people referred to are those who continue at Unitas John Main’s practice of giving short talks to meditators on Monday and Tuesday evenings throughout the year. The questions provided a stimulating framework for our sharing, and we are grateful to Jim Arraj for his invitation to respond to the questions below. We do not purport to speak for the worldwide network of Christian meditation groups and practitioners, only to offer the fruit of our own discussion and reflection in the interest of understanding through dialogue. The discussion is an organic one, and we welcome its continuance.

John Main learned to meditate using a mantra from his Hindu teacher, but what goal was his teacher aiming at? Was it the same goal as the Christian life of prayer?

In Christian Meditation (published by the Benedictine Priory of Montreal, 1977) John Main explains the following concerning his teacher, Swami Satyananda: For the swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the universe who dwells in our hearts, and he recited these verses from the Upanishads: “He contains all things, all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. And he enfolds the whole universe and, in silence, is loving to all. This is the Spirit that is in my heart. This is Brahman.” (p. 11)

It should be noted that while Swami Satyananda was a Hindu monk, he was educated at a Roman Catholic school and had considered becoming a Christian. Although he studied Raja yoga, Sanskrit and Eastern disciplines, his awareness of and love for the Christian tradition should not be overlooked. Perhaps the fact of speaking to a Christian audience determined both the swami’s choice of Hindu Scripture above, and John Main’s reiteration of the same, placing emphasis on a concept that is comprehensible in Christian terms. It is clear, whatever the case may be, that Swami Satyananda’s understanding of the goal of meditation coincides with the Christian concept of the aim of contemplative prayer as conscious union with the Indwelling Spirit of God. The parallel deepens when the Swami explains the general goal of his life as the restoration of the consciousness of the Kingdom of God among his fellow men (Neil McKenty. In The Stillness Dancing. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986. p. 50).

If not, does this mantra meditation become Christian just because a Christian uses it?
While in the case of Swami Satyananda and John Main obvious parallels may be drawn between mantra meditation and the Christian goal of prayer, the fact remains that at the time the Swami transmitted the teaching to John Main, the technique involved was one of Hindu meditation, not Christian prayer. Only later did John Main discover similar practices within the history of the Christian tradition. Therefore, the question remains valid: what makes mantra meditation - a practice transmitted out of the Hindu tradition - specifically “Christian”?

The “Christian-ness” of the prayer is contained in the intention of the meditator. This intention of opening oneself to the triune God revealed to us in Jesus may also be reiterated at the beginning of each period of meditation. This intention, while not consciously dwelt upon during the period of meditation itself, is formulated in the meditator’s daily life which grows out of lived awareness of the Christian tradition and its fruits. It is a question of context, wherein the Christian’s whole life, through intention, becomes “Christian,” and this necessarily extends to whatever mode of prayer the meditator practices, including mantra meditation.

Did John Main consider this mantra meditation of his teacher identical with the teaching of John Cassian, and The Cloud of Unknowing?

Having discarded mantra meditation on the advice of his novice master when he entered the Benedictine order, John Main resumed the practice when he found in the Conferences of John Cassian what he took to be a definite Christian parallel with mantra meditation. It might be argued that John Main placed undue emphasis on those aspects of Cassian’s writings that synchronized with his understanding of mantra meditation - the suppression of thought and image, the repetition of a short phrase to facilitate this letting go, the concept of the poverty of spirit of this type of prayer - while not dwelling on aspects that differ: Cassian’s understanding that the meaning of the phrase is of great import, for instance. Whether or not John Main’s choice of emphasis constitutes putting his own “spin” on Cassian, he clearly understood his own interpretation of Cassian as coinciding with mantra meditation: “In reading these words of Cassian and Chapter X of the same [10th] Conference on the method of continual prayer, I was arrived home once more and returned to the practice of the mantra.” (Christian Meditation, p. 17)

While John Main reclaimed mantra meditation for himself (and for Christians as a whole) via the writings of John Cassian, he also cited the 14th century The Cloud of Unknowing as corresponding in form and intention to mantra meditation. He pointed out (see his Word into Silence. NY: Paulist Press, 1980) the Cloud’s use of a single repeated word to overcome thought (p. 51), the concept of prayer as listening and being rather than speaking and thinking (p. 10), and the fixing of the word in the heart (p. 52). In fact he characterizes The Cloud’s teaching on the use of the prayer-word as “say your mantra” (p. 52). However, John Main chose not to underline The Cloud’s cautioning that the practice was not for everyone or even for many (see The Cloud’s “Forward”), offering the teaching of mantra meditation to all. Further, his insistence on staying with the mantra faithfully throughout the prayer period does not dovetail with The Cloud’s “If you do not feel inclined to pray with words, then forget even these words [recommended by The Cloud’s author]. (Ch. 39).

Whether or not John Main understood mantra meditation to be identical to prayer as taught in the writings of Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing, he certainly interpreted both works to be congruent in form and intention: imageless prayer through repetition of a word or short phrase with the aim of union with/awareness of the Indwelling Spirit was to be found not only in the spiritual disciplines of the East but also in the Christian tradition. He did also apparently feel that the similarities were enough to justify his own experience with mantra meditation and his return to the practice, as well as his passing the practice on to others, all within the Christian context. Distinctions are not hard to find among the various teachings, and John Main did not dwell on the distinctions. However it might be over-scrupulous to allow these differences to overshadow the deep correspondence that also exists among Eastern mantra meditation, Cassian’s prayer, and the teachings of The Cloud of Unknowing. The intuiting of this correspondence and the handing back to Christians of a valuable but neglected practice not foreign to their tradition was a gift of great genius on the part of John Main.

In the terminology of John of the Cross, is this mantra meditation, or contemplation?

Among Carmelites, meditation usually means all that we do to establish communion with God in interior prayer. Contemplation is what God does in us, the inflow of divine loving knowledge into our very being.

Meditation, however, can be either discursive or non-discursive. Discursive meditation involves thinking, reasoning, imagining, remembering, and feeling. St. John of the Cross calls this discursive process “meditation”.

Ernest Larkin, O.Carm., recognizes in his article in Review for Religious (January/February 1998) that there can be an unnamed middle step or bridge between discursive meditation and infused contemplation. Infused contemplation, defined strictly as gift, goes beyond words, thoughts, feelings. This “middle step” aids in the movement beyond the faculties and fosters the disposition of openness and surrender.

This middle-step is appropriately named non-discursive meditation. It seeks to quiet these mental activities in order to be silent and passive before God, receptive to whatever God wishes to communicate to us. Non-discursive meditation usually involves four basic elements: a suitable place, a proper posture, a mental instrument or object of focus, and a receptive attitude.

In the terminology of John of the Cross, the word “contemplation” would be used only to refer to God’s direct self-communication to a person disposed through self-emptying in faith and love to receive this intimate revelation. It is not our activity, but God’s. It is not something we do to ourselves, but something that God does in us. We dispose ourselves in non-discursive meditation to receive this grace, but ultimately contemplation is God’s free gift to us. Meditation as practiced in the tradition of John Main would fall into this middle-step category of non-discursive meditation.

If it is meditation, why does John Main seem to insist that we must continue using the mantra?

The greatest problem in meditation is the wandering mind. It takes years of practice before the mind will respond obediently to the commands of the will. Providing the mind with an object of focus is very helpful in developing concentration. Thus John Main’s constant counsel was to “say your mantra” and not to let go of it too soon. “Too soon” is if you can still repeat it or be with it.

For example, when concentration is focused and there is a pleasing experience, there can be a temptation to let go of the mantra because it seems to put some distance between oneself and the delight. One may want to let oneself become absorbed in the agreeable feelings with a resultant lulling of mental clarity. While unclear absorption may feel very good, one is no longer meditating when sharp clarity of mind is lost. Meditation requires keeping high clarity in deep concentration. Repetition of the prayer word keeps attention bright and alert.

What happens when we reach a point where meditation begins to fail?

If “fail” means no longer to be able to say the mantra, then we are describing an experience in which God’s activity has overtaken our own, i.e., contemplation. As this is what non-discursive meditation is oriented to, it could hardly be described as failure. John Main spoke out of the tradition of Cassian in which the emphasis is on the absolute simplicity of ceaselessly revolving the prayer formula in one’s heart as a way of ridding oneself of all kinds of other thoughts and keeping one’s mind fixed on the continual recollection of God. One says the mantra until one can no longer say it. And one does not choose when to stop saying it. As soon as one realizes one has stopped saying it, one starts again.

Can this insistence on the mantra be reconciled with the teaching of centering prayer?

There is a difference in the two schools in that centering prayer puts less emphasis upon the continual recitation of the word. People in both schools of practice experience the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their lives as a result of their practice. In every tradition of spirituality there is an understanding that it is best to find your path and remain with it.

What the two schools of teaching clearly share is the work of restoring the contemplative dimension of faith and prayer to the life of ordinary Christians, common ground in the roots of Christian contemplative prayer in the monastic tradition, and the conviction that the monastic tradition has relevance to the whole church today.

If this mantra prayer is a very simple form of meditation, should beginners be introduced to it indiscriminately before they have gained experience in more discursive forms of meditation?

John of the Cross counsels discursive meditation for beginners to deepen their knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. John maintains that leaving discursive meditation before this knowledge and love is established in their souls can be as detrimental as continuing discursive meditation when God clearly is leading them into contemplation.

However, many Christians report never being able to pray discursively. They indicate that from the very beginning of their spiritual journey, they have practiced some form of non-discursive meditation. As their meditation has deepened, their knowledge and love of God has also grown.

It would seem that Christians can begin interior prayer with non-discursive meditation, provided their knowledge and love of God is being nourished through other sources, such as spiritual reading or liturgical worship. When knowledge and love of God deepen through other sources, insisting on discursive prayer is not necessary. Simply doing the meditation practice, continually opening oneself to God’s purifying action, is itself an ongoing act of love for God.

If it is contemplation in the sense of John of the Cross, how can it be recommended to everyone?

Christian meditation in the tradition of John Main is not understood as contemplation in the sense of John of the Cross. However, as a way of disposing oneself to receive the gift of loving communion that God wants to give, it can be recommended to all.

It would seem that the deliberate simplification of discursive activity that takes place in this kind of meditation would have the psychological result of excluding energy from consciousness, and thus activating the unconscious. Does the Christian meditation movement make any provision for this activation?

John Main obtained permission from his abbot late in 1974 to establish a small lay community in a former novitiate house at Ealing Abbey in England, primarily devoted to the practice of meditation. The tradition out of which he would teach was that of Western monasticism from its beginnings. He gradually developed, from his opening talks, a theology of meditation based on the “secret” of St. Paul’s letters: the real presence of the risen Christ in the human heart. John Main’s understanding of prayer was simple, basic, and deeply grounded in Scripture and tradition (In The Stillness Dancing: The Journey of John Main, pp. 82-84).

In 1977 he moved to Montreal to open a house of prayer. He died in 1982. In those few intervening years, his teaching consisted of talks given to lay meditators or monastics, which talks were later transcribed and published as books. He never wrote a book as such on meditation. One might say he never had the time. He found himself on the front end of a burgeoning renewal of Christian meditative prayer and much taken up with the founding of a new Benedictine Priory in Montreal which soon began to receive novices, guests and retreatants from around the world.

There is very little in his teaching that addresses the psychological effects of meditation. Several things might be said about this. It could be said that neither the format of his teaching—fifteen minute talks to beginning meditators—nor the fact that, in those days, most everyone was a beginner, favoured delving into that subject. It could be said that he would have been content to stay within the framework of the bible and the history of Christian spirituality in speaking about meditation. It could be said that had he been given more than 56 years to live he would have been invited to address this aspect of the meditative experience as the renewal movement developed, and to enter into dialogue on this point with its leaders in other places. In the end, however, it is a moot point. The fact is his teaching does not address it at any length.

With the help of others doing work on questions relating to the psychological effects of meditation, those of us engaged in handing on the practice of Christian meditation are in the process of developing our appreciation of these dynamics in the practice of meditative prayer. While not being our central preoccupation, we recognize that it is something we should be aware of both in our own practice and in our efforts to serve as guides to other meditators.

On behalf of those giving talks on Christian meditation at Unitas, Thomas Ryan, csp, and Sara Terreault
Jim Arraj:
I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and lack of defensiveness with which the Unitas meditation teachers approached these questions. I would like to try to respond in the same spirit.

I don’t deny that there is a theistic dimension to Hinduism and other Eastern religions, or that supernatural mystical graces might  be found among Hindu meditators. At the same time, Hindu meditation is often geared to a nondual religious experience which is then expressed in some sort of nondual philosophy. Both the experience and the post-experience reflection can be difficult to reconcile with Christianity as witnessed, for example, by the struggles of Henri Le Saux (Abhishiktananda). So the issue that I am trying to get at here is whether the same exercise of mantra meditation can serve as a vehicle for either nondual experience such as is found among the Hindu Advaitans, and for loving union with God, which is the goal of Christian prayer. The answer given is that the intention of the meditator is paramount. I agree that this is a vital consideration. But doesn’t the meditation exercise, itself, have some kind of interior finality by which it aims at a particular goal? Does intention totally transform the nature and finality of the kind of meditation we are using? Let me use an example from another tradition without claiming that it forms an exact parallel with mantra meditation. Suppose as a Christian I decide to do zazen, and I have the intention that it will somehow bring me closer to God. Does this transform zazen into Christian prayer, or does zazen still maintain its interior goal of enlightenment?

It is certainly not my intention to claim that the manifold spiritual traditions of the Church need to be expressed in the terminology of John of the Cross. However, I do find that John of the Cross has played a critical role in the formation of the modern Western Christian mystical tradition, and he gives us the basic principles by which we can focus on the nature of contemplation and its relationship to meditation.

I am afraid that I would have to disagree with the Unitas meditation teachers when they call mantra meditation a nondiscursive meditation between meditation and contemplation. For John of the Cross there is no such state. Either we work with the faculties, or God works in us in a special way by giving us contemplation in the depths of the soul. I leave it to Fr. Larkin to respond, himself, as to whether he believes there is such a middle state in John of the Cross, but I refer you to his remarks in the discussion of centering prayer in this same section of the website. There are certainly simplified forms of meditation or what could be called affective prayer, or exercises in the practice of the presence of God. And it is fair to distinguish these states from formal discursive meditation, if we mean by that imagining a scene from the Gospels, making considerations, following through by means of affective dialogue, etc., etc. But when John of the Cross is talking about meditation, he means all the kinds of prayer that we can do by our own effort by using the faculties of the soul. Thus, the various forms of affective prayer and John Main’s mantra meditation would fall under St. John’s heading of meditation, and it is entirely possible that someone beginning the life of prayer might derive more benefit from these kinds of meditation than from formal discursive meditation in the narrow sense of the term. These kinds of meditation can dispose one to the graces of infused contemplation.

The key here, however, is that we are still using our faculties in these kinds of prayer, however simplified this activity is. I am not sure we should say that we are silent and passive before God without qualifying that statement. We need to clearly distinguish between any disagreements which are only rooted in terminology, and the deeper issue of whether it is correct to talk about a nondiscursive state of prayer that transcends the faculties and yet is not infused contemplation. This brings us back to my original consideration because various forms of Eastern meditation are aiming to go beyond the discursive activity of the intellect, and yet they are not aiming at infused contemplation. I am not sure, either, how valid it is to say that such a nondiscursive kind of meditation is what is found in Cassian and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Is it wrong to call John Main’s Christian meditation a form of meditation that we can do whenever we desire and which makes use of the faculties in a very simplified fashion, and which can dispose us for infused contemplation?

Paul Harris: Meditation, known also as contemplative prayer, is the prayer of silence, the place where direct contact with Christ can occur, once the never-ceasing activity of the mind has been stilled. In meditation we go beyond words, thoughts and images into the presence of God within.

The goal of meditation, as Swami Satyananda expressed it, was to “restore the consciousness of the kingdom of God among his fellow men (and women.)” It seems to me this was also the purpose of the teaching of Jesus. For the swami the aim of meditation “was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the Universe who dwells in our hearts and in silence is loving to all” (a verse from the Upanishads).

The swami insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening, and being very enlightened he gave John Main a Christian mantra. He said to John Main “and during the time of your meditation there must be in your mind, no thoughts, no words, no images. The sole sound will be the sound of your mantra, your word. The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound the harmonic within ourselves we begin to build up a resonance. That resonance then leads us forward to our own wholeness ... We begin to experience the deep unity we all possess in our own being. And then the harmonic begins to build up a resonance between you and all creatures and all creation and unity between you and your Creator.”

This was the teaching, a way to an authentic interior life, to ‘the cave of the heart’ that John Main had long been seeking. What makes this teaching a path of contemplative prayer for us is simply the Christian faith we bring to the practice of this daily spiritual discipline.

If one reads the teaching of John Main on Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing one comes to the realization that John Main is simply reiterating the exact same teaching but putting the teaching in 20th century contemporary language.

In #2 John Main teaches that one says the mantra until one cannot say it, in other words, until one has come to complete stillness of body, mind and spirit, the contemplative moment. However once one is aware of the silence, the silence is lost and one must come back to the recitation of the mantra.

Regarding Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation, both are in the apophatic tradition of prayer.

Experience shows us that God leads many people to contemplative prayer without any prior knowledge or practice of discursive meditation. I have personally seen this many times myself. God often gives a person the gift of this prayer at a time of crisis or a time of personal illness and pain in an individual’s life. The idea that contemplative prayer is not for everyone was beautifully answered by Thomas Merton who says every Christian is called to the heights of Christian prayer simply because of their Baptism. The Cloud says contemplative prayer is simply the development of the ordinary Christian life. No big deal!

The release of the unconscious through the practice of Christian Meditation does start a healing process in the practitioner.

Sam Murray: Here are some thoughts about John Main’s Christian Meditation.

In Christian Meditation: Contemplative prayer for a new generation, Paul Harris states:

“In all essential aspects, with the exception of the Mantra itself, the similarities between Cassian’s ‘formula,’ the Jesus prayer, and the ‘mantra’ of John Main are expressions of the deeper practice of prayer in the Christian tradition. The anonymous English classic The Cloud of Unknowing is important because we see continuity in the teaching on silent prayer of John Cassian (4th century), The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century) and John Main (20th century). All three teachers offer the same essential teaching.” (Harris 1996:31).

I believe that these the types of apophatic prayer techniques cited by Harris above are unique in a number of significant ways.

The Formula of John Cassian. John Cassian was a 4th century spiritual seeker, with one of the early desert fathers Abbot Isaac who instructed him on a method of continuous prayer. The Abbot states:

“And what follows now is the model to teach you, the prayer formula for which you are searching. Every monk who wants to think continuously about God should get accustomed to meditating endlessly on it and to banish all other thoughts for its sake. But he will not hold on to it unless he breaks completely free from all bodily concerns and cares. This is something which has been handed on to us by some of the oldest of the fathers and it is something which we hand on to only a very small number of the souls eager to know it: To keep the thought of God always in your mind you must cling totally to this formula for piety: ‘Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue’.” (Luibheid. 1985, Conference 10:10.p132).

Here we see that the old Abbot recommends his prayer method as a constant practice, breaking free from all bodily concerns and cares. It was considered to be such a powerful practice that it was only handed on to a ‘very small number of souls eager to know it’. The aim of the formula was to bring the practitioner to a point where they think continuously about God.

In contrast, the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) recommends meditation for 20-30 minutes a day, rather than constant prayer. They often combine meditation with such practices as Rolfing and Hatha Yoga, rather than abandoning all bodily concerns and cares. And rather than teaching only a very small number of eager souls the WCCM very publicly recommends their practice to anyone who comes across their literature or attends their meetings.

Abbot Isaac continues: “It is not without good reason that this verse (Psalm 69:2) has been chosen from the whole of scripture as a device. It carries within it all the feelings of which human nature is capable. It can be adapted to every condition and can be usefully deployed against every temptation. It carries within it a cry of help to God in the face of every danger. It expresses the humility of a pious confession. It conveys a sense of our frailty, the assurance of being heard, the confidence in help that is always and everywhere present.” (Lubheid, 1985. Conference 10:10. p133).

Clearly the meaning of the formula is a very important part of saying the formula in contrast to the attitude of WCCM meditators. It is hard to escape from the feeling that what the Abbot is recommending is an ejaculatory prayer, rather than a Mantra, where the meaning of the phrase is unimportant. For example Paul Harris states: “In meditation we are attempting to enter a silence, beyond thinking about Jesus; a silence where our union with Jesus can be fully realized. This is why Father John recommended the mantra Maranatha in Aramaic, a language that would not conjure up any thoughts or images.” (Harris. 1996:30).

The 14th century spiritual Classic The Cloud of Unknowing is cited by the WCCM as recommending the same essential practice as John Main’s mantra meditation. Lawrence Freeman writes in the introduction to Evelyn Underhill’s translation of the work that “John Cassian’s formula and John Main’s Mantra, is the ‘one little word’ of the Cloud.” (Underhill 1997:19). Yet the author of the Cloud gives a different impression:

“A man or woman with any sudden chance of fire or of man’s death or what else that it be, suddenly in the height of his spirit, he is driven upon haste and upon need for to cry or for to pray after help. Yea how? Surely, not in many words, nor yet in one word of two syllables. And why is that? For him thinketh it over long tarrying for to declare the need and work of the spirit. And therefore he bursteth up hideously with a great spirit, and cryeth a little word, but of one syllable: as is this word ‘fire’, or this word ‘out’.” (Underhill 1997:121).

Here we have a specific recommendation to use only one syllable not four as in the word Maranatha. There is the same ejaculatory sense of urgency we get with Abbot Isaacs teachings. The analogy is of a person who is in great danger who needs to pray for help, rather than the calm gentle repetition that the WCCM recommends. There is also the sense in the Cloud that this technique is not for everyone:

“Fleshly janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers, cared I never that they saw this book.” (Underhill 1997:34).

The author is clear that it is not a practice for everyone but only for those with a high degree of purity and maturity in the Christian life. Again specific words are used and close attention is paid to their meaning. One of the aims of the practice is to get good and remove evil and to obtain forgiveness of sins.

It is understandable that in the face of an intolerant religious hierarchy, John Main preferred to emphasize the similarity of his mantra meditation to forms of prayer in the Christian tradition rather than the South Asian mantra meditation of his original teacher, Swami Satyananda. I feel it is important for the WCCM to acknowledge that its methods have much more in common with Eastern techniques than traditional Christian ones. Given the degree of involvement that the Community has in the process of Inter-Religious dialogue, particularly with the diaspora Tibetan tradition, I think it is important that the WCCM fully acknowledges that it practices a hybrid of Hindu and Christian meditation techniques, rather than meditation in the Christian tradition.

Harris, P. (1996) Christian Meditation:

Contemplative Prayer for a new generation. London. Darton Longman & Todd.

Luibheid, C. (1985). John Cassian – Conferences: New York. Paulist Press.
Underhill, E. (1912/1997). The Cloud of Unknowing: Rockport. Element.

Phil St. Romain: Already in this early chapter, we are encountering questions and themes that will run throughout this book. For example, there is the issue of the relationship between a method of prayer and the goal of the Christian life. Does it make any difference whether one uses a method taken from another religious tradition whose mystical tradition seems to lead in a different direction from that of Christianity? There is also the question of whether all states of consciousness beyond thought and concept are experiences of God. Might there be other explanations, other states of silence? Also, is it not possible that there are different kinds of experiences of God? We will be revisiting these themes again and again, with the hope of coming to a deeper understanding of Christian spirituality and spiritual practice. 

Another thought I had as I read through this exchange is that the issues at stake are similar to those pertaining to Christians practicing Transcendental Meditation®. Indeed, the only formal distinction between Christian Meditation as taught by John Main and TM as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is the wording of the mantra itself. There is also the matter of the strong Hindu flavor of the TM initiation process, but setting that aside, once one begins the practice on one’s own, it is structurally identical to Christian Meditation. Where Christian Meditators repeat maranatha, a TM meditator is given a Sanskrit phrase. In both cases, the manner in which the mantrum is repeated does not engage the will in a relational orientation to God. Rather, any such intention is to be made before or after the meditation, and that is what Christian TM meditators say they do. In both cases, too, the ensuing state of silence is interpreted as direct contact with the divine.

We will reflect more on TM and Christian practice in a later chapter, but I just wanted to point out the similarities at this point. 


Chapter 2: Catholic Charismatics and the Unconscious

The revival of Pentecostal spirituality dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a number of small gatherings of Protestants met for prayer and asked to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as described in certain New Testament passages. Some of them began to speak in tongues and to manifest other charismata, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy and healing. For several decades thereafter, the Pentecostal movement continued to grow, although it was mostly confined to certain Protestant groups with a fundamentalist perspective on Scripture. That began to change in the 1960’s, however, when Catholic and mainline Protestant groups began to embrace Pentecostal spirituality. This “Charismatic Renewal,” as it came to be called, peaked around 1980, though groups may still be found in many places.

Jim Arraj: The Catholic charismatic community deserves our appreciation for introducing many people into the life of prayer. But in the spirit of gentle inquiry we present the following questions with the hope it will lead to a dialogue that will enrich all of us.

The Catholic charismatic movement sometimes leaves the impression that what is not due to our conscious thoughts and intentions ought to be attributed to the direct action of the Holy Spirit or to the devil. We can represent this attitude as follows:

Thus they see God’s direct action in speaking in tongues or in prophesies or in healings, or being slain in the spirit, and the devil’s action in various temptations and obsessions. They appear to be saying, “I know that I am not the cause of this speaking in tongues, for I did not invent these words or phrases, and I feel them coming from outside of me, and so therefore, it is the Holy Spirit speaking through me.” Or, “I know this temptation has fallen upon me without me desiring it or encouraging it, and with a strength that seems to go beyond what human nature is capable of producing and therefore it comes from the devil.”

From the point of view of ego consciousness they are right in saying that these things come from realms beyond the ego. But there is another way to look at these matters, and we can redraw our diagram as follows:

What this means is that there is a dimension beyond the ego which is neither the direct realm of God nor of the devil, but a natural and normal but unconscious dimension of the human soul. This unconscious has its own contents and affects, as we see every night when we dream.

Our question becomes, then, does the Catholic charismatic movement really take into account the psychological unconscious? Let’s take an example. Do we have to attribute speaking in tongues to the direct action of the Holy Spirit, even though we experience it as coming from beyond ourselves? Certainly it comes from beyond ourselves in the sense that we are not consciously inventing these words. But it is entirely possible that even a genuine grace coming from God and directed to our conversion could pass through the psychological unconscious and clothe itself in various unknown words and affects, in short, as some unknown tongue, which then bursts forth into consciousness and makes the grace that God is giving us visible in a particular tangible form.

In this case, the tongue is both a divine and human reality. It is divine inasmuch as it embodies a genuine inspiration and grace, and it is human inasmuch as the words, themselves, are born in the unconscious in order to give this grace a tangible form. If this is true, then there is no need to claim the words, themselves, are directly fashioned by the Holy Spirit, or that psychological factors never play a role in inducing someone to speak in tongues. This human-divine view of speaking in tongues would also make it easier to understand why these tongues are in no known language, and that tongue-speaking is also known outside of a Christian context, for example among the San, or Bushmen, of Southern Africa. Further, it would help us understand how someone could begin speaking in tongues, and then as their life of prayer develops, no longer have any inclination to speak in tongues.

Conclusion: There appears to be a real danger that Catholic charismatics can identify their impulses, feelings, insights and images that come from beyond the confines of consciousness with the direct action of God or the devil. Then they would treat what is at least partially human as if it were divine or diabolical. A more psychologically aware attitude is needed.

Is this true?

Bob Van Cleef: Actually, I didn’t consider your open letter to the charismatics to be that far off the mark. Many charismatics do not carefully discern where the “Spirit” leaves off and the “flesh” takes over. However, I disagree with your implied conclusion that it is the norm to “grow out of” speaking in tongues. I know some who have continued to grow spiritually for decades, and still find tongues a valuable “gift of prayer.” For myself, I first prayed in tongues back in the early seventies and only set them aside when I stopped “seeking the Kingdom.” When I returned to the Journey, the gift of tongues and the other gifts were still there for my aid.

I’m not a psychologist or a philosopher, so I’ll skip on the Jungian stuff, other than to state that you can err in both extremes; attributing to God what is man’s and to man what is God’s. (Substitute Satan for God to express the conflict in reverse...)
However, in the context of today’s society, which ignores the reality of both God and Satan, rejects the existence of sin or moral standards, and focuses on death and violence -- I believe it is better to err on the side of crediting God / blaming the Devil than to get lost in metaphysical relativism.

Ida Bickley (responding to Jim Arraj): I couldn’t have put this better. I have always had an aversion to the charismatic movement without being able to put my reservations into rational thoughts. You put it so clearly.

One thing I would add is that charismatics are so prone to say that “God told me this” or “that” without qualifying it. For example, I would say, “I sense that God is telling me so and so,” but I would leave room for other interpretations as well. I know many sincere, fine people who are charismatics, but it would not be a movement with which I could comfortably associate.

Bishop Sam Jacobs: You raise a question that I have never looked at seriously, since that is not my focus. I am aware that some of the experiences of some people involved in the charismatic renewal may be more psychological than a grace from God. But when I examine my own experiences, I do not find them to be in that mode. I believe that they are truly spiritual experiences, gifts from God. And the basis for this would be the fruit flowing from this grace event from God. I am well aware that not everything that is said to be of God is of God. And maybe that’s where the psychological unconscious comes in. This is where correct discernment is needed. But at the same time to imply that the source of the experience is psychological would deny the Word of God, the promises of Jesus, the gifts of the Spirit, and the graces given. The signs and wonders experienced in Jesus’ life, the life of the early Christians, Christians throughout the centuries even to this present time are real, not because their source is the psychological unconscious but the source is the Holy Spirit.

Modesto, CA: I really liked your definition of Christian mysticism and felt you did such a nice job and summary of it. However, when it came to the comments on the charismatic movement, especially speaking in tongues, I felt you had little experience in that area. Your article says, “This human-divine view of speaking in tongues would also make it easier to understand why these tongues are in no known language.” I’m no expert on the subject and in a sense have only been on the fringes of the movement but my understanding is that speaking or praying in tongues can be a definite language. I’ve heard of instances such as this: A man walks into a charismatic service, hears someone speaking in ancient Greek which he studied and he hears the words and is amazed that someone who has never learned the language could be pronouncing the words so perfectly. He is also amazed because the words seem to be directed to him and touch his heart by their message. Also in scripture on Pentecost, the apostles were speaking in tongues or rather preaching in tongues it seems, and foreigners were amazed to hear the gospel being proclaimed in their own language. This seems to be beyond something which our unconscious can manufacture which you seemed to suggest in your letter by your statement, “Do we have to attribute speaking in tongues to the direct action of the Holy Spirit, even though we experience it as coming from beyond ourselves?” It says in scripture that the apostles attributed speaking in tongues to the reception of the Holy Spirit and I see no reason why this can’t be true. I don’t think it is correct to say that the gift of tongues which is present in the New Testament and in present charismatic movement today is just a product of our unconscious minds, but I believe when it is legitimately present that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and should be valued as such.

I will have to agree with your conclusion however at the end of your article for the most part which says, “Conclusion: There appears to be a real danger that Catholic charismatics can identify their impulses, feelings, insights and images that come from beyond the confines of consciousness with the direct action of God or the devil. Then they would treat what is at least partially human as if it were divine or diabolical. A more psychologically aware attitude is needed.” Even though I think there is a genuine action of the Holy Spirit in lives of Christians and particularly present in some miraculous ways in the charismatic movement, I will have to agree with you that there is a tendency in the charismatic movement to oversimplify and attribute things as coming from either the devil or God without seeming to realize that they may be coming from their own minds. I often for example wonder how many people who speak in tongues really have a charismatic gift of tongues and how many are just doing the best they naturally can to have the gift. However I do believe it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and that some people really have this gift. Just as I believe some people really have visions that come from God, just as others visions come from their imaginations or even perhaps the devil. St. John of the Cross addresses a similar problem when he tells us to not concentrate on visions, locutions and supernatural revelations because it  is very difficult if not impossible to tell whether they are from God, our imagination, or the devil and we can easily be misled. This seems to apply to the charismatic movement as well where all too easily every vision and locution is dubbed to come from the Holy Spirit whereas they can just as easily be coming from the mind of the person or perhaps even the devil. Also there is a tendency among some charismatics to attribute all the things they view as bad as coming from the devil which seems to be an over-simplification to me. So I think it is correct to say like St. John that some things we might call supernatural manifestations do indeed come from God, but also some come from our own minds and others can even come from the devil. St. John cautions us to not guide our life by visions, locutions etc. but by faith. I think this is good advice.

Jim Arraj: While there are stories of people speaking in languages they have not learned, it would be hard, I think, to find concrete cases where there is convincing evidence that this has really happened. Further, the unconscious can play a powerful role in uncanny events like telepathic dreams or strange feats of the intellect like human mathematical calculators, and so it cannot be immediately ruled out, even if such a case were found.

There is the example of the original Pentecost, itself, but I would hesitate to identify this Pentecostal speaking in tongues that people understood in their own languages with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues that we see in the modern charismatic movement.

I am not saying that the modern speaking in tongues is just a psychological phenomenon, but rather, it can have both a genuine spiritual dimension and a human unconscious dimension. Thus, it can be a grace of God even if there is a natural dimension of the psyche that creates the tongue that is spoken.

Your point about John of the Cross is a good one, but it raises some further questions:

1. Would John of the Cross consider the modern speaking in tongues as a situation similar to that of visions and revelations, and therefore give the same advice to it as he does to them?

2. Would he consider it a form of what he called meditation, that is, any prayer that we could do ourselves, and thus see it as limited and coming through the human faculties and expect it to be transcended by some other form of prayer?

3. How does speaking in tongues and the rest of the charismatic phenomena relate to what John of the Cross called infused contemplation?

John Hardon, SJ, in an article that is posted on the web called “Pentecostalism: Evaluating a Phenomenon” makes some remarks that we think are relevant to the discussion here:

“The fundamental problem it (Pentecostalism) creates is the absolute conviction of devoted Pentecostals that they have actually received a charismatic visitation of the Holy Spirit.

I am not referring to such external phenomena as the gift of tongues, but of the deeply inward certitude that a person has been the object of a preternatural infusion, with stress on the infusion of preternatural insight, i.e., in the cognitive order.

This is an astounding assertion, and the only thing unremarkable about it is that so many Pentecostals are now firmly convinced they have been so enlightened...

The dilemma this raises can be easily stated:

Either the Pentecostal experience really confers preternatural insight (at least among its leaders), or the experience is quite natural, while certainly allowing for the normal operations of divine grace...

Are the so-called charismata truly charismatic? If they are, then we stand in the presence of a cosmic miracle, more stupendous in proportion - by reason of sheer numbers - than anything the Church has seen, I would say, even in apostolic times.

But if the experiences are not authentically charismatic, then, again, we stand in the presence of a growing multitude of persons who believe themselves charismatically led by the Holy Spirit. They will make drastic decisions, institute revolutionary changes, or act in a host of other ways - firmly convinced they are responding to a special divine impulse whereas in reality they are acting in response to quite ordinary, and certainly less infallible, motions of the human spirit.

At this point we could begin a completely separate analysis, namely, of the accumulating evidence that the impulses which the Pentecostal leaders consider charismatic are suspiciously very human.”

Bob Gravlin: In St. Louis we have many fine charismatic groups which have done a good job of integrating such things as dream work, Jungian Psychology, and a wise understanding of the unconscious in healing ministries and a healing and deliverance ministry associated with the St. Louis Archdiocese. The temptation of a simplistic attribution of our own psychological processes to God or the devil is a real one, however.
An equally real danger I have seen in secular society and the social sciences is the tendency to attribute all mysterious and not understood spiritual experiences to the human psyche or the subconscious. For example, genuine spiritual experiences involving God are thought of as a process of psychological projection, wish fulfillment, the universal unconscious, etc.

Equally serious is the tendency to see occult practices, such as channeling, tarot card reading, automatic writing, the Ouija boards, etc., as a process of contacting the subconscious mind when, in fact people may be opening themselves up to the influence of genuinely demonic spirits and forces.

I conclude that the tendency among secularists to deny the spiritual is as serious as is the tendency of some believers to attribute almost everything to God or the devil. Balance is usually not found in extreme positions.

 Another Response: I agree with much of what was said. I believe there is a human part and a divine part to speaking in tongues, because there is a human speaker involved and God’s Spirit within him/her, but I think that any further human speculation about it-- without looking to the word of God -- is nothing more than speculation. I believe our human speculation is worthless, because human beings are sinners and fallible. (Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”) Therefore, we cannot trust what comes from the mouth of men 100% of the time, but we can always trust God, because He is the same yesterday, today and forever... We cannot possibly comprehend the things of God with our limited human intellect...

But we know God’s word to be true and to be the only trusted source to learn about who God is and how he operates...

Saying that today tongues is somehow different than their operation by the first Christians at the day of Pentecost seems ridiculous and assumes that God changes, which is false.

I disagree that speaking in tongues can be attributed to our subconscious, because that would in effect be saying that we somehow have a part in God’s work when Phil. 2:13 says, “It is God who works in you, to will and to do for His good pleasure...”

Louis Bezzina: The charismatic movement in itself is something good happening to the Church, but like always one finds a lot of eccentrics, and I agree with your statements, for as one knows anthropologists have encountered speaking in tongues in certain African tribal cults and also in some type of Chinese shamanism.

I would like to add, and would like also the charismatics who might read this page to understand, that being part of the charismatic movement does not make a charismatic a special member of the Church, in the sense that one feels one became better (more saintly) than others, and starts recognizing as brothers and sisters in Christ only those who are members of this movement.

And please, charismatics, take care, for, when one starts believing one is having direct contact with the Spirit, or with the Triune God directly, one might fall into the temptation of disregarding the Church, and authority in the Church, a serving authority, given by Christ, so that all the people of God, without distinction, will have somebody responsible and wise (in the spiritual sense) enough to lead them. Please, dear charismatic brothers and sisters, stay within the fold.

Colin LaVergne: I was present at a prayer meeting in Seattle in 1972 where a visitor recognized the tongue being spoken as an actual language he understood. Because it was one of our first prayer meetings, we took that unusual event as an indication that we were on the right track in starting this new prayer group.

A friend of mine, Richard Pomeroy, had an experience of praising in tongues while waiting for the Fremont Bridge in Seattle (Seattle has several bridges that go up to allow boats to pass through the Ship Canal, which requires cars to simply wait for 5-15 minutes depending on the number of boats). He had his window rolled down and a young boy had gotten out of the car ahead of Richard to go look at the boats. Suddenly he turned around and walked over to Richard and started speaking French to Richard. Richard had no clue what he was saying so the boy began to speak in English and asked Richard how he knew who he was. It turned out the tongue (Richard had been speaking) was French and was addressed directly to the boy. Richard talked with him briefly, led him in a prayer of commitment to Jesus. This was a use of tongues I have not heard of since.

Your questioning of the relationship between the human and the divine is a good one. I think there is a lot more about the human psyche that we don’t understand. Because of my firm conviction that God is the author of our human psychology, spirit and body as well as the author of supernatural interventions, I think that the dividing lines are probably pretty fuzzy in terms of being able to make sharp distinctions. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try, especially because every charismatic I know has at least some experiences of mistaking their own thinking or impulses for the work of the Spirit. But of course, making some mistakes does not invalidate all experiences.

Jim Arraj: I am not trying to say that in principle speaking in tongues is never an actual historical language. It is just that in the vast majority of cases I don’t think it is, and it is hard to find well-documented instances where an actual language is being spoken.
Nor am I trying to leave the impression that I am denying God’s action in our lives. It is just that we seem to materialize that action so readily.

Phil St. Romain: I have enjoyed this discussion and agree with most of the criticisms raised. Having participated in a Catholic charismatic prayer group in the late 1970’s, I also observed the tendency to attribute to the Spirit phenomena that might have been more of a psychological nature. Some of the teachers in Renewal were not very well trained in psychology; some were, however, and had no qualms about recommending counseling or dream work as disciplines for healing and spiritual growth.

On the other hand, it is difficult to critique a movement as broad-based and with as many variations as the Catholic charismatic renewal. There is no set spiritual practice, such as we find with John Main’s approach or Centering Prayer. Also, as noted above, the character of the group depends much on the quality of leadership. Some tend toward a fundamentalist perspective on Scripture, others do not; some tend to lump psychological and spiritual phenomena together; others make more of an attempt to discern which is which.

Regarding psychological phenomena in Charismatic renewal, my own view is that it’s not always clear as to what’s going on. There are psychological manifestations of all kinds to be found in prayer meetings: people speak in tongues, describe visions, hear messages in their minds, have intuitions of what’s going on with others, describe dreams, and so forth. One extreme view, I believe, would be to say that because a phenomenon can be explained psychologically, then that explanation is sufficient. So, for example, if one has an inner vision of Jesus speaking a message, it’s easy enough to understand how one’s own unconscious or imagination could produce such a symbol and, in the context of a prayer meeting, communicate a message to the group. While this may indeed be the case, what must also be considered is the possibility that the Holy Spirit has been the catalyst or Source for this imagery – that the psychological phenomenon is a consequence of a movement of grace. After all, how else could the Spirit work through us except through our own minds, psyches, spirits, etc.? This is the view toward which many charismatics tend, and which this chapter criticizes for sometimes being insufficiently discerning. The opposite extreme, however, would be a kind of psychological reductionism that would discount the possibility of movements of grace at work in psychological phenomena.

How would one know which was which? How to tell if something is only psychological or if it is also grace-touched? After all, the Bible has numerous stories of people believing God spoke to them in dreams. What if they had overly psychologized these experiences and discounted the divine hand at work in them? 

The prayer groups I participated in were well-aware of the possibility of delusions concerning prophecies and what we called “words of knowledge” - a kind of sizing up of a person. For some things, there’s no knowing for sure, and so one has to proceed with caution. Is the message congruent with Scripture? This is an important consideration. Also, sometimes one must just wait and see how things develop.

Probably no Pentecostal phenomenon draws more attention than glossolalia, praying in tongues. Generally, this refers to a private prayer language in the Spirit rather than another real language (although there have been reports of such). I have been praying in tongues daily and frequently since 1974, when I received this gift after a laying on of hands by friends. At different times throughout each day, there are inner promptings to pray in tongues. I can do so silently, under my breath, or aloud; obviously, circumstance has much to do with how I express this. The prayer comes and goes, as needed, and the syllables vary, without my controlling or directing them. So with the gift of tongues, one is moved not only to pray, but to pray certain sounds and symbols. When I am “done” it will do little good to keep fabricating sounds; the prayer has accomplished what it needed to, and usually I have no way of knowing what that was. Often, there’s a sense of de-stressing; sometimes, the mind is just quieted; other times, there’s a prompting to pray for someone or some cause; most often, it is simply a re-focusing in God. I’ve long given up trying to figure out why the promptings come, but I do know that it’s good for me to give utterance, if possible. When these promptings arise during my prayer times, the utterance of tongues moves me to a state of deep resting in a sense of God’s love. Glossolalia is, for many, a kind of transition to contemplative prayer, and may even be a form of contemplation (it is non-discursive and communicates God’s presence).

All that said, I will readily acknowledge that I can “speak in tongues” any time I wish. There’s nothing miraculous about that. This is not the same as “praying in tongues,” however; the spontaneous inner prompting and subtle orientation to God is what makes glossolalia prayer. Speaking in tongues is just making sounds; praying in tongues is co-operating with a mysterious inner force whom I believe to be the Holy Spirit.

Of course, there are other explanations for glossolalia. One is that the inner prompting might originate from the deep Self, or human spirit, and the purpose is to help maintain psycho-spiritual balance and integration. I have no objection to this and rather suspect that this may well be part of what’s going on. Of course, if that were all there was to it, then one would expect glossolalia to be more common, as we all have a deep inner Self that is striving for realization. Instead, we usually find it in pentecostal groups and in other religions where spontaneous worship is emphasized. Those who insist on a strictly psychological accounting for glossolalia must therefore ask why this religious context for the emergence of the phenomenon? What would be sheer idiocy on my part would be to suppress the utterance of glossolalia in order to discern whether it was of my human spirit or the Holy Spirit. Either/or is fine with me, as both possibilities can lead to positive fruit. Indeed, it may very well be that the Self is the inner temple of the Holy Spirit, and so separating the One from the other is, in practical experience, quite difficult to do.


Chapter 3: Centering Prayer


Phil St. Romain: The Centering Prayer method of meditation is very simple to learn and teach:

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

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

3. When engaged with your 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.

*Thoughts include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections. (from http://www. centering methodcp.htm)

Generally, it is advised that this method be used at the end of a period of Lectio Divina, which is a traditional way of praying with Scripture emphasizing reading, reflection, and affective prayer.  It is also recommended that one practice this method for at least 20 minutes twice a day.

Although the term, “Centering Prayer,” is relatively new, those who teach and write on this topic usually point to the 14th century book, The Cloud of Unknowing, and St. Teresa of Avila’s teaching on the Prayer of Simple Regard as touch-points in the Christian mystical tradition.  Workshops and retreats on Centering Prayer are offered in several countries through Contemplative Outreach, Ltd., an organization founded by Thomas Keating OCSO to promote and support the practice of Centering Prayer.  Fr. Keating has also written numerous books on this topic and is considered one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, along with fellow Trappists Basil Pennington and William Meninger.

Jim Arraj: Centering Prayer is one of the most wide-spread and laudable attempts today to introduce people to the life of prayer and dispose them for contemplative prayer. But it is precisely because Centering Prayer is doing such important work that we would like to address these open questions to the world-wide Centering Prayer community in a spirit of gentle inquiry with the hope that any dialogue that results will only strengthen this movement.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Should people be introduced rather indiscriminately to Centering Prayer, as seems to happen, without an assessment of their experience of more discursive forms of meditation? Could they not benefit from exercising themselves in forms of meditation where they use their senses, imagination, intellect, memory and will in a more active fashion, and only later turn to Centering Prayer? If Centering Prayer is a preparation for contemplation, isn’t meditation a valuable preparation, as well?

2. What kind of prayer is Centering Prayer? St. John of the Cross describes two fundamental kinds of prayer: meditation, which is the use of our natural faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory and will, and contemplation, by which he means infused contemplation, which is a gift of God and which we cannot do at will. According to this distinction, Centering Prayer is a simplified form of meditation, and not contemplative prayer according to St. John of the Cross. It is also, therefore, an active form of prayer rather than a passive reception, and it makes use of our natural faculties in what St. John of the Cross would call a discursive fashion. But would Centering Prayer practitioners agree with this description?

3. In the practice of Centering Prayer there appears to be a deliberate and conscious reduction of the discursive activity of the faculties, but according to the psychology of Jung, the psyche, which embraces the conscious and unconscious, is a closed energy system. If energy disappears from one place it will appear in another. Energy, therefore, excluded from consciousness by the deliberate process of simplification that takes place in Centering Prayer, should appear in the unconscious. Would the process of Centering Prayer, therefore, lead to an activation of the unconscious? Will this activation show itself, for example, in kundalini-like symptoms - that is, currents of energy, the appearance of lights and sounds, etc. - or show itself in the three temptations described by St. John of the Cross, that is, scrupulosity, sexual obsessions and temptations to blasphemy, or in other manifestations? How does the Centering Prayer movement deal with these kinds of things when they happen?

4. The Centering Prayer movement talks about the Divine therapist, that is, God as therapist, and the unloading of the unconscious, and thus leaves the impression that certain psychological effects are an integral part of the Centering Prayer process. But is such psychological work really a direct part of the life of prayer? Couldn’t something like the unloading of the unconscious be an effect due to the exclusion of conscious psychic energy as described in the previous question? Shouldn’t we make a clear distinction between the goal of psychological work and the goal of spiritual work? In short, isn’t it possible that some of the psychological dimension of Centering Prayer practice is actually “provoked” by the Centering Prayer method, itself?

5. The Centering Prayer movement seems to have been significantly influenced by Eastern forms of meditation, especially Zen. It has, for example, intensive prayer retreats which appear to be modeled on Zen sesshins. But does Christian prayer lend itself to intensive retreats like Zen does? Are the two really aiming at the same goals? Can the reduction of discursive activity in Christian prayer be subject to the means used in a Zen sesshin?

6. What is the relationship between Centering Prayer and infused contemplation? Centering Prayer has often been described as a preparation for infused contemplation, which is how St. John of the Cross described what he calls meditation. But the Centering Prayer movement sometimes leaves the impression that many of its habitual practitioners have moved from Centering Prayer as a preparation for contemplation to infused contemplation, itself, even though they are still calling it Centering Prayer. Is this what the Centering Prayer movement actually believes? How does it square this view of Centering Prayer with what St. John of the Cross teaches about the nature of infused contemplation?

Bonnie J. Shimizu  responds (Bonnie teaches Centering Prayer; her response was approved by Thomas Keating, OCSO, founder of Contemplative Outreach)

1. Most people who come to a Centering Prayer Workshop already have an established prayer life even though the forms of prayer may vary greatly from one person to another. Any of the practices mentioned could be a helpful preparation but we assume that the Holy Spirit has directed people to us and if this is something they are called to, they will begin a practice. We are here only to teach the method to those who come to us and help support their practice if they ask us.

2. Centering Prayer goes beyond words, thoughts, and feelings and in that sense is not what John of the Cross calls “meditation.” Infused contemplation as I understand it, even if defined strictly as gift, goes beyond words, thoughts, and feelings. Centering Prayer aids in this movement beyond the faculties and fosters the disposition of openness and surrender to God. It also could be noted that the gift of contemplation is one which is already given (the divine indwelling) and Centering Prayer simply cultivates our receptivity to the gift and helps to remove the obstacles to our awareness of it. It is basically similar to acquired contemplation. Fr. Ernest Larkin, O.Carm., has an interesting article on the nature of Centering Prayer as halfway between discursive meditation and infused contemplation in the January/February 1998 issue of Review for Religious.

3. I am not familiar with this particular Jungian model of the inner life. The simplification that occurs in Centering Prayer is not sought but is allowed to happen as it will. There is no manipulation of the content or process of the mind. However the attitude of receptivity does allow the contents of the unconscious to arise in the form of thoughts, images, and sometimes physical movement such as twitches or itches. Very rarely do Kundalini symptoms appear even in the Intensive Retreats. Exercises are provided to balance the energies of the unconscious that may be released by the length of the periods of silent prayer. In ordinary life the short sessions of Centering Prayer provide a gentle and gradual release of unconscious material or other energies. The teaching of Centering Prayer is that we do not analyze the thoughts, feelings, images, etc., but we allow them to come and go. What is learned over time is an attitude of non-attachment to the contents of the mind and a deeper trust in the wisdom of God in moving through the difficult experiences that can sometimes arise during prayer. All models of reality are simply that - models. Even the best models cannot describe all of reality. Our attitude is to be faithful to the prayer and let God reveal reality in his own good time.

4. There is no clear division between the psychological and the spiritual except those created by the models of reality that we need in order to enlarge our understanding of certain phenomena. What happens on one level of our own personal reality has effects on every other level. The psychological experience of Centering Prayer is what happens or what we tell ourselves is happening in this growing relationship. It would be easier to deal with questions like this if the questioner had a practice of Centering Prayer to draw experience from. Purely theoretical questions about CP cannot adequately be answered.

5. CP Intensive retreats are not modeled on Zen sesshins. In terms of the number of hours each day devoted to practice, Zen sesshins sit for 10 to 12 hours or longer. In Intensive and Post-Intensive Centering Prayer retreats the participants practice Centering Prayer from 4 to 6 hours only. The antecedents of Centering Prayer are thoroughly Christian and include the “Prayer of the Cloud” as described by a 14th century English author, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis DeSales, St. Therese of Lisieux, and many others.

6. There is no way to accurately judge when a person has moved from Centering Prayer with its minimal effort towards consent and surrender to God’s presence, to a state of infused contemplation where the Holy Spirit is fully directing the prayer or “praying us.” There are some signs, but no distinct states discernable to ordinary human discrimination. Those who are faithful to the practice of CP gradually give up the need to know “where they are” and learn to surrender more and more to what God wants to have happen.

Jim Arraj responds to Bonnie Shimuzu:

The relationship of Centering Prayer to the doctrine of St. John of the Cross is a critical issue since Fr. Keating has made his dependence on John of the Cross, especially his Living Flame of Love, clear. To say that Centering Prayer is not to be equated with St. John’s meditation, that is, the normal working of the faculties of intellect, will and memory, seems to claim for it a passivity that St. John reserves for infused contemplation. Further, to say that Centering Prayer is basically similar to acquired contemplation is to further accentuate this problem because John of the Cross knew nothing about an acquired contemplation between meditation and infused contemplation. The doctrine of acquired contemplation developed after his death, and is a misunderstanding of what he was saying. See, also, the remarks of Fr. Larkin below, which I think are well founded.

The gift of contemplation should not be identified without qualification with the indwelling of the Trinity. Infused contemplation is, indeed, intimately connected to this indwelling, but it is an actual experience of it that takes place through the activation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Everyone in the state of grace has the Trinity dwelling in his or her heart, for that is the central reality of sanctifying grace. But not everyone has a proximate call to infused contemplation, and thus has the gifts activated in the manner necessary for contemplation, and can therefore take up an attitude of passivity in relationship to this indwelling. Further, infused contemplation, when it grows past its delicate beginnings, is a state that is often discernable to the one who receives it.

I think it would be valuable if the Centering Prayer movement could show what the relationship actually is between Centering Prayer and the doctrine of St. John of the Cross. 

Ernest Larkin, O. Carm. responds to the questions:1. Concerning #1: The Western Christian tradition seems to presuppose some experience in discursive prayer before encouraging the practice of contemplative prayer. Christians with no previous prayer experience are not likely to be attracted to Centering Prayer. If they are attracted, I would think they need to be taught Lectio Divina as well as Centering Prayer.

2. Concerning #2: I think your description of Centering Prayer and contemplation in the context of the terminology of St. John of the Cross is accurate. Centering Prayer is very simplified meditation, in John’s perspective; it is not sanjuanist contemplation, which is purely infused knowledge and love. My own article in the Review for Religious, January, 1998, does take Centering Prayer as a bridge between discursive prayer (“meditation”) and infused contemplation, but in the dichotomy of John of the Cross between meditation and contemplation it belongs in the category of meditation. In this view there is no room for “acquired contemplation,” unless one defines the latter as a form of simplified meditation.

Fr. Larkin writes in his Review for Religious article called, “Today’s Contemplative Prayer Forms: Are They Contemplation?”:

“John (of the Cross) has no transitional form between meditation and contemplation; the pray-er is praying one or the other. He does counsel simple attention or loving awareness at the onset of the dark night. While it is tempting to identify this practice with our contemplative prayer, the advice applies to a different situation. The simple attention presupposes the presence of God’s special action infusing light and love in a subtle way, at times so subtle that the divine action may go unrecognized. We are dealing with the beginning of infused contemplation in the strict sense. The three signs will validate its presence, and the person gives a loving attention that is passive, “without efforts... as a person who opens his eyes with loving attention.” For John of the Cross, contemplation is pure gift and simply received; there is no room for active collaboration. John’s contemplation is not the immediate horizon of contemporary contemplative prayer forms.”

 M. Basil Pennington, OCSO responds to the questions: (Fr. Pennington was one of the early leaders of the centering prayer movement.)

  1. Should people be introduced rather indiscriminately to Centering Prayer, as seems to happen, without an assessment of their experience of more discursive forms of meditation?

We do not judge people. We presume they come seeking a deeper union with God. This is a thing of grace. We don’t want to bind God’s action to our conceptions of steps and stages.

Could they not benefit from exercising themselves in forms of meditation where they use their senses, imagination, intellect, memory and will in a more active fashion....
Yes, this is why Fr. Thomas and I regularly insist on Lectio and share it at most prayershops.

and only later turn to Centering Prayer?

Why only later?

If Centering Prayer is a preparation for contemplation, isn’t meditation a valuable preparation, as well?

Centering Prayer is not only an opening to contemplative prayer but it is often contemplative prayer.

2. What kind of prayer is Centering Prayer? St. John of the Cross describes two fundamental kinds of prayer...
Are we bound to accept John of the Cross (a great mystic but a man of his times -- post-reformation rationalist period in the Church) as the norm for all our philosophical and theological thinking about prayer? There were fifteen centuries of tradition before him. He belongs to a particular school or tradition, the Carmelite. Centering Prayer comes from the Benedictine-Cistercian tradition, a more ancient, beautiful and simpler tradition.

... meditation, which is the use of our natural faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory and will, and contemplation, by which he means infused contemplation, which is a gift of God and which we cannot do at will. According to this distinction, Centering Prayer is a simplified form of meditation,

This does not reflect an adequate understanding of Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer does not cease in those times within those twenty minutes when God takes over more completely. To tell someone that he is doing Centering Prayer when he begins, then when the Lord begins to move him by the gifts he is now doing contemplative prayer, then when some thought or sound or something comes along and he uses his prayer word again he is back in Centering Prayer and then when he again is moved by the Spirit he is in contemplative prayer, etc…. is really not helpful. Let the scholars play with their distinctions if they want but leave pray-ers at peace.
. . . and not contemplative prayer according to St. John of the Cross. It is also, therefore, an active form of prayer rather than a passive reception,
Centering Prayer is a totally active prayer - we give ourselves as fully as we can to God in love -- and it is totally passive -- we are wide open to whatever God wants to do with us during the prayer.
and it makes use of our natural faculties in what St. John of the Cross would call a discursive fashion. But would Centering Prayer practitioners agree with this description?

Not if they are truly practicing CP and understand what they are doing.

3. In the practice of Centering Prayer there appears to be a deliberate and conscious reduction of the discursive activity of the faculties, but according to the psychology of Jung, the psyche, which embraces the conscious and unconscious, is a closed energy system. If energy disappears from one place it will appear in another. Energy, therefore, excluded from consciousness by the deliberate process of simplification that takes place in Centering Prayer, should appear in the unconscious. Would the process of Centering Prayer, therefore lead to an activation of the unconscious? Will this activation show itself, for example, in kundalini-like symptoms - that is, currents of energy, the appearance of lights and sounds, etc. - or show itself in the three temptations described by St. John of the Cross, that is, scrupulosity, sexual obsessions and temptations to blasphemy, or in other manifestations? How does the Centering Prayer movement deal with these kinds of things when they happen?

The third point: Whenever we become aware of anything we very simply, very gently return to God by use of our word.

4. The Centering Prayer movement talks about the Divine therapist, that is, God as therapist, and the unloading of the unconscious, and thus leaves the impression that certain psychological effects are an integral part of the Centering Prayer process.

CP is not properly a process, it is rather a state of being with natural effects as well as supernatural which are not an integral part of the prayer but something that can result from it.

But is such psychological work really a direct part of the life of prayer? Couldn’t something like the unloading of the unconscious be an effect due to the exclusion of conscious psychic energy as described in the previous question? Shouldn’t we make a clear distinction between the goal of psychological work and the goal of spiritual work?

Yes -- the essence of CP is to give oneself in love to God -- if one is seeking anything else it is not CP and will not have the same effects.
5. The “Centering Prayer movement” (It is not clear just what this expression includes. CP itself is an ancient Christian form of prayer which was in no wise influenced by Zen.) seems to have been significantly influenced by Eastern forms of meditation, especially Zen. It has, for example, intensive prayer retreats which appear to be modeled on Zen sesshins. But does Christian prayer lend itself to intensive retreats like Zen does?

Yes -- the whole Christian tradition, beginning with our Lord, of going apart for prayer.
Are the two really aiming at the same goals?

Concretely, no. CP aims at and enters into union with God in love. Zen cannot conceive of such a reality.
Can the reduction of discursive activity in Christian prayer be subject to the means used in a Zen sesshin?

Christian Zen masters believe so.
6. What is the relationship between Centering Prayer and infused contemplation?
Centering Prayer includes infused contemplation if God wants to give it.
Centering Prayer has often been described as a preparation for infused contemplation,
By whom? This reflects an incomplete understanding of CP.

... which is how St. John of the Cross described what he calls meditation. But the Centering Prayer movement sometimes leaves the impression that many of its habitual practitioners have moved from Centering Prayer as a preparation for contemplation to infused contemplation, itself, even though they are still calling it Centering Prayer. Is this what the Centering Prayer movement actually believes? How does it square this view of Centering Prayer with what St. John of the Cross teaches about the nature of infused contemplation?

Is everyone to be burdened with squaring with John of the Cross? Let the scholars of John of the Cross worry about this and let us contemplate in peace.

Jim Arraj responds to Fr. Pennington:

There is certainly more to the Christian mystical tradition than John of the Cross. But looking at Centering Prayer from his perspective is worth while because of the tremendous influence that both he and Teresa of Avila have had on the Western Christian mystical tradition over the last 400 years, and because Thomas Keating has stated that John of the Cross, especially in his Living Flame of Love, where he talks about the transition from meditation to contemplation, had an important influence on his development of Centering Prayer.

If my memory serves me right, you, yourself, once wrote an essay called “Centering Prayer - Prayer of Quiet” in which you tried to clarify the relationship between them. That is just what we would like to do. Is Centering Prayer a simplified form of affective prayer, or something like Teresa’s active recollection, so that it is a prayer we can do whenever we desire? If so, then it is fair to call it a preparation for contemplation. But if we identify Centering Prayer with the prayer of quiet, that is, with the beginning of infused contemplation, then it is hard to see how we can call it a method, or recommend it to all sorts of people. Do many practitioners of Centering Prayer actually receive graces of infused contemplation? Do they realize that they are receiving these graces? These points are not purely theoretical, but very practical because they help determine whether we should try to be active in prayer, or passive.

Gary Horn: I have been practicing Centering Prayer for 2 1/2 years. I can only offer my personal experiences and am not an expert. I offer these experiences in order to facilitate the discussion with the hopes of arriving at a deeper mutual understanding, if possible.

I began experiencing kundalini-like symptoms three months after beginning the practice. They were quite intense at first. They have continued in various forms since then. Lately, I only experience them at the very beginning of prayer. I am not aware of any other moral manifestations. Father Keating advised me personally to ignore them if I could, and if they were too bothersome to “balance the energy” with physical exercise or a yoga practice. He also recommended an encouraging book by Philip St. Romain, entitled Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality.

A New York resident: I have read two of Keating’s books in which he speaks of the unloading of the unconscious, and I strongly disagree that this is wise without a very good therapist in addition. He makes it sound so simple and easy, which, where there have been no real traumas, it may, in fact, be. Of course, God can heal even deep emotional scars. But that isn’t His ordinary way, and to expect Him to do so when a good therapist is available seems rather like expecting Him to heal cancer without consulting an M.D., as well.

In a good therapeutic relationship, psychotherapy and a spiritual pilgrimage can be harmonious - the goal of emotional health is not at all at odds with that of total surrender to God, since grace builds on nature. But unless one’s spiritual director is also a fully qualified and experienced therapist, it is far safer, and better, to make a clear distinction between psychological and spiritual work.

An Anonymous Pray-er: Since I have experienced the grace of infused contemplation, you asked for my comments. I would like to comment on numbers 1 and 6.
1. Regarding different prayer forms, I would say that the more the entire personality is engaged in prayer, the closer the prayer is to infused contemplation, because in infused contemplation, it is the whole person that is raised up to God. By prayer, I am referring to what occurs in our formal prayer/meditation times, along with the intention of our will towards God throughout the day as we are engaged in our various activities. The greater the recollection in God, Scripture, and Church teaching throughout the day, the deeper the prayer life.

I believe there is much confusion regarding detachment in general and the senses in particular with respect to infused contemplation. From one perspective, it is true that we do not have the ability to experience God with our senses. However, in infused contemplation, God is experienced in a concrete and tangible way. How can this be? The answer is simply this: While we ourselves do not have the ability to perceive God, he has the ability to communicate himself to us in a way that we can directly experience. In infused contemplation, this direct experience of God “spills over” into the entire personality, the senses, and the body itself and impacts them in tangible ways that are almost impossible to describe. For myself, once I had received the grace of infused contemplation, I found that the following activities and prayers were conducive to infused contemplation. In other words, these activities seemed to open the flood gate, once the inflow of infused contemplation had begun:
The Mass. The Liturgy of the Hours. Meditation on Scripture. Genuine expression of sorrow for faults and failings, along with regular participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
This makes sense, since God is directly present in the Mass, in the Word, and in the sacrament of reconciliation. That being said, I would add that there is no type of prayer or meditation that specifically leads to infused contemplation. It is a sheer gift, given for reasons that are known by God alone. Rather, I would say that someone who receives the grace of infused contemplation will generally pass through the various stages of infused prayer described by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. All Christians are called to a life of prayer. Some people experience infused contemplation. Others experience the same growth in faith, hope, and charity without experiencing infused contemplation. I would like to stress that the holiness of the latter may well be greater than the holiness of the former. “Blessed are they who have not seen, but have believed.”
Regarding #6: when someone receives the grace of infused contemplation, that person knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he or she has been touched by God. With respect to Centering Prayer, in all fairness I must say that my experience is limited. For me, it is not conducive to infused contemplation. As I understand Centering Prayer, it involves an attempt to transcend all thought and emotion in an effort to rest in the “ground of our being.” In me, the method of Centering Prayer leads to a natural state of blankness that is quite different from infused contemplation. In infused contemplation, the personality is transcended, but in an entirely different way, and not by a process of elimination. Rather, the entire person is “raised up” and absorbed into God. Every part of the person is divinized -- sometimes in a highly accelerated way, as in a rapture; sometimes to a lesser degree in an ecstasy; and also gradually over time, as infused contemplation is experienced during prayer and outside of prayer as one continues through the purgation process that plays itself out in everyday life.
Gradually, the more intense experiences of infused contemplation level out into a peaceful resting in God. This may be where the confusion arises between infused contemplation and the experience of Centering Prayer. While I can speak of my own experience, I can’t speak to the experience of anyone else. No one knows for sure what someone else experiences in prayer. Words are so inadequate.

Robert Hannon: The response of Jim Arraj to Fr. Pennington seems to miss his point. The questions you pose may have theoretical value to academics or theologians but add little to the actual process of drawing closer to God. Trying to push C.P. into categories established by St. John of the Cross seems misguided. Having read a good many Fr. Keating’s works he, by far, refers more to the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” than to St. John, and as Pennington states C.P.’s roots lie more firmly in a different Cistercian soil.

I respectfully ask if a process draws us closer to God, opens us to the Divine and stirs us to take up Christ’s cross and follow Him, to what ends does it serve to pursue your questions? God’s ways are beyond our ken.

Anonymous Response: By God’s kindness, in the last three years I been given the gift of infused contemplation, apparently as preparation to unexpectedly becoming formation director for a lay-Carmelite community in my parish. My experience is much like the “anonymous pray-er” who notes that with this gift comes a dynamic mutual re-enforcement of divine union in Liturgy and every moment of daily “ordinary” life. 20 years ago I had 1 year as a hermit, then 5 years in a Discalced Carmelite Monastery (but did not take vows) This early training has “flavoured” the rest of my life and subsequent relations with God, although my life did not permit much reading of anything beyond old spiritual classics available free from libraries. God took care of my formation, for I was unable to find spiritual direction relevant to my journey.

I had heard about Centering Prayer, but as I was secure on the way God had chosen for me, I felt no urge to try it. A holy woman in my parish involved in prison ministry however, said it was wonderful; she has been doing it some years. But this same woman a year ago said that she now has to pray for protection from the Devil before engaging in her Centering Prayer. She was having “unpleasant” experiences during prayer, which obviously disturbed her. She did not seem to have good guidance to help her deal with this. Why should a person with a healthy prayer life, and supposedly a good spiritual director, need a therapist? This sounded odd to me!

Then I went to the Carmelite Conference in San Antonio in July 2001. There were Carmelites of both branches and all stripes there, priests and cloistered nuns, a few hermits, and many laymen, including some third-order novices who, in conversation, revealed that they barely had a notion of what contemplative prayer really was. One of the general assembly sessions, to hundreds of people, was an explanation of and an experience of Centering Prayer. I was open-minded, obeyed all the instructions, and experienced an altered state of consciousness which, while impressive with what is I suppose is termed “kundalini” energy, ending with an amazing image of a shining Monstrance, it was nothing like the “real thing” which is the profoundly powerful imageless, and peaceful gift of God I was already familiar with. Discernment over the next few days told me this experience was a desolation, not a consolation – it disturbed my interior peace and was not of God. Though no neurophysiologist, I did study biology, (I am a retired ornithologist) and came to the conclusion that Centering Prayer – in me at least – was moving my brain waves from an alpha to a theta state; this was in fact a kind of self-manipulation of the mind-consciousness. Even if done with the intention of pleasing God, Centering Prayer could present serious problems for mentally or emotionally stressed or potentially unstable individuals. I found it disturbing therefore, that this technique was taught to a huge crowd, without knowing if it was suitable for all in the audience, especially at a Carmelite conference; it was presenting Centering Prayer as endorsed by the Carmelite Order. This bothers without upsetting me; God and Our Lady protect and guide the superiors of the Carmelite Order without regard to my opinions, which are entirely insignificant.

Now it so happens that I am formation director of a third order O.Carm. community at my parish; the question of whether I recommend Centering Prayer to beginners on the way of perfection is an important one. I think Centering Prayer may do no harm to those long past the purgative way, and this of course includes its teachers. However, after much prayer and discernment, I am emphatically not recommending it if any novice in my group asks me about it, recommending instead the classic Carmelite ways.

Jim Arraj: Let me comment, in turn, on a couple of points. First, the woman who has to pray for protection from the devil. This seems to indicate some real activation of the psyche, and it points in the same direction as the experience you relate which you liken to an awakening of kundalini energy.

I really have to wonder whether the Carmelites are turning to various alternatives to Teresa and John’s contemplation because they are simply not attuned to it. If there is a vacuum it will tend to be filled by things like Centering Prayer, or even Eastern forms of meditation like Vipassana that some Carmelites are promoting. In my book From St. John of the Cross to Us I try to look at the historical reasons - the why and how - this took place. Clearly it seems to be that most people do not go by the way of manifest contemplation, but equally clearly, this is what the great Carmelite mystics were talking about, so this is a practical issue that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, Centering Prayer seems to side-step this problem by acting as if what it does is equivalent or identical to St. John’s contemplation.

Shalomplace Discussion of Centering Prayer

Phil St. Romain: At we’ve discussed Centering Prayer on and off through the years, but have never had a discussion thread devoted exclusively to this topic. Jim Arraj has proposed some good questions for discussion at and there have been some interesting responses to them. Let’s take them up here, as well, and see where it leads us.

Before getting into them, however, I want to acknowledge that some of these exchanges might seem negative, nit-picky and head-tripping. I think it will be demonstrated that there are serious pastoral issues at stake here. 

Also, let me reassure you all that this is “nothing personal” with regard to those who’ve written and taught on Centering Prayer. I know many of these people and consider Fr. Keating a friend. He would be the last to discourage an honest in-house discussion on this topic. So let’s begin:

1. Should people be introduced rather indiscriminately to Centering Prayer, as seems to happen, without an assessment of their experience of more discursive forms of meditation? Could they not benefit from exercising themselves in forms of meditation where they use their senses, imagination, intellect, memory and will in a more active fashion, and only later turn to Centering Prayer? If Centering Prayer is a preparation for contemplation, isn’t meditation a valuable preparation, as well?

My own response to this is that the practice of Lectio Divina (praying with Scripture) and its active engagement of the faculties is the best way to direct one’s attention to God. If the grace of contemplation is given, one will know in that one’s energy seems to have moved from the faculties to a deeper level, where one desires only to rest or “be” with God in silence. Then, continuing to read, reflect and respond will be pointless. Otherwise, however, Lectio Divina helps one to connect with God through the mediation of the sacred word via the use of the faculties. This is no trivial matter and its importance should not be minimized simply because one is not experiencing contemplation.

The teachers of CP often speak of Lectio Divina as a preparation for contemplation, or a means by which the faculties are formed to enable a more contemplative encounter with God. That’s all true, but it still seems to be insinuating that Lectio is somehow second-best. If one really has a choice between Lectio and contemplation, then indeed, that is the case. But for those who do not experience contemplative graces, I am convinced that Lectio Divina is the most worthy alternative.

So what is the value of CP, then? Perhaps at the end of a period of Lectio, it can serve to summarize the recollection that has developed. Outside of this context, however, it seems to be very difficult to practice, which is why so many don’t stick to it.

Concerning CP as a kind of bridge to contemplation? I have my doubts, for I am convinced that contemplation is 100% grace. I even have my doubts that what some who practice CP call contemplation really is contemplation. Jim Arraj’s dialogues with Bonnie Shimuzu and Basil Pennington shed some light on this issue.

Moving on to Bonnie Shimuzu’s response, where she notes: Centering Prayer goes beyond words, thoughts, and feelings and in that sense is not what John of the Cross calls “meditation.” Infused contemplation as I understand it, even if defined strictly as gift, goes beyond words, thoughts, and feelings. Centering Prayer aids in this movement beyond the faculties and fosters the disposition of openness and surrender to God. It also could be noted that the gift of contemplation is one which is already given (the divine indwelling) and Centering Prayer simply cultivates our receptivity to the gift and helps to remove the obstacles to our awareness of it. It is basically similar to acquired contemplation.

Notice the logical fallacy here. Because infused contemplation goes beyond thoughts and words, then any going beyond thoughts and words must somehow be contemplation. That’s quite a leap of logic. (Also, when you stop and consider: a human soul also exists beyond thoughts and concepts, but can you imagine two souls communicating without them? Same goes for God, Who has communicated to us through the Word, the incarnate, visible, Christ.)

Jim Arraj disagrees with the whole idea of acquired contemplation, and I am inclined to agree especially with his main point to the effect that John of the Cross did not teach this. In fact, I even wonder if the experience of silence that CP aims for can even be called contemplation. It is a resting, for sure, but inasmuch as it strives for pure contentlessness as the essence of contemplation, I think they miss the point, which is to rest in God’s loving presence.

Here’s Thomas Keating seemingly equating contemplation as prayer without content or even awareness: 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.”... There is no greater way in which God can communicate with us than on the level of pure faith. This level does not register directly on our psychic faculties because it is too deep. (Chapter 7, Part II, Open Mind, Open Heart)

Man alive! Do you see the problem here? What is being recommended is that one view even the experience of God’s love flowing into you as a kind of distraction simply because it has “content” or because you “experience” it. That flow of God’s love is precisely what is implied in the traditional understanding of infused contemplation, and it seems we are being discouraged from resting in it. That’s not John of the Cross any more. John would have us give ourselves over to this flow of love, not treat it as a kind of distraction we have to go beyond through the practicing of a method of some kind.
(On contemplation as a pre-existing “given” to be realized through CP practice and the divine therapy)

Let’s turn again briefly to the notion that, as Bonnie Shimizu and, indeed, Fr. Keating teaches, that the gift of contemplation is one which is already given (the divine indwelling) and Centering Prayer simply cultivates our receptivity to the gift and helps to remove the obstacles to our awareness of it. Jim Arraj has responded to this in some detail, but I want to add my two cents here.
First of all, notice that contemplation is referred to as something of a “given.” We’re all contemplating already, only we’re not aware of this because of inner obstacles, presumably the defenses and emotional programs of the false self. I would submit to you that this is not the traditional understanding of contemplation, especially infused graces. While it is true that God dwells within (and alongside and beyond), it doesn’t follow that God’s indwelling presence is contemplation, nor that we somehow enter into this presence if we ever manage to remove our defenses. At best, what we can obtain through our own efforts would be something akin to enlightenment, or natural beatitude, which is not infused contemplation. The latter, as mentioned many times, is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to those whom the Spirit wills when/where She wills.
Note that I’m not saying, here, that it’s not a good thing to have those inner blocks removed, either by the unloading effected by CP practice or other means. What I am saying is that doing so does not guarantee one any kind of contemplative grace or experience of union with God as it has been described by Christian mystical writers. Also, if one is not careful, one can get the idea that the reason one does not experience God more is because one still has all these inner blocks, and that can be discouraging.
A counterpoint to all of this, and one that is seldom mentioned by CP teachers and Contemplative Outreach, is the plain fact that there are many, many Christians who do not manifest contemplative graces and who do not practice CP, yet who are nonetheless very close to God. So many of the religious sisters I work with and have come to know in Great Bend fit this description. So does my wife! Their prayer style is almost completely kataphatic, and this nourishes them. Their will is habitually oriented to God, and they have a sense of God through the faith that so informs their identity and lifestyle. There is no doubting that these holy souls are in union with God. In the end, the telling factor is the fruits of one’s life, and we see abundant fruit in people who are faithful to prayer in a kataphatic mode. They exercise their will-to-God just as purely as do CP practitioners, and one can assume that they are just as open to God’s presence and action within. So this is very much prayer, and it is open to even more even possibilities for encountering God than CP. Something to consider . . .

Mystical graces often have nothing to do with where one is in the divine therapy. God can communicate them to us at the most random of times and long before all the inner blocks and imperfections have been resolved. The only real obstacle to them is mortal sin, and even then I’m not so sure that God can’t break through (e.g., Paul on the road to Damascus). What Jim Arraj wrote about gifts of the Spirit is very important. The impression given by CP teachers is that divine union á la contemplation already exists; we just have to go way deep down and live there. This makes contemplation something we “acquire,” and if we don’t know it, then perhaps we’re not trying hard enough, or we have more work to do, more divine therapy to allow, etc. I know that’s not exactly what’s being said here, but it’s kind of implied, no?

It seems to be another fallacy in thinking -- i.e., that since mystical graces operate in a realm beyond our experience of the faculties, we cannot then be at a very deep level of grace if we are experiencing God through the mediation of the faculties. Two objections:

1. When we experience God’s presence through the faculties, it doesn’t follow that God is not also working in depths beyond their operations concomitantly. To turn away from an experience of God’s love in favor of cultivating a deeper level of faith -- pure faith! -- makes no sense, for the turning away process itself makes use of the mind and will, placing one back in discursive meditation. In other words, contemplative grace is being rejected in favor of discursive meditation (which Centering Prayer is, albeit radically simplified) -- with a goal of deeper union in mind, no doubt. Nevertheless, I don’t think this kind of practice is what the mystical doctors recommend; quite the opposite, in the case of John of the Cross.

2. For John of the Cross, there is no question of seeking anything like the kind of contemplative practice that CP presents itself to be when/if one is experiencing God through the faculties. As long as meditation (as understood in the West) is fruitful, why go looking for God elsewhere? There is, then, an affirmation of the efficacy of discursive meditation/kataphatic prayer, and not simply because it provides a conceptual foundation/preparation for contemplative prayer. It is a good in its own right, and for many people, it will be their primary means of contact with God through their entire lives.

There is a sense in which CP, if practiced rigorously and as taught in contemplative outreach, rejects kataphatic graces during the prayer time. The example above about viewing even the experience of God’s love as somehow less than the best is a case in point. Viewing other nudgings of grace presenting through imagination, thought, feeling, etc. during the prayer time as “distractions” is also problematic, in my opinion. I cannot imagine relating to another person that way -- not even in the interest of developing a deep relationship.

Again, I don’t mean to be suggesting here that CP leads one down the wrong path or that it’s of the devil or anything like that . I’m just pointing out some of the problems I see. What we have here is a relatively new teaching, references to The Cloud of Unknowing and John of the Cross notwithstanding.
PG: Phil, I agree with your criticisms. I know that Keating knows St. Thomas pretty well, but perhaps he hasn’t paid sufficient attention to Thomas’ teaching that we are not able to know God in his essence until the beatific vision, which can’t be experienced in this life. Keating himself seems to speak from an experience of ongoing divine union. But most hermeneutical philosophers would likely argue that even if this union accompanies him through daily life, it is in some way mediated, if only because he remains embodied. For St. Thomas, too, we remain embodied even in the beatific vision, and even this has a kind of mediation via the lumen gloriae, though Thomas insists that it is really God whom we apprehend (without of course, comprehending him). Again, I think that Keating can veer toward an excessive appropriation of atman/brahman anthropology, which emphasizes, “I am not my body, my mind, etc. etc.,” for the sake of getting to the “true self,” which is seen to be without any qualification. This is not, in my opinion, Christian. However I think Keating’s notion of pure faith is more than this, and has some valid elements, though these would come through more clearly if they weren’t conflated with the atman/brahman bias. It’s a relief to me to hear others express these reservations. I wish he would correct or clarify these problems before he dies, because I think his movement would have a stronger legacy as a result, at least within the church. As I see it now, the distortions in his thought may only become more magnified in his followers, many of whom do not have the level of theological training he has, and as a result may not be able to maintain the balance he has achieved (despite the flaws in some of his concepts). This was my sense, at least, from some of those I met at a CO retreat, though they were very good and well-intentioned people whose lives have as much value as anyone with theological training. I don’t mean to criticize their faith -- I’m thinking more long term, as to what will become of the movement. I do think that Keating’s books have many wonderful insights that will remain valid, even if some of his teachings need to be critiqued.

Phil St. Romain: I can see some of the similarities between CP and vipassana/insight meditation, but a key difference is in CP’s orientation of the will toward God. In this sense, it truly is receptive prayer rather than a concentrative practice. It makes use of some of the dynamics of Eastern meditation -- most notably, disidentification, as you all have noted, but it does so with a view of giving oneself more fully to God in the surrender implied by picking up the sacred word, or resting when we sense we are in God’s presence. Nevertheless, one can predict that the dynamics of disidentification will lead to experiences similar to what Buddhism and Advaita report. More on this a little later, although PG has made a good start on it by noting how strongly Fr. Keating relied on Wilber and other Eastern-leaning sources in some of his early books.

(On the topic of “pure faith”)

I’d like to touch briefly on the issue of “pure faith,” which PG mentioned above, as well, and which seems to be the real goal of CP practice. Recall the quote above, where even the experience of an inflow of God’s love is to be gently laid aside in favor of this pure faith.
In Intimacy With God Thomas Keating says. Pure faith does not seek rewards of any kind, especially sensible consolation, which might be called “spiritual junk food.” The solid food of the spiritual journey is pure faith. It is the “narrow way that leads to life” and is exercised by waiting upon God in loving attentiveness without any specific psychological content.

Here again we note the mention of “pure faith” as the deepest we can go on our own--something to be preferred even over the “junk food” of consolations! Inasmuch as these consolations are often openings to a deeper rest infused by grace, that’s an incredible thing to say. Even the phrase, “junk food,” has a harshness to it that takes one aback. I’m not saying we should be attached to these, but what’s wrong with welcoming them when they come?

Another point: if pure faith is rooted in a realm beyond psychological experience, it would seem that we could be growing in this pure faith whether we have thoughts or not and even all through the day. Why? Because what goes on in that realm is obviously outside of the domain of our control. Perhaps the unconscious plays a role, here, but, so must the Holy Spirit, if it is really to be about faith. I’m reminded of Paul’s teaching that our lives are hidden in Christ; in that sense, even the depths of our faith are hidden from us.

I’m trying to understand the relationship between pure faith and CP. Given the understanding of pure faith expressed here, it would seem that CP could have really nothing to do with its deepening or growth. At best, it would enable us to wake up to ourselves at that level without the static of psychological life obscuring our sense of it. That seems to be the real point, isn’t it? There are the teachings on letting oneself rest, but so long as one is having thoughts (even if one is not identified with them), consolations, and even infusions of divine love, the rest is somehow impure, or marred by psychological content.

I’ve shared some of these questions with Contemplative Outreach teachers before, but it didn’t go so well. Fr. Keating is fine with these discussions, and I think he has tweaked his teaching through the years because of the ongoing dialogues with many. There are Contemplative Outreach fundamentalists, however, who have little knowledge of spiritual matters and who tend to regard questioning and reflecting like this to be an instance of the false self wanting to control things. At a week-long workshop in Snowmass one time, one of the Contemplative Outreach leaders told me I was mired in mythic membership thinking because I was concerned about some of the doctrinal implications of CP teaching. “God is beyond thoughts and images,” I was told.

(On the importance of recollection as a pre-requisite for Centering Prayer).

I think it might help to note that the over-arching context for the development of a formal teaching on CP was to respond to the growing number of Christians who were turning East for inner experiences, believing there to be just nothing similar in Christianity. Keating, Pennington and Menninger came up with this method, or, actually, systematized a teaching about it and began offering retreats. Even the structure of the retreats is modeled on zen, however -- dinging the bell, sitting for 20 min., ding the bell, stand up and do a meditative walk, sit quietly, ding the bell, etc. Lectio is given only perfunctory attention -- a short psalm or other reading at the beginning of a sit. That’s been my experience, at least.

It also might help to note that, in the classical tradition, what’s being called Centering Prayer was the prayer of simplicity or simple regard. St. Teresa of Avila writes about this at length. It’s a radically simplified prayer, usually coming at the end of a period of Lectio or another kataphatic prayer form. The pray-er is recollected -- i.e., the mind and will are oriented toward God, but there is no evidence of the prayer of quiet, which is the first taste of contemplative grace. A simple word or phrase helps to maintain the state of recollection, and generally this comes from the Scriptures just read or prayers prayed.

It also happens that mature Christians who take time regularly for prayer and who lead virtuous lives are in a state of perpetual or habitual recollection. For these people, the prayer of simplicity/CP can help to sustain and deepen recollection.

But for those who are not in a state of recollection, I think CP is tough going. They experience what could be called the “internal dialogue.” When moving into prayerful silence, this flow of verbiage can seem to be a tumultuous rapids against which the sacred word is virtually powerless. It would be far better for people in this state to do Lectio Divina and postpone CP until such time as they are recollected. My opinion, here, but it’s one I’ve not heard taught in Contemplative Outreach. There, the thinking seems to be that most anyone can benefit from CP even from the start. I have my doubts about this.
Mystical Michael: Keating, when asked if he practiced CP himself, admitted that he is not sure what he does. I know he has done Sesshins with Zen masters for many a year. He’s been a Trappist since the days of silence and hand signals, and an Abbot for a couple of decades.
This is over sixty years of experience in practice and most of that in directing others. His resume is indeed most impressive. I trust his intentions and in this day of litigation I have never heard of any lawsuit against Contemplative Outreach. This surely is a miracle on the order of Moses or Isaiah.

If I have the story straight, Keating had this idea and approached Pennington, who was practicing TM at the time. Menninger actually developed the method based on The Cloud of Unknowing, an apophatic method. They decided not to call it meditation and to sit in a chair to make it more accessible. It was originally intended for clergy and religious only. It developed a life of its own after awhile. Keating noticed that people often made more progress on a retreat than monks had in years of monastic life. Exciting!

Phil St. Romain: Thanks, Michael, for sharing your understanding of the beginnings of Centering Prayer.

As there seems a kind of uneasiness with this ongoing evaluation, I think it might be profitable to acknowledge the good that comes from CP practice. No doubt, some of you who’ve been contributing can share your own stories, and as Michael has pointed out, there are Fr. Keating’s and others’ observations of the progress they’ve seen.

(Positive aspects of Centering Prayer)

First, I think CP helps to strengthen and purify what we might call our will-to-God. By learning to assert this will and to extricate it from distracting thoughts, feelings, and images, one is doing something similar to what Step 3 of the Twelve Steps invites -- a turning our lives and will over to the care of God. This is not contemplative prayer, but it is a surrendering of oneself to God. That’s very good, and we can expect good fruit to attend this practice even if contemplative graces are never given.

Second, there is growing awareness of inner dynamics. One begins to recognize subtle thoughts, movements, etc. Awareness of the false self and its games becomes more obvious, as are mixed motives of all kinds. This, too, is a good in and of itself.

Third, there is a growing sense of one’s true self -- of the self we are prior to any act of consciousness. In other places, we’ve called this the non-reflecting aspect of consciousness. I believe it’s the same thing that the East calls the witnessing self. This, too, is a good -- one pursued in the East as an end in itself. I think CP practice enables one to become more attuned to this aspect of consciousness, and this enables a growing capacity for detachment and discernment. Very good!

Fourth. Activation of the unconscious. This one’s a mixed bag, and even includes such phenomena as kundalini awakenings.

I have several spiritual directees who center regularly, and they’ve experienced growth in faith and virtue as well. Most of them were already fairly mature in the faith when they started -- habitually recollected, I’d say. That seems to be a key ingredient.

(Activation of the unconscious and “divine therapy)

What starts to happen with this activation of the unconscious is that defenses are loosened and repressed material begins to emerge. Fr. Keating has called this “unloading,” and he views it in terms of the Dark Night of the Senses and even the Night of the Spirit. This is a new way of looking at what John of the Cross was describing, especially since it is the practice of CP that is plunging one into the unconscious rather than the onset of contemplative graces (unless one equivocates CP with such, which is a mistake, in my opinion). So an adjustment between the unconscious’ relation to consciousness begins to develop, driven by CP practice, and, presumably, oriented to support the central intention expressed in CP -- surrender to God.

Two parts of this bother me. One is the assumption -- often expressed -- that it is the Holy Spirit that is driving the unloading. I don’t think that’s totally correct; I think CP practice is the primary cause. The other thing that bothers me is that what is being unloaded are “blocks” that are an obstacle to divine union; I have deep concerns about that one.

As I’ve already addressed the first concern, I’ll take up the second, as I’ve counseled with many and even seen it expressed on this board that one feels their inner blocks are preventing them from experiencing union with God. First of all, that’s absolutely false; union with God comes through grace, and our inner blocks are no problem for God. We’ve all been touched by grace when we were dirty/slimy with sin and filled with yuck! These blocks might impede a deeper, ongoing experience of life and might be holding energies that throw up “distractions;” yes, of course. But we do not have to work through all of this to be in union with God. In fact, if we’re not careful, we can become too focused on removing inner blocks instead of looking to God.

Divine therapy” itself is a dubious concept, as there are other explanations to account for how the unconscious is working, the most obvious being its own innate striving for harmony with the conscious mind. CP changes the dynamics of conscious - unconscious relations, and the adjustment of the unconscious to find a new relation doesn’t require any intervention of the Holy Spirit. It’s in our human nature -- this dynamism to wholeness and integration. Neither does the unloading require the guidance of the Holy Spirit; the unconscious itself can be regulating this adjustment. I’m not denying that the Holy Spirit CAN be involved, but am simply saying that that need not be the case.

Again, please do not hear this as a personal criticism of anyone. We’ve noted the good fruit from CP, but we also need to note that, in the name of the Divine Therapy, people have undergone enormous struggles that they interpreted to be driven by God/Holy Spirit when, actually, it could have simply been caused by practicing CP. Cutting down on CP and using a prayer approach like Lectio Divina that engages one in prayer through the faculties and gently leads one to rest could be of great help to many. Instead, they feel compelled to keep pushing through to get rid of the blocks separating them from God.

(On references to The Cloud of Unknowing)

As CP teachers frequently point to The Cloud of Unknowing as a touch-point in the Tradition, it might help to listen to what the author of The Cloud is saying:

Whoever you are possessing this book, know that I charge you with a serious responsibility, to which I attach the sternest sanctions that the bonds of love can bear. It does not matter whether this book belongs to you, whether you are keeping it for someone else, whether you are taking it to someone, or borrowing it; you are not to read it, write or speak of it, nor allow another to do so, unless you really believe that he is a person deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly. I have in mind a person who, over and above the good works of the active life, has resolved to follow Christ (as far as humanly possible with God’s grace) into the inmost depths of contemplation. Do your best to determine if he is one who has first been faithful for some time to the demands of the active life, for otherwise he will not be prepared to fathom the contents of this book.

Moreover, I charge you with love’s authority, if you do give this book to someone else, warn them (as I warn you) to take the time to read it thoroughly. For it is very possible that certain chapters do not stand by themselves but require the explanation given in other chapters to complete their meaning. I fear lest a person read only some parts and quickly fall into error. To avoid a blunder like this, I beg you and anyone else reading this book, for love’s sake, to do as I ask.

Note the implication that this kind of practice is not meant for beginners, and that the practice recommended presumes a committed Christian who has been striving to live the Christian life. As one reads through the book, one finds other indications that the one for whom the book is being written is already beginning to experience contemplation, in some manner, or else feels a draw to it that indicates an invitation to come to God in that manner. The author is not presenting a method on how to “acquire contemplation” and seems to know nothing of the sort.

And so, with exquisite kindness, he awakened desire within you, and binding it fast with the leash of love’s longing, drew you closer to himself into what I have called the more Special manner of living.

This desire indicates the early stirring of contemplative graces. Then . .

Is there more? Yes, for from the beginning I think God’s love for you was so great that his heart could not rest satisfied with this. What did he do? Do you not see how gently and how kindly he has drawn you on to the third way of life, the Singular? Yes, you love now at the deep solitary core of your being, learning to direct your loving desires toward the highest and final manner of living which I have called Perfect. (quotes from Introduction and Chapter 1 of The Cloud of Unknowing)

The recipient of this teaching is not only experiencing contemplative stirrings, but is already deeply and authentically awake “at the deep solitary core of their being.” In other words, this is a mature Christian, habitually recollected, grounded in the teaching of the Church, and formed through the active life (practice of virtue, Lectio Divina, Sacraments, etc.). The author of the Cloud is providing teaching on how to enter this new time of life -- to cooperate in surrendering to contemplative graces that are, in fact, being offered.

Contrast this with CP teaching and practice, where anyone may attend a workshop and even intensive retreats, where the practice goes on for hours and hours every day. We’ve noted above that there can be good fruit, but what I’m stressing, here, is that it might not be contemplation, and much can be attributed to natural dynamics like the activation of the unconscious.

(History repeating itself?)

It may seem as though I am picking nits, here, but there is a history behind all of this that many do not know, or have lost sight of. Jim Arraj has explored it in depth in From St. John of the Cross to Us: The Story of a 400 Year Long Misunderstanding and what it means for the Future of Christian Mysticism.

Basically, what this is about is the climate after John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, when people were excited about contemplative spirituality. Many wanted to experience what they described, and they recommended practices very similar to CP, thinking (wrongly) that this is what John was saying. The decades that followed brought forth some truly bizarre teachings and practices, not the least of which was Quietism, which is ever-lurking in the shadows where contemplative methods are taught. The teaching of Miguel de Molinos, in particular, resonates dangerously close to some aspects of CP teaching, especially those on “pure faith.”

Following this period, there was an anti-mystical backlash in the Church, which endured until after the Second Vatican Council. Within a couple of decades, CP had emerged as the Christian response to New Age and Eastern methods of meditation. And so here we are today.
Fr. Keating is aware of this history, and has tried to avoid the same mistakes by recommending Lectio Divina and by upholding the traditional doctrines of the Faith. Some of the early teachings (his Wilber phase, I call it) are problematic, however, especially in relating contemplative experience to Ruth Burrows.

Jordan Auman’s Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition is a classical work that I’m happy to see online. The section on Quietism is particularly relevant to the current attempts to promote contemplative spirituality using Centering Prayer. See if this section on Michael Molinos sounds familiar:

In 1675 Molinos published his Guía espiritual, and in six years it went through twenty editions. The theme of the book is that the soul should abandon itself completely to God through the practice of the prayer of simple regard, rejecting all other devotions and practices and cultivating an absolute indifference to everything that happens to it, whether it be from God, man or the devil. It is not possible to say for certain whether Molinos deliberately set out to start a new spiritual movement or whether he simply took advantage of a quietistic and mystical ferment that was near the surface of Italian spirituality. What is certain is that Molinos became the “darling prophet” of Quietism.
As we have already indicated, there was in the 17th century an unusually great interest in the practice of prayer, especially the more passive and affective types of prayer. Acquired contemplation was considered to be within the reach of all, and the means for attaining it were carefully expounded.


So what are we to make of this? How closely does CP practice come to Quietism? Fr. Keating is surely well-aware of this period in Church history, but some of the teachings that have come down re. “pure faith” and associating CP with the prayer of simple regard bring it dangerously close to Quietist tendencies. I’m sure he wouldn’t go so far as Molinos and, later, Madame Guyon in the practice of indifference re. moral issues, nor would he encourage such an exclusive use of CP in the spiritual life, as Molinos did, but the parallels re. the practice of prayer are there, to be sure. And most controversial of all, here, is the idea of “acquired contemplation” through the practice of the prayer of simple regard.
I do think it’s spot-on to say that, unlike Fr. Keating, the error of the Quietists was in their wholesale devaluation of kataphatic spirituality and doctrinal teaching, in general. Once you break from that and extol, instead, the primacy of intentionality, you lose the accountability that comes from dialoguing with the exoteric tradition and maybe even hold yourself above the need for such. So while CP practice itself is basically indistinguishable from the manner of prayer the Quietists were recommending, the overall context of the teaching by Fr. Keating is different.

(The kataphatic / apophatic dance.)

In the history of Christian spirituality, the apophatic tradition (negative way, God-beyond-images) was generally a corrective to the kataphatic (sacramental way, God-mediated via symbol, creation). It almost seems as though some CP teachers have turned things around so that the apophatic is considered normative and the kataphatic second-rate. Listen to these quotes which we’ve visited before. First we hear Bonnie Shimizu: Centering Prayer goes beyond words, thoughts, and feelings and in that sense is not what John of the Cross calls “meditation.”

Don’t ask me why meditation has to be put in quotes. John of the Cross would surely consider it to be “meditation” in the sense of an active form of prayer.

The teaching of Centering Prayer is that we do not analyze the thoughts, feelings, images, etc., but we allow them to come and go. What is learned over time is an attitude of non-attachment to the contents of the mind and a deeper trust in the wisdom of God in moving through the difficult experiences that can sometimes arise during prayer. All models of reality are simply that - models. Even the best models cannot describe all of reality. Our attitude is to be faithful to the prayer and let God reveal reality in his own good time.

It doesn’t follow that because a model doesn’t “describe all of reality” (actually, some do), that:

a. what they tell us imposes limitations, or

b. that concepts do not convey presence or relational energies; nor,

c. that the only valid encounter with God therefore goes beyond all this concept/model stuff.

Is it just me, or is there a kind of bias against kataphatic spirituality manifesting, here?

From the exchange with Fr. Pennington: Whenever we become aware of anything we very simply, very gently return to God by use of our word.

Think about this statement. Is he not saying that awareness of anything other than silent rest or the focus provided by the sacred word is a “distraction?” In other words, any content of awareness is somehow to be regarded as taking one away from God -- even holy thoughts, feelings, etc.? One almost gets the idea from some of these exchanges that contemplation is being equated with states of non-awareness, and that’s not at all congruent with the traditional understanding of this prayer.

As I’ve noted before, this is not a criticism of Centering Prayer per se, nor the good that comes from it, nor, less, the good people who have promoted it. What I’m calling attention to now is the seeming lack of appreciation for kataphatic, sacramental spirituality that seems to be present in some of these teachings. What would be far more natural in prayer is to meet God through kataphatic means when grace seems to move in that manner, then to go deeper when we are drawn in that direction, to use a sacred word or phrase at times, then return to reading, etc. In other words, the kataphatic and apophatic ought to be a kind of dance -- even in a prayer time! CP categorically dismisses kataphatic connections with God, or else relegates them to a time before or after the time of CP practice, which, in a way, removes CP from the practice of ordinary prayer. In my own experience (which is not normative or definitive, for sure), this introduces an un-natural manner of relating to God. One can be as desirous of meeting God and as intense in exercising the will-to-God through kataphatic means as through CP practice, the difference being that in the former case, one does not feel constrained to avoid times of quiet and rest when they come, while in the latter, one is restricting the exercise of the will-to-God and openness to receiving grace only to apophatic means. When this is justified because “God is beyond all images and concepts,” I think there is an unhealthy imbalance.

The supernatural Spirit, God, who is beyond all thoughts, feelings, concepts, and images, can also be present to us through these mediums as well. For those who know the voice of the Shepherd, He is found through many means -- not only in the silence beyond “awareness of anything.”

We’ve seen how Pennington suggests going to the CP word whenever we become aware of anything; Keating says the same in his teachings on pure faith. Now I’m not doubting that this is prayer, only that it is much too restrictive a definition, and much too implicitly discounting of kataphatic means. Buttressed by the constant emphasis that “God is beyond all words and concepts,” what you end up with is an emphasis on kataphatic prayer as being helpful primarily because it provides a “conceptual infrastructure” to support CP and whatever contemplative graces might come. What is missing here is the acknowledgement of the word itself, especially the Gospels and the person of Christ that mediate God’s presence. This transforms the faculties and their operations, so that our conscious human knowing, far from being an obstacle to God, becomes attuned to God’s presence, each faculty in its own unique way. This includes the intellect/reason, and the power of conceptualization. Just so long as we don’t confuse the concept with the reality (does anyone really do that?), then concepts can be a means through which we focus our attention toward God. In fact, it’s the most natural of all ways, and so shouldn’t be discounted or minimized.

w.c. (on grace working through the faculties of consciousness): Just a comment about Centering Prayer and how it may interfere with the simplicity facilitated in Lectio Divina. In CP, the focus on one word doesn’t leave much room for the faculties, which in the beginning of prayer are not ordered or quiet, and often in need of an imaginative space for their soothing, where all the senses can be nourished. In other words, CP seems to rush the mind to a state of quiet it isn’t ready for. The mind needs to move from a state of discursiveness to a state of wonder (which eases the internal dialogue while easing it further into a receptivity for prayer of simple regard and disposed to the gift of contemplation), and this transition is supported by the container of a meaningful passage of Scripture that suggests a relationship between Christ and the one praying. This state of wonder allows the one praying to be open to receiving meaning without having to control the process. The sense of this relational quality, and how the will is being consented to a Person, is probably lost on most folks new to CP, where one word is far more like a mantra used to quiet the mind rather than engage the mind in meditating receptively on a relationship. And so the delicate, and often fragile movement from active to passive receptivity, so well-contained in Lectio Divina, is poorly taken up via CP where Lectio Divina is given such little attention.

I would wager that those carefully taught Lectio Divina, in an experiential atmosphere, would see these differences quite clearly. As Jim Arraj points out, the psyche, during CP, is probably often pushed too quickly into a state of quiet before its faculties are treated and soothed by the Holy Spirit.

Too bad courses on Lectio Divina aren’t offered more often around the country.

Diane A: I led a women’s retreat this weekend. I used Lectio Divina. We used the story of Mary & Martha and Psalm 139. In my humble opinion, the women were not ready for CP or sitting in silence. Heavens, they are Marthas, they do not sit in silence at any time. It “feels” wrong to them. Their husbands are farmers and they are nurses, administrators, therapists, etc. They do 3,4,5 jobs and sleep little. Self-care, not at all. Many women and men live this way in this world. They do not have time to think! Or to question. Meditation would be a pure gift from God, if they could accept it!!

In my humble opinion, they need to start with Lectio Divina. To sit and to hear the word. To allow God to take them deeper when they are ready. To have their focus on the face of Christ. To know “Who” is taking them on this journey of faith and healing.

I believe for a believer who (know I am talking about Christians because this is my experience) knows who their God is can do CP, otherwise, I have to agree, I believe a person is just sitting in silence. Of course, God is still in control and can do all things! So, sometimes just by opening ourselves up, we go where we did not know it was possible to go.

My experience is, I did Lectio before doing CP. The Lectio Divina led into CP or contemplation before I knew what it was or that it was. So, that is my comfort level or known. When I lead groups, I love to use Lectio and see where God takes us.

Mystical Michael: I wonder if there might be a “People Damaged by Centering Prayer” support group forming somewhere.

There are many dangers, and a reading of Merton’s journals reveals that many of the best monks were leaving Gethsemane. One had to leave when he became “spiritually overheated.” There are bound to be problems.

I’ve seen brain scans in Newsweek and Reader’s Digest showing decreased activity in monks and meditators in the area of the brain thought to be responsible for feelings of separateness from others. This can be a desirable effect producing love and tolerance. The down side of it is that someone can let their guard down and embrace theological nonsense and New Age thinking. It may be helpful then to have some corrective remedy for this, something to keep oneself individually and collectively close to Christ and His Body.

I would propose that the Church Fathers be read and I can see that they are by visiting the bookstore at Contemplative Outreach. Sure, they have some Wayne Teasdale and other mystical liberals, but overall I see a balance and it’s nothing that the Holy Spirit cannot handle. There is a very loving intention behind the movement and I feel that makes all the difference in the world.

We may see some flakey spin-offs in the years to come as well as more conservative watchdog groups or whatever, but we have a 2000-year-old tradition and volumes and volumes of experience and good orderly direction.

Phil St. Romain: Michael, I appreciate the spice and perspective you’ve added to this discussion. I see how you keep reminding us that these are all good people with good intentions, and I agree.

Some directions I’d be interested in continuing to explore are listed below:

1. The relationship between CP practice and what we might call “Christian enlightenment.”

2. Has Fr. Keating pretty much abandoned his dependence on Wilber in articulating the spiritual journey?

3. Is there a better alternative to CP to introduce to people who are interested in going deeper into prayer? What about traditional practices like silence, solitude, Lectio Divina, and even oldie/ goldies like praise and adoration? Then, of course, charismatic prayer . . .

4. Echoing Mystical Michael’s point above, what about those who have experienced negative consequences from CP practice? I know there are some, but how common is this?

5. Is it really true that all are called to experience contemplation? What about all the many mature Christians who are filled with faith and love, but who never seem to show much evidence of apophatic prayer?

Touching on a few concerns again, but in a new way, now.

1. The emphasis on God being beyond all concepts.
2. The emphasis on the apophatic quality of the exercising of pure faith.
3. The emphasis on the activation of the unconscious caused by CP practice as divine therapy.
4. The emphasis on divine union as finally manifesting when inner obstacles are removed.
What gets lost in this is the great good news that Christ is actually present to us in our inner woundedness -- even those that are a consequence of self-indulgence and indiscretions. In other words, those inner wounds need not be viewed as blocks, but as occasions where we encounter the One who entered so fully into the human condition as to experience the full consequences of sin.

These inner wounds are also the spawning grounds for energies co-opted by false-self programming, but it would be a mistake to characterize them as belonging completely to the false self. They more surely belong to Christ, and so they are not really “obstacles” to our connection with God. Christ meets us there if we turn our attention to him, and he communicates his love to us in that context -- maybe even contemplatively so.

Again, without discounting the possibility of contemplative graces being given to CP practitioners, the more we go into this matter, the more it seems as though CP is more intrinsically oriented toward metaphysical enlightenment, albeit in a context of Christian faith. The strong apophatic emphasis and the way contemplation is described in terms of “pure faith” (not to mention the dependence on Wilber for tracking the spiritual journey) suggest this very strongly to me. This is not a bad thing at all, in my opinion, but it’s important to be clear about what’s going on, here.

w.c.: One of the difficulties with this sort of discussion is that we’re all ultimately bound to our limited sense of such things. I was a practicing Buddhist for about 5 years before having an experience of Divine grace, which has completely altered my own perceptions re: grace and enlightenment. Such belongs to another thread, but here, in short, is the way I look now at the two different experiences:

The present moment and the Eternal are not the same. These two are equated in non-dual meditative systems. The radiance of the present moment is something the human organism is capable of intentionally opening to. Such is not the case with the Eternal, which stands outside time and space and all creaturely faculties. In other words, the present moment inheres in the Eternal, its uncreated source, much in the same way the kundalini energy arises from its uncreated source, the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul alluded to this distinction between creaturely perception and the darkness within the faculties during graced contemplation when he said:

“Now we see but a dim reflection, through a glass darkly, then we’ll see face-to-face. Now we know in part, then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.”

Resting in the present moment is actually an effort by comparison to the rest within graced contemplation, where the faculties are completely at home in their source beyond self-reflection. In non-dual awareness, there is still the need to maintain the rest, keeping the will and mind from distraction, which is not the case when the Holy Spirit fills those functions. In the present moment, some degree of Eternal Light is no doubt experienced, but the present moment itself cannot fill the creaturely faculties, as it is itself an effect of the Uncreated.

geridoc: As a psychiatrist and Catholic Christian using Centering Prayer, I have to say that this kind of prayer is not without its dangers. Spiritual: I would definitely not recommend it to anyone who has not been reading the Bible and praying regularly for some years. Psychological: I would not recommend it to those who are very suggestible, or those with significant mental problems...

Although there is a degree of anonymity in the forum, for medico-legal reasons I am not allowed to give what could amount to professional opinions in a public forum like this. In any case, when in comes to prayer and God being a psychiatrist does not lead to any special competence, other than maybe a different perspective.

I will not discuss cases here, other than to say that the use of certain forms of prayer like CP/contemplation or its external opposite ‘charismatic prayer’ often cause problems. Sticking to CP:

1. risk of inducing a form self-hypnosis in very suggestible persons; some CP teachers even use phrases used in hypnosis to get people to their “center”. For instance, I have heard this, and I have seen this mentioned either in this forum or elsewhere of people reporting that CP instructors have been asking the people to imagine being in an elevator, then going down to the 11th floor, the 10th floor and so on.. [these are phrases sometimes used in hypnosis]. I don’t think the leaders were aware of it, they usually tend to be teaching with a genuine desire to help people.

2. Those with major mental problems like schizophrenia, OCD etc tend to have problems if asked to sit quietly and distance themselves from all thoughts. The initial period of learning CP where the person learns to ignore images, thoughts and sensations can lead to considerable confusion. People with these kind of illnesses tend to have an overabundance of thoughts or sensations to begin with. Although they would in theory benefit from learning to ignore them, very often the reverse happens. To me this happens when prayers like this are taught to just anyone who happens to be present.

Ultimately for me, there is one question that needs to be addressed: Is CP and others like it something that should be taught to just anyone, or is it a call from God, that occurs after developing a relationship with God through other forms of prayer? I know that sounds awfully elitist but that is not my intention. My knowledge of John of the Cross and Teresa are second-hand, via the books of Fr. Thomas Green [esp. ‘When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer beyond the beginnings’]. My understanding is that the traditional teaching was that contemplative prayer is something that some people are led to. In this view going to a parish and sending a flyer saying that there will be a talk on prayer and then surprising people by teaching CP to everyone who is present would not be appropriate.

Phil St. Romain responding to geriodoc: Concerning the propriety of presenting CP to just anyone, generally, what seems to happen is that those who aren’t ready for it just quit practicing it after a very short while. But that doesn’t get to the heart of your question concerning who it’s ideally suited for. There are numerous places in this thread where we take that up, and the consensus seemed to be that the best way to proceed with prayer is Lectio Divina, moving into a more simplified rest mode when grace moves one there.

Re. your point about hypnosis, I don’t think that’s common among CP teachers. It’s certainly not part of the method that’s taught, so it wouldn’t really be a fair criticism of the CP movement to use that example. I’ve never run across that in any of their literature, web sites, workshops, newsletters, or in corresponding with CP teachers. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most would discourage “elevator” type meditations, as such are not really in the spirit of prayer. What you’re describing seems more to be a form of guided meditation, and I share your concerns about that approach as well.

(Concluding remarks)

It’s one thing to criticize CP and the noble efforts of Fr. Keating and Contemplative Outreach to renew the Church’s contemplative tradition, but quite another to offer constructive alternatives. Given the interest in Eastern and New Age mysticism, it is imperative, I believe, that Christianity offer the world an alternative from its own tradition -- which is precisely what Keating et al. are trying to do. I think the error, here, is primarily one of offering such a small piece of the tradition, and a somewhat controversial one, at that. So here are some alternative suggestions for those who want to live a more contemplative life within the framework of Christian faith.


Part II

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Part III (Continued)

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