|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
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.
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?
In the spirit of Christian dialogue we invite your responses.
To learn about Centering Prayer, visit: www.centeringprayer.com
Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
The following response was composed by Bonnie J. Shimizu and approved by Fr. Thomas Keating:
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 being 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.
Fr. Larkin responds:
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.
He 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."
"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." Gary Horn
"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." New York
Response to Bonnie Shimizu
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 above, 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. The Editors
Fr. M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, responds:
A RESPONSE TO FR. BASIL
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 our memories serve us 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. The Editors
I think a closer comparison of CP may be to transcendental
Bob & Betty Gravlin
Since I have experienced the grace of infused contemplation,
you asked for my comments. I would like to comment on numbers 1 and 6.
The response of the editors 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
catagories established by St. John of the Cross seems misquided. 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 would like to comment on the use of the Divine Name (Sacred
word, Christian mantra) in contemplative prayer. When I sit to pray I begin easily
thinking the Divine Name. This is how I show my intention to be praying. This easy prayer
starts a psycho-physical process that comes up my body and flows into my head. Once the
process is started it can do many things (it has been going on for over 30 years) but the
best is being raptured up into
The Editors: In light of what you have said, what do you think of the practice in centering prayer where they only use the Sacred Word when they become conscious of becoming distracted? It seems that otherwise they are relying on their intention to keep them in the presence of God.
Response: I have formally learned Center
prayer. I have been on retreat with Fr. Keating and read three of his books. It was only
in rereading one of his books that I noticed he was advocating a slightly different
practice than I was doing. I started T.M. in 1966 and I probably still do it but now with
a Christian intention and Divine Name.
I think some of the confusion which leads to the debates in
your column may come from the difficulty of speaking of such matters in words that anyone
else can understand. For instance, the Anonymous prayer feels that cntering prayer is
trying to lead to blankness, as opposed to the absorbtion in thoughts and visualizations
in more affective or discursive meditation. Unlike the Prayer, I find that, far from
encouraging a "blankness" that in a session of Centering Prayer I find myself
resting in the fullness of a loving God, not in any spectacular ecstasy, but as if feeding
deeply on a living food. For me, discursive meditation and many other similar prayer forms
leave me cold and frustrated.
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