October marks the end of the Discalced Carmelite Order’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Ávila. St. Teresa is a doctor of the Church and one of history’s greatest guides to prayer, especially contemplative prayer. How does her teaching relate to new forms of prayer. What is the state of her teaching today?
One prayer method that has been popular since the 1980s is centering prayer. The term “centering prayer” originated with three Trappist priests, Father William Meninger, Father Thomas Keating and Father Basil Pennington. Some advocates of the practice claim that the method came from the Desert Fathers or the 14th-century book The Cloud of Unknowing. Others say it is an updated method of prayer that is in line with the teaching of the saints, including St. Teresa.
Comparing the writings of St. Teresa to those of Father Keating sheds light on the question.
The centering-prayer method is simple: Find a quiet place to pray alone. Sit in silence with the intention of being in God’s presence. When you become aware of any thoughts or feelings, turn away from them and focus on a “sacred word” of your choosing.
In The Book of Her Life, St. Teresa also writes of silence and of gently speaking a few words when one’s mind wanders in prayer. However, the broad context of her teaching reveals a clear contradiction to Father Keating’s teaching on prayer.
Instead of advising beginners in prayer to just sit silently, she urges them to meditate on the Gospel or the lives of the saints. In The Way of Perfection, she says of meditation on Scripture:
“This is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues, and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it.”
In St. Teresa’s thought, focusing on God makes prayer what it is. She writes in The Interior Castle, “If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all, even though he be constantly moving his lips.”
In contrast, Father Keating says in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, “The method [of centering prayer] consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts.” For him, “The great battle in the early stages [of the spiritual life] is with thoughts.”
St. Teresa insists that the beginner reflect on God’s greatness instead. She writes in The Interior Castle:
“By gazing at His grandeur, we get in touch with our own lowliness ... by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”
Rather than hindering our prayer, thoughts help us grow in it.
St. Teresa advises beginners, “Represent the Lord Himself as close to you. ... Try to carry about an image or painting of this Lord that is to your liking. ... It is also a great help to take a good book written in the vernacular in order to recollect one’s thoughts” (The Way of Perfection).
While Father Keating seeks to teach interior silence at the outset, prolonged silence in prayer comes much later in St. Teresa’s teaching, with the transition to “infused contemplation.” This prayer is infused because it is initiated by God and cannot be conjured up by human machinations. In contrast, Father Keating’s silence is initiated by the pray-er. St. Teresa cautions in The Book of Her Life:
“Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done; nor should we cease to work with the intellect, because, otherwise, we would be left like cold simpletons and be doing neither one thing nor the other.”
St. Teresa is clear: God suspends our thoughts when he desires to grant us contemplation.
What is contemplation? Father Keating calls it “not so much a gift as a given.” He sees it as part of human nature. St. Teresa, on the other hand, teaches that God gives contemplation when and where he wills and that this gift cannot be self-manufactured. In her way of thinking, a person can neither make oneself a contemplative, nor escape God’s self-communication when he gives it. One can only prepare for contemplation by faithfulness to God inside and outside of one’s prayer time.
In religious life St. Teresa took the name Teresa of Jesus. She urged her sisters to stay close to the sacred humanity of Christ, even at the heights of the spiritual life. She energetically rejected the idea of a spiritualized prayer that leaves Jesus behind, saying of those who practice it, “If they lose their Guide, the good Jesus, they will be unable to find their way.” Humans, she says, are not angels. We have bodies. The God-Man Jesus is our companion, our teacher and our nourishment in the Eucharist.”
This is in stark contrast to Father Keating’s teaching. His method is not one of dialogue with Jesus. In fact, he offers this self-contradicting statement: “God and our true self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true self are the same thing.”
St. Teresa of Avila urges us to cling to Christ, our Savior. Father Keating says we must recognize we are really divine.
An in-depth study of St. Teresa’s teaching clearly reveals that it has little in common with centering prayer. All similarities are due to superficial reading and poor scholarship. Centering prayer closes one in upon oneself. True prayer draws one into communion with God.
As we celebrate St. Teresa’s birth, we honor this great doctor of the Church best by getting to know the Lord she so loved and putting aside methods of prayer that fall short of the true aim of prayer — intimacy with Jesus.
Connie Rossini is the author of Is Centering Prayer Catholic?