Why the Centering Prayer Movement is So Off-Center

The curious should, to say the very least, approach the practice of Centering Prayer with a critical eye and serious discernment.

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A technique out there purporting to be a form of Christian prayer has made inroads in countless parishes across the U.S. and Canada. Its promoters try very hard to sound Catholic and monastic, but it is, in fact, not really either. It’s called Centering Prayer, and the movement it spawned in a few short years was more or less begun by Fathers Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and William Meninger, all Trappists who at one time or other were at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.

The movement’s main website, contemplativeoutreach.org, tries mightily to inject verbiage the average visitor will identify with traditional Catholic contemplation. There is a link to some information about Lectio Divina and some references to the 14th-century classic The Cloud of Unknowing — so far, so good — but when you dig into the specific teachings of the most vocal leader of the Centering Prayer movement, Father Keating, the problems become obvious.

His teachings are a troubling mish-mash of New Age ideas, John Cassian-style prayer forms, Hinduism (or a westernized version of transcendental meditation), plus an overall feel-good spirituality. There are references to the Trinity and to saints like Teresa of Avila thrown in, Christ is mentioned here and there, and you’ll find a smattering of terms drawn from contemplative prayer tradition. But these are parts. The whole is essentially non-Christian.

The curious should, to say the very least, approach the practice of Centering Prayer with a critical eye and serious discernment.

Father Keating has claimed that the 1989 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” from the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, had nothing whatsoever to do with Centering Prayer. (The Letter clearly describes its errors without naming it explicitly, and includes appropriate corrections.)

When responding publicly to the many concerns about the orthodoxy of the practice — and dismissing them as unfounded or based on misunderstandings — Keating sounds as Catholic as Pope St. Pius X. It’s when he answers questions on the fly after talks, or when doing unguarded interviews, that the problems become obvious.

But don’t just take it from me. Here’s a tiny sample from the monk himself, from his webpage Introduction (with my emphases in bold and my questions in italics):

“The presence of the Divine in us is the permanent self-giving of God to every human person.” So you can’t lose your salvation? No distinction between our life as creatures and our life as adopted children through baptism?

“The indwelling Divine Presence affirms our innate core of goodness and is expressed fully in the theology of the Most Holy Trinity.” No dogma of the Fall? No serious wounding of the human will?

In answer to a question about the spiritual life on YouTube, Keating speaks freely, and reveals a set of beliefs that cannot be reconciled with the teaching of Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on prayer or on the Beatific Vision (CC 1028 ff):

“The beginning of the spiritual journey is the realization – not just the information – the real interior conviction that there is a higher power, or God, or — to make it as easy as possible for everybody — that there is an Other. Second step: to try to become the Other. And finally, the realization that there is no Other. You and the Other are one. Always have been; always will be. You just think that you aren’t … and thus the words of Paul become something that make sense, that ‘God is all in all.’ In other words, in a sense, we not only become God, we are God. Our little local consciousness disappears.”

This is a strange mix of monism and pantheism, pure and simple. The Catholic Church has always taught that unity in diversity is not the same thing as human beings being God, that the condition of Original Sin is not the same thing as failing realize our fundamental “core goodness” or indwelt divinity, nor that all reality is “one,” with no distinction between creature and Creator.

What about the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” as the Second Vatican Council put it — the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ?

Again, a sample of his catechesis: "The Eucharist is the celebration of life: the coming together of all the material elements of the cosmos, their emergence to consciousness in human persons and the transformation of human consciousness into Divine consciousness. It is the manifestation of the Divine in and through the Christian community. We receive the Eucharist in order to become the Eucharist." (Book, Open Heart, Open Mind, p. 128)

Put gently: huh?

His monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, has been the site of many conferences and collaborations in the last few decades involving an eclectic assortment of fringy esoteric teachers, from Zen Buddhist monks to New Age leaders such as the pseudo-philosopher Ken Wilber and the Episcopal priestess Cynthia Bourgeault. Your mother was right; you are known by the company you keep.

If you want to see all this New Age confusion in action in the real world, watch Father Keating’s rambling reply to a young man who has left his Catholic upbringing and Christianity altogether, during an interview session with Wilber:

Astounding, really. The Centering Prayer approach to evangelization might be called the “Don’t Evangelize” method. Centering Prayer may be warmed over Hinduism, TM, semi-Pelagianism, self-hypnosis or Buddhism.

But it’s far from clear how it is prayer, and even farther from clear that it’s Christian.

Editors Note: To learn more about the challenges of Centering Prayer and authentic Catholic Spiritual tradition go to SpiritualDirection.com