Why Centering Prayer Is Not Christian Prayer

COMMENTARY: The teaching of the saints on prayer, constantly promoted by the Church, is a sure way towards intimacy with God.

A Carmelite nun meditates on the Bible in her room.
A Carmelite nun meditates on the Bible in her room. (photo: Wikipedia)

After receiving some criticism over my recent commentary, “Why Centering Prayer Falls Short of True Intimacy With Christ,” the Register invited me to respond to the most important and common objections readers mentioned. (All the quotes from Trappist Father Thomas Keating come from his book Open Heart, Open Mind.)

1. One prayer method is as good as another.

Many people objected, “One method works for you; another works for me.” St. Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church, however, did not teach one method of prayer, nor did I promote only one method. Meditation in the Christian Tradition is not a method of prayer. It is a category containing many methods. The Rosary, lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), Ignatian prayer, gazing at an icon and imagining a scene from Christ’s life are all types of Christian meditation. Some are complex. Some are simple.  Each starts with a concept or an image; all draw the heart to focus on God.

Christian meditation holds a vital role in spiritual development. The Catechism and countless Church documents recommend it. Centering prayer is not Christian meditation. Centering prayer rejects images, thoughts and feelings. It is categorically different and does not correspond to any of the categories of prayer recognized by the Church. This is easily discerned through a review of part four of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

2. Centering prayer is not about making the mind blank.

Some countered my assertion that centering prayer involves “ignoring thoughts and feelings.” Father Keating says it is unrealistic to expect to have no thoughts. Yet he still insists that “the goal is a state of no-thinking.” He also says, “The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts.” The point the great spiritual writers make is that until God gives us infused contemplation, a divine gift we can’t acquire on our own, true Christian prayer uses thoughts and feelings to draw near to God. Centering prayer sees all thoughts and feelings as “the enemy.” It rejects the use of the memory, intellect and will in prayer, which are the God-given faculties that make us human.

3. Centering prayer is like lectio divina or acquired recollection.

Lectio divina is sometimes taught alongside centering prayer. But the two are almost opposite in method. In lectio divina, one reads and reflects on Scripture, then responds to God about it. One of the elements of our response is called contemplatio. Sometimes, centering-prayer advocates equate centering prayer with this contemplatio. However, even the FAQs page of Father Keating’s organization Contemplative Outreach admits, “[T]he rest of lectio divina is a different method than that of centering prayer.” Lectio divina is loaded with content with respect to orienting our minds and hearts to God, but centering prayer is essentially devoid of content.

Acquired recollection is a very simplified meditation that involves short reflections interspersed with silence. A person at this stage of prayer may repeat a word now and then to sustain the silence. However, this is not like the “sacred word” of centering prayer. The word of acquired recollection refocuses a wandering mind and heart on God. It moves the heart to express its love in silence. The word is a tender prayer. The “sacred word” of centering prayer, on the other hand, is a tool for reaching an altered state of mental consciousness. Although Father Keating encourages practitioners to use a Christian word, any word will work. He also says that “the less the word means to you, the better.” The “sacred word” is, therefore, not a prayer, as understood in the Christian Tradition.

We should also note that, contrary to some objections, centering prayer is offered as a method to all seekers, even complete beginners. In contrast, Catholic Tradition sees acquired recollection  as the prayer of someone practiced in prayer and virtue. Dominican Father Jordan Aumann writes about acquired recollection, "We must take great care not to try to hasten the entrance into this type of prayer. So long as we are able to meditate and to practice affective prayer, we should continue with those types of prayer" (Spiritual Theology, Chapter 10).

4. The Church hasn’t condemned centering prayer.

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued “Letter to the Catholic Bishops on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” This document distinguishes between true and false kinds of prayer. It does not list centering prayer by name — but it does not list any erroneous prayer methods by name. The world’s bishops were each expected to apply it to prayer methods proposed in their own dioceses. “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life” was compiled by the Pontifical Council for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue in 2003. It addresses New Age errors. It also avoids enumerating suspect prayer methods.

These documents criticize methods that are impersonal, downplay the distance between the soul and God, confuse nature and grace, set aside the senses and concepts, try to reproduce the experience of Christian mystics, abandon meditating on God’s works, reject the “otherness” that exists even in the Trinity, speak of illumination without speaking of a radical purification from sin, alter one’s state of consciousness, confuse spirituality and psychology, are panentheistic, are ordered toward losing one’s individuality in the divinity, and downplay the reality of death. All these are elements of centering prayer. Considering the teachings of these two documents, we can see that centering prayer is clearly not Christian.

Centering-prayer advocates usually object that these Church documents, especially the second, were not authoritative. But anyone who reads these documents with a mind focused on seeking the truth should come away seriously concerned about the orthodoxy of centering prayer. The Church has clearly begun a process of criticizing methods like centering prayer.

Meanwhile, the teaching of the saints on prayer, constantly promoted by the Church, remains a sure way towards intimacy with God and is available to all.

Connie Rossini is the author of Is Centering Prayer Catholic?

and Trusting God With St. Thérèse.