QUAERITUR: “centering prayer” in a parish

From a reader:

A parish close to us (not our parish, but one we go to for confession) has a centering prayer “ministry.” My understanding was that this was an extremely dangerous, if not forbidden practice, rooted in Buddhism.
The parish website says that it focuses on finding God within us.
Seems quite wrong for Catholics to be doing this, when we have God just over there in the tabernacle. Do you have any insight into this?
Should I bring this to the Bishop’s attention?

I don’t really know what “centering prayer” is.  It is uninteresting, as far as I am concerning.

Some people say it is “extremely dangerous”.

It seems to me that it would be bad even if it were simply “dangerous” we might want to know what our bishop thinks about it.

There is not one exclusive method of Catholic prayer.  Some seem to be effective for people, some less so.  Some seem to be more in line with our Catholic traditions and the experience of saints, some less so.

People always have the right to request instruction from a bishop.    That’s, among other things, what bishops are for.  A respectful, super brief letter with a question, including a copy of the program or bulletin, is not out of line.

The bishop will, I am sure, appreciate your promise of prayers as well.  They have a very heavy burden.

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29 Responses to QUAERITUR: “centering prayer” in a parish

  1. danphunter1 says:

    From Catholic Answers, “This Rock” magazine: “The Danger of Centering Prayer”
    http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/1997/9711fea1.asp

  2. robtbrown says:

    You will find a method similar to Centering Prayer at the end of the Ignatian Exercises (cf Three Methods of Prayer): The Third Method of Prayer is that with each breath in or out, one has to pray mentally, saying one word of the Our Father, or of another prayer which is being recited: so that only one word be said between one breath and another.

    The difference between CP and Buddhism is the content of the prayer. Personally, I find it beneficial to have very, very short prayers that can said quickly (and more than once) anytime anyplace.

    For example: “Miserere mei, Domine, miserere mei” or “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”.

  3. Maggie says:

    http://www.newagedeception.com/new/free-resources/4-7-reasons-why-centering-prayer-should-not-be-in-your-parish.html

    Another explanation, specifically quoting Fr. Keating’s teachings and how they don’t line up with our Faith.

  4. Sam Urfer says:

    As I understand it, the practice is traditional Trappist prayer, going back centuries, and is similar to Hesychasm in the Eastern *Christian* tradition. The only link to Buddhism is marketing it to New Age-y types to draw them into the practice of the Christian Faith, as far as I am aware.

  5. Scott W. says:

    I’d make the same peace offering to Catholic practitioners of centering prayer that I did to Catholic practitioners of Reiki. That is, affirm transubstantiation, affirm that abortion, contraception, and homosexual acts are gravely an intrinsicly evil acts, and affirm that that Church has no authority to ordain women in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and I’ll stop complaining about centering prayer. I got nothing but crickets chirping when I asked the Reiki fangoils. Let’s see if cp goes differently.

  6. Philangelus says:

    I’ve done centering prayer and never found it to be dangerous. Maybe I’ve been deluded, but I’ve felt very much drawn to the Eucharist and the sacraments during centering prayer. It’s even more awesome when I combine it with reading the Bible–I kind of stumbled onto my own form of “lectio divina” without knowing what it was.

    I’ve seen “This Rock” call just about everything dangerous. If it’s contraindicated to Catholics, then I’ll stop, but I’m confused as to how something that stirs up a love of the Eucharist or a love of the Bible can be leading me along the path to Buddha.

  7. Antioch_2013 says:

    “Centering prayer” as they’re calling it is a watered down version of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of hesychasm, a monastic practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner) while sitting in certain positions and breathing in specific ways. It is practiced in silence with the aim of purifying the heart and re-ordering the soul so the we might be given the immense gift of drawing closer to God, the process of theosis.

    That being said, hesychasm has always been the exclusive province of hesychastic monks and nuns and has never, and should never, be practiced by regular people in the world because, yes, it is dangerous. The hesychastic use of the Jesus Prayer is always done under the close supervision of a monastic superior (spiritual father or mother) because it is easy to slip into spiritual delusions (amongst other things). Remember, it is truly “spiritual warfare” and not something to be taken lightly.

    For myself, I’d avoid centering prayer and stick with other forms of prayer.

  8. priests wife says:

    problem of centering prayer- YOU are the center- YIKES- I am glad I am not the center! Give me God any day! :)

  9. Supertradmum says:

    One of the most overlooked and excellent documents from the Vatican in the past ten years is http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html#2.3.3.%20Central%20themes%20of%20the%20New%20Age

    “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life” In this document, the tenants behind the person-centered New Age type of prayer, among other deceptive practices, are successfully outlined. New Age prayer omits God, dogma, sin, punishment, salvation and redemption, merely concentrating on the person and her development. One small sample of the document shows what is behind “centering prayer”, which (and I am trained in Ignatian Spirituality)has nothing to do with St. Ignatius. Quote: “Some stages on the way to self-redemption are preparatory (meditation, body harmony, releasing self-healing energies). They are the starting-point for processes of spiritualisation, perfection and enlightenment which help people to acquire further self-control and psychic concentration on “transformation” of the individual self into “cosmic consciousness”. The destiny of the human person is a series of successive reincarnations of the soul in different bodes. This is understood not as the cycle of samsara, in the sense of purification as punishment, but as a gradual ascent towards the perfect development of one’s potential.”

    And again, “This spirituality consists of two distinct elements, one metaphysical, the other psychological. The metaphysical component comes from New Age’s esoteric and theosophical roots, and is basically a new form of gnosis. Access to the divine is by knowledge of hidden mysteries, in each individual’s search for “the real behind what is only apparent, the origin beyond time, the transcendent beyond what is merely fleeting, the primordial tradition behind merely ephemeral tradition, the other behind the self, the cosmic divinity beyond the incarnate individual”. Esoteric spirituality “is an investigation of Being beyond the separateness of beings, a sort of nostalgia for lost unity”.(52)

    The centering prayer classes I have seen in our diocese are all New Age related and frequently are connected with other things condemned by the Church, including gnosticism.

    To compare these New Age centering prayer workshops with the Eastern Catholic practice of hesychasm is to overlook the fact that centering prayer frequently omits any mention of metanoia, grace, or the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Over thirty years of these types of workshops in our area has convinced me that at best, this type of prayer is totally humanistic, and at worse, occultist activity.

  10. Patikins says:

    In the late eighties or early nineties (my college years) I attended a Centering Prayer workshop/gathering. I tried doing it at home once or twice but I never had success with this form of prayer. I knew nothing about it and abandoned it just because it wasn’t fruitful for me. When I later learned more about my faith I was so glad that I never adopted the CP practices.

    CP as I was taught involves emptying your mind of everything — wherein lies its problems. Should not our minds be focused on God? Is it safe to empty our minds of everything?

    If a Catholic group is leading/practicing meditation that appears similar to CP but does not involve the above mentioned mind emptying, they should call it something different and distance it from the New Age influenced centering prayer.

    I’d steer clear of it. There are so many authentically Christian/Catholic methods of prayer and devotions that it seems silly to look to something like CP.

    Just my 2 cents.

  11. wilky says:

    The late Fr Tim Dubay certainly believed Centering Prayer it was dangerous, and doesn’t mince his words. I reckon he knows more about such spiritual matters than most of us do. His reference to CP is in his weekend retreat on the Universal Call to Contemplative Prayer (4 CDs).

  12. ejcmartin says:

    Scott W. I like your “acid test” for those following questionable practices. Unfortunately we have just about everything new age offered in our diocese. One just needs to pick up the weekly bulletin and know where to find “Energy Workshops” etc… Too bad there iare so few workshops on the Catechism.

  13. Jason Keener says:

    I would encourage the questioner to consult Fr. Thomas Dubay’s “Prayer Primer” or “Fire Within,” which both cover centering prayer. Fr. Dubay was a first-rate spiritual writer who authored some of the best books on prayer and spiritual growth of the last few decades.

  14. Sliwka says:

    In a theology course titles Spirituality for Today’s Christian, in which we also did cover, albeit briefly, Ignatian Exercises, Benedictine Lectio Divina, types of Intercessory prayer et cetera—I think we were lead through a type of Centreing Prayer.

    We were instructed to get comfortable, ask God to help us essentially shut off our external thoughts (you know, that buzzing from the lights) and asked to contemplate a Scripture verse being recited, ultimately reduced to a few words to contemplate on.

    The ultimate question becomes: how do the faithful discern between the Spirit influencing our contemplation (which is essentially the goal; a deep personal conversation with our Lord), our own mind taking over coming up with an interpretation of the Scripture and how it moves us, and the spirit of Evil coming–which I think seems to be the main concern with CP in the first place.

    Needless to say, I did not find it nearly as fruitful as Benedicitne styled Lectio Divina. I am sure others may have found it more fruitful.

  15. PghCath says:

    It saddens me to see people say that Centering Prayer is a threat to authentic Catholicism. It’s not a regular part of my prayer life like the rosary and the LOTH are, but I have found it to be effective. A few points: I have no interest in Buddhism; in fact, Trappist Fr. Basil Pennington’s book “Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form” was, for me, an excellent introduction to ancient Catholic thought. Second, as I understand it, the goal is not to empty the mind of everything, but of everything that distracts one from focusing on Christ.

    While I get the impression that many here have had a bad experience with certain practitioners of Centering Prayer, it’s absolutely possible to engage in Centering Prayer itself without violating any tenets of our faith.

  16. PghCath says:

    . . . that said, I too would like to know what our bishops think of Centering Prayer. A quick search shows that Dominic Marconi, Aux. Bp. Emeritus of Newark, approves. See http://www.rcan.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=feature.show&feature_id=814. I don’t know anything about Bishop Marconi, but it comforts me that he was ordained in 1953.

  17. Dr. Eric says:

    I’ve been listening to Fr. Dubay’s podcasts on EWTN and have read most of St. Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle” and both sources explicitly state that the kind of prayer that the people who do the centering prayer are trying to achieve cannot be reached with human methods. God only grants contemplative prayer to those who are already holy. It takes years, and years, and years of sacrifice and purification before God will grant that kind of mystical union. It takes too long to achieve (especially because God decides when a person is ready) and soccer moms and aging hippies aren’t patient enough to wait so they move on to forms that are easier to do and that demand less.

    While CP resembles The Jesus Prayer in form it is very far from Christian prayer. It may look the same but, in the way that tofurkey resembles a Butterball, the substance is much different.

  18. Supertradmum says:

    PghCath

    I gave up on Pennington’s type of centering prayer many, many years ago after sensing that his emphasis was too much on the body and the natural inclinations of the spirit, rather than on a Call from the Holy Spirit to a deepening prayer life. I do believe that both then Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II warned against some adaptation of centering prayer. Pennington also was a little too “zen”, a la Merton and other Beneditines. A note from a rather liberal convent in our area may shed some light on the problem of Bennington’s influence.

    “The Holy Spirit calls all of us to prayer. This retreat will explore the different kinds of prayer: Devotional, Meditation, Centering Prayer and Contemplative Prayer. Through conferences, silence and discussion, you may discover which type of prayer will bring you best into union with God at this time of your life. Presenter: Sr. Catherine Cleary, OSB, MA in Theology,

    MS in Psychology, certified in Biblical Spirituality

    Fri. Sept. 10, 7 pm (registration 6-7 pm) – Sat. Sept. 11, 7 pm; Fee: $85 (Optional Yoga available; please bring separate $10 payment for Yoga instructor)”

    One is much better off reading The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Garrigou-Lagrange, than Pennington.

  19. ray from mn says:

    When I practiced centering prayer back in the 80’s or so, my mantra usually was “Jesus.” But I wasn’t very good at it so I stopped using it. Mantras are supposed to be secret.

  20. elaurier says:

    I try to attend daily Mass, and this usually involves running from my office building, up four or five flights of stairs of a parking garage, battling traffic and then tiptoeing into chapel and looking for a place among people who are shooting me dirty looks for being in such a rush on a daily basis. After I squeeze in between people who would rather have more room to themselves, I have about 90 seconds max to kneel down, collect myself and get ready to focus all my attention on the holy sacrifice of the Mass. I start with the Fatima Prayer. After repeating it about five times, my heart drops to it’s normal rhythm and I can focus. By the 10th repetition, I’m breathing easy and much more focused. Good thing, as Mass is starting and once again, I’ve made it with moments to spare. I would consider this a “centering prayer” and it works for me.

  21. msgrbarr says:

    There is a lot to worry about with the state of most people’s prayer life these days. But in reading these comments, I must admit I just get exasperated. Any “method” of prayer can be abused and twisted from its original intent. Of course, centering prayer can be corrupted with New Age ideas. But Basil Pennington’s books on the subject as well as some other articles on the matter, far from corrupting me, led me to a more orthodox and deeper prayer life. Are we going to be suspicious of methods of prayer because some abuse the method and twist them into caricatures of themselves? Methods are not prayer, they are a means to prayer. For myself, I long ago found centering prayer to be too vague–I prefer the Jesus Prayer version of centering prayer. More time honored, orthodox, scriptural and valuable to me. I have no quarrel with those who condemn heterodox versions of various methods. But don’t paint with a broad brush. Sorry about the rant, but many of the above comments seem so joyless. The quest for a relationship with God is part of life; it is meant to be mysterious, awesome and life-changing. Saying that various methods of prayer are automatically wrong betrays a lack of intellectual integrity. After all, didn’t Jesus just talk about this two weeks ago in the Gospel about the Pharisee and the Publican?

  22. Gail F says:

    It sounds to me like something that can be taught in a highly orthodox way, with Eastern and other orthodox roots, or something that can be New Agey and nutty. Caveat emptor — and check the sources of your teacher!

  23. PghCath says:

    Gail: Well said. Or, as someone wrote in a Catholic Answers Forum post about Centering Prayer, “The biggest problem with Centering Prayer is not the spirituality itself but the groups that have latched onto it.”

  24. robtbrown says:

    Dr Eric wrote:

    I’ve been listening to Fr. Dubay’s podcasts on EWTN and have read most of St. Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle” and both sources explicitly state that the kind of prayer that the people who do the centering prayer are trying to achieve cannot be reached with human methods. God only grants contemplative prayer to those who are already holy. It takes years, and years, and years of sacrifice and purification before God will grant that kind of mystical union. It takes too long to achieve (especially because God decides when a person is ready) and soccer moms and aging hippies aren’t patient enough to wait so they move on to forms that are easier to do and that demand less.

    1. Contemplative prayer, either acquired of infused contemplation, is not mystical union. The beginnings of infused contemplation are said to begin in the illuminative (not the unitive) way–in the 3rd Mansion. This is endorsed by Fr Garrigou in The Three Ages–contra Tanquerey.

    2. I think CP (in the Catholic sense) can be helpful for people with busy lives as a way to recollect themselves (as someone noted above). But when someone like Fr Basil Pennington relies on it years after entering religious life, I think it tends to become Quietism. (I hasten to add, however, that he and many others struggled to make their way after the collapse of the religious life. )

    3. The Call to Contemplation acc to St John of the Cross is first manifest in aridity in prayer (cf. the three signs–the passive purification in the Night of Sense). During this period the imperfections of beginners emerge as a reaction to this aridity. These imperfections are called by St John of the Cross “Spiritual Sins”, the spiritual version of the Seven Deadly Sins. One way in which those imperfections are manifest is Spiritual Gluttony, in which someone tries to manufacture consolation in prayer. Sometimes this can take the form of sentimentalism. Other times by trying to induce a certain interior passivity, which is a caricature of the prayer of Passive Recollection, the true beginning of infused contemplation.

  25. chironomo says:

    Wherein comes the problem is when a “centering prayer group” meets to practice “centering prayer” led by an individual who may espouse a variety of beliefs, some consistent with the Catholic faith, others not, and fails to discriminate between these beliefs when instructing others in the practice of “centering prayer”. In other words, while they may gather and organize under the name “Centering Prayer”, what they actually end up doing may be a variety of things, either intentionally or out of lack of experience in spiritual guidance and leadership. It seems this would be something best left to someone (ordained) with experience in instruction in spiritual prayer practice. Unfortunately, it is likely more often led by a lay (female) parishioner who experienced it at some workshop and thought it was something different and more meaningful than going to Mass and so decided to put an ad in the bulletin and meet on Tuesday evenings at 7:00….

  26. Scott W. says:

    Sorry about the rant, but many of the above comments seem so joyless. The quest for a relationship with God is part of life; it is meant to be mysterious, awesome and life-changing. Saying that various methods of prayer are automatically wrong betrays a lack of intellectual integrity.

    I’m throwing the BS flag on this. If you can’t interact with other people’s points on their own merits, then don’t bother contributing.

  27. It seems to me that “centering prayer” is rather vaguely understood even by those who teach it, which in some cases is a blessing. A lot of people seem to bend it, naturally, into less problematic and more Catholic forms of prayer. For them, it’s simply quiet recollection or a sort of lectio divina variant. OTOH, “centering” has a specific technical meaning for New Agey/occult folks, and so other people go off in that direction. But yeah, the pure gen, intended to be Catholic version of centering prayer has a lot in common with bad ol’ fashioned Jansenistic quietism, so it’s definitely iffy and tends to creep people out who know anything about ways of prayer.

    However, people can manage to mess themselves up psychologically and spiritually even with normal forms of prayer (which is why good spiritual direction is important and helpful). Heck, I got a serious case of painful and lasting cognitive dissonance just by hanging around other college kids trying to pray out loud extemporaneously, because they were praying the wrong way for the wrong things and I kept trying to force myself to think positive about it. Since I’d twisted myself so far, it made me feel guilty for a long time about praying in normal ways I’d been taught (like saying the Rosary or going to Mass). I hate to think what I would have done to myself if I’d ever gotten into anything really spiritually dangerous.

    So yeah, if people are warning other people that X and Y form of prayer is dangerous and teaches people misleading ways to think about God, pay attention.

  28. When we are feeling nervous about the limits of prayer it may pay to revisit St. Bonaventure’s seminal work The Soul’s Journey Into God (Itinerarium). Sometimes we need to expand our horizons.

    In most situations that we fear there is probably much more risk of sitting firmly on the ground going absolutely nowhere than there is moving into dangerous territory.

    In Mark 10:32 we read: “They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” Amazed and afraid. Does our prayer life leave us amazed and afraid? If we are following Jesus, it may not be entirely out of line to have that experience.