Is there anything good about Centering Prayer?
Q: Dear Dan, I know that you are not a fan of Centering Prayer. I did read the document you posted from the Vatican and I think I see the problems, at least from the standpoint of what I was taught. Still, isn’t there some good in centering prayer? For instance, isn’t it good to sit still, breathe slowly so you can relax etc.? I have experienced a great deal of good from this practice and little bad that I can see…
A: You might be surprised that my answer is, “yes,” there are things that are taught by the Centering Prayer movement that are good. As you suggest, it is beneficial for us to use our bodies to help us in prayer. We are not Gnostics after all. We believe that creation is good and that our bodies can be used for good. If it were not so, our liturgy would simply have us remain blithely stationary. Instead, in keeping with the appropriate expressions of prayer in the mass, we respond with all that we are. We kneel with our hearts and we kneel with our bodies. So, the admonition to breathe slowly, to sit in a particular posture, is good, particularly for those who are just beginning their prayer life and need extra help to minimize distractions.
As well, in their misguided zeal for orthodoxy, some have criticized the Centering Prayer movement’s recommendation of these practices because they mirror similar prescriptions offered by those who practice Transcendental Meditation (TM). However, the fact that TM practitioners recommend set times for prayer and use a specific posture or breathing does not mean that these things are bad. If the devil recommends that you go to mass, he’s right, you should go to mass. Now, I don’t recommend that you make a habit of listening to the devil. He’s not on good terms with God and is well known to be a liar. He also has a firm disregard for the teachings of Christ and His Church – not a good model to follow.
That said, the challenge comes not with the question you asked but in an implied question: “Can’t I continue to participate in the Centering Prayer movement? Won’t I continue to get something good out of it if I do?” The answer to this question is not quite so affirming.
Several years ago a protestant friend of mine was struggling with aridity in his prayer life. He had already acquired a distaste for shallow pop-spirituality (similar to those well intended sentiments that birthed and popularized Centering Prayer) and was looking for something more in keeping with the greater tradition and wisdom of the Church. So, he searched and found a book with a remedy for dryness in prayer written by a 17th century Spanish priest. He read it, and it helped him a great deal.
After becoming Catholic he was doing further research on prayer and came across this author again. However, he discovered that the author and his writings had been condemned by the Church because they expressed a particular heresy known as Quietism. After a prayerful review of the literature the Church’s wisdom became clearer to him. As well, when he converted to Catholicism he committed to submit to the magisterial teaching authority of the Church (this is of the essence of what it means to be Catholic). So, in keeping with that commitment and the obvious wisdom of the Church, he decided to set aside the writings of this Spanish priest no matter how helpful they were to him. This was true even though he had not been taken in by the errors of this priest in other areas of his teaching.
During this same period he also came across the writings of a few Carmelite saints on the subject matter he was interested in. These saints and their writings (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross) had passed the muster of the Church both in matters of sanctity and doctrine. Their writings were trustworthy, rich, and without any lack on matters of prayer and the spiritual life. No matter which perspective from which he would choose to evaluate the situation, it made absolutely no sense to cling to the writings of someone who was in obvious error even though some of what the Spanish priest taught was true, and the fact that his brief exposure yielded significant benefit to him.
Why am I belaboring this point? It is simply because many in the Centering Prayer movement have a severely disordered attachment to movement teachers and practices. When they encounter questioning, instead of responding as my friend did, they typically become hostile or emotionally distraught. This reaction in and of itself reflects a disordered attachment and is further indication that the practices are problematic not just the level of objective error, but even to a deeper spiritual level of potential illness in the soul. Catholic Answers had to shut down their forum discussion on this topic because the discourse regularly failed to meet standard of charity in dialogue that they require.
Yes, there are plenty of wonderful people in the Centering Prayer movement. Aside from those who teach it in order to make money, I believe that those involved are well intentioned. However, the good intentions of the participants have nothing to do with the validity or wisdom of the teachings. By pointing out these things I am not judging the sincerity, intentions, or goodness of people (or the reader for that matter). I am judging the doctrine and the practice.
So, should you continue in the Centering Prayer movement if you have found it to be helpful? In my opinion, unless you occupy some prominent position and ability to reform the movement, you should find spiritual sustenance in a manner and means that the Church, in her great wisdom, has already provided elsewhere.
PS: If you know and love Catholics who are potentially falling prey to this appealing deception, forward this post to them and gently and respectfully ask them to consider this post, the letter from the Vatican, and other resources noted below.
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