Centering Prayer: What the Vatican has to say about it

By Dan Burke, SpiritualDirection.com. Re-posted by permission.

Has the Vatican ever addressed the topic of Centering Prayer or the teachings commonly held by those who advocate or practice Centering Prayer?

Yes, the approach to prayer commonly referred to “Centering Prayer” has been formally and specifically addressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (we provide the text of this important document below). Here’s a little background that might be helpful.

In a kind of spiritual awakening during the 70s and 80s there were a growing number of well-intentioned Catholics who began to explore the integration of non-Christian Eastern prayer practices and traditional forms of Catholic prayer. There were sufficient concerns about the outcomes of this effort to prompt a response by the Vatican through then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who issued the letter below to all of the Bishops of the Catholic Church warning of the potential errors in this area.

One only needs a cursory understanding of the history and teachings of Centering Prayer to understand that it is clearly dealt with in this document. As well it is important to note that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has not condemned or suppressed the Centering Prayer movement here or elsewhere. It simply proposes corrections, reforms, and redirection to ensure that those inspired to seek Christ through prayer do so in keeping with the time-tested and faithful traditions and inspirations of Christ and his Church.

Just to be sure that I am being charitable regarding this topic, I don’t condemn honest people seeking to deepen their prayer life through those who have popularized the method. All Catholics who care about their faith will constantly seek to improve their relationships with God and will thereby constantly find themselves correcting their spiritual trajectory. This gentle but specific treatment asks all of us to evaluate the practices and trajectory of our prayer lives to ensure we are pursuing God in a manner that pleases him and is thereby in keeping with Church teaching on the subject.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, if you are a serious Catholic seeking an authentic and profound relationship with Christ in prayer, this document is a must read.

*****

LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON SOME ASPECTS OF CHRISTIAN MEDITATION

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, October 15, 1989

I. Introduction

1. Many Christians today have a keen desire to learn how to experience a deeper and authentic prayer life despite the not inconsiderable difficulties which modern culture places in the way of the need for silence, recollection and meditation. The interest which in recent years has been awakened also among some Christians by forms of meditation associated with some eastern religions and their particular methods of prayer is a significant sign of this need for spiritual recollection and a deep contact with the divine mystery. Nevertheless, faced with this phenomenon, many feel the need for sure criteria of a doctrinal and pastoral character which might allow them to instruct others in prayer, in its numerous manifestations, while remaining faithful to the truth revealed in Jesus, by means of the genuine Tradition of the Church. This present letter seeks to reply to this urgent need, so that in the various particular Churches the many different forms of prayer, including new ones, may never lose their correct personal and communitarian nature.

These indications are addressed in the first place to the Bishops, to be considered in that spirit of pastoral solicitude for the Churches entrusted to them, so that the entire people of God–priests, religious and laity–may again be called to pray, with renewed vigor, to the Father through the Spirit of Christ our Lord.

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2 thoughts on “Centering Prayer: What the Vatican has to say about it

    1. Yes, I have read Contemplative Outreach’s response to this criticism and even before I knew much about Centering Prayer I found that response completely unconvincing. Here are some quotes from the CDF document: “grace, which always has the Holy Spirit as its source is not a good proper to the soul, but must be sought from God as a gift” (#8). Fr. Keating says that contemplation is not a gift, but is constitutive of the human soul. Errors in prayer “incite him to try and overcome the distance separating creature from Creator, as though there ought not to be such a distance” (#10). Fr. Keating and C.O. teach non-dualism. “Similar methods of meditation, on the other hand, including those which have their starting-point in the words and deeds of Jesus, try as far as possible to put aside everything that is worldly, sense-perceptible or conceptually limited. It is thus an attempt to ascend to or immerse oneself in the sphere of the divine, which, as such, is neither terrestrial, sense-perceptible nor capable of conceptualization” (#11). This describes CP perfectly. Attempts “to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian” (#12). Fr. Keating admits openly that he and the other Trappist monks were looking for a point of connection between eastern and western spiritualities, and even a quick Google search brings up many hits of him saying in interviews that there is no real difference between Christianity and Buddhism or Hinduism, just that they come out of different cultures and our faith “requires” us to speak in a certain manner. “[O]thers go further and, using different techniques, try to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of certain Catholic mystics. Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality” (ibid.). This is very obviously what C.O. teaches and is all over Fr. Keating’s writings. “To this end, they make use of a ‘negative theology,’ which transcends every affirmation seeking to express what God is and denies that the things of this world can offer traces of the infinity of God” (ibid.). Fr. Keating and C.O. both speak often of the via negativa or apophatic prayer in this erroneous manner. “There is otherness in God himself, who is one single nature in three Persons, and there is also otherness between God and creatures, who are by nature different” (#14). Fr. Keating says in a YouTube video that “there is no other,” and that people advanced in the spiritual life come to see this supposed reality. “The seeking of God through prayer has to be preceded and accompanied by an ascetical struggle and a purification from one’s own sins and errors, since Jesus has said that only ‘the pure of heart shall see God’ (Mt 5:8)” (#18). Fr. Keating and C.O. reduce this ascetical struggle–which is the letting go of everything outside of God’s will–to the letting go of one’s thoughts and feelings during prayer. Very little is ever said by Fr. Keating about struggling against sin and temptation, or growth in virtue. Where it is said, it is only done in passing. All the emphasis is on the technique.

      I could go on, but this is only a comment, not a blog post. I hope to write a complete post on this in the future, quoting directly from C.O. and Fr. Keating to show how they most certainly do teach and practice what the CDF was criticizing.

      If you desire union with God, Teresa, which I hope you do, meditate on Sacred Scripture daily and practice obedience to God in even the smallest things. Then let Him take the initiative and lead you onward, rather than trying to grasp contemplation through a change in your level of consciousness. That is the way the saints taught and lived. Methods or techniques of prayer cannot make one a contemplative. Only God can.

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