Centering Prayer and the CDF, Part 1

Buddha Siakianuni (photo by Boryzo, Wikimedia Commons). Is Centering Prayer inspired by eastern religions?

In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, signed the document. The Latin title is Orationis formas (OF). Its purpose:

“[M]any 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.” (OF no. 1)

It goes on to detail several problems found in modern prayer methods.

Some Aspects of Christian Meditation does not mention any problematic practices by name. Instead, it gives general principles by which the bishops are to help reform prayer movements to bring them into line with the faith.

Contemplative Outreach, the official promoter of Centering Prayer, claims that the document was not addressing Centering Prayer. In this series, which will span several posts, we will examine many points made by the CDF and compare them to statements made by Contemplative Outreach, Fr. Thomas Keating, or other prominent Centering Prayer practitioners. Since these posts will be loaded with quotes, I have decided to color code them to help distinguish which document is being cited. Quotes from the CDF appear below in purple. Quotes from Contemplative Outreach and Fr. Keating, et. al., appear in green.

Non-Christian meditation

Orationis formas begins by addressing the influence of non-Christian religions on new prayer methods:

“The ever more frequent contact with other religions and with their different styles and methods of prayer has, in recent decades, led many of the faithful to ask themselves what value non-Christian forms of meditation might have for Christians… Observing that in recent times many traditional methods of meditation, especially Christian ones, have fallen into disuse, they wonder whether it might not now be possible, by a new training in prayer, to enrich our heritage by incorporating what has until now been foreign to it.” (OF no.2)

Response from the Contemplative Outreach FAQs page:

“Cardinal Ratzinger’s ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation’, written in 1989, was not directed to Centering Prayer, which is the traditional form of Christian prayer, but rather at those forms of meditative practices that actually incorporate the methods of Eastern meditations such as Zen and the use of the Hindu mantras. The letter is chiefly concerned with the integration of such techniques into the Christian faith.” (My emphasis)

Is this characterization correct? Orationis formas never uses the word “mantra.” The first footnote in the document does mention Hinduism and Zen, however, in this way:

“The expression ‘eastern methods’ is used to refer to methods which are inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, such as ‘Zen,’ ‘Transcendental Meditation’ or ‘Yoga.’ Thus it indicates methods of meditation of the non-Christian Far East which today are not infrequently adopted by some Christians also in their meditation.” (My emphasis)

Now, I would say that the phrase “methods inspired by” eastern religions is not as restrictive as “forms of meditative practices that actually incorporate the methods of Eastern meditations…” This interpretation can be refuted, but the footnote goes on to say:

“The orientation of the principles and methods contained in this present document is intended to serve as a reference point not just for this problem, but also, in a more general way, for the different forms of prayer practiced nowadays in ecclesial organizations, particularly in associations, movements and groups.”

In other words, the CDF is concerned with any forms of prayer that exhibit certain problematic elements, even those that may have not been consciously inspired by non-Christian religions.

So, on this point, Centering Prayer is not off the hook. In looking at Orationis formas we need to examine whether the Centering Prayer method contains problematic elements, rather than ask what the origin of those elements is.

Even so, I find this sentence from OF no. 2 interesting, given the many discussions I have had with Centering Prayer practitioners:

“Other Christians, caught up in the movement towards openness and exchanges between various religions and cultures, are of the opinion that their prayer has much to gain from these [eastern] methods.”

Repeatedly, Centering Prayer practitioners refer to the teaching of Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate  that  the “Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [foreign] religions.” They also accuse me and others who reject Centering Prayer of “fearing” the eastern influence found in Centering Prayer. In fact, I hear words similar to these frequently, “Christian prayer has much to gain from eastern religions.”

So here the Contemplative Outreach FAQs contradict the arguments of many Centering Prayer advocates.

Now let us move on to the actual cautions of the CDF document and see how they apply to Centering Prayer.

It’s personal

What is prayer? The CDF states:

“For this reason, [prayer] is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God. It expresses therefore the communion of redeemed creatures with the intimate life of the Persons of the Trinity. This communion, based on Baptism and the Eucharist, source and summit of the life of the Church, implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from ‘self’ to the ‘You’ of God.”(OF no. 3)

Centering Prayer rejects the idea of “a flight from ‘self’ to the ‘You’ of God.” Here are a two examples that demonstrate the error.

Fr. Keating writes:

“God and our true Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 2oth Anniversary edition, p. 158).

In this YouTube video he makes the point even clearer, saying that “You and the Other [meaning God] are one, always have been…”

How can you fly from yourself to God if you are already one with God?

The communion Fr. Keating proposes is not based on Baptism and the Eucharist. If we have always been one with God, what difference do the sacraments make? For Fr. Keating, the significant difference is one of consciousness, for he says that through Baptism:

“our sense of separation from God and from others is destroyed.” (ibid. 159)

Notice, it is not a real separation from God that Baptism overcomes, in Fr. Keating’s view, just “our sense” of it. In other words, our communion with God is not based on Baptism.

What about the Eucharist? Fr. Keating writes:

“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…” (Open Mind, Open Heart, p. 128)

Frankly, I’m not sure what Fr. Keating is talking about here, but we see again the emphasis on a change of consciousness, rather than moral conversion.

Where there are no separate people there can be no dialog. It’s no surprise, therefore, that no communication takes place in Centering Prayer. Without words, concepts, ideas, or images, how does one speak to God? While turning away from inspirations and feelings, and making no use of Sacred Scripture or the truths of the faith, how does one listen to God? No speaking and no listening means no dialog.

Now, it’s true that communication between God and the soul can take place at a level beyond words, concepts, and feelings in infused contemplation. Nevertheless, if there is no exchange on some level, there is no dialog. Awareness is not dialog, especially when that awareness is not about someone who is essentially other than oneself.

Christian prayer involves (at least) two persons. Jesus is a Person, God the Son. Christian prayer goes to God through Him, although it often addresses the First or Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Prayer is addressed from a person to a separate Person (or the other way around; God also communicates with the soul during prayer).

Without a “personal, intimate, and profound dialog,” the CDF says there is no Christian prayer. Therefore, Centering Prayer is not Christian prayer, whatever else it may be.

We will continue next week with Part 2 of this series.


4 thoughts on “Centering Prayer and the CDF, Part 1

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