Centering Prayer and the CDF, Part 3

Virtue and Nobility Putting Ignorance to Flight by Tiepolo (Wikimedia Commons).

We continue going through the document Orationis formas (On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation), comparing its cautions with the teaching of Fr. Thomas Keating, Contemplative Outreach, and other leaders of the Centering Prayer movement.

Let’s return to pseudognosticism, which we began discussing in Part 2. As in this whole series, quotes from Church documents and saints and Fathers are in purple. Quotes from Centering Prayer practitioners are in green.

Footnote no. 8 of Orationis formas explains:

“Pseudognosticism considered matter as something impure and degraded which enveloped the soul in an ignorance from which prayer had to free it, thereby raising it to true superior knowledge and so to a pure state…”

How do Centering Prayer advocates view matter?

Matter and spirit

Fr. Keating writes in The Mystery of Christ:

“By becoming a human being Christ annihilated the dichotomy between matter and spirit.  In the Person of the Divine-Human Being, a continuum between the divine and the human has been established.  Thus, God’s plan is not only to spiritualize the material universe, but to make matter itself divine.  This he has already done in the glorified humanity of his Son.  The grace bestowed on us by the Ascension of Jesus is the divinization of our humanity.  Our individuality is permeated by the Spirit of God through the grace of the Ascension and more specifically through the grace of Pentecost.  Thus we, in Christ, are also annihilating the dichotomy between matter and spirit.  Our life is a mysterious interpenetration of material experience, spiritual reality and the divine Presence.”

Typically, Fr. Keating’s words tangle truth and error.  Jesus united God and man in one Person. He united Spirit with flesh, Creator with creature. Through His Passion we are able to attain union with God as well. We will (and already do to some extent) “partake in the divine nature” (see 2 Pet 1:4).

But is it correct to say that “Christ annihilated the dichotomy between matter and spirit?” Fr. Keating, as we saw in an earlier post, believes that “contemplation resolves all dichotomies.” This is non-dualism. Non-dualism is not a Christian concept. Christianity believes in opposites: evil truly is the rejection of good, not just a word we use for things that make us uncomfortable. Jesus does not blend matter and spirit. He does not erase the difference between them. He was and is fully God and fully man, not a hybrid.

The idea that Jesus’ divinity and humanity were somehow blended together is actually an ancient heresy. As the Second Council of Constantinople decreed:

“We think that God the Word was united to the flesh, each of the two natures remaining what it is. This is why Christ is one, God and man; the same, consubstantial (homoousios) with the father as to the divinity and consubstantial with us as to the humanity.”

Neither the flesh nor the spirit is annihilated. Nor are they mixed. There is not, nor could there ever be, “a continuum between the divine and the human.” (More on that in a future post.)

The Catechism enumerates the early heresies concerning Christ’s two natures:

“The first heresies denied not so much Christ’s divinity as his true humanity (Gnostic Docetism)…

“The Monophysites affirmed that the human nature had ceased to exist as such in Christ when the divine person of God’s Son assumed it…” (nos. 464 and 467)

And then the Catechism clinches it, bringing us back to Fr. Keating’s assertions and their opposition to the teaching of Orationis formas:

“Because ‘human nature was assumed, not absorbed’, in the mysterious union of the Incarnation, the Church was led over the course of centuries to confess the full reality of Christ’s human soul, with its operations of intellect and will, and of his human body. In parallel fashion, she had to recall on each occasion that Christ’s human nature belongs, as his own, to the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it. Everything that Christ is and does in this nature derives from ‘one of the Trinity’. The Son of God therefore communicates to his humanity his own personal mode of existence in the Trinity. In his soul as in his body, Christ thus expresses humanly the divine ways of the Trinity:

“‘The Son of God. . . worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.'” (CCC no. 470, quoting Gaudium et Spes)

The Incarnation does not “annihilate the dichotomy between matter and spirit.” Instead, it unites matter and spirit. It allows us to be united with God in our intellect, our will, and even our body. We are not fully human without our bodies–thus, the Resurrection of the Dead. We will not be ghosts in Heaven. Nor will we be angels.

Christ sanctified matter. He did not “set us free” from it. He freed us from sin’s hold over matter. Now we can think, love, eat, and drink in union with God and for His glory.

Pseudognostic knowledge

Does Centering Prayer teach that the human soul is “in an ignorance from which prayer had to free it, thereby raising it to true superior knowledge and so to a pure state?” Yes!

Reporting on an interfaith dialog the Trappist monks conducted with other Christians, Native Americans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others, Fr. Keating listed eight points of agreement among participants. Here is one of them:

“As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance and illusion, weakness and suffering.”

In other words, for Fr. Keating separation from God is an illusion born of ignorance. If only we would recognize our oneness with God, suffering would cease!

But this is not the Christian view. Although man could not even exist without God holding him in existence, God calls us to a much deeper union with Himself that sin prevents. Weakness and suffering are clues to reality. They teach us that something is terribly wrong. We suffer because man as a species rejected the true path to union with God, desiring to be “like God” while living in disobedience to Him. In this sense, separation from God is a reality. Recognizing this reality is fundamental to redemption. Christ came to solve this problem. It is no illusion!

Perhaps the most basic idea underlying Centering Prayer is that we need to have a new awakening, a new consciousness. In his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Keating defines transformation as:

“a restructuring of consciousness in which the divine reality is perceived to be present in oneself and in all that is.”

Of course, there is a sense in which God is present in oneself and all creation. But ignorance is not our most basic problem. Sin is. When we make overcoming ignorance the central problem of the spiritual life, we inhibit true transformation, in which God changes our actions and desires, in which He makes us holy.

Let me sum up what I’ve been saying by returning to Orationis formas, as it speaks of the the resurgence of pseudognosticism and another early heresy on prayer:

“Both of these forms of error continue to be a temptation for man the sinner. They incite him to try and overcome the distance separating creature from Creator, as though there ought not to be such a distance; to consider the way of Christ on earth, by which he wishes to lead us to the Father, as something now surpassed; to bring down to the level of natural psychology what has been regarded as pure grace, considering it instead as ‘superior knowledge’ or as ‘experience.’

“Such erroneous forms, having reappeared in history from time to time on the fringes of the Church’s prayer, seem once more to impress many Christians, appealing to them as a kind of remedy, be it psychological or spiritual, or as a quick way of finding God.” (OF, no. 10)

Can anyone still maintain that Orationis formas was not directed towards practices like Centering Prayer?

We will continue next time by examining more fully the purpose of Christian prayer as explained in this document.

Read Part 1 of this series here.
Read Part 2 of this series here.





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