Centering Prayer, Quietism, and Mortification

Garrigou Lagrange

Lately I’ve been studying two books, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer by Fr. Thomas Keating, and The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.  Fr. Keating’s book spends much time talking about the heresy of Jansenism, proposing Centering Prayer as an antidote. In this post, I’d like to look at how Centering Prayer, rather than solving the Jansenist problem, falls into the opposite error of quietism. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (hereafter, G-L) provides most of the foundational material below.

In his chapter “Mortification According to the Gospel,” G-L names practical naturalism and Jansenism as the two opposing errors on mortification. One branch of practical naturalism is quietism, a seventeenth century heresy promulgated by Miguel de Molinos.


“Molinos held that ‘to wish to act offends God, who wishes to be the only one to act in us.’ By no longer acting, he said, the soul annihilates itself and returns to its principle; there God alone lives and reigns in it…

“Molinos deduced from his principle that the soul should no longer produce acts of knowledge or of love of God, nor should it think any more of heaven or hell, nor any longer reflect on its acts or defects…

“He recommended that in prayer one should remain in obscure faith, in a repose in which one forgets every distinct thought relating to the humanity of Christ, or even to the divine perfections or to the Blessed Trinity, and that one should remain in this repose without producing any act.”

Compare that with the teaching of Fr. Thomas Keating on Centering Prayer:

“The only initiative we take during the period of centering prayer is to maintain our intention of consenting to the presence and action of God within.”

“The spiritual journey does not require going anywhere because God is already present within us. It is a question of allowing our ordinary thoughts to recede into the background… A thought in the context of this method is any perception that appears on the inner screen of consciousness. This could be a concept, a reflection, body sensation, emotion, image, memory, plan, noise from outside, a feeling of peace, or even a spiritual communication. In other words, anything whatsoever that registers in the inner screen of consciousness is a ‘thought’ in the context of centering prayer. The method consists of letting go of every kind of thought during the time of prayer, even the most devout thoughts.”

“If you wait, God will manifest Himself.”

“Our basic core of goodness is dynamic and tends to grow of itself.”

(Open Mind, Open Heart, 7, 20-21, 24, 160)

Acquired contemplation or just a nap?

Molinos thought that he was teaching people “acquired contemplation.” This is a term never used by the Church Fathers or Doctors of the Church. It can be misleading. For the Carmelite saints, particularly Teresa of Avila, the stage just before infused recollection was (acquired) recollection. It is not contemplation properly speaking, but actually a very simplified meditation.

G-L says of Molinos’ version of prayer:

In reality the contemplation thus acquired by the cessation of every act was only a pious somnolence, far more somnolent than pious.”

Fr. Keating actually compares Centering Prayer to sleep (Open Mind, Open Heart 23). He also says:

“Some people in the [Cistercian] community, as well as visitors coming to the guest house, complained that it was spooky seeing people walking around the guesthouse like ‘zombies.'”

“The experience of deep rest, cumulative now since we are talking about a year or two of practice, automatically causes the body to rest, and indeed to rest in a greater degree than in sleep.”

(Intimacy with God, xviii, 43).

Authentic Christian prayer does not produce a zombie-like state. Although sometimes one may fall asleep during prayer, such sleep is not so much a function of prayer as a result of one’s lifestyle or health. Lots goes on in Christian prayer, whether primarily active or infused by God.

Similarities to Buddhism

G-L says of practitioners of Molinos’ quietism:

“Their state reminds one more of the nirvana of the Buddhists than of the transforming and radiant union of the saints.”

Fr. Thomas Keating asks:

“Why were the disciples of Eastern gurus, Zen roshis, and teachers of TM… experiencing significant spiritual experiences without having gone through the penitential exercises that the Trappist order required?”

“In Zen there is a particular practice that is quite close to Centering Prayer in that one just sits in the prescribed posture, paying no attention to thoughts.”

(Intimacy with God, xiii-xiv, 34)

The need for mortification

Speaking of the necessity of mortification in Chapter XX, G-L identifies four reasons for it:

  • the consequences of Original Sin
  • the results of personal sins
  • “the infinite elevation of our supernatural end”
  • imitation of the crucified Christ

This list is enlightening when one applies it to Centering Prayer. Fr. Keating downplays the role of mortification in the Christian life, linking it with the heresy of Jansenism. He presents Centering Prayer as an option for people at any stage of the spiritual life, even absolute beginners. He became frustrated with Trappist spirituality after years of practicing traditional prayer and mortification without reaching the state of infused contemplation. He proposed Centering Prayer as a way to hasten the process, introducing beginners to a “contemplative” life.

  • Fr. Keating reduces Original Sin to a “lack of awareness” of God’s presence.
  • Instead of speaking much about overcoming personal sin, he focuses on getting rid of the “emotional programs” of the “false self.”
  • In place of the supernatural end of the spiritual life, Keating sees contemplation as a natural process, linking it to evolution. He avoids speaking of redemption, sanctification, or transformation in Christ, except in terms of a change of awareness.
  • Christ plays a surprisingly small role in his teaching, and Christ’s Passion is seldom mentioned.

Here is an excerpt of one of his rare passages on the Passion:

“Christ’s passion as I understand it, is our own human misery. He has taken upon himself all the consequences of the human condition, the chief of which is the feeling of alienation from God… his cry on the cross is our cry of a desperate alienation from God, taken up into his, and transformed into resurrection…

“The cross that God asks us to accept is primarily our own pain that we bring from early childhood.”

(Intimacy with God,  177, 178)

So for Fr. Keating, Jesus’ death and resurrection is primarily identification with us, rather than a sacrifice for sin.  And our “cross” is not mortification out of love for Christ, but the emotional pain that Centering Prayer brings to the surface of one’s consciousness.

Since Fr. Keating downplays the four things that make mortification necessary, according to G-L, it is no wonder that he downplays mortification itself. Fr. Keating seeks to help everyone jump to the end of the Purgative Way without years of mortification, turning away from sin, and living virtuously. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, on the other hand, seeks to lead beginners through the Purgative Way by just such means, encouraging them to persevere through difficulties, because the goal is so far beyond our dreams.

As we enter the Sacred Triduum, may God give us the grace to persevere, to hope against hope, that He will be faithful to His promise. “He who has begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it” (Phil. 1:6). The only way to Easter is through Good Friday.






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