One Centering Prayer practitioner wrote to me in an online conversation, “In this information age of constant texting and tweets I think Centering Prayer is a very practical way to do ‘be still’ and surrender in God’s presence; it’s helped me to detach from negative thoughts and feelings…”
This is a common assertion, one I’m sympathetic to. We certainly do have too much “noise” in our world–not just beeps and drum beats, but also texts and pop-ups and real-time videos. The over-abundance of sensory stimulation distracts us from focusing on God in prayer. How can we be free of such distracting thoughts?
Fr. Keating’s solution
Fr. Thomas Keating responds to the notion that Centering Prayer seeks to make the mind blank in these words:
“Centering Prayer is not so much the absence of thoughts as detachment from them.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 12)
Later, he says:
“As freedom from the thralldom of habitual thoughts and desires grows, we are able to enter into interior prayer with a quiet mind.” (ibid., 13)
Although this quote makes it sound like a truly quiet mind only belongs to those advanced in prayer, such is not Fr. Keating’s teaching. Throughout his writing is the idea that thoughts are “the enemy” of deep communion with God.
“The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 21)
Now, there is certainly a sense in which one’s thoughts get in the way of intimacy with God. If you are thinking about your latest Facebook post throughout your prayer time, your prayer won’t be very fruitful. Prayer is not about social media. These thoughts are hampering your spiritual growth.
Your thoughts are not the real problem
So, how do you solve this problem of wild thoughts? Centering Prayer tries to solve it by setting aside all thoughts during prayer, both sacred and profane. This is not the traditional Catholic solution. The wayward thoughts are not really the problem; they are only the symptom of the problem. The disorder is not in being attached to one’s thoughts about Facebook, but being attached to Facebook. If Facebook distracts you during prayer, you should spend less time on social media, or take a break from it long before you go to mental prayer, or use it only for the glory of God and not your own pleasure.
God made the human mind. The capacity for thought is a gift. A healthy and fully developed human being thinks. There is nothing disordered, nothing ungodly or unholy, about thinking.
Let’s use an analogy to look at this more deeply. Imagine you are praying and you have serious digestive problems. You find it hard to pray, because you are uncomfortable and in pain. The reason for your indigestion is that you over-indulged in greasy foods. So, how do you keep indigestion from interrupting your prayer time in the future?
Do you throw out digestion, or try to set it aside and become “detached” from it? How can you? Digestion is a healthy process that is involuntary. Your indigestion is not due to a defect in your body so much as a defect in your eating habits. So you give up over-eating greasy foods. You eat foods that agree with you and the indigestion goes away, no longer interfering with your prayer.
When you give up bad eating habits in order to strengthen your prayer time, you practice detachment from food. You use food in a way that serves God’s will instead of battling it. You make a sacrifice out of love for Christ. You grow spiritually, as a result of your (response to) indigestion!
What are you thinking about?
Now, let’s go back to thinking. Unlike digestion, which is always involuntary, thoughts are sometimes voluntary and sometimes involuntary. You may be able to ignore small aches and pains during prayer, but major discomfort is impossible to neglect. You think about it involuntarily.
What about other thoughts? You might start your prayer time with the right intentions and effort, but still you think about Facebook in spite of yourself. These thoughts too are involuntary. They differ from thoughts due to laziness or carelessness, intentionally daydreaming during prayer. As soon as you recognize them, you try to turn your mind back to Christ.
The mind was made to know. When it thinks, it is doing its job. You must make sure that what you put into your mind outside prayer won’t distract you from God during prayer. Just as you put healthy food in your body to keep digestion working smoothly, you put godly thoughts in your mind to keep your involuntary thoughts during prayer profitable.
In other words, during your day, think of God often. Regulate your thoughts outside of prayer. Are you spending a lot of time daydreaming? Are you thinking judgmental, malicious, or lustful thoughts? Break these habits outside of prayer. Follow the teaching of St. Paul:
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)
If your involuntary thoughts during prayer are of lovely and praiseworthy things, you have nothing to be ashamed of.
St. Teresa’s advice
St. Teresa of Avila writes in Interior Castle:
“We should not be distressed by reason of our thoughts, nor allow ourselves to be worried by them: if they come from the devil, he will let us alone if we take no notice of them; and if they are, as often happens, one of the many frailties entailed by Adam’s sin, let us be patient and suffer them for the love of God.” (Fourth Mansions, Chapter 1, 11)
Now when Teresa talks of “taking no notice” of our thoughts, she does not mean we should try to set aside all thoughts. Rather, she means that involuntary thoughts should not worry us, even if they should come form the Devil. She goes on to say that we will not suffer from wayward thoughts in heaven, and adds:
“Even in this life God delivers us from them when we reach the last mansion.” (ibid., 12)
If you are unfamiliar with Interior Castle, the last (or seventh) mansion is the transforming union, the heights of the spiritual life on earth. Even some saints do not attain this state. Teresa did, and she knew others who did as well. She was well-qualified to teach us about it. Only in this highest stage–long after the beginning of the contemplative life–should we expect freedom from our thoughts.
Teresa herself suffered for fourteen years from a wildly distracted mind in prayer. She writes:
“Some find their thoughts wandering so much that they cannot concentrate upon the same thing, but are always restless, to such an extent that, if they try to fix their thoughts upon God, they are attacked by a thousand foolish ideas and scruples and doubts concerning the Faith… There are a great many other people just like this; if they are humble, they will not, I think, be any the worse off in the end, but very much in the same state as those who enjoy numerous consolations.” (The Way of Perfection, Chapter 17)
Teresa is very practical. She does not ever counsel people to try to put aside all thoughts through their own power. She instructs everyone to strive to keep their thoughts focused on God, but she is understanding towards those who find this difficult.
“[I]t is impossible to speak to God and to the world at the same time; yet this is just what we are trying to do when we are saying our prayers and at the same time listening to the conversation of others or letting our thoughts wander on any matter that occurs to us, without making an effort to control them. There are occasions when one cannot help doing this: times of ill-health (especially in persons who suffer from melancholia); or times when our heads are tired, and, however hard we try, we cannot concentrate; or times when, for their own good, God allows His servants for days on end to go through great storms. And, although they are distressed and strive to calm themselves, they are unable to do so and incapable of attending to what they are saying, however hard they try, nor can they fix their understanding on anything: they seem to be in a frenzy, so distraught are they. The very suffering of anyone in this state will show her that she is not to blame, and she must not worry, for that only makes matters worse.” (ibid., Chapter 24)
What is Teresa’s solution? Not trying to avoid thinking any thoughts at all, but being patient and humble and trusting and doing one’s best.
In fact, Teresa gives the exact opposite advice that Fr. Keating and Contemplative Outreach give when it comes to setting aside one’s thoughts. She says:
“Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done; nor should we cease to work with the intellect, because otherwise we would be left like cold simpletons and be doing neither one thing nor the other. When the Lord suspends the intellect and causes it to stop, He Himself gives it that which holds its attention and makes it marvel and without reflection it understands more in the space of a Creed than we can understand with all our earthly diligence in many years. Trying to keep the soul’s faculties busy and thinking you can make them be quiet is foolish.” (Life, Chapter 12)
Detachment is not primarily about thoughts
Detachment from thoughts is not the type of detachment that concerned the saints, because thought in itself, as we have seen, does not keep one from God. Emptying yourself of thoughts does not bring you into closer union with God.
“[T]he emptiness which God requires is that of the renunciation of personal selfishness, not necessarily that of the renunciation of those created things which he has given us and among which he has placed us.” (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, 19)
Instead of trying to ignore all thoughts in prayer, try to live in such a way that your involuntary thoughts glorify God. Avoid thinking about worldly things when you are talking to God. Think instead of godly things. Meditating on Sacred Scripture helps you to fill your mind with thoughts of God so that you can grow in knowledge and love of Him. Follow God’s will in the smallest details of your life outside prayer. Then if you have distracting thoughts in prayer that you can’t control, remain peaceful and entrust them to God. He will free you from them in His own way and time.