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.

Passivity

“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.

 

 

 

 

Moving beyond good and evil

Much of the discussion about Centering Prayer appears mundane. What’s the big deal anyway? Why can’t people just pray however they want? Even I sometimes question whether I could spend my time better than in challenging these teachings. Then along comes a statement from a Centering Prayer “guru” that is so outrageous it puts everything into perspective. Such a statement was shared with me today.

Watch this video, which was released last month by the Garrison Institute, for which Fr. Thomas Keating is a spiritual adviser. Pay close attention from about 45 seconds until 1 minute 6 seconds. He’s a bit hard to hear and understand, so turn your volume all the way up.

Now, did you catch that?

Fr. Keating said that contemplation “moves beyond [the] dichotomy” of good and evil, that “all the opposites are resolved” by it.

What is he talking about? Is he right? Is this what Christian contemplation does?

Absolutely not! In fact, this statement alone is so far outside the teaching of the Catholic faith that it should open the eyes of every Christian who has been told that Centering Prayer is in the same category of prayer that the saints practiced.

The Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Culture for Religious Dialogue wrote:

“In New Age there is no distinction between good and evil. Human actions are the fruit of either illumination or ignorance. Hence we cannot condemn anyone, and nobody needs forgiveness. Believing in the existence of evil can create only negativity and fear.” (Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age,’ 2.2.2)

Fr. Keating’s teaching is New Age, not Christian.

Good and evil are real!

The Catechism repeatedly and unabashedly teaches the dichotomy of good and evil. For example:

“Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.” (No. 1749)

And

“There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (No. 1761)

Becoming aware of God’s presence within oneself is a key component of Centering Prayer. Yet here is how the Catechism speaks of God’s presence in the soul:

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (No. 1776)

In other words, the innermost sanctuary of man, his “inner core” where he meets with God is his conscience! He must obey the law of God written in his heart. There can be no communion with the indwelling God without acknowledging the difference between good and evil, rejecting evil, and choosing good.

Centering Prayer suggests that good and evil are not real, but only constructs that a person moves beyond as he grows spiritually. Such a teaching mocks the doctrine of Original Sin. If no choice is good as opposed to evil, no choice has moral value. No choice can separate a person from God.

What about Original Sin?

Unsurprisingly, given this latest statement, Fr. Keating’s view of Original Sin is problematic. In Open Mind, Open Heart, he defines Original Sin as:

“A way of explaining the universal experience of coming to full reflective self-consciousness without the inner conviction or experience of union with God.”(20th Anniversary Edition, p. 189)

Thus his rejection of “the dichotomy of good and evil” makes perfect sense in the context of his theology. For Fr. Keating, good and evil are illusions. Original Sin is an illusion. What man needs, according to Fr. Keating, is a change of consciousness. Redemption is meaningless; what are we to be redeemed from? Who is to redeem us? After all, Fr. Keating has also said that the distinction between God and the soul is an illusion. If our “true self” is God, all we need to do is tap into that true self by ignoring our conscious thoughts and feelings and changing our inner convictions. We do not need to journey towards union with God in this view. We already are in union with God. We just don’t know it!

Only the truth heals

In contrast, the USCCB writes of sin and redemption:

“We cannot speak about life in Christ or the moral life without acknowledging the reality of sin, our own sinfulness, and our need for God’s mercy. When the existence of sin is denied it can result in spiritual and psychological damage because it is ultimately a denial of the truth about ourselves. Admitting the reality of sin helps us to be truthful and opens us to the healing that comes from Christ’s redemptive act.” (Excerpt from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults,  as found on the USCCB website)

Far from healing our wounds, rejection of the reality of sin causes us further damage. This rejection of reality does not destroy a false self–it creates one! If we desire healing, we must bring the wounds of sin to Christ and receive His mercy.

No good and evil, no sin, no redemption, no mercy. Yet the Holy Father Pope Francis has declared this the Year of Mercy.

Practicing Centering Prayer brings a false peace by denying that the conflict within ourselves and in our world has any meaning. We are told to simply “detach” from our thoughts and feelings about it, to move beyond opposites such as good/evil and God/man. We are told to go beyond them, to a deeper level, beyond reason, beyond feeling, beyond imagination.

This latest video demonstrates that doing so means going beyond the boundaries of our faith in Christ. May I also say it is beyond the pale?

Open Mind, Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating: a Review

 

This post originally appeared at DetailThomasKeatingDiscussionWithTheDalaiLamaBoston2012-380x375SpiritualDirection.com with a different title. It has been slightly edited.

Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating is the premier promoter of the practice of Centering Prayer. His book Open Mind, Open Heart, first published in 1986, has sold over half a million copies. Is this book a good resource for growth in prayer? Can I trust Fr. Thomas Keating as a guide to the spiritual life? In this post we’ll take an in-depth look at this book and the theology behind it.

Fr. Keating, like all those who promote and teach Centering Prayer, claims to follow the tradition of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and others. However, in his book he provides no evidence to back up this claim. He quotes none of these saints. In fact, he has very few quotes from any Catholic sources and none that give us their complete context.

In the introduction, Keating describes Centering Prayer as a “specific method of awakening the gift of contemplation” (page ix).* In contrast, the Carmelite saints rarely speak of techniques or methods of prayer. Instead, they urge a life surrendered to Christ. In order to avoid such criticism, Centering Prayer advocates insist they are not teaching a “technique” but a “method.” They seem to think that substituting the synonym “method” for “technique” solves the issue. It does not.

The real problem lies in the idea that we can attain to infused contemplation by following a set of steps in our prayer time, thus making states of consciousness more central than Christ. Such an idea is antithetical to the teaching of the Carmelite saints. Humility, perseverance in prayer and virtue, and faithfulness to God’s grace throughout the day–supported by growing detachment to created things–are what constitute the necessary preparation for contemplative prayer.

Throughout Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Keating over-emphasizes the soul’s role in attaining contemplation. I expected this would be the case from what I already knew about Centering Prayer. What surprised me were the many theological errors I found–some of them egregious. To be fair, a few of Fr. Keating’s descriptions of how the soul should behave during Centering Prayer are very close to orthodox teaching about acquired contemplation–the final stage of prayer in the Purgative Way. But we must remember the adage lex orandi, lex credendi–prayer is the expression of what we believe. Bad prayer methods and bad theology reinforce each other.

I cannot address every error in the book in a blog post, so I will confine myself to those that are most troubling. Let’s look at Keating’s teaching about the nature of God, man, sin, redemption, and the proper focus of our prayer.

1. Who is God?

Perhaps the greatest error, and the one most widely known, is Fr. Keating’s blurring of the distinction between God and man. Accused of pantheism, he and other Centering Prayer advocates respond that they teach panentheism. Panentheism covers many different spiritualities, some more problematic than others. Fr. Keating specifically teaches non-dualism. Non-dualism contradicts true Catholic spirituality. Here is just one quote among many that shows the problem:

“God and our true Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing” (158).*

In orthodox Catholic teaching, even at the highest stages of union with God, the soul always remains a distinct personality.

Another problem centers on our ability to know God. Fr. Keating writes that we don’t know exactly who or what God is (41),* and as we mature in faith, we do not even want to know (66).* This is repudiated by such Scripture passages as this:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

In other words, we do not fully understand God now, but our spiritual transformation entails knowing Him as He is. Our desire to know Him, as well as our understanding itself, move in the opposite direction that Fr. Keating proposes.

2. Who is Man?

Writing about the method of Centering Prayer, which involves letting thoughts slip past your mind without taking notice of them, Fr. Keating says the method prepares one to accept that “when the body slips away from the spirit, no great change is going to take place” (53).* He does not elaborate, but he is obviously speaking of death, the separation of the soul from the body. If death brings “no great change,” why do we need a resurrection? The body is an essential part of the human person. And, we profess the resurrection of the body in the Creed every Sunday at Mass, and every time we pray the Rosary.

3. Sin and Redemption

Fr. Keating writes that the main thing separating us from God “is the thought that we are separated from Him” (33).* This same error shows up in his discussion of Baptism, in which he says “our sense of separation from God and from others is destroyed” (159)* and is in his definition of Original Sin, wherein he repeats the error that separation from God is an illusion. Of course, separation from God due to sin is a reality (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1849-1850), not an illusion that we must be set free from.

How can we grow towards union with God? Fr. Keating says repeatedly that our thoughts and emotions are what primarily keep us away from Him. (See, for example, page 164.)*

4. The Focus of Prayer

Finally, Fr. Keating gets the focus of our prayer time entirely wrong. This may not seem like such a big deal, until one reads exactly what his error is. This is where the bad theology ends in a bad prayer method. The focus is completely off.

Fr. Keating writes, “The method consists of letting go of every kind of thought during the time of prayer, even the most devout thoughts” (21).* He clearly states more than once that this includes every type of communication and inspiration coming from God Himself. He urges his followers to use a “sacred word” during prayer, but not only can that word be something completely secular if one chooses, Keating says that “the less the word means to you, the better” (40).*

Where is Christ in this prayer? He is not at the center of it. Fr. Keating, without any evidence to back up his assertion, states that God’s first language is silence, so that, if we attain silence, God will come and fill it (48).* (Elsewhere, Fr. Keating names St. John of the Cross as the origin of this quote about silence, but I have found no citation telling me where to find it in the saint’s writings and have not been able to locate it myself. If a reader can point me to the quote in St. John’s writings, I’ll amend this post.)  In contrast, we read in Scripture, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the Word was God” (John 1:1). From all eternity, God has been speaking. The Word He speaks is God the Son. Jesus is God’s first and eternal language. If we are truly open to God in prayer, we will seek Him through His Son, not through a forced silence of the mind.

Elsewhere, Fr. Keating mentions Jacob’s dream of a ladder going up to heaven. Fr. Keating says the ladder “represents different levels of consciousness or faith” (90).* But in the Gospel, Jacob’s ladder represents Christ:

“[Jesus] said to [Nathanael] ‘…I say to you, you will see…the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1: 51).

Some Closing Thoughts

In this post, we’ve examined some of the teachings about the nature of God, the nature of man, sin and redemption, and the focus of prayer according to Fr. Thomas Keating. We’ve demonstrated how Fr. Keating’s thought differs from authentic Catholic spirituality, by quoting from just a few of the many examples of error in his book Open Mind, Open Heart and showing how they differ from authentic Catholic spirituality. His text says a lot about how states of consciousness, in Centering Prayer, are more central than Jesus is.

Centering Prayer, as taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, is not traditional Christian prayer. It is based on a theology more influenced by Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation than by the saints whose names Fr. Keating sprinkles throughout his text. It will not help a person prepare for infused contemplation. The evidence speaks for itself. My advice about Fr. Keating is to completely avoid his “theology”.

***

* Quotes from Open Mind, Open Heart are taken from the 20th Anniversary Edition (Bloomsbury: London, 2006).

Art: Detail from Thomas Keating, discussion with the Dalai Lama Boston 2012, “christopher”, 14 October 2012, CCA; L’Extase (The Ecstasy),