Quick Questions


Find quick answers to the most common questions about Centering Prayer.

What is Centering Prayer?
Who created Centering Prayer?
Did Centering Prayer come from eastern religions?
Does Centering Prayer involve making the mind blank?
Does Centering Prayer use a mantra?
Is Centering Prayer the same as acquired recollection?
What is an altered state of consciousness?
Didn’t the Desert Fathers teach Centering Prayer?
Doesn’t The Cloud of Unknowing teach Centering Prayer?
Didn’t St. Teresa of Avila Teach Centering Prayer?
Didn’t St. John of the Cross teach Centering Prayer?
Didn’t St. Therese of Lisieux practice Centering Prayer?
Did Thomas Merton teach Centering Prayer?
Did Fr. John Main teach Centering Prayer?
Don’t some Carmelite nuns and friars practice Centering Prayer?
Is Centering Prayer like Lectio Divina?
Is the Jesus Prayer a type of Centering Prayer?
Why can’t people pray anyway they want to?
Shouldn’t we cultivate silence in prayer?
What about the verse, “Be still and know that I am God?”
What if my spiritual director suggests I practice Centering Prayer?
Why are you judging Fr. Thomas Keating?
Isn’t Fr. Keating a Catholic priest in good standing?
If Centering Prayer is so bad, why hasn’t the Church condemned it?
Is Centering Prayer demonic?
What is panentheism?
What is nondualism?
Does Fr. Thomas Keating teach nondualism?
Are Fr. Basil Pennington’s writings problematic?
Are Fr. William Menninger’s teachings problematic?
Why do so many Centering Prayer practitioners seem to practice Yoga or Zen too?
What if my doctor suggests I try Centering Prayer?
What is Contemplative Outreach?
What if my parish is promoting Centering Prayer?
What if my child’s school is teaching the kids Centering Prayer?
Why are you advertising your book so prominently? Aren’t you just trying to make money off the Gospel?
Is this some kind of crusade against Centering Prayer?


What is Centering Prayer?

In practicing Centering Prayer, one begins with the intent of entering God’s presence. Then one sits quietly, trying to ignore all thoughts, feelings, and impressions for the length of the prayer time. When thoughts or feelings take hold, one gently repeats a “sacred word,” chosen ahead of time. This word signifies one’s intent to be open to God’s action. The period ends with a few minutes of reorienting oneself to daily life, returning from a deeper state of consciousness. Centering Prayer is supposed to give modern Catholics a taste of being receptive to God.
Top

Who created Centering Prayer?

Centering Prayer was created by Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Basil Pennington, and Fr. William Menninger. In the 1970s they were all monks at the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. After inviting Zen Buddhists and Transcendental Meditation masters to dialog and lead retreats, they looked for a way to bridge the gap between Christianity and eastern religious practice. Then Fr. Menninger read The Cloud of Unknowing. Looking at it through the influence of eastern meditation techniques, he misunderstood it, thinking the author was advocating a similar practice. He began to teach a new form of prayer, which he called the Prayer of the Cloud. Fr. Keating later applied the term Centering Prayer, coined by Thomas Merton, to this new prayer form.
Top


Did Centering Prayer come from eastern religions?

The monks who created Centering Prayer had participated in retreats with Buddhists and Transcendental Meditation masters. Still, it is overstating the case to say Centering Prayer came from eastern religions, as though only the name was changed. More accurately, it was highly influenced by eastern religions and remains so to this day.
Top


Does Centering Prayer involve making the mind blank?

Centering Prayer practitioners insist it’s not about “making the mind blank,” but this seems to be mere word play. Fr. Thomas Keating writes, “The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 21). How is letting go of all thoughts (including feelings, desires, images, etc.), practically speaking, different from making the mind blank?
Top


Does Centering Prayer use a mantra?

According to The Chopra Center, a mantra “is an instrument of the mind—a powerful sound or vibration that you can use to enter a deep state of meditation.” In this sense, Centering Prayer definitely uses a mantra, which practitioners call a sacred word. But most westerners use the word mantra in a more qualified sense, as “a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation,” as Google puts it. The sacred word is not repeated continually as the mantra in Transcendental Meditation or the Christian Meditation taught by Fr. John Main and his followers. It is used as seldom as possible. Centering Prayer practitioners insist it is not a mantra. Still, the sacred word is used as a tool to reach a deeper level of consciousness. Authentic Christian prayer never uses words this way. Christian prayer uses words to speak to God and express our love for Him.
Top


Is Centering Prayer the same as acquired recollection?

Centering Prayer advocates sometimes equate the two, but they are not the same. Acquired recollection comes when you have been practicing meditating on the Scriptures for some time–usually for years. Over time, this meditation becomes simpler, with less intellectual pondering and more heartfelt conversation with Christ. Eventually, you spend more time sitting in quiet love of God. But the person who has reached this stage does not purposely try to set aside all thoughts and feelings. Instead, he does a brief meditation, through which he is moved to sit silently. This silence is usually brief as well. Then he returns to meditation. He does not seek an altered state of consciousness. He lets the Holy Spirit guide him through prayer. The third part of this post explains the difference more fully.
Top


What is an altered state of consciousness?

An altered state of consciousness refers to a condition of being awake, yet having a different level of brain wave activity than in one’s normal wake state. Besides meditation techniques such as Zen, TM, or Centering Prayer, an altered state of consciousness can arise from hypnosis, drug use, psychosis, sleep deprivation, fasting, or various illnesses or accidents. Buddhists use altered states of consciousness to achieve enlightenment and peace. Hindus use altered states of consciousness to realize their non-dual union with the Ultimate Reality. Occultists believe that in altered states one can tap into special psychic powers that are not evident during one’s normal waking state.

In an altered state, a person is less aware of sensory perception and his own body. One’s past hurts and emotional wounds come to the fore. Centering Prayer practitioners interpret these effects as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in the soul, but they are purely natural phenomena that non-Christians also experience. Fr. Thomas Keating equates altered states of consciousness with “advanced stages of faith, hope, and charity.”
Top


Didn’t the Desert Fathers teach Centering Prayer?

No. They did talk about simplified forms of mental prayer, such as acquired recollection. They also talked about infused contemplation. Centering Prayer advocates sometimes misinterpret these writings and claim that Centering Prayer is an ancient Christian practice. The Trappist monks who created Centering Prayer did not start with studying the Desert Fathers, but with inviting Buddhists and Transcendental Meditation masters to give lectures and retreats at their monastery.
Top


Doesn’t The Cloud of Unknowing teach Centering Prayer?

No. The Cloud of Unknowing was written for people who were practiced in prayer and growing in intimacy with Christ. The author instructs people who are moving into the stage called acquired recollection how to act. He specifically says that his instructions are not suitable for everyone. He certainly was not teaching people to begin a habit of prayer by sitting and trying not to think or feel anything. This is a gross mischaracterization of the book.
Top


Didn’t St. Teresa of Avila Teach Centering Prayer?

No. St. Teresa did not recommend one particular method of prayer. Rather, she taught about the stages of prayer growth, especially infused contemplation. This post discusses the question in detail. For even more information on how her teaching differs from Fr. Thomas Keating’s, read my book Is Centering Prayer Catholic?
Top


Didn’t St. John of the Cross teach Centering Prayer?

No. St. John of the Cross taught in complete accord with St. Teresa of Avila, although they focused on different aspects of the life of prayer. St. John talks a lot about detachment and infused contemplation. Centering Prayer advocates misinterpret his teaching.
Top


Didn’t St. Therese of Lisieux practice Centering Prayer?

No. Contemplative Outreach cites St. Therese as someone who practiced Centering Prayer. This is actually an astonishing claim. St. Therese said, “With me prayer is an uplifting of the heart; a glance towards heaven; a cry of gratitude and love, uttered equally in sorrow and in joy.” In Centering Prayer, you are told to turn aside from all feelings and affections. Therese’s prayer used feelings and affections to connect with God. Her prayer was nearly the opposite of Centering Prayer.
Top


Did Thomas Merton teach Centering Prayer?

Thomas Merton passed away before the Centering Prayer method was created. However, the term Centering Prayer is taken from his teaching that contemplative prayer is prayer “centered entirely on the presence of God.” Many of his writings on contemplative prayer contradict the teaching of Fr. Thomas Keating and Contemplative Outreach. Like the monks who created Centering Prayer, Merton was a Trappist whose spirituality in later life came under the influence of Buddhism. Due to this influence, which is sometimes subtle in his writings, it is best for most people to avoid reading his works and turn instead to the saints of the Church.
Top


Did Fr. John Main teach Centering Prayer?

Fr. John Main taught a technique he called Christian meditation. He basically took the Hindu meditation technique he had learned from a swami and used a Christian term (usually maranatha) as a mantra. Fr. Laurence Freeman continues Fr. Main’s work today. Their “Christian meditation” has similar problems to Centering Prayer, but the techniques are not identical.
Top


Don’t some Carmelite nuns and friars practice Centering Prayer?

Unfortunately, yes. Many good people have been led astray by this bad teaching. That does not make Centering Prayer authentic Christian prayer.
Top


Is Centering Prayer like Lectio Divina?

Not at all. Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina are nearly opposite. Lectio Divina is a particular method of meditation on Sacred Scripture. Thoughts and feelings are essential to it, and inspirations are received with gratitude and reverence. In contrast, Centering Prayer turns away from all thoughts, feelings, and inspirations. The final step of Lectio Divina is called contemplatio or contemplation. In some places, Fr. Thomas Keating indicates that Centering Prayer practices this step without meditating on Scripture immediately beforehand. However, in other places (such as the FAQs of the Contemplative Outreach website), he says that the two are different.
Top


Is the Jesus Prayer a type of Centering Prayer?

The Jesus Prayer is a type of hesychasm, a prayer originating with the Desert Fathers. focusing on interior silence.  The Jesus Prayer is a completely orthodox prayer form. It does have some surface similarities to Centering Prayer, but also important differences. Centering Prayer is nearly identical in practice with non-Christian forms of meditation. In other words, anyone, even a non-Christian, can “successfully” practice it. In contrast, the Jesus Prayer is thoroughly Christian. You cannot correctly pray the Jesus Prayer unless you are dedicated to a life of virtue and surrender to God. Here is an excellent article that contrasts the Jesus Prayer with New Age prayer forms.
Top


Why can’t people pray anyway they want to?

There is an old Catholic adage that says lex orandi, lex credendi. That means, loosely translated, that the way we pray influences what we believe. That is why following liturgical rules is so important. Prayer goes right to the heart and changes it. Consequently, if we pray like pagans, we begin to think and believe like pagans. Or if we meditate like Buddhists (in this case), we begin to think and believe like Buddhists.

This helps explain why the theology associated with Centering Prayer is so unorthodox. Eastern meditation was created to help people experience their oneness with the universe and to detach themselves from things that cause them to suffer. Unsurprisingly, Fr. Thomas Keating now teaches that we are one with God by nature. He also teaches a non-Christian view of detachment. If we want to become saints, we should pray like the saints, not non-Christians!
Top


Shouldn’t we cultivate silence in prayer?

Silence is an important part of prayer, but not the most important part. We can pray in a noisy, public place when necessary. The essential element of prayer is a conversation with God. There is always an exchange between God and the soul. When we try to set aside all thoughts, feelings, and inspirations, we hinder ourselves from either speaking to God or listening to Him. Fighting against thoughts–however gently–can be fighting against the Holy Spirit. Instead of trying to turn away from every thought, we should try to focus our thoughts on God. Praying with Scripture helps us do so.
Top


What about the verse, “Be still and know that I am God?”

Psalm 46:10 says (in part), “Be still, and know that I am God.” This verse is often quoted as an example of how we should pray. We should silently acknowledge God’s presence, Centering Prayer advocates say. This silence should include our bodies and our minds. That implies stilling all thoughts as best we can. If we read this verse in context, however, we see it is not a directive about prayer at all, let alone an endorsement of a certain method of prayer. Instead, Psalm 46 is about trusting God. It begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” (verses 1-2).

The psalmist is telling us that when we are anxious, whether in the midst of natural or man-made disasters, we can trust fully in God. We do not have to run around looking for help. God is right there beside us. If we just learn to trust in his sovereignty and providence, we can be at peace no matter what our circumstances are.
Top


What if my spiritual director suggests I practice Centering Prayer?

If your spiritual director is that confused, I’d suggest finding a new spiritual director–one who knows enough about the history of Catholic spirituality to clearly discern truth from error. You may also want to send him to this website or give him a copy of my book to help educate him.
Top


Why are you judging Fr. Thomas Keating?

I am not judging Fr. Keating as a person. I assume that he is well-meaning and sincere. I am simply criticizing his teaching, which can lead people away from Christ. I have no personal animus against him. In fact, I pray for him and all Centering Prayer practitioners regularly.
Top


Isn’t Fr. Keating a Catholic priest in good standing?

Yes, but that does not mean that he is not teaching error. It only means that the hierarchy of the Church has not yet reprimanded him for doing so, or criticized his teaching by name. Unfortunately, many “priests in good standing” nonetheless teach error of one kind or another. Ordinary Catholics need to be informed and exercise good judgment before accepting controversial teachings that have not been officially approved by the Church.
Top


If Centering Prayer is so bad, why hasn’t the Church condemned it?

In 2003 the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue wrote Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life, A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.” This document complemented an earlier statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under the direction of the future Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. These documents criticize the underlying teachings of Centering Prayer, calling them New Age.

Centering Prayer advocates claim these documents were not directed at them. They are partially right in that both documents criticized the New Age movement as a whole, rather than specific parts of it. Neither document mentions Centering Prayer by name. They were directed toward a worldwide audience, and Centering Prayer is not an issue in many parts of the world, where other New Age practices reign. Only a very few practices such as Yoga are named at all. But when you compare Centering Prayer’s teaching to these documents it’s clear the Vatican pegs Centering Prayer as New Age. My book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? spends several dozen pages demonstrating this.
Top


Is Centering Prayer demonic?

Some opponents of Centering Prayer say that entering an altered state of consciousness opens oneself up to demonic influences. But if we consider some of the other causes of an altered state of consciousness–such as sleep deprivation or fasting, for example–wouldn’t we hesitate to say that they open us up to demonic influences? Then every mom of a newborn would be in great danger from the Devil! The claim seems a little alarmist to me. That does not mean that practicing Centering Prayer is healthy or even neutral spiritually speaking.
Top


What is panentheism?

Panenthesim refers to the belief that God (or Divinity) is both immanent (in the created world) and transcendent (above the created world). Panentheism has taken many forms over millenia. Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Taosim, Hinduism, Transcendentalism, Hasidic Judaism, Sufi Islam, Process Theology, Native American spirituality, and Eastern Orthodoxy all have panentheistic strains. Thus, when Contemplative Outreach states that Centering Prayer is panentheistic (rather than pantheistic), it does not provide evidence that Centering Prayer is legitimate Christian prayer. We still need to determine what particular type of panentheism Contemplative Outreach promotes. I hope to do so in a future post.


What is nondualism?

Nondualism or nonduality is a concept coming from eastern religions. While there are subtle differences between, for example, Buddhist and Hindu understandings of nondualism, the basic idea is that everything is an expression of one reality. There is no real difference between subject and object, you and me, God and man. All these supposed opposites are seen as different expressions of the one ultimate reality. Nondualism is a common thread in New Age spirituality, but is completely foreign to Christianity.
Top


Does Fr. Thomas Keating teach nondualism?

Yes. Fr. Keating has erroneously said that Christianity teaches nondualism too, but it must just be understood in its “cultural context.” He has also said that there is no “Other” (meaning, no god that is essentially separate from oneself). Both these statements can be found in his online interviews and YouTube videos.
Top


Are Fr. Basil Pennington’s writings problematic?

Fr. Basil Pennington’s writings tend to be more subtle than Fr. Thomas Keating’s. Much of what he wrote is orthodox, but he also taught the errors associated with Centering Prayer.
Top


Are Fr. William Menninger’s teachings problematic?

Yes. Like Fr. Basil Pennington, Fr. Menninger’s words are often more measured than Fr. Keating’s. However, all three priests hold (or held, as Fr. Pennington is deceased and now presumably knows the truth) the same views on the subject.
Top


Why do so many Centering Prayer practitioners seem to practice Yoga or Zen too?

This is a curious paradox. Contemplative Outreach argues that Centering Prayer comes from Christian tradition, not eastern religions. Yet many leaders in the Centering Prayer movement also practice Zen meditation, Yoga as a form of prayer, or give retreats at New Age retreat centers. Many promote the occult Enneagram, feminist theology, and other forms of dissent. There is something wrong with a movement that sees no contradiction here.
Top


What if my doctor suggests I try Centering Prayer?

Sometimes doctors will suggest their patients practice a form of meditation in order to relieve stress. Studies show that traditional Christian prayer has the same effect. So if your doctor has suggested meditation, this is a great opportunity for you to begin dedicating your life to prayer! Spend time meditating on (i.e., pondering) Sacred Scripture and conversing with God about it. This will not only relieve physical and psychological stress, but strengthen your spiritual health as well.
Top


What is Contemplative Outreach?

Contemplative Outreach was created by lay people in conjunction with Fr. Thomas Keating, after Fr. Keating gave a talk on Centering Prayer at the (New Age) Lama Center in San Cristobel, California in 1983. Today, Contemplative Outreach has local branches across the United States and in many other countries. Contemplative Outreach often holds Centering Prayer retreats and advertises in diocesan newspapers. They encourage the formation of Centering Prayer groups in parishes. Contemplative Outreach teaches all the errors found in Fr. Keating’s writings and interviews.
Top


What if my parish is promoting Centering Prayer?

First, assume the people involved are of good will. They may not have ever been presented with the truth. Second, pray for them and your pastor. Then speaks to the leaders of the group privately. You may want to reference this website or give them a copy of my book. If they will not listen, talk to the parish priest. If he does not see a problem with Centering Prayer, speak with someone at the diocesan level. At any point in this process, feel free to email me or have those who are promoting Centering Prayer do so. I would be happy to engage them in conversation if you do not feel up to it yourself. My email is crossini4774 at comcast dot net.
Top


What if my child’s school is teaching the kids Centering Prayer?

Assume goodwill on the part of the teacher(s). Find out why Centering Prayer is being taught. Perhaps the teacher wants to help the students in their spiritual life and is going about it in the wrong way. Perhaps the desire is to calm students down so they are easier to teach. If the teacher is not deeply involved in the Centering Prayer movement, I’d offer suggestions of more orthodox ways she could teach the students to pray. I have many resources at my blog Contemplative Homeschool to help. This post shows how meditating on Scripture can be incorporated into the curriculum. Here is a sample meditation about Mary and Martha, with explanations for the teacher or parent.  Here is the method I teach my sons, beginning at age 12. Sr. John Dominic’s Life of Christ: Lectio Divina Journal is an excellent resource for junior high and up.

If the teacher is heavily involved in Centering Prayer and insists on teaching it to the children, you may have to speak with the principal or your pastor. Please send them to this site to learn more about the dangers of Centering Prayer, given them a copy of my book, or have them contact me personally with any questions they may have.
Top


Why are you advertising your book so prominently? Aren’t you just trying to make money off the Gospel?

By the time this site is done, I expect to have hundreds of pages of information here–offered completely free. I am a homeschooling mom with four young sons. Computers, software, electricity, and blog hosting and email delivery for my main blog all cost money. And every hour I spend writing or answering someone’s questions is one hour less I can spend with my husband and kids or doing household duties. The ebook of Is Centering Prayer Catholic? only costs $2.99. Amazon takes a cut of that. You need not worry I am growing rich off this book (or anything else, as my husband also works for the Church). Besides, I think my book is literally the best resource available today for understanding the problems with Centering Prayer. It will help you in your relationship with God. “The worker is worth his hire” (1 Tim 5:18).
Top


Is this some kind of crusade against Centering Prayer?

In a way, yes. The original Crusades were fought to make the Holy Land safe for Christian pilgrims. In a similar way, I hope to protect Christians from falling into serious error while on their journey towards God.
Top