Why We Need Centering Prayer
Just two years ago, Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. died at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. Prior to his passing, he had lived at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, CO, where he left a rich legacy of contemplative teaching and interfaith dialogue. Although his death was not widely reported, Fr. Keating’s passing marked the temporal close of a unique monastic ministry, one reflective of both the energy of post-Vatican II Catholicism and the meditative turn which swept through America in late-twentieth century. Once referred to as a “rebel with a cause” Fr. Keating’s life and work will always be associated with his principal (and most controversial) gift to the Church: Centering Prayer.
The history and development of Centering Prayer are well-documented. Frs. Thomas Keating, William Meininger, and Basil Pennington first proposed the practice based on their own deep reading of the 14th century Carthusian text, The Cloud of Unknowing. These faithful Trappists pioneered the teaching of the prayer at retreats given for both clergy and laity. Before long, Centering Prayer emerged as a distinct language and methodology for Christian contemplation. Whereas most other meditative and contemplative traditions offer attention-based or awareness-based practices, Centering Prayer offers a surrender-based practice. The prayer does not begin by asking one to count breaths or to become aware of one’s awareness. It begins by asking one to surrender. This prayerful surrender is total, requiring the release of all thoughts, images, feelings and sensations—anything that captures the mind’s attention—as they enter the stream of consciousness. Yet contrary to popular misconception, Centering Prayer is not aimed at reaching a state of inner peace or making the mind a blank; the heart of the prayer is the act of surrender itself. As we consent to this act over and over again, we are carried into the mystery of Christ’s own surrender to His Father. We experience the possibility of true apophatic openness to God.
Centering Prayer has long faced criticism from those unfamiliar with or distrustful of its methods. As the prayer matured and began to be received positively by both pastoral psychologists and the wider contemplative community, critical analyses shifted away from the method of the prayer and towards the teachings of Fr. Keating himself. To my mind, not all of these criticisms have been just. One of my close friends, Fr. Justin Lanier—who was both a senior student and personal friend of Fr. Thomas Keating—insists that Fr. Keating’s deep Catholic faith was often ignored or overlooked by those eager for a guru or looking to stir up scandal. Having practiced and taught Centering Prayer for well over a decade, I must admit that I share certain hesitations about the theological cultures that have grown up around the movement, but, these hesitations have never given me cause to abandon the prayer. I remain convinced that it is one of the greatest contemplative discoveries and treasures of our time. I remain convinced that the Church needs Centering Prayer.
When I say the Church “needs” Centering Prayer, I am not advocating for radical theological revision or making yet another tired claim concerning what Christianity is really about. The center of the Church was, is and always will be the Gospel—the proclamation of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—and Christ alone is sufficient for every person in every way. But all Christians also agree that Jesus Christ does not leave us as we are. We are called to be sanctified and even deified in Him. This gracious work begins in this life and stretches into the life to come. Thus, for a mature Christian believer, prayer necessarily takes a formative place alongside scripture, sacrament, doctrine and sacred tradition, and of the many forms of prayer available, Centering Prayer stands out for the clarity with which it penetrates and works with our all-too-human processes of spiritual growth and maturation.
There is a revealing passage from the published journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, one of the great Eastern Orthodox liturgists of the 20th century, which illustrates the sort of spiritual dilemma Centering Prayer seeks to untangle and heal. Reflecting on the sad case of a deacon who had become known to him in passing, Fr. Schmemann writes:
Father Tom told me about a certain N., a Protestant who converted to Orthodoxy and was a deacon in T. where I met him two or three years ago. It seems that he left his wife and children and lives in some Synodal skeet and writes little brochures (among other things) about Kallistos Ware, accusing him of not being sufficiently Orthodox. I ask myself, why and how could it happen? Why is it that the closer he came into contact with Orthodoxy, the stronger was his longing for dark, strange fanaticism, for accusations and cursing? If only he was the only one, but it happens with so many converts and also with so many cradle Orthodox people who fall into ‘acute churchliness.’ Is it a reaction against the minimalism of the Church, of parishes? At some point they begin to hate the light and joy of that faith, and it is so frightening. Some priests only accuse, only frighten, only threaten and nothing else. Why?
Here Centering Prayer offers insight that proves to be both helpful and true: our human experience of sin is not limited to our ignorance of God or our willful rebellion against God. Our sin also extends to the ways in which we embrace and embody the reality of God. As another close friend, Fr. Ernest Morrow, has written, “Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, and our relationship with Him must be grounded in His living presence.” Without this direct, living experience of Christ infusing our being, our words and actions will grow dull and fade, or even worse, as Fr. Schmemann discovered, they will grow dark and fanatical.
Centering Prayer illumines this aspect of the human condition. The prayer reminds us that clinging, grasping, defending, and manipulating are instinctive reactions which flow from egoic resistance and self-buttressing, not inner surrender to God. Too often, we assume that our life in Christ is healthy because we have stopped clinging to bad, worldly things, (like drugs, money, and illicit sex) and have started clinging to good, spiritual things (like reading the Bible, receiving communion, and serving in a soup kitchen). This is a natural way to begin the Christian life, but it is only the beginning. If we remain here, we will find ourselves at a loss to understand why people who also claim to cherish all these good, spiritual things prove to be habitually selfish, angry, and bereft of Christ-like love. We will also be at a loss when a neighbor who has been attending church with us for years suddenly loses interest or loses faith, despite having all these good, spiritual things at the supposed center of his or her life.
Centering Prayer insists that these moments of crisis, in which knowing and doing fail us, present a great fork in the road of being. Either we tighten our egoistic grip on the good things and make excuses for the spiritual casualties we see all around us (He must be a hypocrite! She never believed in the first place!), or, we open to the possibility that our deep need to cling and to define ourselves through egoic resistance is part of the sinful human condition Jesus Christ died to redeem, a false mechanism that unwittingly separates us from God and neighbor. Centering Prayer is a fierce reminder that fallen human beings can use anything to avoid the light of Christ shining in and through Creation, even scripture, sacraments, and soup kitchens. Spiritual maturity is not just about what we believe. It is also about the way in which we hold our beliefs.
While this might sound like a New Age dictum, or a concession to contemporary self-help spirituality, in truth this insight stretches back to the very beginnings of Christian mysticism. Perhaps my favorite example comes from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who once wrote of his own spiritual teacher, Hierotheus, that he modeled “not only learning, but also experiencing divine things. For [Hierotheus] had a sympathy with such matters, if I may express it in this way, and he was perfected in a mysterious union with them and in faith in them which was independent of any education.”
For me, this is the great gift of Centering Prayer, a gift for which I will always be grateful. There is a union deeper than both words and actions, and we are called to surrender into that Divine depth. When we learn to yield and to release our grip on the self, we do not fall into oblivion. We discover that we are held. We discover that we have an innate capacity for nonconceptual and nondiscursive encounter with God. This is not an awakening intended for an elite few. This is universal preparation for life and death, our faltering first steps into the Paschal Mystery. Jesus Christ will accept us as we are, but He will not leave us there. We will be changed. We will be converted. There is more to the life of Christ than the thoughts of our minds and the work of our hands. His saving grace reaches all the way into our hearts, into the very depths of who we are created to be. We cannot fake or force this great transformation, nor will we be able to find a shortcut. We can only open ourselves to Him. For Christ’s life must be truly received by us, Christ’s glory must shine through us, and Christ’s surrender must become total in us, if God is to be all in all.
 Divine Names 2.9