Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Centering Prayer Apology | another responsitory piece

This week in my youth group, we are practicing some ancient forms of prayer such as the Jesus Prayer, the Centering Prayer and other Bodily Prayers such as raising hands, kneeling and signing the cross. I posted a reminder on our facebook group and I had a mom of one of my regular attending students get a hold of me with this article by Matt Slick and asked my thoughts on his article. So I thought that this would be good blog fodder. Enjoy!

So, in opening, I just want to say that what Matt Slick says here (http://carm.org/centering-prayer) about the centering prayer is definitely a semi-informed opinion of how Christians should respond to the more mystical practices such as the Centering Prayer. I feel that I can say this with confidence, because from what I have studied on the subject, it is not something that can remotely be said to be outside of the greater Christian Tradition (that is, the tradition that includes Christianity’s entire existence all over the world; I will refer to this as “the greater Christian Tradition” with a big T as opposed to more local traditions with little t’s).


First, I want to talk a little bit about the history that is behind the centering prayer. This prayer pattern grew out of the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. One such monastic was John Cassian (c.360-c.430) who spent 20 years in the desert before being appointed a deacon in Constantinople and by 415 had established two monasteries (one for men, one for women) in France. Cassian was deeply influenced by his time in the desert and left us his book The Conferences about his conversations with other Desert Fathers in order to acquaint Western Christians with their teachings.

Long story short, Cassian’s approach to contemplative prayer was the main monastic practice for 10 centuries in the West influencing St. Benedict, among others. Unfortunately, during the Scholastic period (12th-15th centuries), theologians like Thomas Aquinas brought the West out of the Dark Ages by recovering the ancient works of thinkers like Aristotle and others. After this, intellectual theology became the “Queen of the Sciences,” and spirituality was demoted to a relic of the superstitious past.  

There was, however, a 14th century English mystic who remained anonymous by choice who wrote a book that would become the first spiritual classic in the English language called The Cloud of Unknowing. In this book, the author urges people to return to “prayer of the heart”. The author draws a metaphor of clouds where all creatures and all thoughts dwell in the “cloud of forgetting” and God dwells in the higher “cloud of unknowing”. The goal, then, for the author is to bring the contemplative person into the “mystical silence” which is the space between the two clouds by moving beyond simply thinking into a place of utter stillness with the Lord. Here is an excerpt:

“Here is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.”

I think this is beautiful. I mean this is really what we want, isn’t it: Communion with God, at least to some degree? With all the noise in the world, I think that it makes perfect sense that this communion would be easier if we turn down the noise on the rest of the world. I’d also like to point out here that this description says things like “keeping your thoughts…” and “center all your attention…” This is not, as Slick says “non-thinking” or “emptying of the mind”, but it is simply being intentional with one’s thoughts. In fact, the method reveals this truth since the practitioner is to hold a monosyllabic word like “love” or “God” in mind and use it to bring the mind back into focus when it becomes distracted (which, we all know, inevitably happens in quiet moments). This is true mental quiet (not emptiness), dwelling with God who came to Elijah in the “sheer silence” in 1 Kings 19:12 (NRSV). While The Cloud was well loved and read by English speakers in its time, the intellectual emphasis of Scholasticism eventually trumped the influence of the book.

 In more recent years, however, Christians have searched for sources of contemplation, meditation and mysticism (none of which are anti-Christian in themselves). As the world has “grown smaller”, Eastern traditions flood the west; in the 1960’s and 70’s, Yoga (a Hindu practice), Zen Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation and other forms of Eastern meditation influenced thousands of Americans. In response, some Trappist (Benedictine) monks have looked to John Cassian and The Cloud as well as St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for direction in how to provide this mode of worship for contemporary Christians who long to live a more contemplative worship life. These monks distilled the teachings of the Christian forerunners into a Christian method of contemplative prayer that has become known as Centering Prayer.

Now that the history lesson is over, I’d like to shell out some theology; after all, this is the real reason anyone would have a problem with the Centering prayer, right?


I’ve already mentioned the theological and spiritual influences of John Cassian in the areas of Christian contemplative life, so I’ll expand a little. Cassian opposed the radical grace of Augustine, the main theologian of his (or any) time. While Augustine held that humans are totally dependent on God’s grace for salvation, Cassian held that humans must take the initial step toward God; thus, choosing him and then His grace kicks in.  This concept is known as Semipelagianism and is seen in Cassian’s practice of prayer: the believer first has to achieve a state of silence and contemplation and then God works in the believer’s heart. While Cassian’s theology wouldn’t be considered unorthodox today, it wasn’t politically wise to oppose Augustine, so Cassian’s writings were originally only influential in France. This is where Slick differs strongly as he is a self-proclaimed five point Calvinist (http://carm.org/what-i-believe-matt-slick) and, as such, believes that man has nothing to do with who accepts Christ.

Another theological charge that has been put against the Centering Prayer is “Quietism”. In the 17th century, some people in France took some of the writings of St. Theresa of Avila, who advocated a “prayer of quiet,” to outrageous extremes. Quietists taught the prayer to become utterly passive all the way to the point of annihilating the will. Any thoughts, even of Christ or the cross or salvation or anything good was rejected. The logical end to this train of thought, however, is moral laxity since outward behaviors then would have no influence on the inner quiet of the pray-er. For good reason, Quietism was condemned by the church in 1687 and died out shortly thereafter. This seems to me more of the practice that Slick is speaking out against and to that end, he’s spot on.

Centering prayer, however, isn’t quietistic at all. As opposed to annihilating the will and fully emptying the mind, the pray-er moves into God’s presence and finds rest there. The idea is to first acknowledge the love that God has for his creation and then quiet the mind to rest in, center on and contemplate that love. In fact, the author of The Cloud spends a lot of time emphasizing the Christ-centeredness of the prayer. For several chapters he reflects on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel (10:38-42) in which Mary represents the contemplative life and Martha represents the active life. In this story, Jesus calls what Mary has found (joy in the presence of Christ) the better thing. The anonymous author imagines that what Mary is reflecting on isn’t Jesus’ body, voice or odor, but has moved beyond the sensory data into centering on Jesus, the Christ, her Christ. She’s simply basking in his love for her. This is drastically different from other meditations such as the Ignatian meditation where the prayer places themselves in the biblical narrative and imagines the sights, sounds and smells in that scene. M. Basil Pennington was one of the Trappist monks who helped develop the modern version of the Centering Prayer and he writes in 1980:

 “Centering Prayer is an opening, a response, a putting aside of all the debris that stands in the way of our being totally present to the present Lord, so that he can be present to us. It is a laying aside of thoughts, so that the heart can attend immediately to him.”

What’s awesome about this is that it doesn’t replace or encompass other prayer styles but instead it supports them. Prayers of petition, thanksgiving and the like are all influenced and pushed to a higher degree because the pray-er has spent a lot of time basking in God’s love.


That’s more or less all I have on the matter. When you look at the history of the centering prayer and the theological concepts behind it, I think it’s safe to say that it is very much a part of the Christian Tradition (big T) and thus completely safe to practice. Now with regard to Slick’s concerns about being open to demonic invasion, I would like to say the following:

Yes, if one were to empty their will and try and annihilate themselves in search of a spiritual high, I think that they might be making themselves vulnerable to spiritual attack; however, this is simply not what the centering prayer is all about. Now one might argue “yes, but meditation itself might open you to spiritual attack.” And to this, I would answer that, if you are a Christian and the Spirit of Christ lives in you, then there is no need to worry about demonic attack. Paul writes that we are delivered from evil in Ephesians 2:2 and Colossians 1:13&14 so, for a Christian demonic temptation and attack is expected (1 Corinthians 10:13) but with the understanding that God will always show you a way out. Also, 1 John 4:4 states that the one who lives in us (the Holy Spirit) is greater than the one who “lives in the world” (the devil) and because the Holy Spirit and a demonic spirit cannot co-exist in the same person (2 Corinthians 6:15), possession isn’t a concern.

All this to say that what I teach to students and friends is the centering prayer of the Christian Tradition that is all about turning down the noise of the world and the noise of our own minds in order to engage and rest in the love of Christ. We need this in our loud world. I think that Slick’s final comment about avoiding the centering prayer and whatever church promotes it is, in a way, him saying to avoid a large part of the Christian heritage in the Desert Fathers and Mothers and thus is kind of a silly thing to say. I do, however, understand him saying it based on his previous occult experiences, I would just say that his conclusion is under-informed and bias.

The Dread