A method of a prayer with the curious name “centering prayer” is currently being promoted (has been for decades) in the Catholic Church, especially in the circles close to the contemplative Orders, especially Carmelites. It is routinely taught as a part of workshops or seminars and presented as “an entirely Christian method of prayer” and even as derived from the teaching of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, great Carmelite mystics, saints, and doctors of the Catholic Church. There are some who disagree with the wholesomeness of this practice and with how its proponents present it, for example tracing it roots to “ancient Christian mysticism” (even of the times of St Benedict) but they are in minority. In this paper I will mainly consider the method of “centering prayer” through the lens of the personhood, of the human being and of God. There are a few solid, well-researched works on the real historical origins of centering prayer available online and those who are interested should refer to them; my primary interest is very practical, namely what is this method really, how does it relate to the “method” of St John and St Teresa, and what is really taking place in each case (of St John, of St Teresa and of the practitioners of centering prayer) – if they are different of course.
I became interested in centering prayer as a result of finding myself in the extremely absurd and ironical situation. The situation is worthy of relating to the reader because it is so absurd and yet so common these days but to appreciate its absurdity and gloomy irony the reader should know my take on centering prayer first. Hence I reserve the story for the very end – after all its absurdity became clear to me only after I fully formed my own opinion about this practice so I invite the reader not to skip forwards but to read all.
Here is a description taken from the booklet on the ‘Contemplative Outreach” website, with my underlining of the crucial discussion points.
“Centering Prayer is a receptive method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. [sounds “esoteric” but any prayer, any activity done for God is the relationship and a discipline to foster it]
Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer - verbal, mental or affective prayer - into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.
The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the Indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ.”
Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate the development of Contemplative Prayer by preparing our faculties to receive this gift. It is an attempt to present the teaching of earlier times in an updated form. Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; rather it casts a new light and depth of meaning on them. It is at the same time a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. This method of prayer is a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.
The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to Contemplative Prayer, is the indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. It tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.”
1. The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer to the Holy Spirit. Use a word of one or two syllables, such as: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen.
Other possibilities include: Love, Listen, Peace, Mercy, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust.
3. Instead of a sacred word, a simple inward glance toward the Divine Presence, or noticing one’s breath may be more suitable for some persons. The same guidelines apply to these symbols as to the sacred word.
4. The sacred word is sacred not because of its inherent meaning, but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our intention to consent.
5. Having chosen a sacred word, we do not change it during the prayer period because that would be engaging thoughts.
II. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
1. “Sitting comfortably” means relatively comfortably so as not to encourage sleep during the time of prayer.
2. Whatever sitting position we choose, we keep the back straight.
3. We close our eyes as a symbol of letting go of what is going on around and within us.
4. We introduce the sacred word inwardly as gently as laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton.
5. Should we fall asleep upon awakening we continue the prayer.
III. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
1. “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including body senstations, sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and spiritual experiences.
2. Thoughts are an inevitable, integral and normal part of Centering Prayer.
3. By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word” a minimum of effort is indicated. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.
4. During the course of Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.
IV. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
1. The additional 2 minutes enables us to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.
2. If this prayer is done in a group, the leader may slowly recite a prayer such as the Lord’s
Prayer, while the others listen.
There are many discords here or “problematic sticking points” covered by the appeal to the authority of the names, from the Carmelite saints to the Holy Trinity as a source of the prayer, and palpable esoterism (a prayer which deepens all others). Critics of the centering prayer (further I will also use the abbreviation “CP” when it is convenient) usually refer to St Teresa of Avila who maintained that one should never deliberately “shut up” one’s thoughts and intellect and feelings while praying because 1) it is counterproductive 2) when God feels like it He will suspend our thoughts very effectively, irrespectively the degree of the noise the mind produces. Hence, according to the critics of centering prayer, there is no need to concentrate on the “sacred word” using it as a way of brushing off all natural thoughts and feelings. To that the proponents of the CP say that the medieval mystical tract ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ teaches precisely this, to stick to one word and not pay attention to anything else. To add to the confusion, the proponents of centering prayer do not clearly claim that centering prayer is contemplation – although they do, in a very subtle way (which is then developed elsewhere, how will see later), saying that 1) CP facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer - verbal, mental or affective prayer - into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.
And here I experience an extreme fogginess of mind. What is all this about and why is it so difficult to argue with the text above? The text is full of contradictions but they are subtle; the definitions are blurred and easily interpreted and reinterpreted in various ways, including entirely opposite ones. It is absolutely necessary to have something very concrete to cut through. Very predictably, this “something concrete” is, the claimed object of the adepts of the CP, Jesus Christ with whom, as CP claims, Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.
This is a very important point: now we have a real measure of the effectiveness of CP. It claims to help us to come into mystical union with Christ (movement beyond conversation to communion) and is also “pro-personal”, i.e. it is all about personal relationship with Christ. Here, I repeat, is a very important ground of the personal relationship with God as stated by the CP-proponent. The personal relationship with Christ is something of my personal concern and of all Christian mystics and, as it happens, of CP proponents so we may compare how we all go about it. Furthermore, because any Christian regardless his or her capabilities is called to personal relationship with Christ my discourse (unlike esoterism), if taken in a frame of the “personal”, psychological, human which can be understood by all who want a personal relationship with God and who have ever been in a personal relationship with another human being.
The personhood, of a human being and of God, has been the subject of several previous papers presented on this website so there is no need to repeat them here. However, for the purpose of coherence, it is necessary to say very briefly that the Christian God has always been relating to human beings as the Person, and the “psychological make-up” of this Person or His modes of relating to us can be understood on the basis of our own experience of inter-human relationship. Primitively speaking, God has attempted to explain Himself to us using our own, human modes of relationship (like parenthood or marriage), and not just as metaphor but symbols that covey the reality. In the Person of Jesus Christ this similarity reached its peak. Not only Jesus Christ related to us, in our physical world, as God, He, if it can be said so, related to Himself or within Himself as human and God, His divinity being in perfect harmony with His humanity. Because of this, Jesus Christ in my mind is the fullest confirmation of the fact which God has been trying to impress upon us: God and human have essentially the same mode of personhood, the same way of normal relation to each other. The normal loving relationship between humans does not differ from that between a human and God in its personhood i.e. if it is bad to treat another human as an impersonal object it is equally bad to treat God like this; the more one loves someone, a human or God, the more he wishes to know that another or Another as a person or the Person with all his peculiarities. Jesus Christ made this point very clear (apart from by the very fact of His Incarnation) “who has seen Me (the living human in Judea as well as the living God) has seen the Father”. To “see” in the Scriptures is to “know”. To know means to possess in love, as Abraham knew Sarah. It is impossible to know fully without loving fully; man and woman come together because of their desire and know each other because they willingly give themselves to each other. Such a giving is impossible without love; if it is done without love-surrender then it is fornication i.e. sin. It is right to conclude then that sin, in a biblical sense, is the denial of the personhood in another or in oneself.
This is actually how I understand the original sin: Adam and Eve sinned because they denied God the Person. It is useful to consider the story of the fruit eaten here in the very light of the personhood because it will help us to understand the psychology of various deviations from God, from straightforward occult practices to “ancient Christian methods of prayer”.
As I see it, by believing the devil that the fruit would not kill them but will give them secret knowledge, Adam and Eve implied that God, the very God who created them and gave them everything, is a liar. It is of course not yet the denial of the personhood but the denial of goodness of someone who hasn’t yet done anything bad, based on the words of someone else. The next step, or the lack of such is the denial of personal relationship. Adam and Eve could question God, could argue with Him, could beg Him to explain what is wrong with the fruit and why He is lying to them – but they chose to ignore Him. The further events confirm this very strange line of acting as if God was a total stranger to them, for whom they had zero affection, love, or anything but fear: Adam did not repent when questioned by God but blamed both God and “the woman whom You gave me”, and the woman blamed the snake. Neither attempted to explain themselves or engage with God in a personal way, in the manner a normal child addresses a normal father “you lied!” or “I wanted it” or “I am sorry I did it if you are upset” or “we are afraid, will we die now? – can you save us?” There was absolutely nothing there. What strikes me most is the self-evident zero of love for God.
I cannot conceive that this zero affection for God, zero personal relationship with Him was inherent to Adam and Eve, to human beings. Firstly, because the Scriptures preceding the Fall do not give any indication of such depersonalisation. Second, because attraction to God is something we all have (unless it is killed in the soul). Third, because God created us in His image and likeness; He loves us as Father so, just as we naturally love our parents we must naturally love God, at least potentially. So Adam and Eve must have loved God. The Fall, in my opinion, is the dramatic loss of this ability to love God, this is its essence. This love was killed by treating the object of love as a non-person. This was the birth of gnosis, the endless attempts to obtain the supernatural knowledge disregarding the One who possesses it, “to be like God”.
The story of the Fall is very deep if taken as the story of the corruption of the human psyche. It is obviously the symbol, that is, something that points at the existing metaphysical reality of human misery. I interpret “original sin” as the model of the sin of falling away from God, in which human beings have been engaging ever since. Only the shape and form of falling away from God is new but the essence is always the same: the refusal to see the Other One as a person. This is also the root of all evil in human relationships, beginning with the murder of Abel and finishing with Holocaust or inhumanity of bureaucratic, authoritarian and other kinds of “relationships”.
Using this prism, of seeing the other, God and human, as a person, it will be easier to investigate whether the “ancient Christian” or St John’s or other Christian mystics take on prayer and of the proponents of the centering prayer are the same.
Jesus Christ is the maximal possible revelation of God into our human world. He is God the Person, by the virtue of Incarnation. Jesus insists on our personal relationship with Him: He had such with his disciples and with all who came to Him. In fact, the whole drama of the Gosples is that the majority refuse to see Him as the Person. The Passion and death inflicted upon Him were very human and very impersonal at the same time. Human, because He, the human-divine, in His death became fully human, sharing our lot, that lot which Adam and Eve passed on all via their act of depersonalisation of God – Jesus suffered this depersonalisation to the very end, death. In Jesus Passion and death both human being and God were depersonalized and killed – obviously, God cannot be killed so it is better to say “attempted to be killed”, taken into inferno that is depersonalisation, and there, in the pinnacle of nothingness, the Son of God triumphed over death = depersonalisation. Jesus’s death thus was the logical outcome of the original sin, of the beginning of the denial of personhood to another. By choosing to accept the Person of Christ as personal Saviour, after the Resurrection, a believer makes a wilful renunciation of depersonalisation, by entering into the closest and the dearest relationship possible (or “closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself” as the adepts of the centering prayer say).
The nature of Christian mysticism is very simple and easily understood by anyone who has ever been in love with another person. They met God or they saw a glimpse of God and they fell in love. Naturally, one cannot fall in love with an impersonal God; they fell in love with God the Person, Jesus Christ, the divine-human. As any normal lover all they want is to be with Him. That is all that Christian mysticism is about; its earliest descriptions are readily found in the New Testament, in the apostle John, “the beloved disciple” and the apostle Paul, for whom “all the things are dung apart from Christ”. That is the statement of a lover. Christian mystics and saints went to the extreme of imitating Christ and endured much discomfort, from mild prosecution to death. All of them would write about their love for Christ that all their sufferings are nothing because of their mutual love with Christ, the precious relationship. They also left piles of theological writings on the mystical knowledge of God. An interesting characteristic of this knowledge is that the word “love”, and not just “love” but “love for God the Person” is ever-present. For a true Christian mystic, knowledge is impossible without love, it is obtained through love, very much along with “to know” in the Scripture. It is logical to conclude then that love or affection for Christ is necessary for a close relationship with Him, that is “movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.”
The counter-positioning of “conversation with Christ” to “communion with Him” in the definition of centering prayer brings us to the next step of the argument. When one is in love, doesn’t he wish to talk to the object of his love or express his feelings otherwise? Isn’t a typical mad lover bubbling with affection so much so that others wish him to shut up? Moving further, is it not typical for a normal lover to crave intimacy, to beg for it in fact, with his mind becoming “one desire”? Here I am quoting the medieval book the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ to which the proponents of centering prayer refer very often, speaking about the necessity to use a simple word, a mantra. They do not say though that the author of ‘Cloud’ says “your whole life now must always consist of desire …” [for intimacy with God]. The author goes further: “Lift up your heart towards God with a humble stirring of love; and think of himself, not of any good to be gained from him. See too, that you refuse to think of anything but him, so that nothing acts in your intellect but God himself.” Then the author expands on the necessity to forget about all creatures and think of God only. So, he speaks about focusing all being, all intellect, all feelings on God, not on shutting them up. The author, through the text, speaks about God as “jealous lover”, “your spiritual bridegroom”, “in the everlasting love by which he made and fashioned you when you were nothing, and then redeemed you at the cost of his precious blood when you were lost with Adam”. After discoursing at length, with a language which is the language of the earthly lovers, the author indeed advises to use the word “God” or “Love” and goes on about pushing away the destructive thoughts. It may indeed resemble what the adepts of centering prayer say, with one difference: the author of the ‘Cloud’ is evidently passionate about God the Person, and he speaks about the “stirring of love”, “love for the bridegroom” first, as precondition. It is true that, being taken out of context, his advice about words like “God” or “love” can be used as a backup for centering prayer, but his book considered as a whole makes this impossible because far too often he “contradicts” himself discoursing on love between Mary and Jesus (that Martha was active and Mary contemplative and so on), St Martin with his love for Our Lord and so on. The ‘Cloud’ in its entirely has nothing to do with the dry, non-emotional, non-loving character of the writing on centering prayer. Finally, the ‘Cloud’ is the simplification of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius whose discourse about the divine Eros is rather far from the impersonal take of the propagators of the centering prayer.
But let us return to the longing lover. Imagine that he reached the pinnacle of desire and now all his bubblings are reduced to one word: “Lucy – Lucy – Lucy” (or whatever the name of his lover is, this longing drives those who write the names of their lovers just anywhere because they cannot contain themselves). This is actually that “sacred word”, the mantra of the adepts of centering prayer. With one difference: the lover is using the name which naturally expresses his longing best, the CP adept calmly choses “any sacred word”. The lover is unable to concentrate on anything but the object of his love; the CP adept may use “any word” in an attempt to banish “other thoughts”. The lover says the name of his beloved (which is sacred for him because he loves), the CP adept choses the mantra calling it “the sacred word” while for him it is a mere tool.
It is time now to introduce the fundamental principles of prayer in true Christian mysticism. They are far more easily understood than CP. Just as with human-and-human relationship, a person must hear/ read about Christ first. He gets to know Him via the descriptions in Scriptures and other books (catechism), then he makes a formal commitment to be with Him (baptism), then he begins the life-long process of knowing Him in the biblical sense, in Holy Communion. His prayers begin from plain vocal utterances – a lover is attempting to address his love formally; then, when he has learnt sufficiently and the Scriptures begin stirring his intellect and emotion he develops mental prayer, that is spontaneous “thinking” about Christ in the midst of daily activities; eventually he is so stirred that he begins expressing his affections for the Lord with fewer and fewer words, just like a longing lover. This is the normal, expected development of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. There is nothing esoteric here whatsoever because just the same process takes place between human lovers.
In a case of human lovers, all that a lover can do to obtain the desired intimacy is to express his longing and desire. He cannot do anything to bring the desired experience of the mutual intimate union on so to speak. His actions always stop on the highest point of crying out or being silent, putting all of himself into silent longing. This is the prayer of affection with words turning into the wordless, naturally driven by love and not by any superficial “shut-upping”.
And then, if the love is mutual, the another one responds and, in the case of intimate union, the blissful oblivion of the mutual surrender in which there is nothing else but the sense of “I and you together”, and this sense can hardly be expressed in words. This is both the description of the intimate union of humans and of the soul with Christ.
I very much hope that this constant reference to the intimate sexual union may make it clear why St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross taught that so-called “contemplation” or “infused contemplation” is the free gift of God, entirely supernatural, and that one can do nothing to obtain it. It is so because they experienced God, Jesus Christ, as the Person, the Lover whose free action of giving Himself to the mystic as the Person to the person is necessary for the bliss of the mystical union. “Supernatural” is defined not by something “esoteric”, beyond the material world snatched by the mystic from God but by the very essence of One who is supernatural indeed, God; the essence with which the mystic communes. It is also clearer I hope, why St Teresa and St John said that one must not artificially shut up the thoughts and feelings but recommended to engage in reading and meditations on the Scriptures – because those actions are actually working to bring the affections for God on, not in an artificial way as “squeezing affection out of oneself” but as the natural outcome of reading and thinking about Jesus Christ. It is very simple: the mystic (or any Christian) does all humanly possible to know Christ by human means using the faculties given to him by Christ, humbly begs Our Lord to reveal Himself to him and waits. And, just as an earthly lover is trying to improve himself to be liked so as a mystic is engaging in various ascetic exercises and also does what the object of his desire says to him (and to all Christians) that is keeps the commandments, follows Him etc. And, when Our Lord sees that the person is ready to be granted a certain experience He does it – and this can happen any time, regardless of virtue, simply when He wishes. We can speculate though that this happens for the purpose of inducing love for God if there is not much or none or, in case if the love is present simply as a free response – but it is the mystery of God, of what takes a place between each particular soul and God.
There is a question of so-called “acquired contemplation” which lurks in the works of many authors leaning towards CP and its adepts. In the classic works of the Christian mystics “contemplation” is always the pure gift of God and therefore cannot be acquired. At some point of time the blurring of terms took a place: “acquired prayer” (that vocal and mental, not supernatural or infused) and “infused contemplation” produced “acquired contemplation”. I suppose it may refer to the passage from acquired prayer to infused contemplation but 1) it does not describe anything 2) it provides a ‘fog’ or ‘cover’ for introducing the CP method or any method which maintains, implicitly or explicitly, that we may “acquire” the pure gift of God. This unfortunate term (just like Palama’s “uncreated energy dogma”) damages on a psychological level first and then begins to erode the practice of prayer and theology, together (as it always happens). It is not really important what the term “acquired contemplation” or “uncreated energy” means – in fact their proponents write piles of book explaining their own murky interpretations. The psychological effect of those terms is that in the former one can, by some manipulation, “acquire” something that is purely God’s gift and in the latter a mystic deals not with God as Person but with His energia. In both cases, it implies the depersonalizing of God and pulls the relationship with God down to the level of an “object” which one manipulates. In both cases God the Person is pushed aside. And, if one adheres to this kind of dealing with God long enough, his theology would inevitably be eroded and twisted, typically as a gradual loss of all warmth of God the Person in Jesus Christ. Noteworthy, both St John and St Teresa, the ardent lovers of Christ, plainly stated that contemplation cannot be “acquired” and one must simply allow God to take the lead. Even more importantly, both saints (as any true Christian mystic) were not interested in “gifts of God” as such but in Him for His own sake so I suspect the question “how to acquire contemplation” would never arise in their mind. Both, simply and plainly, wanted God, as an earthly lover wants his love. The various mystical graces were by-products of their relationship with the Person of Christ.
There is another point which makes the attempt to define “acquired contemplation” and its means totally unnecessary. In my opinion, there is no “fixed” stage between going from acquired prayer (action of a human) to infused contemplation (purely an action of God) because even the first stage, an acquired prayer, requires God’s assistance (grace) as all Christian life. Anyone may experience sudden realisation of a very deep meaning of a certain passage of the Scripture as someone told him – it is an action of the Holy Spirit; anyone may experience something after partaking communion, etc. There are always specks and drops of infused grace in the life of a person who is trying to be a sincere Christian. St John of the Cross speaks about the “dark night” as a passage to contemplation but it is by no means “acquired contemplation” but simply purgation of a human soul that is the lot of all who try to follow Christ. It is absolutely indispensable though, for the wholesome spiritual life, to establish that it is God who gives and one must strive to obtain Him but not His gifts – something that anyone can learn to do taking their example from human lovers.
I was surprised to find that the adepts of centering prayer appeal to Lectio Divina and promote it as a “suitable method” which helps contemplation.
“Listening to the word of God in Scripture (Lectio Divina) is a traditional way of cultivating friendship with Christ. It is a way of listening to the texts of Scripture as if we were in conversation with Christ and He were suggesting the topics of conversation. The daily encounter with Christ and reflection on His word leads beyond mere acquaintanceship to an attitude of friendship, trust, and love. Conversation simplifies and gives way to communing. Gregory the Great (6th century) in summarizing the Christian contemplative tradition expressed it as “resting in God.” This was the classical meaning of Contemplative Prayer in the Christian tradition for the first sixteen centuries.”
That sounds perfectly reasonable. Furthermore, the parts of Lectio Divina, as they are normally described are: 1) reading the Scriptures 2) meditating on what personally resonates with the reader 3) prayer – my response to God 3) contemplation – that, in traditional (non-CP) sources is described as “sweetness of God” which one feels during the reading or after or – just “good fruits” like increased love and dedication to God. These are nothing more than the schema of the normal process of developing a relationship with God in love, as described above. The Scriptures are 1) read 2) thought through 3) stir emotions and feelings 4) God-gives the grace of being still, calm, being in the presence of God. What surprises me here is that this perfectly natural process which involves the totality of a human being: intellect, love, will is at odds with CP which calls for the artificial shutting down of those faculties, and yet the adepts of CP advise it. Let us follow their reasoning though:
“Let me introduce these prayers in the context of lectio divina. Lectio divina is the ancient, monastic formula for appropriating the biblical text and for leading the practitioner into the experience of contemplation. A biblical text is read, pondered, prayed over, and finally experienced. The first three acts of lectio divina — reading, meditating, praying —culminate in the fourth act of tasting or touching the reality in the text. The fourth act is called contemplation; it is more receptive than the first three, though the whole lectio divina in the monastic tradition is a contemplative exercise.
Thomas Keating often presents centering prayer as a way to restore this contemplative dimension of lectio divina. For too long the prayer has been too heady and rationalistic; the first three discursive acts have received almost exclusive attention and the final act is neglected. He would correct that imbalance by promoting the fourth act on its own as the way to renew the contemplative character of lectio divina. The Trappists designed a prayer form that begins and ends with the fourth act. This centering prayer is to be practiced methodically and regularly twice a day as the keystone of one’s prayer life.
Centering prayer does not replace lectio, nor is it a new form of lectio divina. It is an exercise to sharpen one’s contemplative awareness, a way to renew all four acts by raising the contemplative character of a person’s life. Christian Meditation has a similar purpose. John Main considers his discipline of meditating to be the traditional, Christian meditation of the past. He is simply renewing the meditative or contemplative practice of the past, and both of these are the same one practice. He calls his prayer “contemplation, contemplative prayer, and meditative practice,” all three terms being synonyms of meditation. John Main’s meditation, in his view, is mainline Christian practice from the past, and it is practiced in the rosary or litanies, in the “Jesus prayer” and in the short ejaculatory phrases as taught by John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing. Christian Meditation for him stands on its own as the meditation of the Christian tradition over against the rational, discursive methods of the counter-reformation; it is receptive and nondiscursive by definition.”
(Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm.)
A few things can be said here. Firstly, to me, an Orthodox, ‘Lectio Divina’ looks like a schematized reminder not just to read but think slowly and to pray to God for help in understanding. Secondly, every Christian engages in this practise during the Liturgy listening, then pondering, then reading the Scriptures. There is nothing “esoteric” about it. Thirdly, St John of the Cross taught this method to his monks (reportedly) but he definitely did not mean anything like “acquired contemplation” under his fourth stage. Any contemplation for him (and he meant one thing only) is the gift of God.
It seems to me also that Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm. is very unclear about contemplation; his text says “He is simply renewing the meditative or contemplative practice of the past, and both of these are the same one practice. He calls his prayer “contemplation, contemplative prayer, and meditative practice,” all three terms being synonyms of meditation.” So we can see that the author (and others proponents of centering prayer) use the word “contemplation” for “meditation” and vice versa. There is no need to attempt to sort it out; I think that this blur may be deliberate, created for the purpose of removing from the word “contemplation” as it is used in the St John and St Teresa’s writings i.e. “pure supernatural gift of God which one cannot and should not attain” that very meaning, “the gift of God”. In the take of CP writers’ contemplation is something one should try to attain, using anything including ‘Lectio Divina’.
And they do. It sounds too bizarre to be true but I had a personal encounter with someone who ardently practices ‘Lectio Divina’ preferring to read the Gospels to anything else and yet, as he himself admitted he neither has nor desires a close personal relationship with Christ. As anyone knows, the Gospels are the portrait of Christ, His words and deeds and attitudes and yet this person was not Christ-centred, by his own admission devoid of the slightest regret. I could not understand this until I came across centering prayer. I tend to think that centering prayer, being totally contrary to the classic ‘Lectio Divina’ that encapsulates the stages of development in the normal personal relationship with Christ (which the reader experiences in one take and which is required to facilitate the loving knowledge of God), makes a person simply insensitive to the Person of Jesus – and that my encounter disclosed a man who practiced centering prayer. If one is supposed to practice centering prayer twice a day, for half an hour each time at least – that is with all one’s might to shut up any thoughts and feelings for God – obviously not out of love but for the purpose of attaining “contemplation” than most likely this consumerist attitude to prayer would affect ones’ attitude to ‘Lectio Divina’. I.e. one would practice ‘Lectio Divina’ not as a means to know more about the Lord and to love Him more but to use it to promote contemplation, i.e. as a consumer who treats God as non-person. One cannot practice disinterested love in one moment and then switch in another, to an entirely non-loving and consumerist practice and feel good about that [remain whole].
But what actually happens with one who practices the CP, from a psychological point of view? Does he, by doing this, open the door to the original evil as some claim? I will attempt to explain as I understand and feel it, in the simplest way possible, again using the example of lovers.
Supposedly a person sits “comfortably”, choses a word – personal or impersonal, it does not matter (apparently “Abba” or “silence” will do equally well). Notice the impersonal aspect of the choice; it is nothing like “O My Beloved Lord Jesus please come” which a true mystic says. The true mystic wants Christ; he knows Whom he is calling; he wants Christ and nobody or nothing else. The adept of the CP is trying to “give consent to the presence of God”. Notice again the impersonal (“God” in general) and also the coolness of “giving consent to the presence”. It is easy to feel by comparing this with the mystic or the lover (they are the same) – the lover is not “giving consent”, he is thirsty to be overtaken, by the beloved. Speaking plainly, the lover wants to love and be loved, in the most passionate and intimate way possible (affective prayer of longing), and not by anyone (impersonal God) but by Jesus Christ. If an earthly lover would behave as a practitioner of centering prayer he would “sit quietly, shut down all thoughts and feelings, give consent to someone being present and for this purpose he would repeatedly say “woman, woman, woman…” That’s right, any woman, a non-person. In the case of true mystic, because he wants Christ and addresses Him it is very likely that, if someone answers him it will be Christ – and in any case the mystic will know who answered him because he is expecting one person only (just like a man in love would not accept the embrace of “any woman”). In the case of the practitioner of centering prayer who successfully supressed all definitions and expectations (because as the propagators of centering prayer say, God is essentially “nothing”, we cannot define Him – true, we cannot define God but we can know him in Jesus Christ as He revealed himself to us. He is the one with whom we are supposed to communicate, as “via positiva”, not “via negativa”. Anything can present itself as “nothing” the presence of which he consented to using his mantra, even if it is the word “Jesus”. Because, if one say “Jesus” without meaning Our Lord but uses His name as a mere tool in a very impersonal, even inhumane way, Jesus Christ will not present Himself to such a person – the Lord cannot be manipulated, He surrenders only to genuine love and genuine request.
So what is this peace, calmness and even love those practitioners of CP claim they experience during and after the sessions? I do not exclude the possibility that some of them are indeed deceived by evil spirits. However in the majority of cases I think they simply go into a self-induced trance or have an encounter with oneself i.e. engage in an act of spiritual masturbation. This can be pleasing of course but in essence it is a very lonely and fruitless activity because there is no Another One present. I do not think that saying mantra and sitting still and shutting down thoughts and feelings cause harm here; what causes the harm in my opinion is a gross self-deception, namely calling spiritual masturbation communion with Christ. My reasoning is that there are various methods of meditation, like mindfulness for example, which can be helpful in cases of anxiety or other overwhelming emotions – mindfulness genuinely stills the mind with the intention of enhancing self-awareness. But it does not pretend that it helps to establish contact with Christ, i.e. does not use Christ as a mere tool or a cover for something else.
The propagators of the centering prayer claim that it helps to “clear the debris of the psyche”, “to get rid of psychological knots” and so on. This information, by association, made me think about PTSD and the state of self-trance, even depersonalisation the sufferers of PTSD tend to go into, as an escape. I wonder if some experience such self-induced trance during centering prayer. I can only speculate of course, but I know, in my own experience, that to become whole, to be truly healed, one needs another person, human or God or both – a normal relationship to overbright the abnormal one. The relationship with Jesus Christ is the total opposite to self-trance or depersonalisation or in fact anything described in the method of centering prayer. The spirit is wrong. I also thought that the strange idea, that one can be in mystical union with God and yet never feel it, that some individuals have “light on experience” (that is felt mystical experiences) and some “light off experiences” (they never feel anything) somehow may have something to do with various disorders (including severe c-PTSD) which make a person simply incapable to feel anything or impair such ability. They are also typically unable to trust, including trust in God and this is why perhaps such individuals, while genuinely striving for union with God are unable to receive the graces fully even when given? In this case indeed there is a “light off experience” but by no means should it be called “normal”. By calling it normal we simply leaving a person as he is, i.e. unhealed or unglued. The fullness of life in Christ I believe means the full recovery of own humanity. It is noteworthy though that the idea of normality of “light off experience” may work as the promotion of depersonalisation: psychological, spiritual and metaphysical.
My interest in centering prayer was kindled by my personal experience of socialising with people who practice it. Without going into the details, I should say that the encounter alarmed me because it reminded me of my past when I was involved in occult practices. It was not exactly it, the sense of open and frank evil, but something more subtle – the sense that something was not right, that the proclaimed Christianity was unable to cover the odd sticking points here and there. Something was wrong; eventually, after much struggle I identified it as the lack of interest in the Person of Our Lord, lack of warmth for Him. It is well-known that the occult makes a person practically immune to Jesus Christ, he or she literally loses the ability to perceive Him. I think the same is to some extent true for the dedicated practitioners of centering prayer. This is of course only my intuition but it has some theoretical basis as well: there is a similarity between the attitude of an occultist to God and of the practitioner of the CP to God: both treat Him as a tool, both want to obtain the gift but not the Giver. In the former case the person wants magical powers, in the latter – the mystical grace, the knowledge devoid of love. Both disregard the Person. The scheme of the Fall, discussed in the beginning of this paper, explains the mechanics and the outcome of both cases.
It is truly heartbreaking that the practice which denies the personhood of Christ, centering prayer, is most propagated in the Order of Carmel which charism is “the thirst for an immediate experience of God, the mystical union with Jesus Christ”. This was the story promised by me in the beginning of this paper of absurdity and gloomy irony. This is even more gross I think than practicing Jesus prayer (calling Jesus Christ by name repeatedly) for the purpose of partaking the “uncreated energies of God”, probably because in the case with those Carmelites they successfully perverted the most intimate, the most beautiful, the most profound words ever said about mystical union with God, by St John of the Cross. Or perhaps I am mistaken, because Palama and his followers did just the same, parasitising the authority of St Simeon the New Theologian – they do not quote his outrageous love poetry though to back their argument up. It is of course completely irrelevant who is worse, Western pseudo-mystics or the Eastern Palamite ones. My pointless comparison I suppose is just an attempt to distract myself from my profound despair: how, why is such a thing possible? For how long is Christ going to be to spat upon, in such a sophisticated way that the original spitting which took place in Jerusalem looks like the epitome of sincerity?
* * * * * *
“The concept of an “acquired contemplation” democratized contemplation and made it available to all. John himself spoke explicitly only about the gift of special, infused contemplation, a mystical gift which presumably was not available to everybody. This transitional, acquired contemplation was there for the taking according to the early Discalced teachers, who claimed John of the Cross as warranty for this opinion.” (Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm.)
This is a good example of theological perversion. Infused contemplation is available to everyone precisely because God can grant it as He pleases. It is not “available” meaning one cannot obtain it on his own but, as a loving knowledge of God it will be given to all by Him, in this life as imperfect but in the future as perfect knowledge of Him, “we shall see Him as He is”. God, I repeat, gives it as it pleases Him, always for the purpose of the good of a person, contemplation can be given even to a sinner and it is not a “diploma of sanctity”. All Christians have at least a foretaste of contemplation, in various, subtle, experiences. If, according to the apostle Paul, there are different gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church like discerning or prophesy why then not treat the gift of contemplation just like that and remember that the biggest gift of the Holy Spirit is love?
 ‘From St John of the Cross to Us: The story of a 400 year long misunderstanding and what it means for the future of Christian mysticism’ by James Arraj is among the most thorough.