Tails of the snake: some thoughts on the mechanics of centering prayer


St Ignatius Loyola, in his discourses on discernment, addresses the difficult problem of the evil force meddling with the grace of God, via introducing something evil into the immediate aftermath of the experience of the divine (or of the inspiration, or of anything good, coming from God), the evil seed which subtly diverts a person from God, that is a very sophisticated kind of a desolation. He makes two important points:


1 – However well the evil tried to imitate God’s action in the soul he cannot do this perfectly; something inevitably will “stick out” and can be identified;


2 – When one realises that he is experiencing such a kind of desolation it is very useful to track the train of the events (thoughts, actions) back and find the oddity, the insertion of the evil which he calls the “tail of a snake”. It is also useful to tell someone else about what happened.


The “tail of a snake” in my experience usually manifests itself as something felt as “being not exactly right”, not exactly in the right place, something alien to the whole situation, absurd. It is impossible of course to make “the list of oddities” (or even their constellations) and watch out for them; what in one situation is normal in another is outrageous; how something is said or done often matters more than the words and actions themselves. An example: the statement “I do not have a personal relationship with Jesus” is perfectly OK in case of an unbeliever (in fact it is a bit odd because a non-believer is not expected to have such a relationship) and in the case of a Christian – but a practising Christian most likely would say those words with regret, knowing that it is desirable and even necessary to have one. The same words sound entirely different coming from the mouth of a member of a Christian contemplative Order the charism of which is to strive after the most intimate union (that is, the pinnacle of personal relationship) with Jesus Christ. And, if a person says those words indifferently and adds that it is all fine, for him and for others, to be Christian and contemplative and to ignore Christ at the same time it is an example of oddity, the “tail of the snake” of Loyola.


This “something”, especially if it is “too subtle” or “too odd to believe”, the intellect tends to explain rationally.  In the example above, of a “contemplative”, a listener may be oppressed by the very absurdity of his words or may think he does not understand something, perhaps a contemplative means something else – and, the higher the authority of the contemplative the more likely is a listener to rationalize his words and not to raise their voice in protest. Besides, the words “contemplative” or “contemplative order” tend to induce, in many, a sense of awe; they hint at a spiritual elitism and a promise to share it with the listener – of course as long as the listener does not argue with the statements of the contemplative.


This rationalistic approach often does not explain anything but, by the very familiarity of the act of explanation (any explanation, in this case pseudo-explanation which works as a dummy) to the psyche helps one to dismiss and eventually to forget the oddities. Later, when a person finds himself in a state of desolation, he recalls them and they begin making sense – providing, that he will manage to establish the connection between the two. One does not necessarily have to actively walk a Christian path to know this experientially. The process described above is present in human relationships as well. An example: the stories of the victims of rape who, looking back, are cursing themselves for their dismissal of the warning signs and gut feelings that “something was very wrong”.


Hence I conclude that a desolation, in spiritual life, is a necessary agent for noticing and clarifying these “oddities”; if one did not experience desolation he would most likely not begin to search for anything; he also would never identify those “tails” as something “bad”, as manifestations of something much bigger and detrimental for the spiritual life. The felt mutual reflections of desolation and these oddities make each other clearer.


I thought about St Ignatius “tail of a snake” while considering the strange phenomenon of centering prayer: while it is relatively easy, for a practicing Christian, to feel (even if only murkily) and even to see many “tails of the snake” in the discourses of its inventors and propagators it is very difficult to make a convincing rational argument for exactly how it is wrong. The reason for this I think is that to do so the CP practitioner must first have an experience of being in a state of desolation caused by those “tails” i.e. the evil insertion and then be able to perceive that he is indeed in this state of being pulled away from God. That is, to be able to detect his gravitation away from God he must know God personally first. Likewise, an observer can detect someone being pulled away from God only if he knows the symptoms of the process of being pulling away from God, the true God, Christian God as He is manifested in Jesus Christ, and knows on his own experience.  For a coherent discussion, both Christian critic and CP practitioner must have the felt experience of desolation and have objective criteria for it otherwise they have no place to meet (that is, the experience of the Person of Christ, the immovable objective of a Christian contemplative) and their arguments will remain existing in the parallel universes, of personal and impersonal being. The CP practitioner will never understand a true Christian mystic because he is unable to understand/ to feel about Whom the latter is talking – he knows His name (and even the Christian theology, superficially; he may even read some mystic tracts) but he does not know Him, in a biblical sense, as the Person. An example: for a person who believes in the uniqueness of the Son of God the “tails of the snake” which somehow feel contrary to this faith would immediately stick out; for one who thinks that “I am a Christian but all paths are equal” they will remain hidden. I cannot stress more that I mean not a superficial faith but the felt one, the personal felt knowledge of the uniqueness of the Son of God communicated via communion with Him. True discernment is possible only if one has an absolute criteria to measure against, the Person of Christ. This was so obvious for St Ignatius that he does not even mention it; as I recall he also does not make a big deal out of something equally self-evident for him, that true discernment is only possible if one does it for the sake of discovering the will of God for him, because the person wishes to serve Him, out of love (naturally, St Ignatius does not bother to think about other reasons for discernment – they are doomed to fail). This is a given ground of any genuine Christian mystic; this ground is entirely absent in the practitioners of the centering prayer as we shall see. Hence, if a Christian mystic and a CP practitioner have neither common measure for discernment nor common purpose it is understandable why they cannot understand each other (hence my argument will not be understood by the CP adepts as well).


It does not require esoteric knowledge to perceive that the desire to do the will of God is something quite selfless. Here, at last, we are coming to the real subject of the discourse. I will at first deliberately put it in an esoteric way: it is about the energies of the intentions, of a human being and of God. And, since we have moved into the realm of esoteric terminology at least, let us consider the method of centering prayer in comparison with “primitive” Christian prayer and with the occult practices (magick) as if they are “motives” or the “energies” of “intentions”.


The “primitive” (that is non-esoteric) Christian prayer is essentially a very natural direct address of a human being to God. It can be anything, from a plain request for rain to grow a good crop to the rage against God of the prophets in the Old Testament. It is as varied and unique as human beings; it is a simple natural outcome of a human desire to say something to God, the outpouring of the psyche towards Him. Hence it does not need any “techniques”. This is why true Christian prayer does not know such a term as “a method of prayer”, and this is how (among other symptoms) the pseudo-Christian prayer can be identified.


A genuine Christian prayer is always personal. Let us consider several examples.


1) A person asks God to burn down the house of his neighbour who has offended him.


2) A person asks God to give him strength to endure what is his duty, to give him more charity or wisdom or so on.


3) A person simply asks God to do whatever He wishes with him because he wants to do His will.


4) A person sits in a certain pose, quietens himself and, by using some mantra, “silence” or “shalom” or even “Jesus”, and gives God “consent to be present” because he wishes “to attain a state of  contemplation”.


Now let us speculate which prayer is the most, and which is the least, pleasing to God. I am quite convinced that, in a frame of the solid Christian teaching (theology and tradition), the most pleasing to Him is a human surrender to His will. And the least pleasing – I am equally convinced – is the last example; far more pleasing (I deliberately simplify and exaggerate to deliver my point) to God is the prayer of a person who is asking Him to destroy the house of his neighbour. Why? – Because a person who wishes God to punish his offender is handling the issue to God by addressing Him as the Person. He engages with Him, he looks at Him as he IS, i.e. the ultimate judge, the source of justice, simply speaking to the One who is above him immeasurably and – despite it – is involved with him. It is a personal relationship; it does not matter here how twisted the person’s idea of what is good or bad is because God can do something about all this. The true Christian prayer, from the most primitive and twisted to the most sublime of the mystics always acknowledges God in a very direct way, as a dialogue of a person with the Person, and acknowledges that it is God who gives, the person cannot do anything but ask directly and to try to become more pleasing in the eyes of God.


It is not so in the case of the practitioner of centering prayer who, to begin “gives consent to God’s presence”. This is one of the first “snake tails” in the description of centering prayer. The notion of a contemplative who “gives consent to God’s presence” sounds extremely odd to me. God is present always; we do not need to give Him our consent for that. If the adepts of centering prayer mean “consent to act in us” then didn’t we give Him this very consent in our baptism?  Don’t we give this “consent” during every Eucharist, asking Him to unite Himself with us? It does not matter how one rewords and reinterprets those lines of the CP method, “gives consent to God’s presence” or “gives consent to God’s action” or whatever. The whole “energy” of this notion is very odd. Stripped of its varied meaning and interpretations it is actually nothing else than a statement of who is in control.


One may argue that God does not violate human will and thus He needs our consent. I insist though that there is still something very strange about the choice of the words of the CP practitioners, and in their actions, in the context of prayer as such, at least normal prayer.  Suppose a person indeed wants to “give consent to God”. Why does he need then a method for this, a mantra which is pronounced repeatedly? Wouldn’t be it easier just to say “Yes, Lord, I want your presence, manifest Yourself to me, answer me!” The difference between those two ways is that the mechanical “mantra method” is impersonal even in the case when the word “Jesus” is used. Compare please the use of the name “Jesus” repeatedly for the mere purpose of “giving consent for the presence” with “Jesus, answer me!” or “Jesus, give me calmness!” or “Jesus, my love!” In the first case the name of Jesus is used as a tool of “giving consent”, in the second – called on for the purpose of attracting the attention of the Lord so to speak, just as we do to each other. When we need someone to turn to us we call them by their name, without thinking of the “method” or about “giving consent to their presence”; if we want them to do something for us or with us we say so plainly or indicate it otherwise. The whole approach of the adepts of centering prayer to dealing with God, compared with normal Christian prayer strikes me not just as non-Christian but also artificial, non-human – and to my mind it is another “tail of the snake”. [Interestingly, this oddity, in the relation to the divine and to human, in a sense corresponds to two natures of Jesus Christ, implicitly denying the reality of His incarnation in very subtle way – a topic for further development somewhere else] In this odd, impersonal, mechanical actions of the CP practitioners which somehow require for something that is very simple and very natural to a human being I perceive their inability to address Jesus Christ = God directly and ask Him for anything directly. The fact that any word can be a mantra highlights this impersonal approach.


Perhaps because of this sheer absurdity, the notion of “giving consent to God’s presence and action via mantra” somehow associates in my mind – by its very spirit – with the medieval idea of making an agreement with the devil. It is quite naïve to think that one needs particular formulas to call him; what attracts him is an intention. Please note that I am not saying that CP practitioners call on the devil. I am only saying that their intentions appear to me to be more of the spirit or the “energy” of those who consciously practice the occult then of genuine Christianity.


Let us take the hypothetical case, of a Satan worshiper who, via various magical acts, is hoping to obtain some supernatural powers, and of a “primitive” Christian who is praying for God to give him worldly (material) power etc. One may say (and it is often said) that there is no difference between the two: a Christian treats his God just as primitively as a Satanist, i.e. as someone who can give something useful in exchange for some rituals. The very person of the addressee makes a difference here though; the reaction of Christ to a prayer is different from the reaction of Satan to the magical ritual: we can rest assured that Christ will not grant destructive powers to one who asks for them. The question arises whether Satan can answer a Christian if the latter one prays for something that is more in the spirit of Satan than of Christ. I propose that while it may be so, the intention of a Christian, his attitude to Christ as God, his handling of his request into Christ’s hands (however disgusting and alien to Christ his intent is) = his personal relationship with Him protects him, to some extent, even if that relationship is twisted by him. This totally abstract discourse serves only to show that the intention must be directed to the correct source to be effective, just as an envelope must have the clear address so it would be lost or even used by someone else.


As I imagine it, the straightforward Satanists who have personal relationship with the metaphysical personal evil and the true Christians who have personal relationship with Jesus Christ are the extremes (black and white) of the spectrum of the attempts of humans to deal with the supernatural. In both cases the relationship is clearly defined. The black energy of the evil intentions flows from a Satanist straight into its ultimate source, Satan (the “pseudo-god”), who is acknowledged by his name. From the person of a Christian various good intentions stream to Jesus Christ the ultimate source of all good, and He is also acknowledged by His name. For the purpose of clear understanding of centering prayer I must restate two points here: 1) the address of the intention is labelled, it is a certain person; 2) the energy of the intention is naturally gravitating to what is similar to it. Hence we have two factors which determine the direction of the movement of the energy of intention, the name of the addressee and the intention itself. Between those extremes, black and white, of the straightforward worship the personal evil and the personal good, Satan and Jesus Christ, lies the grey area of various practices – semi-neutral, pagan,  pseudo-Christian etc countless practices including centering prayer.


I stated before that the “primitive” Christian who prays about punishment of his neighbour is more pleasing (well, perhaps not “pleasing” but more someone with whom God can work) to God than the CP practitioner because the first one acknowledges God as the Person and source of gift; another one is trying to obtain the gift while avoiding the source of the desired thing. But what about the case of a Christian who sees God as a source of gifts and does not care much about Him as the Person? I believe it is still better – better for a Christian himself first of all, for his spiritual safety because by asking for money from God and treating Him as the “eternal purse” he does nothing else but rob himself of the real, i.e. selfless relationship; despite calling on God (supernatural) he is securely remaining in his earthly mud while the CP practitioner is opening himself to the realm of the spirits because his desire (to acquire contemplation) is “spiritual” and “high”. And, unlike the primitive person who asks God for money and thus acknowledges God as their source he proudly rejects the engagement with the source of all spiritual good. This is the subtle rejection of God the Giver manifested via the lack of interest in His Person. (It typically shows itself as another “tail of the snake” as a strange indifference, for a Christian, in the Person of Christ.)

(The case of a Christian who demands spiritual powers from God and still acknowledge Him is still better and safer than the impersonal approach to God, because of the factor of the Personal God – the very fact of addressing Him allows Him to interfere and save the asker from his own stupidity; the CP practitioner does not allow God to do this.)


The pseudo-noble intention very subtly, under many selfless labels of “love” “peace” etc is essentially selfish. It’s very subtle and impotent mixture, being distilled and additional waters evaporated, is suspiciously reminiscent of the desire of Adam and Eve = the eternal desire of human beings to obtain that knowledge while avoiding the relationship with God. Just like Adam and Eve, the adepts of centering prayer are hiding from God, placing between Him and themselves various “methods” of prayer and other artificial practices. Returning to the “energy model”, their intention of obtaining “contemplation” = knowledge, being devoid of the “label”, Christ or Satan (by a label I mean not the “mantra” of centering prayer or anything else but what really matters, the desire, the real ardent desire to be, with Christ or with Satan) is just a pseudo-neutral stream of energy which, so to speak, is vacant for anything to become attached to it/ to enter into its stream. I say “pseudo-neutral” because, since it has a sophisticated spiritual pride, a subtle desire to steal (that is to “acquire” something that cannot be acquired but remains a pure gift) and an impersonal approach; it is more likely than not that it will eventually attract something similar to those watery tendencies. In the beginning this process will be just as diluted as the CP deviation. Slowly though an adept of centering prayer, carried by his envelope without a label and entirely self-directed intention will gravitate away from Christ – and one cannot go away from Jesus Christ into some supposedly spiritually neutral area without beginning the movement towards the personal evil at the same time. Similarities attract each other and, to obtain God one must desire God. Even if a person succeeds in convincing oneself that he desires God while sitting non-emotionally and saying “silence” and shutting down all feelings and thoughts God will see it otherwise, as nothing more than a pathetic self-delusion, the very peculiar elitism of a person who feels he is superior to others because other address their lovers as they are but he does it in a very sophisticated way, without actually addressing Him.

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