The Shock of the Old

As readers of this blog know, I continually try to make sense of why some Christians are hostile to centering prayer.

As best I can tell, there are three basic objections:

  • It is seen as an innovation within Christian spirituality, a “new age” practice without historical precedent or grounding. A variation of this objection is that centering prayer is unscriptural; i.e. it is not found in the Bible.
  • It is seen as representing the influx of alien ideas or practices, particularly eastern forms of spirituality (an idea that no doubt was accelerated by the fact that early writings on centering prayer did borrow language and terminology freely from the east, comparing the practice to transcendental meditation and referring to the prayer word as a mantra).
  • It is seen as dangerous because an emptied mind is seen as vulnerable to attack from evil spirits.

If anyone reading this knows of other reasons why some Christians reject centering prayer, please post your thoughts as a comment here. I’m quite interested in the topic, even though it does make my blood boil (yes, evidence of my own spiritual poverty, but that’s a topic for another day).

For now, we’ll just go with these three concerns. I’m hardly a professional theologian or church historian, but based on my layman’s knowledge all three of these objections strike me as being based on misunderstandings.

  • The term “centering prayer” is really all that is new about the practice. It is identical to the method of contemplative prayer advocated in The Cloud of Unknowing (written ca. 1375) and has marked similarities to the breath prayer as practiced by Eastern Orthodox hesychasts and as advocated by the monastic pioneer John Cassian, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. As for the scriptural argument: granted, the Bible never explicitly enjoins the practice of contemplation, but neither does it explicitly condemn such practices. Meanwhile, some passages (Psalm 46:10, Isaiah 30:15, I Thessalonians 5:17) certainly support silence and perseverance as elements of prayer.
  • While centering prayer does resemble eastern meditation, the fact that early advocates of the practice compared it to TM or used terminology like “mantra” stems from the fact that they were attempting to reach out to Christians who had begun to explore eastern spirituality. In this sense, centering prayer is actually profoundly Christian, in that it serves as a tool to help Christians regain their own authentic spiritual tradition. I think it’s sad that xenophobic Christians have to attack a tool that the Holy Spirit could use to draw alienated Christians back into the faith (I speak from experience here, even though I had left Christianity not for Vedanta but for neopaganism; still, centering prayer was an important element in my return to the faith). Furthermore, since when do Christians have the right to limit God’s saving action to practices that are familiarly Christian? If Christianity were to eliminate every practice that is similar to practices found in other faiths, we’d have nothing left in our own faith. We’d have to get rid of the Bible because after all Buddhists and Hindus have sacred scriptures. Chanting and singing likewise would have to go. Many rituals around the world involve eating sacred foods, which means I suppose Holy Communion can no longer be trusted as a thoroughly Christian activity. Yes, I know I’m being absurd here, but that’s my point. Attacking centering prayer because it resembles non-Christian practices is likewise foolish.
  • As for the silence-makes-you-vulnerable-to-Satan argument, frankly I’m flummoxed. I don’t know who came up with this one or where they found scriptural or traditional justification for it. I was always taught that temptation and sin involve three areas: thoughts, words, and deeds. Since centering prayer involves gentle willingness to suspend thoughts, words and deeds in order to rest in God’s loving presence, one could easily argue that centering prayer serves as a form of spiritual protection against unfriendly spirits. Furthermore, leading practitioners of centering prayer like Cynthia Bourgeault and Murchadh Ó Madagáin maintain that the practice can be a powerful tool for God to heal the wounds hidden within the unconscious mind. If Satanic influence really were possible through a silent mind, then healing the unconscious would be an important way to limit such an influence. But it needs to be said that this idea of Satan lurking in the silence is quite sad, because it implies a worldview which suggests evil is more powerful than good, and/or depicts God as all too willing to let demons prey on humanity. How awful it must be to live one’s life with such a fearful and terrible cosmology!

The common theme, as I see it, among centering prayer’s detractors seems to be this: “Centering prayer is an unfamiliar spiritual practice. Therefore it must be bad.” It is the church’s shame that so many Christians are unfamiliar with ancient and traditional methods of silent prayer. Because of this, we have an ironic situation on our hands: centering prayer’s detractors appear to be shocked not by what is futuristic and new, but by what is ancient and old. Folks like Alvin Toffler and Robert Hughes have long pointed out that human beings struggle with the shock of the new. With centering prayer, it’s the same dynamic, only what is “new” is in truth actually very old. The resistance to it is basically just a variation on the longstanding human unwillingness to embrace what is new/unfamiliar, even when it is clearly beneficial.

Thank heaven that in our lifetime some of these ancient practices are being rediscovered and revived and made available to laypersons by courageous contemplatives like Thomas Keating and the late Basil Pennington. Meanwhile, those who would block these fresh winds of prayerful renewal appear simply to be caught up in fear, xenophobia, or perhaps even an unconscious desire to thwart the Spirit. Such persons deserve much compassion and forgiveness and need our continual prayers.

Creative Conversation Begins with Contemplative Compassion
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Sue

    “Be still and know that I am God” is in the Bible, and that seems to me to be what centering prayer is all about.

    I returned to my centering prayer group tonight after a layoff of three months (illness and centering prayer being unamenable to each other) … and it was so lovely :) So good to do this practice with a few other Christians.

  • Susan

    I believe (on the basis of sad personal experience) that a lot of religious authorities, including many if not most Roman Catholic priests, are hostile to genuine, personal religious experience. Someone who knows that they are in personal, immediate contact with God is much less likely to blindly follow the dictates of any authoritarian religion; this threatens the position of people who believe, and who want us to believe, that the only way to access the divine is through THEM.

    However, people like this are not ordinarily hostile to “centering prayer” as such, so long as it is a casual practice which does not produce any genuine experiences.

  • Peter

    But if Centering Prayer is a casual practice that does not produce any genuine experiences, then what good is it?

    I have greatly enjoyed Centering Prayer and found it to be the way into a number of genuine spiritual experiences that (in the ongoing conversation with Carl) I would dare to call authentically mystical, at least in some degree (probably non-measurable). The great virtue of Centering Prayer is that it counsels us not to get stuck in either our scarey experiences of the unknown or our exciting experiences of heavenly bliss, but to yield all of these as well as our less dramatic experiences to the One whom we are centering or focusing on. Again Carl’s words are very apt here: “gentle willingness to suspend thoughts, words and deeds in order to rest in God’s loving presence.” Amen! And I have a very positive witness to the inner healing power of this form of inner silence.

    I would counter the neophobia of the opponents of Centering Prayer with a sense of adventure that is willing to encounter new areas of spiritual experience with confidence in the Spirit of Truth (=Reality) who has promised to lead us into all Reality as we maintain our trust in Him. So: GO FOR IT, and let the Divine Comforter protect you as you seek to experience His presence and power with a pure heart (and a desire to be purified still further through His refining fire).

    Blessings to all,
    in Jesus,

  • Susan

    But if Centering Prayer is a casual practice that does not produce any genuine experiences, then what good is it?

    Precisely. Religious authoritarians oppose Centering Prayer (or anything else) which is truly effective.

  • margi

    I suspect the idea that it opens one to satanic activity probably originates with the idea that if idle hands do the devil’s work then an idle mind does too and if words like “emptying” are used then people will quite practically assume it means empty. Most Christians are not called to be contemplatives; they are genuinely called by God to the active life and it pervades all aspects of their life, including prayer. I can’t stand at my icon corner and read Morning and Evening prayers but most Orthodox I know do exactly that in some fashion. It is their calling. If you use the word “empty” to such people whether they are Orthodox or Catholic or Evangelical it connotes a vacuum. It needs explaining that in a prayer such as the Jesus Prayer the striving is towards emptying oneself of selfish or wordly thoughts and feelings, after all, no-one reverently repeating the Holy Name can possibly be empty.

    I say the Jesus Prayer, it is, for want of a better expression, my rule of prayer but I instinctively associate “centering prayer” with something like Thomas Merton and his fascination with Zen which I want nothing to do with. If Christ is my all and everything – my redeemer, lover, friend – then I don’t want to take my eyes off Him to see what the Buddhists are doing. It doesn’t make me xenophobic, it makes me someone who knows that in her dearworthy Lord Jesus she has the best and the most she can ever have. Asking a Christian to learn from Zen (or anything else) is like asking a woman deeply in love to spend the weekend with the very pleasant man next door rather than her lover.

    It is also important to remember that in the Orthodox Church the way of unknowing was never lost. I am 43 and I remember quite clearly books and pamphlets in English on the Jesus Prayer about 35 years ago. It may be “new to you” to many Christians but they never needed to borrow tools from other religions to unearth it in their own – a trip to the nearest Greek or Russian church would have sufficed.