Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious

Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious
By Murchadh Ó Madagáin
New York: Lantern Books, 2007
Review by Carl McColman

This introductory book on the practice of centering prayer is distinctive in that it has a strong apologetic tone. Although its title suggests it is a book about the healing qualities of centering prayer, I think what the author really is doing is trying to heal some of the ways in which centering prayer’s critics misunderstand the practice. In addition to discussing what centering prayer is, how it fits into the overall history of Christian spirituality, and why it is a healing spiritual practice, Irish priest Murchadh Ó Madagáin patiently provides a calm and reasoned response to the detractors of this contemporary practice with ancient roots. Fr. Ó Madagáin speaks the traditional language of ordinary Catholics and, as far as I can tell, appears to be theologically moderate if not somewhat conservative in his own right; as such, he is a wonderful interpreter of centering prayer’s key spokesperson, Thomas Keating, who has intentionally eschewed traditional religious language in favor of secular or psychological ways of explaining his ideas — a decision which has no doubt strengthened the antipathy of those who oppose him. This book fills a much-needed role in the emerging literature of centering prayer, in that it “re-translates” the central ideas of centering practice into language that traditional Catholics will find more familiar.

Proponents of centering prayer have from the beginning pointed out how the practice is rooted in the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, of John Cassian (one of the fathers of monasticism) and of The Cloud of Unknowing. Ó Madagáin covers these forerunners of centering prayer, but he doesn’t stop there: he also examines how the practice relates to the teaching of other great Christian contemplatives, including Evagrius Ponticus, John Climacus, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. He also considers the ways in which centering prayer is similar to — and different from — eastern forms of meditation as well as new age spirituality. He is always gracious toward centering prayer’s critics, pointing out that most objections to the practice arise from simple misunderstandings — since centering prayer’s advocates typically use secular or psychological language to explain the practice, it can easily be misconstrued as a capitulation to non-Christian ideas. Ó Madagáin is balanced and honest in assessing that some of centering prayer’s image problem no doubt originates with its own leading spokesperson: “some of the language used by Keating is very similar to that used in New Age circles.” (p. 229). The author also admits that some of Keating’s writing certainly goes beyond traditional Catholic teaching, for example in his unique way of interpreting the doctrine of original sin, or in his assessment of how centering prayer affects the development of human consciousness. By acknowledging all this, Ó Madagáin recognizes that when those who practice centering prayer fail to draw clear boundaries separating Christian from non-Christian spiritualities, they may unintentionally create confusion which alarms conservatives who feel that such boundaries need to be strictly enforced. Nevertheless, he is consistent in insisting that centering prayer is intended to be a thoroughly orthodox, Christian practice, and that those who think otherwise simply do not understand the practice or the language used to describe it.

One point the author makes that I found particularly helpful has to do with whether or not centering prayer is an appropriate practice for beginners in spirituality, even including non-Christians or those whose faith may be immature. Traditional teachers (like Teresa of Avila) insist that contemplative prayer is a more advanced form of spirituality; therefore, centering prayer’s detractors attack the way in which it is taught to anyone who is interested, regardless of their level of spiritual development. Ó Madagáin notes that we live in a different world today than that of so many Christian spiritual teachers over the centuries. Today’s Christians are simultaneously more sophisticated (thanks to the Internet and other forms of media, we have more access to knowledge than ever before) but also more susceptible to values and worldviews that are non-Christian or even hostile to Christianity. In this environment, centering prayer is not a crowning achievement but rather can be seen as a tool for initiating spiritual development — even among beginners of the inner life or even of the Christian life. Ó Madagáin insists that because centering prayer is gentle and emphasizes loving attention to God rather than propositional argument for God, it is especially well-suited to the unique challenges of the postmodern world. Thus, we may actually be moving into an era when contemplative prayer could be seen as the preferred spiritual practice for all Christians — even beginners.

I’m not sure if this is the ideal first book to read on centering prayer, since its apologetic tone might not appeal to all readers. It’s probably still a good idea for newcomers to centering practice to begin with the writings of Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, or even Cynthia Bourgeault. However, Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious is an excellent book that does an admirable job situating centering prayer in the entire lineage of Christian spirituality, and should prove particularly useful for those who would like a more positive alternative to the attacks against centering prayer that regularly issue forth from ultra-conservative Catholics.

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Creative Conversation Begins with Contemplative Compassion
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.

  • Jason Aubrey

    Thank you for that review Carl. I’m always surprised (and saddened) to hear theologically conservative people go after centering prayer, especially when the ‘principals’ are so deeply Catholic (I mean, e.g., Keating, Pennington, Menniger). I’m Episcopalian, and, believe it or not, even there I’ve been handed the “Dangers of Centering Prayer” article from This Rock magazine!

  • Peter

    I certainly can see the need for this book in the church, and I may pick it up out of interest in the historical and theological implications of Centering Prayer, its place in the stream of contemplative practice, etc.

    But since my main interest in Centering Prayer is not polemics but practice, I am likely to continue to follow what I have learned from Cynthia and maybe pick up some original work from Keating and Pennington to enrich my practice rather than expand my theory. I am not currently experiencing any persecution from doing this, though I am probably in a more conservative environment than most practitioners. But then I have made only very limited attempts to describe to others what I do in this regard.

    Blessings to all,

  • John Theobald

    I note Fr. O’Madagain’s repeated attempts to show the difference between Centering Prayer and TM, however all the objections are to the mindset and conceptual pattern of the TM movement versus the mindset of a Christian using this technique as a psychophysiological preparation of ” truly Christian contemplation” (as Cardinal Ratzinger put it). There is obviously a contradiction as noted on page 248

    “Because one uses a technigue to help one pray, that does not imply that it is therefore not prayer. What is important is the intention and will of the person praying.”

    Further down the page he says,

    “We have also seen this difference between TM and Centering Prayer.”

    Obviously a Christian can have the same prayerful intention practicing TM, completely seperate and apart from it’s Hindu conceptual framework and milue. which to the Christian are irrelevant. This is indeed what Fr. Keating has said both in person and in some of his books. Basil Pennington has a whole chapter on TM to this point in his book “Daily we Touch Him”. It would be a shame to gradually alter Frs Keating and Pennington’s original teachings. Fr. O’Madagain on page 28 cites Trancenet which is a noted anti TM organization comprised of disgruntled former TM teachers and is hardly a credible source.

  • Carl McColman

    Whether we like it or not, CP’s harshest critics attack it for its links to TM. Hopefully over time the CP community will be able to articulate a balanced view of the TM-CP relationship. But at the moment, the pendulum is decidedly swinging in the direction of differentiation.

  • John Theobald

    some information on the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church


    Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith


    Some use eastern methods solely as a psycho-physical preparation for a truly Christian contemplation;

    The majority of the “great religions” which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it. Just as “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions, neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.
    The spiritual authors have adopted those elements which make recollection in prayer easier, at the same time recognizing their relative value: they are useful if reformulated in accordance with the aim of Christian prayer. For example, the Christian fast signifies, above all, an exercise of penitence and sacrifice; but, already for the Fathers, it also had the aim of rendering man more open to the encounter with God and making a Christian more capable of self-dominion and at the same time more attentive to those in need.
    That does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.
    The Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II, in an audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, gave his approval to this letter, drawn up in a plenary session of this Congregation, and ordered its publication.
    At Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, October 15, 1989, the Feast of Saint Teresa of Jesus.
    Joseph Card. Ratzinger Prefect
    1. The expression “eastern methods” is used to refer to methods which are inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, such as “Zen,” “Transcendental Meditation” or “Yoga.” Thus it indicates methods of meditation of the non-Christian Far East which today are not infrequently adopted by some Christians also in their meditation.