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.