In a comment to my Bhakti Jesus post yesterday, a reader writes:
I do have one question Carl, if you don’t mind? What did you mean by:
“One of my teachers insists that practitioners of centering prayer need to be immersed in the Daily Office as a safeguard against narcissism or relativism. I think he’s right.”
Being relatively new to centering prayer and meditation practices, I’m not sure I understand how either could lead to narcissism or relativism. Would you please say more about that?
Thanks for asking. On a purely ontological level, centering prayer does not “lead” to narcissism or relativism, but neither does it necessarily lead us to holiness or sanctification — for by itself, centering prayer is merely a technique, a method of relaxed awareness that disposes us to the experience of contemplative prayer. This is an important point to consider. Centering prayer does not “make” a contemplative experience of God happen, as if God were a puppet or a butler, waiting to respond to our beck and call. Neither does centering prayer “cause” God to be present — God is present always, regardless of whether we engage in centering prayer or not.
All centering prayer does is create the space, as it were, within us, where we can open ourselves to receive whatever blessing God chooses to give us (or not). Sometimes God blesses us with experiences of his presence; other times, we are blessed by experiences of absence and unknowing. We have no control over the spiritual dimension of our centering prayer experience.
Meanwhile, centering prayer is also a form of relaxation, a technique for calming the mind, and a tool for fostering a sense of inner calm and serenity.
Notice I did not say that centering prayer “leads to” narcissism or relativism; I said that the Daily Office is a safeguard against such pitfalls. It is not centering prayer itself that causes narcissism or relativism, but a combination of the human tendency to sin, and ignorance of how the Christian tradition understands and interprets contemplative experience, that can lead a sincere, but naive, practitioner of Christian spirituality into a non-Christian way of thinking about such experience. By narcissism I mean the temptation to conclude that, because meditative practices are unreliable in producing experiences of God, but are pretty good at inducing calm or serenity, that ultimately meditation is “all about me.” By relativism I mean the temptation to conclude that it really doesn’t matter if we interpret our meditation experiences using Christian symbolism, or the values and cosmology of any other wisdom tradition. If we are not immersing our centering prayer practice in the language and wisdom of the Christian tradition, we will try to find some way of understanding our experience, and it is certainly possible that we will settle for the “default setting” of our culture: a kind of religious relativism that, I believe, ultimately trivializes all religion and spirituality — not just Christianity.
Note here that I am not trying to demonize other traditions. But I recognize that many critics of centering prayer denounce it because they see it as a doorway away from orthodox Christianity. To the extent that Christians assume that centering prayer is a substitute for participation in the more mundane aspects of Christian observance (reading the Bible, participation in a faith community, engaging in conversational or liturgical prayer), they are, I believe, setting themselves up for just this kind of relativistic drift. It’s not that centering prayer causes it, it is that our human nature allows it. It is one thing to consciously decide one no longer wishes to be a Christian and wishes to engage in the teachings and practices of another tradition (or, relativistically, of no tradition at all). It is another thing to consciously decide (as I strive to do) that one is a faithful Christian, but open to learning from the wisdom of other paths, within one’s Christian practice. But then it is another thing altogether to more or less abdicate responsibility for one’s beliefs and values, naively assuming that a meditative or centering prayer practice is all that one needs. This is what I believe the critics are attacking, and I think they’re right. Practicing centering prayer in a vacuum (without engagement with the tradition, or the guidance of a wise spiritual director) will lead us to God only if we’re very lucky. It is far more likely to lead us nowhere more profound than our own navels.
This “meditation is all you need” idea, incidentally, is pretty much what the church has denounced as “quietism.” It is seen within Christianity as a distortion of mysticism. I think the church has rejected quietism for precisely the reasons I alluded to: that meditation/contemplation/centering prayer without grounding in wisdom leaves us vulnerable to our innate (sinful) tendency to become self-absorbed (narcissism) or lost in a values-free funhouse (relativism).