Centering Prayer, Narcissism and Relativism

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).

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  1. Amen! Great post, well said. Thank you Carl…

  2. brazenbird says:

    Thank you, Carl, for answering my question so thoroughly and thoughtfully. That helped a lot.

  3. Ron Barnett says:

    Well said, especially the point that Centering Prayer disposes one to contemplative prayer (a grace). One point of contrast in viewpoint however is in describing Centering Prayer as “a form of relaxation, a technique for calming the mind, and a tool for fostering a sense of inner calm and serenity.” While such outcomes may occur, the practice, as developed by Keating/Menninger/Pennington is valid even when they do not. The validity of the prayer arises from one’s consent to “God’s presence and action within” that is an expression of and occurs within the context of an overall relationship with God. Teachers of Centering Prayer often refer to it not as a “technique” (implying a specific outcome when the technique is applied) but rather as a “method” of predisposing one to God’s influence, where the specific outcomes are unknown at the time of consent and prayer and are known only in time as God’s direction, i.e. usually in daily life outside of the formal period of prayer.

  4. Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” Non-discursive meditation, contemplation or centering prayer may allow us to get beyond the ego and individuality to a transpersonal awareness of the divine unity of life. St. John of the Cross said “The soul lives by that which it loves rather than in the body which it animates. For it has not its life in the body, but rather gives it to the body and lives in that which it loves.”

  5. Rustantio says:

    Dear All

    And now, Centering Prayer and WCCM Christian Meditation, what’s exactly Difference?

    What Jesus did in 40 day in Desert then evil tempt His. is He practice Contemplative?
    if Jesus did Contemplative, what’s a kind Contemplative He did? is He practice breath control, relaxation, and other eastern meditation technical?

    If we know what a kind of how Jesus Contemplative’s used maybe the controversy is over :)

    what i do now is take Rosary and St. Fuastina Rosary with centering prayer mood. i chose sacred word with Rosary and Faustina word, maybe is too long sacred word but no problem with me, of course in Liturgy also i don’t know is it another syncretism :) ?

  6. Ron Barnett says:

    Some time back Laurence Freeman and Thomas Keating issued a joint statement, “Unity in Contemplation.” Here’s a portion of it regarding method (sacred symbol and mantra):

    “The differences of approach to practice, particularly on the issues of the mantra or sacred symbol, are subtle expressions of the richness of the Christian tradition, not divisions. Wisdom and experience however suggest a person persevere in the same practice once undertaken. Living the wisdom of the contemplative path is a matter of faith active in love, not of spiritual techniques. Contemplation is primarily practice not theory and hence requires fidelity to a method or discipline.” The full statement is available here

    I’d add that in practice Centering Prayer is primarily working with intention/consent) and Christian Meditation with attention – but both practices serve the same process, a relationship of increased intimacy with God.

  7. Rustantio says:

    Thanks Mr Ron Barnett for info of WCCM and (not vs :) ) Centering Prayer,
    Thanks Mr Carl for anamchara web

  8. Simon Whitney says:

    I think you have treated Centering Prayer very sensitively – there is a growing body of concern and criticism. I think that you have highlighted some of the main issues.

    For my part, I just wanted to add that the originators of Centering Prayer certainly regarded it as an amalgamation of Christian Meditation and Contemplation and techniques gathered from Eastern religions. This is what they said in 1978:

    “We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age old wisdom of the East and “capture” it for Christ. Indeed, those of us who are in ministry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible… Many Christians who take their prayer life seriously have been greatly helped by Yoga, Zen, TM and similar practices, especially where they have been initiated by reliable teachers and have a solidly developed Christian faith to find inner form and meaning to the resulting experiences”. (Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington, Finding Grace at the Center. pp. 5-6) Published 1978

    Fr Keating went on to say:

    “The historical roots of Centering Prayer reach back to St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where I was Abbott from 1961 to 1981. This was during the time of the first wave of the renewal of religious life after the Second Vatican Council, where many questions were raised for the first time and interreligious dialogue was encouraged by the Holy See. Several of us at Spencer became acquainted with groups from other spiritual traditions who resided in our area. We invited several spiritual teachers from the Eastern religions as well as some ecumenically skilled Catholic theologians to visit and speak with us. Fr Thomas Merton was still alive at this time and writing extensively about his researches and exchanges in interreligious dialogue. He was one of the most articulate pioneers from the Christian side in the dialogue among world religions.

    In a similar spirit we entertained a Zen master who wished to visit our monastery. We invited him to speak to the community and later to give a sesshin (a week long intensive retreat). For nine years after that, he held sesshins once or twice a year at a nearby retreat house. During those years I had the privilege of making several sesshins with him. On the occasion of his first sesshin held in our monastery, he put on the Cistercian habit and ate with us in the refectory. We have a picture of him on his seventieth birthday eating a piece of cake while sitting in the half lotus position.

    We were also exposed to the Hindu tradition through Transcendental Meditation. Paul Marechal, a former monk of Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, a daughter monastery, had become a TM teacher and offered to instruct us in this practice. Many in the community wanted to experience it.

    Exposure to these traditions, as well as conversations with visitors to our monastery who had benefitted from them, naturally raised many questions in my mind as I tried to harmonise the wisdom of the East with the contemplative tradition on Christianity that I had been studying and trying to practice for thirty years.”

    In 1989 the Church warned against amalgamating Eastern Techniques with Christian Prayer in “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation” written by Ratzinger (or, at least, signed by him). In 1993 Keating responded directly to the letter by saying:

    “Having noted this affirmation of the value of Eastern practices when rightly integrated into Christian faith, may I point out that Centering Prayer is the one contemporary from of contemplative practice that does not
    make use of any of these techniques.”

    The point is that Keating seems to say one thing in 1978 and something very different in 1993.

  9. rustantio says:

    wow, what’s is in the world contempelation? :)

    are there three key word, maybe?
    inculturation versus aculturation versus syncretism?
    that question it is not my competence
    so, i am waiting for solution :)

    i have no time also to find solving the problem of comtemporary cotempelation because i am very tired in the strugle of live in atomistic, rivalry life of capitalism society.

    Capitalism society is steal my Family Time Living and culture confusion shock. There is daily my family life: wake up early – traffic jump – rivarly business – traffic jumps – late night arriving home, oh my dear :)
    where is the time for silentium? in traffict jump.

    so, i am waiting for solution :)

    Before the solution is come, i have one world of solution, it is silentium.

    The my first teacher of silentuim is Shadana by Anthony de Mello, SJ, but it controvercy also :)
    Then Ignatian Exercise but i have no teacher :)
    Then Charismatic Ministry but i can pray in pop song :)
    Then Centering Prayer but it contain controvercy also :)
    Then another problem is i spend too much time to read contempletive books but lazy to practice :)

    so what can i do?
    I need liturgy and devotional prayer then Silentium Prayer also because life is hard.

    Why silentium?
    Silentium not only reduce stress of capitalism life syndrom but i am sure that the silentium is prayer language also.

    in silentium i learn of mistaken, etc,
    in silentium i find the intuitive what can i do in all stress capitalsm syndrom and all controversy.

    mybe, all culture has silentium method, what we chose?
    Then where is Siletium Prayer that recemended by church?
    what a kind silentium prayer that Abraham used?
    what a kind silentium prayer that Moses used in Sinai?
    what a kind silentium prayer Johannes used in desert?
    what a kind silentium prayer that Lord Jesus used in 40 day desert and daily life?

    I think only in experince in silentium the Ignatian discernment will work.
    I think in daily strugle of live in stress capitalism society, we need silentium and Ignatian discernment.

    How hard to love in capitalism society?
    how to change capitalism society? i am not powerfull and charismatic Che Guevara nor Father Gustavo Gutiérrez :)
    Survival of live, love in small thing, work, pray and silentium that can i do now.

    I hope Centering Prayer contain benefit of Ignatian discernment?

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