What’s the difference between Ignatian Spirituality and Centering Prayer?

What’s the difference between Ignatian Spirituality and Centering Prayer? May 2, 2018

What is the difference between centering prayer and Ignatian spirituality?

To answer this question, let’s consider the difference between meditation and contemplation — or, perhaps we could say, the difference between a beautiful painting and the expansive wall on which it is hung.

A reader of this blog recently posted this on Facebook:

As I work with people interested in Centering Pray I also find an interest in Jesuit Spirituality. Could you do a short compare and contrast, or at least give us a few thoughts?

I’m so glad you asked me, because this question represents the two “centers” of my spiritual community here in the Atlanta area. You see, I am a member of a Catholic Church with Jesuit priests in charge, so of course we place a great emphasis on the treasures of Ignatian (or Jesuit) spirituality. But I’m also a professed lay associate of a Trappist (Cistercian) monastery — just like the monasteries where the centering prayer movement emerged over the last 40 years.

Sts. Ignatius of Loyola and John Cassian — teachers of two very different, but complementary, forms of Christian prayer.

The Ancient/New Practice of Centering Prayer

Although the centering prayer movement is a new (post-Vatican II) development in Christianity, it represents an ancient form of spiritual practice, going all the way back to the desert mothers and fathers of the third and fourth centuries (maybe even farther back than that, but that’s where our documentary evidence begins). Similar spiritual practices have been promoted by great Christian writers/thinkers like Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian,  John Climacus, and various Orthodox saints and mystics (whose writings have been preserved in a classic anthology of spiritual writings called the Philokalia) as well as the anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing and — especially in the eastern churches — modern figures like Theophane the Recluse.

What this great lineage of Christian spiritual teachers — nearly all of whom were monks — have in common is a commitment to contemplative prayer as an attentive, yet wordless, prayer of the heart — what John of the Cross called “silent love.” Centering prayer, which emphasizes a prayer of resting silently in the presence of God, placing our attention on a single “prayer word” so that our hearts may wordlessly rest in God’s love, represents a long tradition of Christian teachers who emphasize silence, restful watchfulness, and the recitation of a single word, verse, or phrase as a focal point of awareness — which allows the real work of prayer to take place, in the heart, below the threshold of conscious attention.

So the key word for centering prayer is silence. Not just an external silence (turn off the TV, smartphone, laptop, etc.), but more crucially, resting in the interior silence that is deeper than words or thoughts.

Incidentally, centering prayer, proper speaking, is not synonymous with contemplation — for contemplation is a gift from God, not something we achieve by our own efforts. But centering prayer is a prayer which disposes the praying person to contemplation. It’s a way, so to speak, to say to God, “Here I am, and I choose to wait for you in silence, to be still and know you, God, in my heart.”

From Silence to the Imagination

What, then, is Ignatian or Jesuit spirituality, and how does it differ from the contemplative exercise of centering prayer?

Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, wrote a classic book for spiritual directors called Spiritual Exercises. In this book, he commends a specific approach to prayer that emphasizes the use of imagination as a way of praying.

Think of it this way. Instead of just reciting words to Jesus, like you were speaking to him via telephone, for your prayer you take a story from the Gospels and visualize it in your mind’s eye, and then imaginatively place yourself in the midst of the story. So you might see yourself in the crowd when Jesus rescues the woman who committed adultery from the men who want to stone her. Or you might be listening to him as he preaches the sermon on the mount, or even imagine yourself as one of the 5000+ people who are fed through the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

The beauty of imaginative prayer is that is allows us to use an ordinary human faculty — the mind’s eye, our inner ability to visualize events with our imagination — and create an inner forum for encountering Christ, or Mary, or one of the saints. And that’s truly the heart of Ignatian prayer: it’s not a passive type of visualization, as if we were watching a movie in our minds. Rather, the point behind Ignatian prayer is that we encounter Christ through the medium of our own minds, our own capacity for visualization, imagination, and wonder.

Even though Ignatian spirituality (like most classical forms of spirituality) values silence, technically speaking Ignatian prayer is not “silent” at least not in an interior way. We may seek out exterior silence to allow our prayer to be undisturbed, but on the inside we enrich our prayer with all our imaginative senses: we smell the incense, feel the dusty road beneath our feet, shield our eyes from the dazzling light of the sun, and listen for the words of Jesus as he speaks directly to us.

Apophatic and Kataphatic

Here are a couple of theological words to help understand the distinction between Ignatian and Centering forms of prayer. Ignatian prayer is kataphatic — from a Greek word that means “to affirm” or “to speak emphatically.” Kataphatic prayer is a type of prayer that uses positive ways of imagining, thinking about, or speaking of God. It finds God in created things, in our thoughts and feelings, in our ordinary human capacity for imagination and visualization.

By contrast, centering prayer is apophatic — from another Greek word meaning “without words” or “away from words.” This kind of spirituality stresses the mystical and essential hiddenness of God: “Truly you are a God who hides yourself,” as Isaiah put it (45:15). Apophatic prayer is the prayer that recognizes that no words or images are ever adequate to understand or comprehend God; that ultimately human language and comprehension fail before the divine mystery and majesty. Therefore, silence becomes the most reliable medium for prayer. As the medieval Jewish writer Rashi put it, “Silence is God’s most eloquent praise, since elaboration must leave glaring omissions.”

Put another way, Ignatian spirituality seeks to find God in all things, while centering prayer recognizes that God is so much great than any or all things, that ultimately only silence can bring us into the divine presence. Kataphatic spirituality we could compare to a colorful painting; apophatic spirituality, therefore, would be the simplicity of the empty wall behind the painting: imageless and colorless, but present and beautiful in its own austere way.

Which kind of prayer is right for me?

How do we choose between the richly imaginative exercise of Ignatian prayer, or the unadorned yet restful silence of centering prayer? Which type of prayer is right for you, or me, or anyone?

The answer is, “It depends.” Some people by temperament are more comfortable with kataphatic or aphophatic types of spirituality. Others may enjoy both forms. And still others may find that at one point in their lives they prefer Ignatian meditation, and at other times they are drawn to centering prayer as a way of preparing for contemplation.

A wise person once said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking one of these types of prayer is “higher” or “better” than the other. Think of them rather as different paths leading up the same mountain. The goal is to get to the summit, no matter what route we take.


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