Four Questions about Centering Prayer and Other Forms of Contemplative Practice

Four Questions about Centering Prayer and Other Forms of Contemplative Practice March 22, 2019

I received the following email from a reader. I’m editing it slightly for the purpose of clarity, but otherwise posting it in its entirety.

My question hovers around how centering prayer and Cynthia Bourgeault’s expression of it sits in tension with Orthodox traditions of the Jesus Prayer. Bourgeault figures centering prayer as a unique and innovative method of contemplation that represents something new. I’m an Episcopal priest and new is really not my thing. I’m interested in recovery of the ancient traditions of the church — ressourcement as de Lubac, Danielou et all would say — and I wonder about this trumpeting of innovation. Is there really a new method of connecting with God or is this just a new articulation?

More specifically, I wonder about this hard and fast distinction between so-called concentrative methods and receptive methods — intention vs attention. Centering prayer has made serious hay over this distinction and I wonder if it actually exists. Having done lots of centering prayer intensives, I must say that from my perceptive many people doing centering prayer are spacing out, going to sleep, in the name of contemplation. A little concentrative attention seems to called for — both to recognize what is coming up and to let it go.  I’ve been doing intensive contemplative practice for 25 years and it just doesn’t jell with my experience. I wonder what you think about this “methods fetish” approach to contemplation. It’s about relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit after all!
Perhaps what it boils down to is a question about letting everything be as it is and the invocation of the name. I find these exist on a continuum. As Theophane says we beat our wings sometimes and sometimes we glide in the silence of resting in God. Both schools of centering prayer and Christian meditation, inspired by Dom Main, seem to instrumentalize what can’t be spoken of or performed as technique — relationship with Christ. I worry that in making contemplation approachable we turn it into a technique and then begin to quibble over the merits of whatever school we are aligned with. That the quibbling also results in book sales/website hits is another more cynical concern of mine.
My personal experience is that the prayer word changes — it starts as an object of attention, but then becomes the background — awareness itself in which all things arise as awareness. The prayer word dilates from concentrative to receptive and so-called objects of attention are seen are also arisings of awareness/God itself. It’s simply nonsense to say that the Jesus Prayer or mantra practice is the equivalent of whack a mole. It’s silly, dismissive, and belies a kind of “my method is better than yours” rivalry that is totally opposed to the nature of prayer and God’s unconditional love for us.
My worry is that relationship with the risen Christ gets reduced to a method…. “Concentrative = bad” and “receptive = good.” Bourgeault seems to push this notion and it reduces prayer to technique and not relationship with Christ. I know this is not the intention, but I am concerned that in her “methods fetish” relationship gets reduced to something we do rather that the fruit of full surrender and something God does in us — even if that means using a concentrative technique.
Broader concerns about the place of repentance and resting in God just as we are as well, but that is enough for now.
There’s a lot here! Speaking directly to my priest friend: I appreciate your nuanced question — really a series of questions — and there’s no way I can respond to it fully in a single blog post. Unfortunately, your question arrived right as we entered into lent, which for me (like for priests) is a time when my schedule is full. So it might take me a few weeks to get to every topic you mention. I beg your patience, but I so appreciate the questions and I think it will be interesting and hopefully useful for us to explore these topics on this blog.
To summarize, here’s what I see you’re asking:
  • Question One: Is Centering Prayer “Something Old” or “Something New”?
  • Question Two: Understanding Intention and Attention in Contemplative Prayer
  • Question Three: Prayer as Method, Prayer as Technique
  • Question Four: Rest and Repentance on the Contemplative Journey

We’ve got four weeks between now and Easter, so I’ll try to respond to each of these on a weekly basis.

But just a few thoughts now…

First, perhaps most important, I certainly cannot speak for Cynthia Bourgeault. I’m assuming your questions are inspired by her recent book The Heart of Centering Prayer. Bourgeault freely admits, “I do a few things distinctly differently here from the standard methodology of a Contemplative Outreach introductory workshop.” And while I have read The Heart of Centering Prayer, I’m much more familiar with the “standard methodology” so my answer will reflect my experience rather than any attempt to defend (or attack) Bourgeault’s position.

Which leads to a related point: obviously I can only speak about centering prayer — or any other contemplative practice — out of my own experience, both as a practitioner and as a retreat leader.

Finally — perhaps most important — I think it’s important to evaluate centering prayer or any other practice in light of “best practices” — I don’t really care for that term, but I don’t know of a better way to put it. In other words, I’m less concerned about what other people do with centering prayer — whether they appear to be spacing out or falling asleep — and am more concerned with how the practice supports me in my faith journey. But having said this, I recognize that the reader who wrote in is a priest, and so may be expressing some pastoral concern here.

So that’s another question: how do we support one another to make sure that we are practicing the method well? “Do not judge” is a good rule of thumb for the ordinary practitioner — focus on your own prayer life rather than worrying about the person next to you who seems to be nodding off. But for clergy or spiritual directors or centering prayer group leaders, that’s a more meaningful question, since others have entrusted us to their spiritual care. I’ll try to keep this subtle but important distinction in the back of my mind as I address the above four questions. But in general, it seems to me that if people in leadership positions are taking good care of their own practice, then they are in a better position to offer constructive feedback to others who may need that kind of support.

If you’re reading this and have any initial thoughts in response to my reader’s email or the above questions, please feel free to post a comment here. Otherwise, stay tuned — we’ll take a closer look at each of these questions in the weeks to come.

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