Is Centering Prayer “Old” or “New”?

Is Centering Prayer “Old” or “New”? March 26, 2019
An old book cannot contain new knowledge. But a new book just might contain old wisdom.

Last week on this blog I posted a detailed email I received from a reader which included several wonderful questions. You can read the full email here.

I’m going to take on the questions from that email one at a time. This week, we’re considering “is centering prayer something old or something new.”

Here’s the question in the reader’s own words….

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?

Since you’re an Episcopalian, I’m going to use an Episcopalian example to try to unpack the nuance of your question. Centering Prayer is “new” in the sense that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was “new.” Yes, it was a brand-new prayer book when it was published 40 years ago (has it really been that long?). But to the extent that the 1979 Prayer Book includes many ancient forms of prayer, from the Psalms to many of the collects and other prayers included, it’s not really entirely accurate or fair to dismiss the ’79 BCP as completely “new.” It is a new edition of a very old resource.

I think the analogy holds water for centering prayer. Centering prayer is a new “method” — that’s an important word, and in a future post I’m going to look at the difference between method and technique — but it is based on some very old teachings.

So is it new? Of course it is. Is it old? Absolutely. Am I contradicting myself? Let me invoke Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I’m not just trying to be cheeky here (okay, well, maybe a little) — for you see, centering prayer, like Walt Whitman, is large and contains “multitudes” — a multitude of responses to the calls of God, from “pray without ceasing” to “be still and know” to “preach the gospel in a manner appropriate to your time.”

Responding to a Specific Need

Centering prayer emerged at a specific point in Christian history in response to a specific need — the church’s need to rediscover our own mystical and contemplative heritage in response to the encounter with eastern methods of meditation, including TM, zazen, vipassana and shamatha practices. Centering prayer, on the surface, is very much structured as a “Christian alternative” to TM.

But this is like comparing the binding of a book to the wisdom it contains. An old book cannot contain new knowledge. But a new book just might contain old wisdom. That’s what centering prayer is: a new “book” (method) containing ancient wisdom indeed.

In fact, it looks so much like TM that a certain segment of xenophobic Christians have rejected it for being “too eastern” or as a mere “Christianized form of eastern meditation.”

But that line of attacking centering prayer is based on ignorance of eastern meditation practices, ignorance of the centering prayer method (and the subtle but real ways that it is different from eastern practices), and ignorance of Christian history.

Because centering prayer is based not on transcendental meditation, but on the teachings of desert mothers and fathers (especially John Cassian and Evagrius) and even more specifically on the teachings of The Cloud of Unknowing. What many people don’t know is that before it was called “centering prayer,” the centering prayer method was described as “the prayer of the Cloud of Unknowing.” That original description is not as marketable, perhaps, but it does remind us that the heart of this practice is very old indeed.

So let’s be clear. The Cloud of Unknowing and the desert mothers and fathers do not promote silent prayer for twenty minutes twice a day. That’s the “new” bit, and it’s an explicit borrowing from TM. Also new is the practice of teaching this method through introductory workshops and fostering small centering prayer groups at the parish/congregational level.

In other words, it’s the “infrastructure” that supports the daily practice of this prayer that is “new.” And it needs to be new, because historically, the only way most Christians got exposed to this kind of prayer was to join a monastery or convent. For hundreds of years, Catholics had an erroneous misunderstanding that contemplative practices were only for “advanced” Christians. Protestants, meanwhile, had rejected contemplative practices when they rejected the monasteries that had been the custodians of such practices.

So as the twentieth century rolled on, and more and more Christians recognized that contemplative practices belonged to all Christians, not just the ‘professionals,’ it became obvious that we needed new ways to teach and guide those who were serious about having a sustained practice of this kind of prayer. Which is why the lay ministry of spiritual direction, along with structured ministries like Contemplative Outreach, Shalem, or the World Community for Christian Meditation, have all emerged (and prospered) over the last fifty years.

But make no mistake: the practice itself is ancient. It’s found in The Cloud and in the writings of Evagrius and Cassian. It’s as old as all those wonderful old prayers that are bound up in the “new” 1979 prayer book.

Can it Be Innovative and Traditional At the Same Time?

But the question from my reader is not just about centering prayer as a new “method” or “program” of contemplative prayer. He is responding to Cynthia Bourgeault, who in her book The Heart of Centering Prayer, speaks of “Centering Prayer’s powerful and innovative contribution to the received wisdom of Western spirituality.” Clearly, Bourgeault does see centering prayer as an innovation — not just a “new articulation.”

But to address that question takes us to the next topic that I was asked about: the distinction between intention and attention in contemplative practice. In The Heart of Centering Prayer, Bourgeault suggests that centering prayer represents a method for practicing “objectless awareness” which helps the person praying to cultivate a new, non-dual way of seeing.

Here’s the interesting question: in the older teachings (from Evagrius, Cassian, The Cloud and so forth), you never see any mention of objectless awareness or non-dual seeing. So does all this really represent a new type of practice — or a new understanding of the practice? I would argue for the latter. Bourgeault is not championing a new way to pray so much as a new, and more nuanced, understanding of how this ancient way of praying works in the mind and heart of the practitioner. I hope to explore this theme further in next week’s post.

A Final Thought

One last thought, this is specifically for my friend the Episcopal priest, who said “I’m an Episcopal priest and new is really not my thing.” I’d like to challenge you on that. One of the last sentences in the New Testament, where Christ is quoted, is this gem from Revelation 21:5:

Behold, I make all things new!

You can try to explain that away by saying that Christ is speaking in a very specific context in this work of visionary literature. But I think it’s also a pretty not-so-subtle reminder that innovation and newness, in themselves, are not necessarily the enemy of the spiritual life. To say “new is not really my thing” is to make a pretty bold statement of personal dogma. I certainly would hope that we can all calibrate our hearts, not to tradition or to innovation, but to Christ — wherever he may be found. Sometimes he comes to us in the tried and true, but sometimes he appears in surprisingly new ways. After all, whatever old prayers or practices that matter so much to you: once upon a time, they were new. If you reject “the new” just because it’s new, I think you’re running a pretty significant risk of turning “the old” into an idol. Just something to be mindful of.

Next week I will carry on with my reader’s questions. His further questions involve looking more closely at the actual form of the centering prayer method, particularly in relation to distinction between intention and attention. From there we’ll look at the difference between method and technique, and finally consider the role of both “rest” and “repentance” in the contemplative life.

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