As my passion for prayer has increased and I have learned more about Christian prayer (see recent post), I have become more and more concerned about the popularity of "centering prayer" among Catholics and even in Catholic parishes. Fr. Thomas Keating is a leading Catholic proponent of centering prayer, and yet what he says and promotes is not in line with the very clear teachings of our Church (through the Catechism and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) and her saints (especially prayer master and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila).
If you are Catholic, stay away from centering prayer. You will not advance to supernatural, infused contemplation using the techniques, methods, and philosophies promulgated by Fr. Keating and his followers.
If you have any doubts, then you need to read what our very own Connie Rossini has written in her latest book, Is Centering Prayer Catholic?: Fr. Thomas Keating Meets Teresa of Avila and the CDF.
I had the privilege of reading this short, clear, and concise work when it was still just in e-book form (it is now available in paperback), and here is the review I wrote on Amazon:
I came to this book looking for a clear understanding of the Catholic position on centering prayer. I had heard good things about Fr. Thomas Keating from several Catholics of good will, and I had also been warned by other good Catholics to steer clear of his writings and methods. More than anything, I strive to be faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and for that reason, this book is a godsend.
With the utmost charity and detached consideration, Connie Rossini has given us a simple, clear, and practical way to compare authentic Catholic prayer and centering prayer. She places the words of St. Teresa of Avila (Doctor of the Church and prayer master) and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office which spreads and defends sound doctrine) side-by-side with Fr. Keating's words on centering prayer.
The results are astonishing and, frankly, frightening for anyone practicing or considering centering prayer.
While Fr. Keating and his supporters claim that centering prayer is compatible with Catholic prayer traditions, it becomes clear early on in the book that such a claim is impossible. In fact, true Catholic contemplation stands in stark contrast to the methods and goals of centering prayer, which is simply eastern transcendental meditation under a "Catholic" label.
For example, Fr. Keating "states repeatedly that one should ignore every thought during prayer, and every type of communication and inspiration coming from God himself. He urges his followers to use a 'sacred word' during prayer, but not only can that word be something completely secular if one chooses, Fr. Keating says that 'the less the word means to you, the better.'"
Contrast that to what we read about prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ..."
And St. Teresa utterly contradicts Fr. Keating's directive of "letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts” when she says:
"Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done; nor should we cease to work with the intellect, because otherwise we would be left like cold simpletons and be doing neither one thing nor the other."
Chapter by chapter, subject by subject, we see clearly how Fr. Keating's centering prayer theologically confuses almost every aspect of Catholic meditation and contemplation. By the end of the book, we have seen that...
"...Centering Prayer proposes an unorthodox relationship between God and the soul. It speaks of the spiritual life as coming to a greater consciousness, rather than conquering sin and learning to live according to God’s will. It misconstrues the place of the intellect and will in prayer. It sees no real distinctions between Catholic theology and Eastern religions. It denies the real change that takes place at death, sees growth in emotional freedom as the primary sign of spiritual growth, tells practitioners to ignore thoughts of God or inspirations from him during prayer, and urges the use of a 'sacred word' that might as well be gibberish. Centering Prayer takes Buddhist and Hindu meditation techniques, adds a few Christian terms, and calls it a new expression of the Catholic contemplative tradition. Its focus, its purpose, and its practice are all out of step with the teachings of Teresa of Avila, the unrivaled master teacher of the contemplative life." [And the teachings of the CDF and the Catechism as well.]The phrase "accept no substitutes" comes to mind when I think of those tempted to centering prayer. If you desire to move through the stages of holiness and prayer and to achieve true spiritual union with God through infused contemplation, stay on course with Catholic tradition and teaching presented by the masters of Christian prayer and by the Church herself, and stay far, far away from the New Age philosophies and emptiness of centering prayer.
Learn more about prayer, learn how to pray, and you will find union with God while still on this earth. The peace and joy that comes with that union is not an emptiness or a loss of ourselves, but rather a personal and intimate relationship with the Beloved, a relationship for which we were all made, and without which we can never be satisfied.