Catholic Centering Prayer is found in many parishes across the country and is a popular movement within Catholic retreat houses. Some Catholics practice it, while others have never heard of it, and still others feel the practice is problematic. So, is Centering Prayer Catholic? (If you would rather watch the video, click here.)
Unfortunately, centering prayer is not authentic Catholic prayer. It was founded by a priest named Father Thomas Keating who held dialogues with Hindus and Buddhists for 20 years. Additionally, he held week long Zen Buddhist retreats for his Catholic monks every year for nearly ten years.
Keating then sought to merge Catholic mysticism with what he had learned from Eastern Oriental spirituality, and the result was centering prayer, not really Catholic and filled with non-Christian practices and beliefs.
This short article will show some of the many problems with centering prayer. A complete address of this topic may be found in our new book Counterfeit Spirituality coming out on April 10th, 2020 with Our Sunday Visitor.
The Problems with Centering Prayer
The Hindu and Buddhist foundation of centering prayer causes it to be seriously flawed. When we search the writings of Fr. Keating, we also find problematic theology that has been influenced by Eastern Oriental religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
For example, in his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Keating states the Hindu concept that God and ourself are One. Keating states, “God and our true Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing” (Keating, 158; emphasis added).
In stark contrast, the Catholic Church makes it clear that even though man is made in the likeness of God, he will never be God, and they are not the same thing. Nor are we absorbed into God in any way. We remain separate for all eternity. With such basic theology compromised, who can trust Fr. Keating to direct us properly in prayer and spirituality?
Centering Prayer is Not Prayer
Factually speaking, centering prayer is not prayer! Prayer is praying to Someone, and it is a relationship with Someone: God. Centering prayer does not pray to God, relate with Him, nor does it meditate on Him in any way.
Rather, centering prayer seeks to quiet the mind to a state of zero or complete nothingness by using a mantra, a sacred word that a person slowly repeats. It can be any word and does not even have to be a religious word.
According to Keating, the purpose of this mantra is to help a person remove all thoughts from one’s mind, even holy thoughts. Over time, it creates a mental void and a blank state within a person which Keating says allows us to “consent to God.”
Though proponents of centering prayer seek to draw closer to God, which is commendable, their way of doing so is an impediment. It is a form of Zen Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation in which the goal is to completely empty the mind to a blank state rather than the Christian goal of having a personal relationship with their Savior and filling their mind and heart with Him, as the Christian Scriptures state.
Fr. Keating states; “The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during the time of prayer, even the most devout thoughts” (Keating, 21). A few pages later, he adds, “Even if you have a vision, or hear infused words, you should return to the sacred word” (Ibid, Pg. 27).
What was that?? Did he just say that if God Himself gives you a vision to not accept it? If God speaks to you, you should not listen but return to the word?
This is highly problematic and one of the many errors associated with centering prayer that will hinder deep union with God.
In Christian prayer, we should always have our attention focused on God. If our focus is merely on a word, or worse yet, on nothingness, then our focus is very much in the wrong place.
The truth is that in prayer, if God grants us a vision or speaks to us, we should listen and give Him our full and immediate attention. After all, He is not doing it for his health. The end goal of prayer is a personal love relationship with our God, not an empty mind!
We may try to clear our mind (not prayer) in order to pray to God more effectively, but the problem with centering prayer is that many times it stops at the emptying, and the emptying becomes the goal.
Total emptiness of thought is a Buddhist concept, and most Buddhists do not believe in God. Emptying your mind to a blank state is no way to conduct a relationship with anyone, much less the God of the universe. A quiet mind focused on God is one thing; an empty mind is with no thoughts or focus on God’s presence is something else entirely.
Even if one reaches the heights of contemplation and the mental faculties are entirely suspended in God, that person is still completely aware of their Lord and their whole being is caught up in Him. Centering prayer would ignore that and return to the word and the process of emptying. See the difference?
Fr. Thomas Dubay, spiritual prayer master of our time, acknowledges that CP is an obstacle to contemplation and intimacy with God. He says, “If you are in contemplative prayer, centering prayer is a hindrance, because if it is real contemplative prayer, God is the one giving you the knowing, loving, desiring and thirsting, etc, and your method of working with a mantra is impeding what he’s trying to give” (Article: Centering Prayer can be a Detriment).
What we need is a mind that is fully quiet but centered on God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Some people worry that any sort of sitting in silence is false prayer, but this is untrue. Silence is what leads to deep prayer and communion with His Majesty. There is a difference between sitting in emptiness with no thoughts and sitting in silence with a mind that’s clear of distractions and attentively focused on God (even if little is said or thought).
Again, learning to quiet our wandering minds from distractions is a good and necessary thing. Mental focus can only make us better lovers of Christ. However, to rid ourselves entirely of all thoughts and call this emptiness “prayer” is very different.
So, is centering prayer Catholic prayer? Unfortunately, it is not authentic Catholic prayer. While aspects of it may be utilized toward prayer, centering prayer itself is full of problems, only a few of which are mentioned in this article.
To summarize: if a person desires to take some time before prayer to quiet their thoughts in order to focus all their attention on God and His presence, there is nothing wrong with that. Even if one desires to employ a word toward this end for a short time, that is acceptable too as long as it is a prayerful word or phrase and as long as the person eventually moves into actual prayer with God or focuses on His presence within them and around them.
This article was a very short articulation of centering prayer and Catholic Centering Prayer. More information may be found in our new book, Counterfeit Spirituality which comes out on April 10th, 2020 with Our Sunday Visitor. Other topics covered in the book are: Reiki, Yoga, the Law of Attraction, Mindfulness, and much more. The book discusses which practices are good, which ones are not, and how a person may know the difference.