A reader of this blog named Pawel writes:
Hi Carl, What would be your advice for someone returning to Catholic faith through a practice like Centering Prayer (having been immersed in Eastern traditions for many years), but coming up against objections when trying to start with the “basics”? For example, I was looking for a good Bible study and came across The New Adventure Bible and the podcast by Fr. Mike Schmitz which look great, but I was dismayed to learn that he doesn’t approve of the practice of CP (https://bulldogcatholic.org/
2016/05/12/centering-prayer/). This makes me frustrated. Or should we somehow try to not expect teachers and guides to understand it, and ignore their objections and focus on the good parts of their teachings? Many thanks, Pawel
Thanks, Pawel. I looked at the link you provided, and from the very first sentence on, it misrepresents Centering Prayer. It betrays a disturbing lack of understanding of the history of Christian spirituality, coupled with a kind of theological xenophobia that is very much inconsistent with the spirit of Vatican II, which is to say, it’s outside the mainstream of Catholic spirituality. But, alas, this anti-Centering Prayer movement, part of a larger anti-interfaith dialog and even anti-contemplation movement, gets plenty of oxygen online, especially thanks to the ultra-conservative Catholic media empire EWTN.
But you asked for advice — and clearly, my first suggestion is to recognize that hostility to Centering Prayer is based on bad theology, a poor understanding of history, and spiritual xenophobia. Just as it is important to recognize that the people who believe in QAnon and believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent are placing their trust in bad information, likewise Catholics and other Christians who attack Centering Prayer for being “un-Christian” are likewise either acting in bad faith or have been misinformed.
Unfortunately, understanding this does not make their criticism go away. And just as we now live in a democracy where the poisonous actions of a small group of people has threatened the entire structure of our governance, so too the unfortunate ideas of a minority of Catholic chauvinists continue to circulate online, causing many sincere but uneducated Catholics (and other questions) to unnecessarily fear a beautiful and ancient form of Christian prayer.
Now, before I go deeper with my “advice,” let me make a fairly strong disclaimer. I think the most important words I can give you (or anyone) who is thinking about becoming Catholic — or making any other significant change in religious identity — is to trust your own heart and your own inner wisdom. Don’t change your religious identity to please anyone but yourself – and to foster your relationship with God. If you sincerely believe that your relationship with God can be better nurtured as a Catholic, then be Catholic. But if Catholicism proves to be an impediment to your faith development, then please (or stay) go where you can grow spiritually. I think God is far more glorified by vibrant, healthy Protestants than by frustrated, ill-at-ease Catholics — just as I think God is more truly glorified by happy Buddhists than by miserable Christians. And if it makes me a bad Catholic or a heretical Christian to think this way, then so be it.
So, my first suggestion to you, Pawel, is to take the time to truly understand what is driving your return to Catholicism. If it’s mostly about Centering Prayer, do you really need to be Catholic? Many non-Catholics (even some non-Christians) are dedicated practitioners of Centering Prayer. I do think it’s beautiful to embed a stable Centering Prayer practice in a sacramental faith community, but strictly speaking it’s not absolutely necessary. So take the time to consider if you are simply trying to deepen your Centering Prayer practice or if you are, in addition, truly discerning a desire to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.
Here’s a good thought experiment for this: would you still want to return to the Catholic Church even if Centering Prayer were no longer part of your spiritual practice? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you need to “give up” Centering Prayer, no matter what those who are hostile to the practice might think. But if you could (or could not) imagine finding fulfillment as a Catholic even without Centering Prayer, that can be a helpful way of discerning what you truly want, regarding the Church.
So now, let’s say you discern that you truly want to be a practicing Catholic, regardless of the role that Centering Prayer plays in your life. Whether we like it or not, in a church as big as Catholicism, there will be theologians, bishops and teachers who say things that we conscientiously disagree with. It’s a reality, and to think otherwise is to fool yourself. There is a lot of pious nonsense in the Catholic world about the church’s custodianship of the one true faith, implying that there is only one correct way of thinking about any given issue. But in fact, throughout history there has been just as much conflict and disagreement in the Catholic world as in any other human organization. Becoming a Catholic is not about conforming ourselves to a narrow, rigid, this-is-the-only-truth kind of doctrine. Rather, it is about immersion in a vibrant community of faith where there always has been, and continues to be, a variety of theological, moral and spiritual perspectives on many aspects of Church teaching, theology and spirituality. This is okay. What it means, however, is that we all have to find peace with the fact that we are members of a church where some people will bitterly disagree with us about many things.
To me, this diversity of thought and theology and practice is part of the glory of Catholicism, even though it means I have to deal with the messiness of being in communion with people like all the misinformed Centering-Prayer-haters. It also means I have to take responsibility for my own spiritual health and well-being, by nurturing relationships with intelligent, informed Catholics who are well educated and have a good grasp of history and theology. I won’t agree with those Catholics on every point either! But at least I can trust that their views are thoughtful, informed, and conscientious. I don’t mind disagreeing with people, even people I break bread with on Sunday mornings. But I do think we all owe it to each other to be conscientious about the ways in which we disagree.
So. If you are joining the Catholic Church, do so because you truly want to be Catholic, and not just because you are drawn to a single aspect of Catholic Culture (like Centering Prayer). And if you do decide to become a Catholic (or, indeed, to affiliate with any religious community), be at peace with the fact that you will sometimes conscientiously disagree with other members of your community — or even your leaders. A wise priest once told me that disagreeing with the Church does not make one a bad Catholic. But to be a happy and effective Catholic, even when you disagree with the Church or with many members of the community, requires a firm grounding in the love of God, the humility to accept that disagreement is normal, and the compassion to find ways to live peacefully even with those who are your ideological opponents.
If all of the above seems impossible, then you’re back to square one: maybe God is calling you to a different path. And that’s okay too!
I hope this is helpful, and I wish you many blessings on your journey!