The Most Common Criticism of Centering Prayer — and Why It’s a Fallacy

Sigh.

Last night I stumbled across yet another website from a well-meaning, but obviously misinformed, Catholic blogger who attacks Centering Prayer as “un-Catholic.” Not only has she spilled a lot of ink on her blog about this topic, but she has written an e-book filled with her denunciations of Centering Prayer that you can buy on Amazon for just a few books. Forgive me for not linking back to this person or her e-book, but frankly I can’t in good conscience promote her or her work. Unfortunately, if you google “criticism of Centering Prayer” you will find plenty of bloggers and others who take it upon themselves to tell you that a spiritual practice that they don’t like is therefore bad for everyone.

I suppose I should just pass over critics like this in silence. After all, everything has detractors, right? But what bothered me about this person I encountered last night, is that she writes about mysticism and about contemplation; she wants to promote a deeper spirituality for Catholics, which is a good thing; but then she undermines her message by her denunciation of one of the most widespread and beautiful contemplative practices available in our time.

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. That google search reveals how numerous websites, e-books, and tracts have been published over the years with titles like “Is Centering Prayer Dangerous?” or “Centering Prayer isn’t Christian.” Generally speaking, authors of this kind of calumny fall into one of two camps, they are either fundamentalist evangelicals, or ultra-traditionalist Catholics. Frankly, even the Catholics probably deserve to be called “fundamentalist” as well (one of the biggest attackers of Centering Prayer is the reactionary cable television network EWTN, which Pope Francis recently characterized as doing “the devil’s work”).

I’ve read plenty of these anti-Centering websites and tracts over the years, and they often end up arguing (speciously) that Centering Prayer is wrong because it is too “eastern” or “non-Christian” (ironically, fundamentalist evangelicals attack it because it is too “Catholic”!). The common theme: this is “other” and “other” is bad.

But probably the single most common criticism of Centering Prayer is that it “empties the mind.” The blogger I stumbled across last night made this accusation; I see it again and again. Not only is it a misunderstanding of Centering Prayer, but this falsehood opens the gate to bad theology and to a distorted idea of sin. So today I’d like to take this on. If you are worried about Centering Prayer because somebody told you it is a technique for emptying the mind and that emptying the mind is “wrong,” then I hope this post will help you to have a better understanding.

The Most Common Criticism of Centering Prayer

The most common criticism of Centering Prayer goes like this.

A. Centering Prayer involves “emptying the mind”;
B. An emptied mind is vulnerable to attack from the devil;
C. Therefore, God dislikes, or even hates, Centering Prayer.

Usually, the critics will only state the first two propositions, but the third one is pretty much always implied.

This argument begins with a misunderstanding of Centering Prayer, proceeds to a misunderstanding of how sin and temptation work in the human heart, and finishes up with a toxic image of God. In other words, it’s a fallacy through and through.

Let’s examine this more closely.

A. Centering Prayer has never been about emptying the mind, but rather about learning to notice how our hearts and minds are full of God’s loving silence. The practice of Centering Prayer involves praying a Sacred Word: how is that “emptying”? It’s not, it’s simply a gesture of learning to let go of how ordinary consciousness is enmeshed in thoughts and feelings. Centering Prayer is a gesture of non-attachment, not some sort of spiritual vacuum cleaner. A mind and heart at rest are not empty, but are full: full of silence, full of serenity, full of God’s loving presence. That’s the promise of Centering Prayer.
B. Since Centering Prayer is not about emptying the mind, it makes no sense to criticize it because an emptied mind is spiritually vulnerable. Furthermore, as I will explain later in this article, the traditional understanding of sin is that it is thoughts, not silence, that render us vulnerable to committing sin. Therefore, a practice like Centering Prayer is actually spiritually safe.
C. Maybe not all critics of Centering Prayer would go so far as to insist that God hates it — but they usually imply that, at the least, God disapproves. This is an unfortunate way of thinking about God, that emphasizes God as wrathful rather than loving. It flies in the face of the teaching, both in the Bible and throughout the history of the mystics, that God is Love.

A Better Way to Think About Centering Prayer

Okay, now let’s look at a more accurate understanding of Centering Prayer, grounded in a more healthy theology:

A. Centering Prayer is a gesture of consent to God’s presence and action within.
B. By allowing thoughts to come and go, Centering Prayer invites us to be attentive to the silence within us.
C. Silence is a way of praising God (Psalm 65:1, translated correctly) and a way to wait upon God (Psalm62).

But what about the devil? Certainly we need to be on the guard against demonic influence in our hearts, right? I agree that protecting ourselves from thoughts and images that tempt us to unloving behavior is basic to both mental and spiritual well-being. This is true whether you believe in a literal devil or simply see “the devil” as a mythic personification of evil, the same way that Santa Claus is the personification of generosity.

But I think it’s important to remember that Christianity has always understood the temptation to evil as attacking our “thoughts, words, and deeds.” Consider this line from the Catholic prayer of confession, the Confiteor:

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do…

We sin in three ways: in our actions (and inaction), in our words (saying “I hate you” can be so destructive of so many relationships), and in our thoughts (that’s like the infamous “lust in your heart” that Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount). Do you notice that silence is not included in this list? Nowhere do we confess “I have sinned in my silence”! We don’t confess that because silence is profoundly, spiritually safe.

This is something that has been understood since the days of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian understood that it is through the language of our thoughts that we are tempted to make unloving choices (i.e., to sin). Indeed, it is Evagrius’s eight categories of dangerous thoughts that eventually formed the basis of the classic formulation of seven deadly sins. Spiritual mistakes such as pride, greed and gluttony begin in our hearts through words and images, not through silence.

If you want to protect yourself from unfriendly spiritual influence, one of the best ways to do so is by practicing the presence of silence in your heart and mind: and in learning to rest in the silence within, you learn to let go of thoughts that can be afflictive or tempting, which in turn reduces the risk of going on to say or do something that’s unloving.

This image from an illuminated manuscript gets it right: the devil tempts with words, while the angel responds with loving silence.

So here is the logic of contemplative spiritual protection:

A. People sin (behave in unloving ways) through thoughts, words, action or inaction;
B. Centering Prayer, as a prayer of silence, teaches us both to trust the loving presence of God and to be unattached to our thoughts;
C. Being unattached to thoughts reduces the risk of having unloving thoughts or allowing them to morph into unloving words or actions.

Finally, I need to comment on the hidden assumption that lies within most criticism of Centering Prayer that I have run across, at least online. It’s always some variation of “God disapproves of Centering Prayer.” Let’s call a spade a spade: the Centering Prayer critics appear to believe that God simply doesn’t like Centering Prayer, or even that God hates Centering Prayer.

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? It fosters an image of God that emphasizes God’s action as hatred. It foregrounds the idea that God is so unhappy with a spiritual practice that it has to be publicly condemned. When I stop and think about it, I feel sorry for the souls of people who make it their business to attack a beautiful spiritual practice like silent prayer. They must be laboring under a truly dysfunctional theology, grounded in an image of God that is angry and contemptuous of anything deemed as “disobedience.”

I am committed to not hating or feeling contempt toward people who attack Centering Prayer. But I do feel sad for them, because it appears that they are laboring under a theology that is basically a living hell.

God is a God of love, joy, and peace — a God who eagerly wants intimacy with human beings, a God who delights in us and wants what’s best for us. If Centering Prayer were really bad for us (the same way that gluttony or avarice or pride is bad), then it would be evident that Centering Prayer leads to unloving acts. But the opposite is the case: Centering Prayer fosters a sense of well-being, a sense of being loved by God, and a sense of inner healing. Longstanding practitioners of Centering Prayer also often find that they are more open to ecumenical and interfaith expressions of spirituality — which is what I think the critics of Centering Prayer really dislike, most of all. They simply cannot grasp the idea that God would love people whose spiritual practice is different from their own. Again, this is not to be held in contempt, but it is sad and something to be pitied.

Here, finally, is a way of thinking about a positive image of God, that is consistent with the practice of Centering Prayer.

A. God is love, and God desires intimacy with human beings and wants what’s best for us.
B. Centering Prayer fosters a sense of intimacy with God, and has measurable physiological and psychological benefits for the long-term practitioner.
C. Therefore, Centering Prayer is one of many different spiritual practices that God blesses for us.

Notice, I assert that Centering Prayer is one spiritual practice among many. The purpose behind this blog post is not to argue that Centering Prayer “should” be practiced by everyone. Human beings are diverse, with many different personality types and temperaments. For some people, a gentle prayer of settling into silence as a gesture of consenting to God’s presence and action within simply is not to their liking. It may make them feel anxious, or they cannot get over feelings of perfectionism or boredom that arise. For such persons, I would gently encourage them to practice a different method of prayer that is more conducive to their personality type. In the words of Abbot James Chapman, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

So if Centering Prayer is not for you, then please, set it aside and engage with a different spiritual discipline that is more nourishing to your heart and soul. All I ask is that you don’t go on the offensive against Centering Prayer. Instead of attacking something you don’t like, try fostering more love in your life. As  I write these words, I realize they can be turned right back on me, so let me end with a prayer: I pray that God’s love will touch all of our hearts, especially the hearts of people who attack Centering Prayer. May they find themselves so deeply immersed in divine love that it will transform their understanding of both theology and spiritual practice. Amen.

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