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Centering prayer

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Centering prayer is a popular method of contemplative prayer or Christian meditation, placing a strong emphasis on interior silence.

Though most authors trace its roots to the contemplative prayer of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism, to the Lectio Divina tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and to works like The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, its origins as part of the "Centering Prayer" movement in modern Catholicism and Christianity can be traced to several books published by three Trappist monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the 1970s: Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating.[1]

History

Seeds of what would become known as contemplation were sown early in the Christian era. The first appearance of something approximating contemplative prayer arises in the 4th century writings of the monk St. John Cassian, who wrote of a practice he learned from the Desert Fathers (specifically from Isaac). Cassian's writings remained influential until the medieval era, when monastic practice shifted from a mystical orientation to Scholasticism. Thus it can be plausibly argued that contemplation was (one of) the earliest meditational and/or devotional practice of Christian monasticism, being later supplanted in dominance by the scholastic theologians, with only a minimal interest in contemplation.

The Trappist monk and influential writer Thomas Merton was strongly influenced by Buddhist meditation, particularly as found in Zen — he was a lifetime friend of Buddhist meditation master and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, and was also an acquaintance of the current Dalai Lama. His theology attempted to unify existentialism with the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith, a unique undertaking at that time — Christian Existentialism began as a feature of modern Protestant theology[2]. As such he was also an advocate of the non-rational meditation of contemplative prayer, which he saw as a direct confrontation of finite and irrational man with his ground of being.

Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers, including the well-known Theravadan Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society. Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them born Catholic, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work. He found many of them had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within Christianity and set out to present those practices in a more accessible way. The result was the practice now called Centering Prayer.[3]

However, centering prayer has not been without criticism from sources. In Some Aspects of Christian Meditation by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith led by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican warns against certain practices that are common in centering prayer without using the actual term "centering prayer".[4]

Practice

The actual practice of centering prayer is not entirely alien to Catholics, who are advised to meditate in some form daily — such as on the rosary, or on Scripture through the practice of lectio divina; also similar is the practice of hesychasm as understood in the Eastern Orthodox Church. While these other practices similarly use focus on short repetitive phrases, the purpose of centering prayer is to clear the mind of rational thought in order to focus on the indwelling presence of God, whereas these other methods have some contemplative goal in mind: with the rosary, the Mysteries of the Rosary are contemplated; with lectio divina, the practitioner thinks about the Scripture reading, sometimes even visualizing it; and with hesychasm, the practitioner seeks to "see" the energies of God which appear as "uncreated light".

Basil Pennington, one of the best known proponents of the centering prayer technique, has delineated the guidelines for centering prayer:[5]

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you (i.e. "Jesus", "Lord," "God," "Savior," "Abba," "Divine," "Shalom," "Spirit," "Love," etc.).
  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

Ideally, the prayer will reach the point where the person is not engaged in their thoughts as they arrive on their stream of consciousness. This is the "unknowing" referenced in the 14th century book.

See also

  1. Hesychasm

Footnotes

  1. "Centering Prayer Overview". Contemplative Outreach Ltd. Contemplative Outreach Dublin, Ireland, opened in October 2007. Sr. Fionnuala Quinn is Coordinator for Dublin. It is located at the Dominican Resource Centre in Cabra, Dublin.. http://www.centeringprayer.com/cntrgpryr.htm. Retrieved 16 November 2006. 
  2. http://atheism.about.com/od/typesofexistentialism/a/christian.htm
  3. Rose, Phil Fox. "Meditation, It isn't boring, it isn't non-Christian and you do have the time for it". Busted Halo. http://www.bustedhalo.com/features/what-works-2-meditation. Retrieved 26 April 2009. 
  4. A Catholic Life, The Errors of Centering Prayer
  5. M. Basil Pennington (1986), "Centering Prayer: Refining the Rules," "Review for Religious," 46:3, 386-393.

References

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