Sunday, May 15, 2011

Centering Prayer Controversy

 A Closer Look at Centering Prayer at the Catholic Culture website contains most of the arguments against CP.  The purpose here is not to defend Fathers Keating and Pennington or promote their books. In fact, I have not read any of their books. The purpose is to address the dilemma of the Catholic who experienced something  extraordinary in prayer, knowing it is from God, and is then told the experience is of forbidden origin.  Do we believe our experience or do we reject what we were sure was of God?

On the "Experience 1" page tab above, I described my own experience that  sounds very much like this:
Centering prayer, as taught by Fr. Basil Pennington and Fr. Thomas Keating, is a method of prayer that is supposed to lead a person into contemplation. ... The person ... tries to ignore all thoughts and feelings,  ...  The goal is to keep practicing until ALL THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS DISAPPEAR. ... A person then reaches a state of pure consciousness or a mental void. The thinking process is suspended.
This quote is from the very article I linked above arguing that Centering Prayer is a bad thing and "not Catholic."  If I had read that 15 years ago as a newly-minted Catholic, I might have believed it, and abandoned contemplation. Luckily, I had already read Thomas H. Green,  The Cloud of Unknowing and some of St. Teresa, so I was familiar with the "void" concept as a Christian and certainly Catholic one, just surprised it would ever happen to me.

Now, a pray-er with an extraordinary experience often first consults internet sites and forums for answers and finds out ... what?  That they are in grave danger of unwittingly practicing Hinduism?  All these people claiming the "good Catholic" highground for themselves generate hesitation in the pray-er to go to the Church for answers, believing the people on these forums and Catholic sites must be right and represent Church teaching.  Pray-ers often fear that if they do go to the Church, they will be forced into a choice between their prayer life and their religion.

Without easy internet access, I had no choice but to locate and read books and papers by Christian contemplatives, search Scripture, take time understanding, all the while still doing contemplation. Using online resources, a pray-er can be turned around in a less than 24 hours by being influenced against their own understanding.

The Centering Prayer controversy illustrates that danger and that referred to in this quote from the Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy
In order to avert the increased risk of fideism, and to avoid either a manipulation or fragmentation of philosophy....
But, is "fideism" even possible?  Mrs. Margaret A. Feaster, the author of the article, considers that she is an obedient Catholic following the directives of the Church. And she is obedient, I am sure.  But she is the one interpreting what the directives of the Church are.  So are we all.  I believe this is why "fideism" is such a danger. In the end, we all can only follow our own understanding of the Truth, whatever source we trust.  In a literal way, we all become part of whatever source we assent to. The fideist, insisting everyone share their belief, set themselves up as gods, without having any idea they are doing so. 

Ultimately, the Centering Prayer detractors are only people making claims on the internet.  I think it's always my job, everyone's job really, to be responsible for our own knowing.  We must do the work.  Not just the prayer work, but the intellectual work, taking time and expending effort to discover what our Church tradition and teaching is, so we can assent confidently, knowing the foundation of our personal faith.

Taking that responsibility can be very frightening.  It's comforting to have a book of rules so that we know when we are "doing it right," like getting MapQuest directions to Heaven.  But I don't think that works very well, because we always end up listening to people and what they think God intends, which means we aren't listening to God.

We Do Not Have to Fear Our Church

When I started to take Mrs. Feaster's article apart and check her sources sources, when I read the referenced Vatican documents, I again found my Church giving me the guidance and validation of what I understood in prayer, which seems quite a bit at odds with what Mrs. Feaster understood.  It's not the purpose here to attack the woman, who was surely writing with complete sincerity.  But, sincerity is not a measure of validity.

Going through her whole article point by point would take about six blog posts.  I do want to give one example, though.  She wrote:
Is the Vatican II Statement Regarding Non-Christian Religions Misunderstood?
Yes. The documents of Vatican II state "the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in non-Christian religions."12 The Council Fathers however, were not recommending the practice of eastern prayer techniques.
She believes Centering Prayer is the same as Transcendental meditation and is part of the New Age.  She goes to some lengths to find similarities.  She is correct, there are similarities.  There should be.   Why wouldn't Christian mysticism have much in common with any other mysticism? If there is only one God, then all people reaching for the Divine or transcendental are reaching for the same thing.  So ineluctably, by our own dogma of One God, Christian mysticism must enjoy much in common with other mystical traditions.  It would be impossible not to. By extension, the belief systems with the greatest mystical components, would have the most in common with Christian mystical practice and thought.

Here is a link and quotes from the Vatican II document she refers to (Nostra Aetate):

[The Church]In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.

Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.


next: Why me, Lord?

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