The Heresy of Centering Prayer: How Faithful Catholics Have Become Confused
Alternate pagan practices have infiltrated our holy Catholic Church. Because the evil one is a trickster and is “more subtle than any other creature that the LORD God had made” (Gen. 3:1, RSV), because he is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44) and because “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), well-meaning people can easily be led astray. It often takes deep prayer, authentic discernment, and an openness to listen to the loving voice of the Holy Spirit in order to determine what practices are authentically in alignment with Church teaching.
The purpose of this series on the infiltration of the alternate spiritualities within the Church (which began with my article on the dangers of yoga) is to help educate and enrich well-meaning Catholics who have been unwittingly led astray by false practices.
Many Catholics are eager to talk about Centering Prayer, claiming it’s a great meditative technique that’s approved by the Church. The misconception is easy to understand. Centering Prayer is a movement that began in the 1970s by Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Basil Pennington, and Fr. William Meninger. Because it was founded by Trappist monks, Catholics tend to automatically assume it’s a practice that must be in alignment with orthodox Church teaching.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s crucial to understand that the founders of Centering Prayer had already opened themselves to the dangers of Eastern spirituality. When Fr. Keating was the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA (from 1961 to 1981), he encouraged the abbey to hold regular dialogues with both Buddhist and Hindu gurus. He promoted a week-long retreat led by a Zen master, and invited a former Trappist monk to give a session on his new specialty—Transcendental Meditation.
Already we can see a huge problem, especially considering that it was Fr. Keating’s specific goal to inject Eastern meditative techniques into Christian prayer. He did this with what seems to be good intention, thinking that he could make prayer more accessible to fallen-away Christians “who have been instructed in an Eastern technique and might be inspired to return to their Christian roots if they knew there was something similar in the Christian tradition.”1
However, because he and his fellow monks were already infected with pagan spirituality of the East, his efforts took the form of darkness disguised as light.
And even he didn’t realize it.
What Are the Errors of Centering Prayer?
Fr. Keating has been very contradictory in his teachings. In a video interview he stated that “there is a Higher Power, or God … an Other, capital O,” but then goes on to state that the practice of Centering Prayer helps a person realize “that there is no Other. You and the Other are one … always have been, always will be. You just think you aren’t.”
This is completely against Catholic teaching. Vatican I, Session Three (On God and the Creator of All Things) clearly states, “If anyone says that the substance or essence of God and that of all things are one and the same: let him be anathema.”
The goal of Centering Prayer is to create a void in the mind, to think of nothing, to transcend thought.
“Nothing” includes God, Christ’s Passion, or any of the other key aspects of Christian meditation. “The goal is a state of no-thinking,” Fr. Keating has written. “The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts.” When a thought enters the mind, the practitioner is led to use his or her “sacred word” to bring the attention back to focus. This word can be anything—as a matter of fact, Fr. Keating states that “the less the word means to you, the better.” So the word can be “boo” or “banana,” “COVID” or “sneeze.” There’s nothing spiritual there. It’s just a word.
“In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void … True contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus.”
(CCC 2726, 2715)
It’s wiser for a Christian to turn to trusted spiritual masters when seeking advice on prayer, rather than resorting to alternate spiritualities. St. Teresa of Avila makes it clear that “for it to be prayer at all, the mind must take part in it.”
Fr. Keating has made the erroneous claim that his “prayer” technique is based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century text written by an anonymous Catholic author. Another claim is that this method dates back to the time of the Desert Fathers such as John Cassian, or the Hesychasts of Eastern Orthodox tradition. However, in order to back up such claims fans of Centering Prayer must resort to twisting certain teachings to fit their agenda. All of this gives a dangerously false impression of what our spiritual forefathers practiced and taught.
For example, The Cloud of Unknowing encourages the use of a “sacred word” to bring a wandering mind back to Christ—not to create a void in the mind as Centering Prayer teaches.
Christian prayer has never sought to clear the mind of Christ. Christian prayer focuses on Christ.
“Lift up your heart towards God with a humble stirring of love; and think of Himself … refuse to think of anything but Him.”
(The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 3)
True prayer, in direct contrast to the “erroneous notions of prayer,” is “a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart: ‘We must remember God’ … Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire … Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (CCC 2697, 2708, 2715).
There are far too many other errors of Centering Prayer for me to outline in a mere article. If you want to learn more, I recommend Connie Rossini’s book Is Centering Prayer Catholic?
However, there’s one more crucial heresy to point out. In the words of Fr. Keating himself, “Centering Prayer is very rich, but quite diffuse and tends to put the emphasis on grace in a way that perhaps needs to be balanced by the Zen attitude.”2
Christianity never needs to be “balanced” by other, false spiritualities.
If Centering Prayer must be balanced by Zen, as its founder claims, then it’s not an authentic method of Christian prayer.
Nothing can be clearer than that.
In response to the growing trend of incorporating alternate spirituality into Catholic devotion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued a document in 1989 entitled “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” In this document, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) stated that Christian prayer is an “intimate and profound dialogue between man and God.”
Although he discreetly doesn’t mention any of the deviant methods of meditative practice by name, Cardinal Ratzinger was obviously addressing the newly-popularized fad of Centering Prayer in many of his statements. In speaking about the fourth-century heresy of Messalianism, Cardinal Ratzinger states:
These false fourth century charismatics identified the grace of the Holy Spirit with the psychological experience of his presence in the soul. … This form of error continues to be a temptation for man the sinner. It incites him to try and overcome the distance separating creature from Creator, as though there ought not to be such a distance … Such erroneous forms, having reappeared in history from time to time on the fringes of the Church's prayer, seem once more to impress many Christians, appealing to them as a kind of remedy, or as a quick way of finding God.
This form of heretical prayer re-emerged throughout the history of Christianity under various names and guises, as in during the sixteenth century. Again from Cardinal Ratzinger:
Similar techniques were subsequently identified and dismissed by St. Teresa of Avila who perceptively observed that ‘the very care taken not to think about anything will arouse the mind to think a great deal,’ and that the separation of the mystery of Christ from Christian meditation is always a form of ‘betrayal.’
Cardinal Ratzinger’s wisdom is so crucial to our point that I’m going to quote it at length, but I urge you to read the full document for yourself.
However, these forms of error, wherever they arise, can be diagnosed very simply. The meditation of the Christian in prayer seeks to grasp the depths of the divine in the salvific works of God in Christ, the Incarnate Word, and in the gift of his Spirit …
With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian. Proposals in this direction are numerous and radical to a greater or lesser extent. Some use eastern methods … to try to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of certain Catholic mystics.3 Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality … These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism.
Years earlier, in a homily given in 1982, St. Pope John Paul II stated, that prayer must be completely and always centered on Christ. This type of prayer
is valid against some methods of prayer which are not inspired by the Gospel and which in practice tend to set Christ aside in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity.
The literature, brochures, website, and other pro-Centering Prayer documents can seem very convincing to an unsuspecting Catholic who is unaware of the truth depths of the Catholic Church’s teaching on what prayer truly is. Those who practice Centering Prayer are, by vast majority, those who truly believe they’re seeking Christ in an orthodox, Catholic manner.
And it’s to these well-meaning, prayerful souls whom I devote this article. Your intentions are pure, and good, and just; God sees that. However, the methods of Centering Prayer aren’t pure. I recommend that you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s detailed section on prayer (Part Four, CCC 2558-2865) as well as the numerous orthodox books on Catholic prayer that are available through reputable publishers such as Sophia Institute Press, Ignatius Press, Ave Maria Press, and others. If you would like a list of recommended books, please contact me.
Fr. Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer, 15.
Fr. Thomas Keating, “Resting in God, An Interview with Fr. Thomas Keating, OSCO,” interview by Anne A. Simpson, interviews found on YouTube.
Ratzinger’s footnote on the reference to mystics states, “See, for example, The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual work by an anonymous English writer of the fourteenth century”—which is a very direct and obvious reference to Centering Prayer.