Q: I’ve been reading the books and practicing Centering Prayer on and off for about three years. Going from yoga to meditation, and now being called back to the Catholic church, I feel more confused and fearful than ever. The Bible seems to warn of repeating the prayer (mantra) and of emptying the mind. I have stepped away from contemplative prayer and have been exploring the rosary. I love Thomas Keating and John Main’s teachings. Am I being taken in a wrong direction with them?
A: Thank you for sharing your spiritual journey and questions surrounding contemplative prayer. In 2002, I was called back to the Catholic church at a time of deep grief. Moving from a secular form of meditation to those centered in relationship with God was a turning point in my spiritual journey and the path to happiness in this moment. A time of conversion can be filled with fear and confusion, it is part of the journey of saying yes to surrendering to God and to building relationship. I can only address and speak out of my own experience with the teachings of Fr. Thomas Keating and Contemplative Outreach.
Thank you for your dedication to the rosary. As many Christians, it is also a part of my prayer life. While praying it, I feel connected to all the women in my family who prayed this prayer daily. I feel like they are praying with me from heaven while I use the beads they prayed over. I am guessing this traditional prayer brings you much comfort and blessing.
In Fr. Thomas’ book Intimacy with God Chapter 2, there is a graph that shows Methods of Prayer That Prepare for Contemplation going from the Most Receptive forms to the Most Concentrative forms or prayer. As a reminder, contemplation is a pure gift from God, it is not something we can say “I’m going to do contemplative prayer now” because we don’t know if we will receive the gift of this communion with God during our prayer time. Our desire to be in this deep rest opens us to receive the gift. On the chart, Centering Prayer is on the Most Receptive side, and the Rosary is on the Most Concentrative side. As you can see both are prayers that may lead to contemplation. In Chapter 8 of the same book, Fr. Thomas covers “Praying the Rosary.” This teaching may help in understanding how relationship grows through praying this ancient prayer.
The Centering Prayer guidelines do not ask us to repeat our sacred word or to empty our minds. Fr. Thomas recognized that we are human and will have thoughts; so, he recommended that the use of the sacred word or symbol is when we become engaged with our thoughts. My interpretation of that is that when I realize I am in conversation with myself rather than in prayer with God I return my face to God by saying the sacred word. It is my intention during the prayer time to be with God rather than spending endless time conversing with myself, which I seem to do a lot during the day! You may want to take a look at the Centering Prayer brochure, which explains the guidelines in a short concise way. The words here come directly from Fr. Thomas.
As for your questions about if you are being taken down the wrong direction, I invite you to watch a video where Fr. Thomas addresses your questions directly. It is on the Contemplative Outreach YouTube channel and called The Divine Banquet and Dance. To me, it is one of the most beautiful videos about the Christian Contemplative Journey and the Centering Prayer. It not only explores Fr. Thomas’ wisdom of relationship with God through the Centering Prayer but when you pay attention to Thomas; you see his genuine love of God as a model for your own intention to be in communion with God. At least it is for me.
During Holy Week it is a wonderful time to view the video because part two is on the theological principles of contemplative prayer and the methods that may lead to it using the Pascal Mystery as background. Please take an hour and watch it. I believe it will answer your questions and help you decide if this is the path for you now. (If you only have a half hour, please watch part 2 but remember you’ll be missing the lead up to this teaching.)
Here are the links:
The Divine Banquet and Dance part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwi5Z_DDJCI
The Divine Banquet and Dance part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6JWFyiJXh8
God loves you so very much and sees your desire to come into closer relationship. Please remember to celebrate this love and know just like any relationship, the spiritual journey is sometimes easy and sometimes rocky. But all in all it is worth each step.
Please contact me if you have any other questions, or to share your journey.
Peace and Easter joy,