Blog Post

St. Teresa of Avila, the Desert Fathers, and Centering Prayer

Many people are being misled into Centering Prayer after being told that St. Teresa of Avila and the Desert Fathers taught a version of it. This blog contains a few facts that will challenge these assertions.

According to the website of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd., an organization that promotes Centering Prayer, persons are instructed to use a "sacred word" (mantra) anytime a thought  enters the mind. As the website instructs, "Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word."

This method is derived from Transcendental Meditation (TM), a practice which founder, Fr. Thomas Keating, admittedly allowed to influence his creation of Centering Prayer. As in TM, the mantra is repeated any time thoughts, inspirations, feelings, etc. enter the mind, with the object being to keep the mind empty at all times.

Intense criticism of this practice caused many changes to be made over the years, not so much to the practice itself but to how it is described to practitioners and marketed to the general public. In order to win favor for the practice, proponents also began to assert that the Desert Fathers and the Carmelite mystics taught this kind of mind-blanking prayer (although they are careful not to use that description). Is this true?

Hardly.

Even a cursory review of the writings of St. Teresa of Jesus reveals that she actually said quite the opposite. In fact, she warned people not to try to impose such practices on themselves in an effort to mimic what God does to the mind in authentic contemplation when He suspends its operations.

"Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done; nor should we cease to work with the intellect, because otherwise we would be left like cold simpletons and be doing neither one thing nor the other," she writes in her autobiography.

"When the Lord suspends the intellect and causes it to stop, He Himself gives it that which holds its attention and makes it marvel, and without reflection it understands more in the space of a Creed than we can understand with all our earthly diligence in many years. Trying to keep the soul's faculties busy and thinking you can make them be quiet is foolish."

If that's not enough to convince Centering Prayer enthusiasts of St. Teresa's complete disdain for what is one of their most fundamental practices, perhaps the following will convince them.

" . . . (E)ven though it may not be understood, this effort to suspend the intellect is not very humble."

It's important to note that in the infused contemplation Teresa describes, God does not blank the mind but takes control of its thought processes and infuses those thoughts He wishes the soul to contemplate. This is because authentic contemplation comes directly from God; it cannot be forced by employing a technique. To do so would be to try to "force God's hand" and demand that it be given the gift of contemplation which is hardly the kind of humility that is a prerequisite for receiving this gift!

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The Cloud of Unknowing

Another fallacy being spread by Centering Prayer enthusiasts is that a writing by an unknown 14th century mystic, entitled The Cloud of Unknowing, was teaching centering prayer. This book taught nothing of the kind. In fact, well-known theologian Harvey D. Egan, S.J., who studied under Karl Rahner, specifically discredits claims that The Cloud taught a kind of Centering Prayer/Transcendental Meditation.

In his seminal book, The Anthology of Christian Mysticism, Egan claims that the author's teaching "is neither a medieval form of transcendental meditation, nor yogic nascience."

While The Cloud author uses a mantra in prayer, it was not to block all thoughts but to help one to stay focused on forgetting self and preconceived notions of God in order to pray in "naked love."

As this blog explains, this type of mysticism, known as apophatic, focuses on knowing God through negation, elimination, forgetting, unknowing, without images or symbols or signs. All such thoughts and symbols are to be eliminated. This is opposed to kataphatic mysticism which underscores finding God in all things and reaching God through creatures, images, symbols, etc.

"The anonymous author teaches a highly introspective form of mysticism that turns a person's inner eye not to finding God in all things but to finding God in the depths of the 'mirror' of darkness, that is, the soul emptied of everything except naked love,” Egan explains. “He is an outstanding example of the Christian apophatic mystical tradition which stresses that only love, not knowledge, can fully comprehend God. He therefore prefers to speak about what God is not."

This is why, as Egan points out, the person who reads The Cloud must be experienced in asceticism and self-knowledge, and be very advanced in the spiritual life as well as deeply conformed to the Gospel. In addition, they must be specifically called to this type of prayer by God before attempting to enter into it. To do so without these prerequisites is what leads to misconceptions such as using the book to promote “mind blanking” when, in fact, it does nothing of the kind. But only the person experienced in the ways of Christian mysticism would be able to discern these subtle and yet vitally important nuances.

In other words, this isn't something you teach in weekly faith formation classes to anyone who walks in the door.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note the work of Fr. Augustine Ichiro Okumura, OCD, who was born a Buddhist and currently serves as a leader in the Zen-Christian dialogue in Japan. In his book, Awakening to Prayer, he stresses that the concept of silence in prayer does not mean the absence of thought.

"Remaining in silence before God does not mean that there are no thoughts, reflections or words. But rather than speaking to God and telling God our needs, this third way of prayer puts more emphasis on listening to God."

He goes on to explain that the word "listen" is one of the most important words in Scripture. It appears in the Old Testament more than a thousand times and 425 times in the New Testament. "Let anyone with ears listen" was one of Jesus' most oft repeated phrases. In Scripture this word means not just to hear, but to listen with attention.

"To 'listen to God' then is not merely to hear God. It also requires that we pay attention to God's words and 'treasure all these things and ponder them in our heart'," Fr. Okumura writes.

It saddens me to consider all those who are genuinely seeking God in prayer but who are right now sitting in an empty void - chanting mantras to keep out all thoughts - even those coming from the very God they seek.

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