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 Christian Meditation & Centering Prayer

From the Spring 1994 Issue (Vol. 3 No. 3):

How does John Main's approach to Christian Meditation relate to the "Contemplative Outreach" by Abbot Thomas Keating, OCSO and Centering Prayer which he teaches?


This question was addressed to Father Laurence Freeman OSB, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation at the International Meditation Center, London, during the 1993 U.S. Meditators' Retreat in Jacksonville, Florida.

What would you say is the difference between Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer?

"That's a good question, providing we realize that there are more than just differences. I think that it's important to realize that we have much in common. What we share in common, is first of all, I think, a sense that we share a work of the Spirit that's very alive in the church today -- in the world today -- and that is: to restore the contemplative dimension of faith and prayer to the life of ordinary Christians -- all of us. The centuries-old idea that contemplation is something reserved for a minority group, a specialty group, is really untrue to the gospel and the early church. That has turned out to be a very strong common ground.

And then secondly, I think we share a common ground in the roots of Christian contemplative prayer in the monastic tradition. It's very interesting, I think, that so many of the important teachers of prayer in our own time have been monks: people like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, John Main, and so on. These are people that have understood the relevance of the monastic tradition of prayer to lay people. I think underlying that is also an understanding that monks are essentially lay people. Monks are not primarily clerical.

Thirdly, something else that we also share is that the monastic tradition has relevance to the whole church today.

The difference arises, I think, partly in terms of presentation, approach or emphasis. And that's inevitable when you have different schools. If you have two different people talking about the same thing, they will inevitably talk about it in different ways.

The practical difference between the two schools is an important one to get clear. It is the difference in the actual way of attention or concentration. Or putting it very simply: how you say the 'word'. John Main spoke out of the tradition of John Cassian in which the emphasis is on the absolute simplicity of saying the mantra or continuing from the beginning to the end of the meditation period, no matter what thoughts and distractions come your way.

Basically, you can summarize that by saying that you say the mantra until you can no longer say it. And we do not choose when to stop saying it. As soon as you realize you have stopped saying it, you start again. Now I think that Thomas Keating and the Centering Prayer approach would be similar to that, though there would be less emphasis upon the continual recitation of the word. I believe that to be the very difference. And it isn't that one is going to get to heaven before the other. I think the opinion we shared was that we'll all arrive at heaven at the same time, or at our appropriate schedule, provided we are faithful to our own path. And I think that you find in every tradition of spirituality, the understanding that it's important to find your path and remain with it. It may take you awhile to find your path; you may wander from one path to another for a bit. But when you find your path, you stick to it as faithfully as you can. That doesn't in any way mean you're rejecting others, or that you're in any sense superior to others. You can still learn from others and their paths.

The meeting that we had was a very fruitful and friendly conversation. I think the Spirit is evident in both of these schools."

 The Mantra



"This is the verse that the mind should unceasingly cling to until, strengthened by saying it over and over again and repeating it continually, it renounces and lets go of all the abundant riches of thought. Restricting itself to the poverty of this single verse it will come most easily to that first of the gospel beatitudes: for he says 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'"

John Cassian
Conferences 10:XD
4th Century A.D.

 JMS '98
John Main Seminar
August 1998 / University of San Francisco
Presented by:
Father Thomas Keating OCSO
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