by Father Thomas Keating
There are two reasons that contemplative prayer is receiving renewed attention in our time. One is that historical and theological studies have rediscovered the integral teaching of John of the Cross and other masters of the spiritual life. The other is the post World War II challenge from the East. Methods of meditation similar to contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition have proliferated, produced good results, and received much publicity It is important, according to the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Vatican II), to appreciate the values that are present in the teachings of the other great religions of the world. The spiritual disciplines of the East possess a highly developed psychological wisdom. Christian leader and teachers need to know something about them in order to meet people where they are today. Many serious seekers of truth study the Eastern religions, take courses in them in college or graduate school, and practice forms of meditation inspired and taught by Eastern masters.
The revival of mystical theology in the Roman Catholic Church began with the publication of The Degrees of the Spiritual Life by Abbe Saudreau in 1896. He based his research on the teaching of John of the Cross. Subsequent studies have confirmed the wisdom of his choice. John of the Cross teaches that contemplation begins with what he calls the night of sense. This is a no-mans land between one's own activity and the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit in which it becomes almost impossible to think thoughts that stir up sensible devotion. This is a common experience among those who have practiced discursive meditation over an extended period of time. One reaches the point where there is nothing new to be thought, said, or felt. If one has no subsequent direction in the life of prayer, one will not know what to do except perhaps to get up and walk out. The night of sense is a spiritual growing-up process similar to the transition from childhood to adolescence in chronological life. The emotionalism and sentimentality of childhood are beginning to be laid aside in favor of a more mature relationship with God. In the meantime, because God no longer gives help to the senses or to the reason, these faculties seem to be useless. One is more and more convinced that one can no longer pray at all.
John of the Cross says that all one has to do in this state is to remain at peace, not try to think, and to abide before God with faith in His presence, continually turning to Him as if opening one's eyes to look upon a loved one.
In a remarkable passage in The Living Flame of Love1 in which John of the Cross describes in detail the transition from sensible devotion to spiritual intimacy with God, he says that when one cannot reason discursively or make acts of the will with any satisfaction during prayer, one should give the situation a quiet welcome. One will then begin to feel peace, tranquility, and strength because God is now feeding the soul directly, giving His grace to the will alone and attracting it mysteriously to Himself. People in this state have great anxiety about whether they are going backward. They think that all the good things they experienced in the first years of their conversion are coming to an end, and if they are asked how their prayer life is, they will throw up their hands in despair. Actually, if questioned further, they reveal that they have a great desire to find some way to pray and they like to be alone with God even though they can't enjoy Him. Thus, it is evident that there is a secret attraction present at a deep level of their psyche. This is the infused element of contemplative prayer Divine love is the infused element. If it is given a quiet rest, it will grow from a spark into a living flame of love.
John of the Cross says that those who give themselves to God enter very quickly into the night of sense. This interior desert is the beginning of contemplative prayer even though they are not aware of it. The relationship between one's own activity and the infusion of grace is so delicate that one does not usually perceive it right away. Since the night of sense occurs frequently, it is important that spiritual directors be available to help Christians to appreciate and welcome this development and to recognize it by the signs suggested by John of the Cross. If one gets through this transition, one is on the way to becoming a very dedicated and effective Christian, one who is wholly under the guidance of the gifts of the Spirit.
How quickly is "very quickly" in the teaching of John of the Cross? In it a few years, a few months, a few weeks? He doesn't say. But the idea that one has to undergo years of superhuman trials, be walled up behind convent walls or kill oneself with various ascetical practices before one can aspire to contemplation is a Jansenistic attitude or, at the very least, an inadequate presentation of the Christian tradition. On the contrary, the sooner contemplative prayer can be experienced, the sooner one will perceive the direction toward which the spiritual journey is tending. From that intuition will come the motivation to make all the sacrifices required to persevere in the journey.
As the introduction in this book indicates, the questions of participants in seminars on the practice of centering prayer are included in the text where appropriate. The following paragraph forms the first such question. Others appear throughout the text wherever they are thought to be helpful to the reader.
The Cloud of Unknowing has a lot to say about being ready for this movement into contemplative prayer. It presupposes that not everyone is called to this. It gives signs for telling whether you are called or not. Yet today it seems to be offered to everyone, not only by teachers of centering prayer, but also by teachers of Eastern meditation. It is as if it is open to all.
The idea of laypeople pursuing the spiritual path is not something new. It just hasn't been popular in the past thousand years. In the spiritual traditions of the world religions, both East and West, there has been a tendency to isolate seekers, put them in special places, and juxtapose them with people leading family, professional, or business lives in the world. But this distinction is beginning to change. The sages of India, for example, have begun to share their secrets with ordinary folks. In times past one normally had to go into the forest to find a teacher. In the United States and Western Europe, we can now find outstanding teachers of different Eastern spiritual traditions offering advanced teachings to almost anyone who comes along. Lesser expressions of these traditions, unfortunately, are also available. In any case, a movement in the Eastern religions to make esoteric disciplines more available to persons living ordinary lives in the world is occurring.
With regards to the Christian tradition, Origen, a fourth-century exponent of the theological school of Alexandria, considered the Christian community in the world to be the proper place of ascesis. It was only through Anthony's example and Athanasius's report of it that the practice of leaving the world became the standard way to pursue the Christian path to divine union. Anthony had no intention of making this the only way to achieve it, but when mass movements occur, popularizations also take place, and these may fossilize or even caricature a movement. A new wave of spiritual renewal has to arise before the necessary distinctions can again be made. This may take a long time when movements have become institutionalized. The essence of monastic life is not its structures but its interior practice, and the heart of interior practice is contemplative prayer.
In The Epistle of Privy Counseling, written toward the end of his life, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing acknowledges that the call to contemplative prayer is more common than he had originally thought. In practice I think we can teach people to proceed in tandem toward contemplative prayer, that is, to read and reflect on the word of God in scripture, make aspirations inspired by these reflections, and then to rest in the presence of God. This is how lectio divina was practiced in the monasteries of the Middle Ages. The method of centering prayer emphasizes the final phase of lectio because it is the phase that has been most neglected in recent times.
My conviction is that if people are never exposed to some kind of nonconceptual prayer, it may never develop at all because of the overly intellectual bias of Western culture and the anticontemplative trend of Christian teaching in recent centuries. Moreover, some experiential taste of interior silence is a great help in understanding what contemplative prayer is all about. Recent ascetical teaching has been extremely cautious. There has been a strong tendency to assume that contemplative prayer was reserved for cloistered religious.
Contemplative prayer raises an important question: Is there something that we can do to prepare ourselves for the gift of contemplation instead of waiting for God to do everything? My acquaintance with Eastern methods of meditation has convinced me that there is. There are ways of calming the mind in the spiritual disciplines of both East and West that can help to lay the groundwork for contemplative prayer.
What is the difference between lectio divina and centering prayer?
Lectio is a comprehensive method of communing with God which begins with the reading of a scripture passage. Reflection on the text moves easily into spontaneous prayer (talking to God about what you have read), and finally into resting in the presence of God. Centering prayer is a way of moving from the first three phases of lectio to the final one of resting in God.
St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa advised that one should only discontinue discursive meditation when God takes away one's ability to practice it. How does centering prayer fit in with that tradition?
A certain amount of reflection on the truths of faith to develop basic convictions, which is the work of discursive meditation, is a necessary basis for contemplation. To the objection that we might be introducing contemplative prayer too soon, my answer is that our contemporaries in the Western world have a special problem with discursive meditation because of the ingrained inclination to analyze things beyond all measure, a mind-set that has developed out of the Cartesian-Newtonian world view and that has led to the repression of our intuitive faculties. This conceptual hang-up of modern Western society impedes the spontaneous movement from reflection to spontaneous prayer and from spontaneous prayer to interior silence (wonder and admiration). I think you could do all three in tandem and still be in the tradition of lectio divina. If you are practicing lectio divina, you don't have to follow any particular order or time schedule. You can follow the inspiration of grace and mull over the text, make particular acts of the will, or move into contemplative prayer at any time. Obviously discursive meditation and affective prayer will predominate in the beginning. But this does not exclude moments of interior silence. If people were encouraged to reflect on scripture and be fully present to the words of the sacred text, and then practice a period of centering prayer, they would actually be in the tradition of lectio.
It's much clearer to me now Centering prayer sort of compensates for the lack of people's ability in our time to go from lectio into contemplation.
Exactly. It is an insight into a contemporary problem and an effort to revive the traditional Christian teaching on contemplative prayer. But more than just a theoretical effort to revive it is required. Some means of exposing people to the actual experience is essential to get beyond the intellectual bias that exists. Having observed this bias in people who are already into contemplative prayer, I'm convinced that it is much deeper in our culture than we think. The rush to the East is a symptom of what is lacking in the West. There is a deep spiritual hunger that is not being satisfied in the West.
I have also noticed that those who have been on an Eastern journey feel much more comfortable about the Christian religion when they hear that a tradition of contemplative prayer exists. Centering prayer as a preparation, for contemplative prayer is not something that someone invented in our day. Rather it is a means of regaining the traditional teaching on contemplative prayer and of making this teaching better known and more available. The only thing that is new is trying to communicate it in a methodical way One needs help to get into it and follow-up to sustain and grow in it.
One who has already received the grace of contemplative prayer can deepen it by cultivating interior silence in a consistent and orderly fashion. It is with a view to cultivating interior silence that the method of centering prayer is offered.
More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating. It is offered in our Bookstore.