The latest Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese e-news contains an ad for a 'contemplative prayer' workshop run by Fr William Meninger OCSO, a member of the group of Trappist Monks that invented 'Centering Prayer'. Its disappointing to see this kind of stuff being promoted by the official Church, and as I assume Fr Meninger is doing something of a tour, I thought it might be timely to point out some of the dangers of this form of prayer.
Centering prayer and the Cloud of Unknowing
Centering prayer claims to be based on the Cloud of Unknowing, a wonderful English fourteenth century book of instruction on prayer. That's a very creative claim.
The Cloud, like all orthodox spiritual guides, envisages a long period of preparation for contemplative prayer, starting by overcoming the main tendencies to sin through ascetic practices, the sacraments, and most especially use of lectio divina.
And while it is a book many people can benefit from reading, the heights of the approach it describes are specifically limited to someone living an enclosed life as a hermit or religious (subject to God's free decision), not a person living the active life in the world (it was most probably written by a Carthusian monk).
By contrast, centering prayer claims that anyone can attain the heights of contemplative prayer by using a few very simple (not to say simplistic) techniques, mostly derived from Eastern religions such as Buddhism. It's version of lectio divina is, in my view, a travesty, based on endless repetition of short selections, rather than a serious attempt to understand the literal and spiritual meanings of the text, and use that as a starting point for meditation, prayer, action and contemplation. Fr Meninger is also apparently a proponent of Enneagram, another pagan derived methodology.
The dangers of this approach
Centering prayer was specifically created to appeal to a generation attracted by Eastern religions. It is easy to do, requiring no great knowledge or preparation. It promises instant rewards. And it runs directly to any 'elitist' notions that suggest that you might actually have to sacrifice something if you want to attain the higher levels of mystical prayer.
Its biggest problem is that if seems to by-pass the need for grace, and the free gift of the Holy Spirit, who dispenses the heights of prayer to whom he chooses, when he chooses, not to all comers.
It is for these reasons that the current Pope, in his previous job as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith wrote An instruction on certain aspects of Christian Meditation which warns against many of the approaches promoted by Centering Prayer. Anyone considering attending one of these workshops should read the instruction carefully first.
A better approach...
And in the meantime, here is some advice from the Cloud of Unknowing....
"Nevertheless, there are helps which the apprentice in contemplation should employ, namely Lesson, Meditation, and Orison or, as they are more generally called, Reading, Thinking, and Praying....thinking may not be had unless reading or hearing come first....Beginners and proficients cannot pray unless they think first.
Prove it: God's word, written or spoken, can be likened to a mirror. Spiritually, the 'eye' of your soul is your reason: your conscience is your spiritual 'face'. Just as you cannot see or know that there is a dirty mark on your actual face without the aid of a mirror, or somebody telling you, so spiritually, it is impossible for a soul blinded by his frequent sins to see the dirty mark in his conscience, without reading or hearing God's word..." (Chapter 35)
So my advice would be, spend the weekend reading, studying and praying over Scripture instead of attending one of these workshops!