A TRADITIONAL BLEND

by Thomas Keating, ocso

Some people use herb tea or a blend of herb teas. It seems to me that the Christian contemplative tradition can be compared to a blend of the finest herb teas. Thus The Cloud of Unknowing is one. Others are the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina, aspirations (the repetition of phrases from scripture), being in God’s presence in pure faith, turning to God in love as recommended by Saint John of the Cross. Centering Prayer is a blend of elements drawn from these traditions. Our primary source is The Cloud of Unknowing, but we have incorporated other “teas” to establish a special blend.

While developing a special blend of herb teas from the Christian tradition, Centering Prayer has also tried to place this teaching in dialogue with the psychological discoveries of our time and other contemporary sciences. It has learned from Eastern methods the importance of bodily posture without incorporating their respective belief systems or copying their precise practices, somewhat like adding a touch of sugar or milk to a cup of tea. The tea is still considered tea even with a dash of milk or sugar is it not?

Centering Prayer, while based on The Cloud of Unknowing which in turn restates apophatic tradition of the Desert Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, and the Hesychasts of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, blends significant elements of St. John of the Cross, especially his teaching on the dark nights and his lengthy advice for the passage from discursive meditation to contemplation (Living Flame, Stanza 3:26-56). In addition, Centering Prayer incorporates St. Francis De Sales’ spirit of gentleness; Jean-Pierre DeCaussade’s attitude of total abandonment to God; the discernment of the Venerable Francis Paul Liebermann; the theology of humility and divine love of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and other Cistercians; the mysticism of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory the Great, and the Rhineland Mystics; the boundless confidence of St. Therese of Lisieux; the charm, humanness, humor and wisdom of St. Teresa of Avila; the freedom of spirit of St. Philip Neri; and the salty wisdom of the Desert Tradition.

In short, Centering Prayer is a blending of the finest elements of the Christian contemplative tradition with an eye to reducing contemporary obstacles to contemplation, especially the tendency to over-activism and to over-intellectualism which is a too great dependency on concepts to go to God.

Some traditional methods of prayer are meant for beginners and are for temporary use. An important aspect of the spiritual journey is that our choices expand beyond good and evil and become choices among good, better and best. Someone might ask, “How can I be asked to give up something that is as precious to me as my special devotions?” The answer may be, God wants to give you something better. Later you may be asked to give up even the practice of Centering Prayer in order to receive what is better still. The desire for God invites us to ever more mature ways of relating to God as our love increases. Not that there is anything wrong with our old ways of prayer; they are just inadequate for the ever-deepening relationship with God that is expanding in a way that corresponds to our growth in humility, self-knowledge and divine love.

Following is a list of practices and their sources in the tradition that have influenced Centering Prayer:

  1. Practice: choice of a place of outer solitude.

Source: Jesus’ exhortation to enter our inner room, close the door, and pray in secret (Matt.6:6). I will quote the commentary on that text by Abba Isaac in Chapter Nine of John Cassian’s Conferences, a Fourth Century treatise about the spiritual practices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt.

“We need to be especially careful to follow the Gospel precept which instructs us to go into our inner room and shut the door so that we may pray to our Father. And this is how we can do it.”

“We pray in our room whenever we withdraw our hearts completely from the tumult and noise of our thoughts and our worries and when secretly and intimately, we offer our prayers to the Lord.”

“We pray with the door shut when, without opening our mouths, and in perfect silence, we offer our petitions to the one who pays not attention to words but looks hard at our hearts.”

“We pray in secret when in our hearts alone and in our recollected spirits, we address God and reveal our wishes only to him in such a way that the hostile powers themselves have no inkling of their nature. Hence, we must pray in utter silence to insure that the thrust of our pleading be hidden from our enemies who are especially lying in wait to attack us during our prayer. In this way, we shall fulfill the command of the prophet Micah, ‘Keep your mouth shut from the one who sleeps on your breast.’”

  1.  Practice: gentleness toward unwanted thoughts, feelings and impressions during prayer.

Source: St. Francis DeSales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, “Act with great patience and gentleness with ourselves…We must not be annoyed by distractions or our failures but start over without any further ado.”

  1. Practice: returning to the sacred symbol of our consent to God’s presence and action within.

Source: St. John of the Cross, Living Flame, stanza 3:26-56.

  1. Practice: confidence in God’s action both in prayer and daily life.

Source: St. Therese of Lisieux, her Autobiography and Letters.

  1.  Practice: self-surrender and abandonment to God’s will.

Source: DeCaussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence.

  1. Practice: purification of the unconscious

Source: The dark nights of St. John of the Cross, especially his teaching on the secret ladder of contemplation. Centering Prayer owes much to the Living Flame, stanza 1, in which St. John of the Cross writes that as long as we have not reached our inmost center, there is always progress to be made.

  1. Practice: laying aside of thoughts.

Source: Evagrius and the Hesychasts of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

  1. Practice: disregarding thoughts during the Prayer of Quiet as “the ravings of a madman.”

Source: St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection where she writes of the Prayer of Quiet.

  1. Practice: accepting the divine action of ascending levels of union with God in prayer.

Source: St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle

  1. Practice: humanness and humor

Source: The Desert Tradition and St. Teresa of Avila

  1.  Practice: continuous growth in divine union and unity.

 Source: St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses and the Rhineland Mystics, e.g., Ruysbroek and the Beguines.

  1. Practice: faith in the Divine Trinity as the source of Centering Prayer.

Source: William of St. Thierry, Matthius Scheeben

  1. Practice: the movement of faith and love toward God as the inmost center of our being.

 Source: St. John of the Cross, Living Flame, stanza 8-14.

  1. Practice: its Christological focus

Source: St. Bernard of Clairvaux and virtually all the Christian mystics.

  1. Practice: the ecclesial dimension, bonding with everyone in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Source: St. Augustine and Pauline theology

This is only a sampling of major sources but it may give you a sense that Centering Prayer is not just one thing. It is rather an effort to provide a blend of the best of the Christian contemplative tradition and at the same time to respond to the needs of our contemporary culture scene with its particular obstacles and hang-ups to contemplation.

Our psyche is like a reservoir that we need to keep filling with spiritual water. If we miss a few days, it begins to run dry. We may then fall into emotional turmoil that we cannot handle because we have no spiritual resources left in the reservoir. Continuing to fill our minds and hearts with the peace of Christ throughout the day is important if we are to maintain the effects of Centering Prayer in daily life: interior peace, good relationships, less upsetting emotions.

A certain number of Christian practices have been on the shelf for centuries. By studying the spiritual disciplines of the other world religions, we may be reminded of some that are present in our tradition but which we have not been using. St. Justin Martyr is quoted as saying, “Whatever is true belongs to me as a Christian.” This is what the Fathers of the Church and Christian theologians and mystics have believed and practiced down through the ages. They have taken the wisdom available in their time and tried to integrate it into the Christian experience. The problem is that they have not done it enough. They have done it with the Greco-Roman culture and its offshoots in the Western world, but have yet to accomplish the same monumental task with Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Native American and other major religious cultures.