On Centering Prayer and Shikantaza
Perhaps Centering Prayer exists on a fuzzy syncretic edge where Catholicism meets Buddhism.
Illustrations by Chloe Cushman
By Jill R. Gaulding
Roman Catholic forms, like the sitting and the standing, and especially the kneeling; that Catholic smell—the frankincense and myrrh that’s infused into the wood of the pews; and the prayers and the songs—“I Am the Bread of Life,” “Here I Am, Lord,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Come Thou Fount,” even “Morning Has Broken”: all of these can bring me—an ex-Catholic, now Zen Buddhist—to sudden tears, so much so that it can feel risky for me to take part in a Catholic mass. There’s always a chance that I might have to leave the nave abruptly, creating an embarrassing scene.
So for me to commit to spending three days in St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery, as I did for a Harvard Divinity School course last January, was no small thing. The course was called Comparative Monasticisms, but I knew I would have two personal comparisons on my mind: first, between the feeling of belonging to Catholicism, which I used to enjoy, and my current quasi-estrangement; and second, between my former Catholic faith and my current Zen Buddhist one.
Our initial class encounter with the abbey, attending vespers on a silent, snow-bound Wednesday evening, did indeed make me cry, though thankfully not so noisily that I had to leave. Afterward, trying to identify the nature of this heartsick feeling, I wrote:
What does it feel like? Maybe this: as if you had a beloved child, and that child died, and now you are watching an old home movie, with soundtrack. It’s almost as if the child is alive again, but they’re not. You’re separated by the distance between you and the 8 mm nitrate film. You can kind of hear the projector running in the background. But there in front of you in shaky light is your child, running around, making faces, alive on the screen.
This feeling is premised on a loss, which is premised on an understanding of difference: Catholicism is fundamentally different than Buddhism, so obviously I can’t have both.1 The difference seems to manifest in all sorts of embodied forms: singing versus chanting, kneeling versus bowing, pews versus zafus, and so on. But it also seems intrinsic and theological: cataphatic versus apophatic, theist versus nontheist, requiring a Jesus-as-Lord versus not requiring a Jesus-as-Lord.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself sitting in a circle of chairs around Father William Meninger on our second day at the abbey, and to hear him emphasize, as he described his interpretation of the classic Catholic prayer practice laid out in The Cloud of Unknowing: “It’s very Buddhist!” Could this really be? If so, what would it mean for me? As a committed Buddhist—driven by Eihei Dogen’s instruction to “investigate thoroughly”—and as a divinity school student, I felt compelled to try to find answers to these questions.
The class met with Father Meninger in an echoing, slate-floored choir hall. Meninger has a white beard and bald head, uses a cane to get around, and—at 87 years old—is easily the highest-energy person in the room. He knows how to tell a good story. I quickly realized that I was in the presence of greatness. This was a famous man, a man who had changed many Catholics’ lives, and yet I had managed not to know anything about him until the moment I was seated right next to him, our knees almost touching. He told us his intent was to teach us about “contemplative prayer,” and specifically, “Centering Prayer.”
From the outset, he drew us in with the resonance of his words. To introduce contemplative prayer, for example, he told a story about being out in the fields at St. Joseph’s sister abbey in Snowmass, Colorado. The punchline was this: “I saw the Milky Way come spiraling down and hit me in the face. . . . I could reach out and grab a handful of stars . . . that’s contemplative prayer!” Well, I thought, if that’s contemplative prayer, I definitely want to know more.
Meninger related how he had learned yoga as a spiritual practice in 1963, in the very slate-floored hall we were sitting in. “I got into the lotus position once, for 10 minutes,” he said, “before intense suffering set in.” He noted, “It really is the best posture for prayer,” and gesturing to the middle-aged monk sitting in the circle with us, demanded, “Father Dominick, please demonstrate!” Luckily for Father Dominick, Father Meninger was joking.
Reading and rereading The Cloud, Father Meninger came to a new understanding of contemplative prayer as “a work of love,” and he committed himself to spreading the word about the “loving union with God” it teaches.
As Father Meninger recalled, the key moment of the origin story for Centering Prayer occurred in 1974, in the library at the abbey. There, in a back corner, he ran across a dusty little book: The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous cleric in the fourteenth century.2 Reading and rereading The Cloud, Father Meninger came to a new understanding of contemplative prayer as “a work of love,” and he committed himself to spreading the word about the “loving union with God” it teaches.3 At first he called this practice “The Prayer of the Cloud,” but later he renamed it “Centering Prayer,” in reference to Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer as prayer that is “centered entirely on the presence of God . . . His will . . . His love.”4
A variation of this origin story can also be told in which the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy played a more directive role. Apparently, the abbot of St. Joseph’s, Father Thomas Keating, attended a meeting in Rome in 1971, following in the wake of Vatican II, at which Father Keating and his monks were formally invited “to revive the contemplative teachings of early Christianity and present them in updated formats,” designed to be “appealing and accessible to laypeople.” It was in response to this call that Father Meninger, along with Father Keating and another monk, Father Basil Pennington, developed Centering Prayer as an “updated” version of the teachings in The Cloud of Unknowing.
In our first meeting with him, Father Meninger told us that he chose to make Centering Prayer more accessible by explaining it in his own book, The Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and “The Cloud of Unknowing.” With a wink, he mentioned that he would be willing to autograph any copy we happened to bring by. I couldn’t resist that invitation, so I purchased the last copy on the shelves of the abbey gift shop and got his cursive “God bless you – Fr. William Meninger” the next day. I was glad to have his blessing and a chance to appreciate the way the two little books—his and the fourteenth-century cleric’s—complement each other.
But what is Centering Prayer? Father Meninger emphasized to us how simple it is. According to the summary presented on the website of Contemplative Outreach, the organization that grew out of the work of the three monks (Keating, Meninger, and Pennington), there are just four core steps:
1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.
3. When engaged with thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the period of prayer, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.5
We shouldn’t over-think the sacred word, Father Meninger said. Any short word—something like “Abba,” “Jesus,” “Lord,” “Yes,” “Love,” or “Now”—will do. And we shouldn’t worry about wandering thoughts. “When you notice these,” he said, “you think, ‘I will go back to my prayer [in the form of the sacred word].’ This is a good thing, because each time you are reaffirming your love of God!”
Could any Catholic object to a prayer that is “centered entirely on the presence of God”? I wouldn’t think so. And yet, as I discovered when I returned from the Comparative Monasticisms retreat and began reading more about Centering Prayer, there are indeed Catholics who object to Centering Prayer—and vigorously.
One widely read article, for example, is titled “The Danger of Centering Prayer.” The author, Father John D. Dreher, describes several dangers, including this one:
[There is] [t]he danger of opening oneself to evil spirits. Such techniques can bring people in touch with the spiritual realm. But the spiritual realm includes not only God but human and angelic spirits. A person with a problem in a moral or psychological area can open himself to some degree of demonic influence.6
Others agree with Father Dreher, warning, for example, of exposure to “the devil, Satan, the evil one,”7 or of the “Anti-Christ . . . the serpent power (horned god) worshipped by mankind from antiquity . . . Lucifer.”8 They see Centering Prayer as “a deception of the Devil who would keep us from going higher towards God in prayer.”9 Quoting Father Dreher, a monk named Matthew summarizes: “The rapid spread of [C]entering [P]rayer in the past decade into so many areas which are at the very heart of the Catholic faith is, I believe, part of the Devil’s strategy against the Church.”10
I was fascinated by these objections, as someone who has never believed in the Devil. As an interfaith chaplain, it’s good to be reminded that there are Catholics who do have such beliefs. But such objections didn’t shed much light on the questions that began for me when Father Meninger told us that Centering Prayer “is very Buddhist!” Could this really be? And if so, what would it mean for me?
Other objections that I ran across did shed light on my questions. One set focuses on the embodied aspects of Centering Prayer, noting—with alarm—the similarities to certain Buddhist or Hindu meditation forms. For instance, a number of authors advise readers to be wary of any instruction for spiritual practice that calls for them to:
1. Breathe a certain way before or during prayer
2. Maintain a certain posture or bodily position
3. Repeat a word or phrase, even if it’s from the Bible, or use a word or phrase to stay “focused”
4. Go beyond thinking or thought
5. To turn inward in order to find or be with God
6. Be in silence in order to truly pray
7. Believe that [Centering Prayer] is true prayer.11
Similarly, a book on Christian meditation that predates Father Meninger’s book reassures readers they won’t find anything in the text akin to “a system of Christian yoga,” since “[p]ostures, rituals, and chants are missing from the gospel of Jesus Christ for good reason.”12
At first glance these objections (or the flipside assurances of “no yoga/no postures”) might seem paranoid. What is it about a focus on breathing or posture that would be alarming? Surely Christians could focus on their breath or posture while praying, without accidentally becoming Buddhist?
But when I think about my own spiritual path, I begin to think that the people raising these objections are onto something. I can trace a direct pathway from my initial exposure to a purportedly secular mindfulness-based stress reduction program (offered to me by my Iowa health-care provider as a treatment for depression) to my eventual conversion to Buddhism.
Speaking as a Buddhist, I can assert that there absolutely is something spiritually informative (and therefore, potentially spiritually dangerous to those who are concerned about syncretism or conversion) about a focus on the breath or on holding one’s posture. An intention to focus on the breath contributes to enlightenment on several fronts: it can heighten your awareness of impermanence and, via mindfulness of your “monkey mind,” lead to insights regarding no-self. Similarly: an intention to hold your posture, resisting the constant impulses to shift your legs or scratch itches, can with time help you to begin to grasp the Four Noble Truths and what they teach about dukkha (suffering) and its elimination. Because breath- and posture-based spiritual training have changed me, I cannot dismiss Catholics’ concerns that Centering Prayer might cross over into Buddhist territory.
Some of those who object to Centering Prayer focus on the ways it seems to adopt Buddhist concepts expressly:
The influence of Buddhism . . . is apparent. Words such as “detachment,” “transformation,” “emptiness,” “enlightenment,” and “awakening” swim in and out of the waters of these books [along with] the notions that true prayer is silent, is beyond words, is beyond thought, does away with the “false self,” triggers transformation of consciousness, and is an awakening.13
We should contrast St. Teresa of Ávila, argues another objector, since St. Teresa does not promote silence:
Instead of advising beginners in prayer to just sit silently, [St. Teresa] urges them to meditate on the Gospel or the lives of the saints. In The Way of Perfection, she says of meditation on Scripture: “This is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues, and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it.”14
Still others argue that Centering Prayer is dangerous because it points those who want to pray in the wrong direction: “[Centering Prayer] tells us to focus inward, but the Bible admonishes us to focus outward on the Lord.”15
Connie Rossini, a prominent critic, summarizes these objections by calling Centering Prayer “a failed attempt to Christianize . . . Eastern spiritual practices.”16 A commenter paraphrases Rossini’s take, stating, “Centering [P]rayer always seemed to me to be something that was constantly pushed by those who are dissatisfied with the church for one reason or another. [I]t seems to be simply Eastern religions dressed up in fake Catholic garb.”17
It’s hard for me to know what to make of all this. On the one hand, it seems to cement the belief I’ve been carrying around that Catholicism is fundamentally different than Buddhism. On the other hand, it leaves us with some real puzzles. Have Fathers Keating, Meninger, and Pennington been wearing “fake Catholic garb”? Are they traitors to Catholicism and secret evangelists for Buddhism? That seems like an extreme view, especially given that these three famous monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey were, by many accounts, acting in direct, obedient response to a request from their church superiors in Rome “to revive the contemplative teachings of early Christianity and present them in updated formats.”18
That said, it seems that Father Keating may have lost his position as abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey because of his promotion of Centering Prayer:
Some of the 70 or so brothers at Saint Joseph’s were skeptical of [Keating’s promotion of Centering Prayer], and their doubts increased when Keating invited other spiritual leaders onto the monastery’s grounds to glean wisdom from their traditions. Eventually, the monks took a vote to decide whether Keating should continue as their leader. The straw poll was evenly split, but Keating cast the deciding vote himself: He resigned. His tenure as abbot had lasted 20 years, but he believed he could not fairly lead a divided community. The 58-year-old packed up his few belongings and headed west, retreating to his other spiritual home in [Snowmass,] Colorado.19
Possibly intending to downplay these disputes within the church, the Contemplative Outreach organization refers to this 1981 event more obliquely, as the moment when Father Keating “retired.”20
As an ex-Catholic Zen Buddhist who tends to cry at Mass, I have a stake in the debates over contemplative prayer.
It may not be my place to decide, even for myself, where the boundaries of true Catholic doctrine lie. But this is not simply an entertainment for me, as an ex-Catholic Zen Buddhist who tends to cry at Mass. I have a stake in this debate. If it’s possible for Centering Prayer to be, at once, Catholic and Buddhist—if there’s somehow room for both the cataphatic and the apophatic, for theists and nontheists, believers in Jesus-as-Lord and nonbelievers, at least at the very outer edges of Catholicism, that could mean a great deal to me.
Perhaps Catholicism is what cognitive scientists call a “fuzzy category”: it may have fuzzy, syncretistic, welcoming, and affirming edges, where a person like myself could hang out. In that case, I could call myself a Catholic instead of an ex-Catholic, and—with that status restored—once again stand in resistance, as an insider, to the church’s seemingly unshakeable commitment to the patriarchy.
This possibility compelled me to keep pondering this Centering Prayer puzzle, even if I couldn’t solve it. I delved into other books and resources and found two to be especially helpful.
I discovered Cynthia Bourgeault’s latest book about Centering Prayer, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice,21 shelved next to Father Meninger’s book at the abbey gift store (not far from the Trappist jam display). Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, and her principal goal in this book is to demonstrate that Centering Prayer is “unique”—it is not just a “Christian packaging” of meditation. She believes that a focus on “intention” rather than “attention” is consistent with the concept of “objectless awareness” that is taught in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. What’s different, she argues, is the way Centering Prayer “leads off with [objectless awareness], essentially turning traditional meditation pedagogy on its head.” She says, “I’ve come to believe that Centering Prayer’s unusual methodology makes complete sense only within a Christian theological frame of reference.”22
With due respect to Bourgeault, I find this curious, because I know there are practitioners new to Zen who lead off with Zen’s version of objectless awareness, shikantaza, or the practice of “just sitting.” Indeed, one of my favorite scriptures from the liturgy in my sangha is this quote from Dogen: “If you want to obtain suchness, practice suchness immediately.” Given this, can Bourgeault’s arguments really draw a sharp line between Centering Prayer as a Christian practice and shikantaza as a Buddhist practice?
The second resource is from Kess Frey, a writer commissioned by Contemplative Outreach to respond to Connie Rossini’s arguments. In response to Rossini’s 2015 book, Is Centering Prayer Catholic?23 in 2017 Frey published Bridge across Troubled Waters: Centering Prayer and the Theological Divide.24 One aspect of Frey’s defense of Centering Prayer that deserves close examination is his reliance on a distinction between “the Western Model” of self-outside-God and God-outside-the-self and “the Scriptural Model” of the-self-in-God and God-in-the-self. Frey suggests that while both models are valid, the scriptural model is preferable since it returns to the Gospel, a reliable source, for inspiration, whereas the Western model has only been “taught for the last few centuries.”
Furthermore, the scriptural model better represents “God’s all-embracing immanence in all of creation”—and, he argues, Centering Prayer happens to fit squarely within the scriptural model. More advanced Catholics, Frey suggests, gradually transcend and integrate the Western model; thus, critics of Centering Prayer must simply be stuck in the Western model.25
If nothing else, this is advanced rhetoric. But, depending on exactly how one fleshes out the notion of the-self-in-God and God-in-the-self, Frey may also be describing the fuzzy syncretic edge where Catholicism meets Buddhism. Compare, for example, the scriptural model of the-self-in-God and God-in-the-self with this Soto Zen priest’s description of “the Zen version of God”:
[E]ven though Zen does not conceive of the Ineffable as being personified, we still believe there is something incredibly intimate and personal about it. Dogen writes, “We ourselves are tools which [the Ineffable] possesses within this Universe in ten directions.” We are not part of the Ineffable in spite of being our personal self, or in addition to being our personal self. There is no Ineffable apart from the myriad manifestations of the universe, including our personal self. Just as the Ineffable shines through a beautiful piece of music, it shines through us.26
How do we Zen Buddhists direct ourselves toward this “Zen version of God”? By the practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting”—a form of meditation that is strikingly similar to Centering Prayer.
I suspect that Connie Rossini and I would agree about this: While trying to prove Centering Prayer is straightforwardly Catholic, Frey has accidentally shown just how Buddhist it is. Rossini finds that appalling, but I find it intriguing, and I’m not sure what Father Meninger would think about it. I would like to have another opportunity to ask him, in person, in that abbey choir hall where he first learned yoga back in 1963. Perhaps he would wink and recite this “Byzantine Prayer,” which he included as the epigraph for The Loving Search for God:
Serene Light, shining in the
Ground of my being,
Draw me to yourself,
Draw me past the snares of the senses,
Out of the mazes of the mind,
Free me from symbols, from words,
That I may discover
The Word Unspoken
In the darkness
That veils the ground of my being. Amen.
Or maybe he would just say that one word, “Amen,” because that is the lesson he left us with: “We should be able to say ‘Amen’ to any form of prayer, even if we don’t practice it ourselves.”
Thanks to Father Meninger, I do say “Amen.” Amen to sitting through Mass and to leaving in tears. Amen to the lotus position, on a slate floor, and to the Milky Way, spiraling down. Amen to abbeys and to zendos, to pews and to zafus, to Centering Prayer and to shikantaza. Amen to it all.
- I’m leaving aside here the positions the Catholic Church continues to take regarding gender and sexuality, and the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued it in recent decades. Though the church’s as-yet-unshakable commitment to the patriarchy has reinforced the transition I made more than two decades ago from practicing Catholic to ex-Catholic, the transition itself was a matter of my theology, not my politics or my identity as a queer feminist.
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (Penguin Books, 2001); available in various editions.
- William A. Meninger, The Loving Search for God: Contemplative Prayer and “The Cloud of Unknowing” (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1994), xvii.
- This and the quoted passages that follow in this column are from “History of Contemplative Outreach” and “History of Centering Prayer,” Contemplative Outreach, www.contemplativeoutreach.org.
- Mary Dwyer, “What Is Centering Prayer and How Do We Do It?” Contemplative Outreach.
- John D. Dreher, “The Danger of Centering Prayer,” This Rock 8, no. 11 (November 1997).
- Comments section to “For Your Discernment: Warnings on the Dangers of Centering Prayer,” Courageous Priest, www.courageouspriest.com.
- Linda Kimball, “Kundalini Shakti and the ‘New’ Contemplative/Centering Prayer,” from her blog Patriots & Liberty, March 17, 2015.
- Comments section to Connie Rossini, “Why Centering Prayer Falls Short of True Intimacy with Christ,” National Catholic Register, October 17, 2015.
- Matthew, “The Errors of Centering Prayer,” A Catholic Life, May 2, 2007.
- Linda Kimball, “Kundalini Shakti,” Patriots & Liberty. See a similar list from an evangelical source, “Contemplating Contemplative Prayer: Is It Really Prayer?” Midwest Christian Outreach, December 9, 2017.
- Edmund P. Clowney, Christian Meditation: What the Bible Teaches about Meditation and Spiritual Exercises (Craig Press, 1979), v.
- “Contemplating Contemplative Prayer.”
- Rossini, “Why Centering Prayer Falls Short.”
- “Contemplating Contemplative Prayer.”
- Rossini, “Why Centering Prayer Falls Short.”
- Ibid., in comments section.
- “History of Centering Prayer.”
- Mary Clare Fischer, “Father Thomas Keating Is a Rebel with a Cause,” 5280, March 2018.
- Obituary of Fr. Thomas Keating, Contemplative Outreach.
- Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala Publications, 2016).
- Ibid. 1–2, 3, 33.
- Connie Rossini, Is Centering Prayer Catholic? Fr. Thomas Keating Meets Teresa of Avila and the CDF (Four Waters Press, 2015; 2d ed., 2018, print and Kindle editions).
- Kess Frey, Bridge across Troubled Waters: Centering Prayer and the Theological Divide (Lindisfarne Books, 2017).
- Domyo Burk, “It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God,” The Zen Studies Podcast, March 30, 2017.
Jill R. Gaulding is a third-year MDiv student at Harvard Divinity School, a member of Greater Boston Zen Center, and an interfaith chaplain in training. She will begin a chaplaincy residency at Mass General Hospital in September 2020.