The Second Vatican Council, a meeting of Catholic Church leaders from across the globe, began in 1962 and concluded in 1965. Out of Vatican II came calls for a more open dialogue between the Catholic Church and its people. Some clergy attempted to reach the masses by introducing innovative prayer methods. One such method was centering prayer, a form of focused contemplation with some similarities to Eastern spiritual meditation. Though never officially condemned by the Vatican, centering prayer has its critics. Some see this type of prayer as too mystical. Regardless, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains the official church doctrines, endorses both meditation and contemplative prayer. These endorsements came along with a warning from the Vatican in 1989 about the incompatibility of some Eastern spiritual practices and Christianity.
Catechism on Meditation
Meditation, according to Catholicism, is an attempt to understand the meaning of life. The church recommends that people meditate on what they read in the Bible. Regular meditation is not only acceptable but also recommended for Catholics. Engaging in deep reflective thought through meditation will strengthen the faith of believers, proclaims the Catechism.
Catechism on Contemplative Prayer
The Catholic Church also recommends contemplative prayer, as taught by Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th century promoter of mystical practices. This form of prayer occurs when a person reflects silently on Jesus, the Christian savior. Strict silence is important because the person needs to “hear” or discern what it is God imparts into his or her mind.
Centering Prayer Movement
Father Thomas Keating initiated the centering prayer movement in the 1970s. Keating sought a way to make Catholicism resonate with the Eastern meditative religions then in vogue with the young. In 1974, as an Abbot of St. Joseph’s Monastery in Massachusetts, Keating began offering workshops in meditative prayer methods to encourage the return of those who had deserted the Catholic Church for Eastern religions. In 1984, Keating helped form Contemplative Outreach, an organization to forward the spread of centering prayer throughout the Catholic Church. During centering prayer, a form of contemplative and meditative prayer, people focus intently on a chosen word. By ignoring all other thoughts, the person hopes to reach a state of unity with God.
Vatican Response to the Movement
Some Catholics distinguish between the forms of prayer advocated in the Catechism and the type of prayer practiced by the centering prayer movement. Though the Catechism that arose out of Vatican II upheld meditation and contemplative prayer, the Vatican saw the need to address the centering prayer movement’s emphasis on Eastern religious spirituality. Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, advised caution toward certain prayer forms in “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” Published in 1989, this statement warned that mixing Christian meditative prayer with Eastern, non-Christian methods could be dangerous.
- The Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life; Thomas Keating
- Vatican: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2705-2708
- Teresa of Ávila; Gillian T. W. Ahlgren
- Contemplative Outreach: Fr. Thomas Keating
- CatholicCulture.org: A Closer Look at Centering Prayer
- Unfinished Journey: The Church 40 Years After Vatican 2: Essays for John Wilkins; Austen Ivereigh
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