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Though most authors trace its roots to the contemplative prayer of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism, to the Lectio Divina tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and to works like The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, its origins as part of the "Centering Prayer" movement in modern Catholicism and Christianity can be traced to several books published by three Trappist monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the 1970s: Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating.
Seeds of what would become known as contemplation were sown early in the Christian era. The first appearance of something approximating contemplative prayer arises in the 4th century writings of the monk St. John Cassian, who wrote of a practice he learned from the Desert Fathers (specifically from Isaac). Cassian's writings remained influential until the medieval era, when monastic practice shifted from a mystical orientation to Scholasticism. Thus it can be plausibly argued that contemplation was (one of) the earliest meditational and/or devotional practice of Christian monasticism, being later supplanted in dominance by the scholastic theologians, with only a minimal interest in contemplation.
The Trappist monk and influential writer Thomas Merton was strongly influenced by Buddhist meditation, particularly as found in Zen — he was a lifetime friend of Buddhist meditation master and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, praised Chogyam Trungpa who founded Shambhala Buddhism in the United States and was also an acquaintance of the current Dalai Lama. His theology attempted to unify existentialism with the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. As such he was also an advocate of the non-rational meditation of contemplative prayer, which he saw as a direct confrontation of finite and irrational man with his ground of being.
Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers, including the well-known Theravada Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society. Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them born Catholic, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work. He found many of them had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within Christianity and set out to present those practices in a more accessible way. The result was the practice now called Centering Prayer.
However, centering prayer has not been without criticism. Some critics have argued that centering prayer contains practices that were warned against by the document Aspects of Christian meditation, issued by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Vatican's document, however, does not use the term "centering prayer".
The actual practice of centering prayer is not entirely alien to Catholics, who are advised to meditate in some form daily — such as on the rosary, or on Scripture through the practice of lectio divina. However, although the practice makes use of a 'sacred word,' Thomas Keating emphasizes that Centering Prayer is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one's attention on something (such as a mantra), but rather is concerned with intention. The participant's sole occupation is to establish and maintain the will (intention) to "consent to God's presence and action during the time of prayer." The above methods, in contrast, have some contemplative goal in mind: with the rosary, the Mysteries of the Rosary are contemplated; with lectio divina, the practitioner thinks about the Scripture reading, sometimes even visualizing it. Centering Prayer is more akin to the very ancient practice of hesychasm as understood in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which the participant seeks the presence of God directly (aided by the Jesus Prayer, perhaps) and explicitly rejects discursive thoughts and imagined scenes. (The height of hesychast prayer is spoken of as the vision of the "uncreated light," but this very rare experience is understood as a gift of God, and must not be sought or imagined.)
Ideally, the prayer will reach the point where the person is not engaged in their thoughts as they arrive on their stream of consciousness. This is the "unknowing" referenced in the 14th century book.
In 1983, the organization Contemplative Outreach (see article) was established to help develop a network of individuals interested in the practice of Centering Prayer. Basil Pennington published a book about centering prayer entitled Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form. Translations of Centering Prayer have been published in Spanish, French, Polish, Portuguese, and Italian. By 2002, more than a million copies had been sold worldwide.
Research has been conducted on the Centering Prayer program, indicating that it may be helpful for women receiving chemotherapy, and that it may help congregants experience a more collaborative relationship with God, as well as reduced stress.
For centering prayer
Against centering prayer