In defence of Centering Prayer; in response to Margaret Feaster’s book

Response to Feaster, Margaret A,   A closer look at Centering Prayer

Preliminary remarks:

Johnette Benkovic gives retreats and seminars in the USA. She runs a TV program called “Living His Life Abundantly”, and has run a series on New Age as part of her program. She has also written a book, The New Age Counterfeit, where she devotes one whole chapter to the ‘problem’ of Centering Prayer (CP). She identifies it with Transcendental Meditation (TM) which is linked to Hinduism.

Margaret A. Feaster seems to rely significantly on Benkovic. In her article ‘A closer look at Centering Prayer’, she holds that Centering Prayer is basically a New Age form of spirituality. The question arises: how dependent is Feaster on that one chapter in The New Age Counterfeit? What is her expertise in this whole field?

Some personal details are available at the end of her article:

“Mrs. Margaret A. Feaster is a housewife and mother of three children. She and her husband live in Lilburn, Ga. She is on the leadership committee for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Atlanta, and is in formation for the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order. She belongs to a Rosary Cenacle, and heads up the parish telephone prayer line. She is also a writer for her parish newsletter.”

Critique of the article

The clue to Feaster’s argument is found in the summary on the last page of her article:

“If we want to pray we can think about [Jesus] during our prayer time. We can meditate on the Passion, practice virtues and ask him to take us up into authentic contemplation one day if so desires. We can remind others that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life”.

It is clear that Feaster has missed the essential point of Keating and Pennington’s goal, which is to show a valid way of entering into “authentic contemplation” which Feaster proposes as an ideal.

Her summary points on the last page of her article provide a useful way to arrange the following comments:

Summary point 1)       “Christian prayer always involves the mind and the heart. Even in preparation for contemplation, St. Teresa of Avila advises people to meditate or “think about” the Sorrowful mysteries.”

Summary point 2)       “Mind-emptying techniques are not Christian prayer, but rather practices of Hindus, Zen Buddhists, and New Agers. The Pope says this type of prayer “makes no sense in Christianity.”

Response a:                 Feaster seems particularly concerned with “mind-emptying techniques” which she refers to again and again by many terms such as “mental void”, “pure consciousness”, where all thoughts and feeling disappear.

She is concerned, even though the process of moving beyond thoughts is a common-place in the Christian tradition. For example, in Isaiah 55.8-9 God proclaims:

My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

In other words, those who seek to enter into the mind of God need to go beyond the human mind and human thinking. Indeed, the great mystical moments in the Bible are associated with movement into profound silence. For example, when Moses hears the voice of God at the burning bush he cover his face with his cloak (Ex 3.6), as does Elijah when he hears the sound the gentle breeze (1 Kings 19.13). The comparable theme of sleep or inactivity is also found: Adam is put into a deep sleep because he cannot observe the act of God in forming the woman from his side (Genesis 2.21); the Temple is filled with smoke such that the priests cannot perform their duties (I Kings 8.10); above all, in the episode of the Transfiguration the disciples fall asleep as they see the glory of the Lord (Luke 9.32). In other words, the darkening of the faculties, the deep sleep and the inactivity of the mind coincide with the great moments of revelation. This is because human thought is overwhelmed in the divine Presence.

This point is clearly made in one of the principal passages from The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa, who is at the fountainhead of Christian mystical writing. He says, in referring to the episode on Mount Sinai where Moses enters the dark cloud:

“What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light but now he is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly what of the divine nature is uncontemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what the sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Life of Moses II.162-163.

Thus Gregory teaches that God is best known in darkness. That text is foundational for many later Christian mystical writings, such as Mystic Theology by Dionysius the Areopagite (6th century, Syria), The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century, England) or The Dark Night by John of the Cross (16th century, Spain).

The entry into the darkness and the suspension of all human thought is not the end of the process, however, but a necessary and essential step. As a result of entering into the mind of God and taking on his thoughts and adopting his ways, the mystic then returns to the world with his whole being transformed. For that reason, the Transfiguration is immediately followed by his cure of the sick boy.

In short, Feaster shows a lack of awareness of the mystical tradition of the Catholic Church which teaches that the mind, and indeed every faculty, must enter into ultimate stillness of God before returning to activity; must enter into the silence of Jesus’ tomb before sharing in his resurrection.

As Feaster rightly notes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) (#2726) warns against a variety of errors. It states that

“Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort to reach a mental void. … Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures”.

The term ‘mental void’ refers to mental vacuity, a psychological state. It does not refer to the darkness which the greatest mystics have known when, in the overwhelming Presence of the Almighty, their faculties cease to function. This cessation, as noted above, is due to the fact that the overwhelming light ‘blinds’ their weak human faculties. Feaster has not understood the different between ‘mental void’ and the ‘dark night’ of the mystics.

Response b:                With regard to techniques:

Referring to St Teresa of Avila, Feaster objects to the mantra as a technique, as though Christianity did not use techniques to draw close to God, such as the rosary, pilgrimage, fasting, etc. Indeed, the disciples ask the Lord for a technique when they say: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11.1). He first gives a warning, “do not babble”, and then recites the ‘Our Father’ (Mt 6.7-13). The issue, therefore, is not whether the prayer form of the mantra is a technique but whether it is inspired by God. The Catechism notes this explicitly: “prayer comes from the Holy Spirit and not from [oneself] alone.” (#2726) The mantra is just one technique among others, and the practitioner must judge whether it is useful or whether another technique should be used.

Summary point 3)       There are dangers involved in going into altered levels of consciousness.

Response:       Feaster says that ‘pure consciousness is an altered level of consciousness’. This is not accurate. Pure consciousness is not a level of consciousness but is rather the basis of all consciousness. The classical imagery in Hinduism is that of the mirror, which can bear any image on its surface precisely because of itself it does not bear any image.

The aim is indeed to reach the ‘void’, but this term ‘void’ (Sanskrit: shoonya) must be properly understood. It is a negative term used to express a positive reality. It is an example of negative theology. It is equivalent to the term ‘infinite’ which means ‘without finitude’. In other words, both ‘void’ and ‘infinite’ are forms of negative speech: saying what is a thing is not, rather than saying what it is. This negative theology is common in mystical writings, for human thought cannot comprehend God. Those who know God more fully realise all the more powerfully how little they know Him. Ultimately we are reduced to speaking in negatives, and then to silence before the Divine Mystery.

Summary point 4)       The True Self is not God. The human soul is inferior to God. It is separate from God because it is stained with sin, and it is created by God himself.

Response:       Feaster confuses the True Self and the human soul. The nature of the Self (atma) is one of the major topics of Hindu and Buddhist theology. In Hinduism the ‘Self’ is generally taken to refer to the Ultimately Reality. But the Self and the human essence are essentially related: the Self is the basis of the individual self; the limited self is an expression of the ultimate Self. This idea is not altogether foreign to Christianity. The Gospel of John 1.4 states: “All that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of all men [sic]”. St Paul says: “I live or rather not I but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20) Thus God is the foundational centre of each human being. The Heart of God is at the heart of each individual. Or to use Hindu terminology, the True Self of every human being is God. (Note again that Hinduism does not say that the True Self is the human soul.)

Summary point 5)       Involvement in the occult practices listed in Deuteronomy 18 is grave sin.

Response:       Feaster’s closing remarks add: They have demonstrated a lack of discernment, and therefore are not reliable sources of information for spiritual growth.

Feaster quotes Ralph Rath in his book Mantras who says that

“in a forward to Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality by Philip St Romain, Keating calls kundalini “an enormous energy for good” and does not point out that uncontrolled kundalini can kill or drive a person mad or that some cults use kundalini in an extremely debased ways.”

Feaster concludes, therefore, that Keating does not show discernment.

I have read Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality for which Fr Keating has provided a foreword. The provision of a foreword does not mean that the writer of the foreword agrees with every element of the book. St Romain’s book is hardly a masterpiece.

Feaster holds that Keating and Pennington have endorsed the book Meditations on the Tarot, a Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Once again, a foreword does not signify endorsement but is an invitation to the reader to consider the work and judge for themselves. Feaster goes on to identify tarot with divination which is condemned in Deuteronomy 18. Tarot can be used in many ways, not all of them divinatory.

Summary point 6)       Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and New Age do not mix with Catholicism. These ancient religions contain grave error, and their beliefs are contrary to the Catholic faith.

Feaster’s closing remarks add: some readers are unaware that they are being exposed to Hinduism through these books [of Keating and Pennington]. …. As Christians, we are not to practice non-Christian religions or mix them in with ours (syncretism). When we practice syncretism, the line between truth and error becomes blurred. The pleasant experiences that result from these techniques can gradually start to replace the sacraments, and a person can lose sight of God as Creator and Savior.

The Lord loves the Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and all people. However, he wants us, as Christians, to look for opportunities to bring them to the True Faith. If we want to “center,” we can center our lives on Jesus Christ.

Response:       A number of comments can be made:

a.      Feaster is troubled by the influence of Hinduism which she refers to many times in her article. She says that New Agers borrow many of their beliefs from that religion. Yes, New Agers are indeed eclectic. This does not mean that they necessarily reflect Hinduism in an accurate way. She states that “They [the New Agers] believe …. that we are part of this god.” Perhaps the New Agers do, but Hinduism does not believe humans are part of god since god is ‘without parts’ (Sanskrit: nishkala). Feaster concludes: “so we too are god”. Hinduism does not teach that the human individual is god. Hiinduism is based on an altogether different anthropology and metaphysics with which Feaster seems unacquainted. However, it is not possible in this short critique to speak at length about Hindu metaphysics.

Feaster also says: “[Hindus] do not worship a God who is superior to them”. This shows a misunderstanding of Hinduism and of the worship that takes place in the temples of India. Indeed, the term ‘god’ in Hinduism does not have the same meaning as in Christianity.

b.      In her article Feaster compares CP and TM, referring to Benkovic’s book The New Age Counterfeit. Benkovic has interviewed people who have done both CP and TM and who claim that CP and TM are basically the same. The only difference would be that in TM the mantras are the names of Hindu gods, while in CP the sacred word is usually “Jesus, God, peace or love.” The people she interviewed may well have said these things, but are they right? There is a world of difference – indeed the fundamental difference between Christianity and Hinduism – between uttering the name of Jesus and uttering the name of a Hindu god; a world of difference, therefore, between TM and CP. Feaster is confusing style and content.

One wonders whether Feaster really understands the place of the mantra in CP. It is clearly described as

“the symbol of [the meditator’s] intention to consent to God’s presence and action within” (cf. Open Mind, Open Heart, Chap. 5)

It is a covenantal word, a word expressing relationship and obedience, and springs from the heart of Christianity.

c.       Feaster goes on to quote the document ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation’ (dated 1989).

“We find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian”

Yes, this fusing is dangerous. There have indeed been errors. The criticisms given in the document are valid, but they do not simply say the meeting of East and West is impossible. There is indeed the “risk of immersion in the indeterminate abyss of the divinity, abandoning the Triune God”. The process “can lead to syncretism”. There is the danger of “a leaving aside of the humanity of Christ”. These are real dangers. One cannot, however, conclude that there can be no sincere dialogue between Christianity and other religions. The warnings are timely. They are an invitation to prudence and reflection; they are not a prohibition.

In fine:             Feaster’s article often misses the point such that almost every sentence would need a more extensive commentary than is possible here. This must suffice.

by Fr John Dupuche


About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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