Trappist monk visits Alaska to teach prayer method
By JOEL DAVIDSON
In mid-September, well-known Trappist monk Father William Meninger traveled to Southcentral Alaska to give talks and retreats on the practice of centering prayer — a form of contemplative prayer which he has helped popularize over the past 30 years. Over the years, Father Meninger has faced many questions about this form of prayer. On Sept. 21, he granted an interview with the Catholic Anchor in an effort to address some of these concerns. The following transcript is an excerpt of that interview.
What is centering prayer?
There are many approaches to contemplative prayer. Centering prayer is, in particular, the journey to the contemplative dimension made by an anonymous 14th century author — probably a Carthusian monk — who wrote “The Cloud of Unknowing.” He is an incredible, sympathetic writer who gives you a hands-on manual of contemplative meditation.
Contemplative prayer is really the logical outcome of the regular, normal prayer life that we begin with. In the beginning our prayers are usually thoughts expressed in words. When we get to the point of contemplation, the thoughts subside, the words disappear and there is simply loving rather than speaking.
“The Cloud of Unknowing” says in many different ways that God, whom the mind cannot grasp, the heart can embrace. Since God is infinite and we are finite you cannot put an infinite God into a finite mind. But our hearts are capable of loving the infinite God.
Some claim that centering prayer is too similar to Transcendental Meditation, which is rooted in Buddhism. Your Web site, however, notes that in 1975 your colleagues, Father Thomas Keating and Father Basil Pennington, were looking for a form of Christian contemplative prayer to offset the movement of young Catholics over to Eastern meditation. This led you to teach centering prayer. Why did you believe centering prayer was an alternative to Eastern meditation?
As to the claim that contemplative prayer resembles Eastern meditations, why don’t they say that Eastern meditation resembles Christian contemplative prayer? It’s just as valid an approach.
But why did we think centering prayer was a substitute for those drawn to Eastern meditation? Because from Buddhism and Hinduism these young people were getting a non-verbal approach to God — beyond the limitations of words, ideas and thoughts. They were responding to something born in their hearts — the image of God. But they were responding outside of the Christian context, which was unfortunate.
Contemplative prayer has always been found in our monasteries. Father Keating was saying, “We have it — now how do we communicate it?”
Our monastery was on Route 20 in Massachusetts. Ten miles down the road was an Insight meditation center, where they taught Hindu meditation. These young people were driving by the monastery to the meditation center. Some of them would occasionally stop and say, “You know, I really enjoyed and profited from Insight meditation but I felt an incredible lack of Christ, and I need Christ. That inspired Father Keating to find a method by which we could communicate Christian contemplative prayer.
What are the essential differences between Eastern mediation techniques and centering prayer?
Centering prayer — or contemplative Christian prayer — is simply loving God and being loved by God, consciously. It is a work of supernatural charity which can only come from God.
In the contemplative experience, we don’t ask God for anything and strangely enough we ask him for everything. Because love is God and we are asking him for himself, but only because he has already given himself. The contemplative experience is a response to God’s gift.
How does this differ from transcendental mediation or Buddhist or Hindu mediations? I would have to say that if a Buddhist or a Hindu is sitting down to a non-verbal form of meditation and his intention is to love God and be loved by God, then it is identical. If his intention is to lift his heart up to God with a gentle stirring of love, desiring God for his own sake and not for his gifts, that is Christian contemplation according to all of the great mystics.
A common objection to centering prayer is that it encourages the practitioner to empty his mind. How would you respond to those who say that God does not ask us to turn off our mind because our mind is also a gift from God?
The great mystics speak of the via negativa — the negative way — and the via positiva — the positive way. The via positiva is the way to God through the intellect. There are four degrees of intellectual activity — data, science, understanding and then wisdom.
Data is reading the Bible, the catechisms, the creeds and gathering together all the revelation and information we have about God. This becomes theology and knowledge. That is the second function of the intellect.
The third is understanding. Here we take theology and we practice it. Now we are into prayer for the first time.
The fourth level is wisdom. Here human knowledge — acquired through data and theology and expressed in prayer — becomes wisdom. Wisdom is actually understanding reality the way God understands it. This is not the intellect but love. You are led to contemplation through the use of the intellect.
But there is another approach — the via negativa. This way is based on the fact that the human mind cannot embrace the infinite God but human love can because it is really divine love.
Like the intellect, the heart also operates on four levels: attraction, clinging, enjoyment and union of wills. First we are attracted to God so we follow that attraction. That is God’s gift — that is love. And as the great mystics say, that attraction in itself will bring you to salvation. Attraction is the greatest gift God can give you. If you are attracted to God, you are the richest man on earth.
Once you are attracted, you grasp hold of God and don’t want to let go. That clinging is the second level of love, which is really purgation. What are the things that try to get you to not love God? — the challenges of living the Christian life, following the commandments of the church, acquiring virtue, practicing the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. In this purgative way you have to struggle in order to maintain your clinging to God. Even occasional falling is a blessing because you reach out all the more eagerly for God.
The third level of love is enjoyment. This is not the superficial joy of a young boy running to the gates of Disney World. It is a deep abiding joy that actually exists even in the presence of suffering and pain. Jesus experienced this joy on the cross when he recited Psalm 22: “Why have you forsaken me?” You read through that entire psalm and there is a description of all the agonies of his crucifixion. Then all of the sudden there is a transference in the psalm and it turns into joy and a proclamation of love. This is the kind of joy that carries us through the death of our children, through wars and famine and all of these horrors.
The last level, the highest form of love, is union of wills in which you will only what God wills. “Not my will but thine be done,” as Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane. He did not want to be crucified. He sweated blood and he prayed for his Father to let it pass from him. But then he said, “Not my will but thine be done.”
This stage of desiring only God’s will is the highest stage. When the heart reaches the stage of union of wills, and the intellect reaches the stage of wisdom — union of will and wisdom are exactly the same thing. God’s knowledge and God’s love are identical.
Certain saints specialize in the intellect — Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Others specialize in the will, like Saint Bernard and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” and others. But even those who specialize in the intellect, at the end of the journey, they drop the intellect and go into the loving will.
There are many different techniques that can be used for contemplative prayer — not to begin the process — because that is sheer grace. Only God can begin the process. This is where some confusion comes in. In centering prayer we teach a technique but it presupposes that the process be initiated by sheer grace. And “The Cloud of Unknowing” insists that there are no techniques to induce contemplation. It must be begun by God.
Some object that centering prayer blurs the distinction between the creator and the created and could lead practitioners to believe they are identical with God.
What did Saint Paul say? “I live now, not I but Christ lives in me.” Isn’t that a blurring of the distinction between Paul and Christ? The early fathers spoke of divinization. We become one with God. Love is a uniting. Yes, we become God. But there is a difference. The difference is that we become God by God’s grace. God is God by nature. We will never be God by nature. God always existed and we did not. But there is a union there in which the differences are blurred.
In 1989, future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote a letter to Catholic bishops from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The letter, “On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” affirms that Christian prayer is “authentically personal and communitarian” and “flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself” which can imprison a person and make them “incapable of a free openness to the transcendental God.” How does centering prayer avoid this?
“The Cloud of Unknowing” author begins with this statement: “Do not read this book or give this book to anyone else to read unless he is a person who has fulfilled and is fulfilling all the teachings of the church in terms of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.” You do this prayer through, in and with the Body of Christ. It cannot be done as a solitary act.
“The Cloud of Unknowing” says that this work of love is more pleasing to God than anything else you can do. It is more beneficial to the souls in purgatory, to the works of the church than any other thing you can do.
He goes on further to say that if we love God and God loves all that he has made, then we love all that God has made — every man, woman and child that has ever lived or ever will live on the face of the earth. So you cannot love God authentically if you are not reaching out to love your fellow man authentically.
The same Vatican letter states that “man is essentially a creature and remains such for eternity, so that an absorbing of the human self into the divine self is never possible.” However, the letter notes that humans are created in the image and likeness of God and that the archetype of this image is the Son of God. How does this teaching of being separate from God but created in his image inform centering prayer?
One has to understand that the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” says do not read this book unless you are going to read the whole thing. Because certain parts of this book do not stand alone but must be understood in relation to the rest of the book.
With Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter, you cannot pull things out of context. So, yes, we will always be Christians. Yet, the more we are united to God in love, there is a blurring. You don’t know where God begins and you end. That is wonderful.
The same letter cautioned against attempts to “fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian” or to “place absolute image or concepts, which are proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality.” The letter adds that this false view proposes abandoning the very idea of the one and triune God who is love in favor of an “immersion into an indeterminate abyss of divinity.” The letter then states that these attempts to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern technique pose a danger of falling into syncretism — the blending of religions.
How can practitioners of contemplative prayer be certain that they are not opening themselves up to adopting non-Christian notions about God?
When God puts in your heart a gentle stirring of love, it is not subject to the errors of the devil. Can the devil, in order to trick you, first make you love God? No. That is an absolute contradiction.
In centering prayer you are loving God. That love of God comes from the fundamental intellectual truths that you learn from God’s revelation as expressed in the church. But you can’t stay there.
The Buddhists say the finger that points to the moon is not the moon. What is the finger that points to God? It’s theology. That is its purpose. Now if you stay with the finger, you’ll never get to the moon. You’ve got to follow the direction the finger gives to go to the moon. That’s the same with thoughts, ideas, words and theology. You’ve got to pay attention to them and see your direction. But if you stay with the intellect — that’s where you’ll be. If you follow their direction, they will take you to God.
How would you respond to the concern that contemplative prayer skirts close to syncretism, the mixing of religions, in that it is practicable by non-Christians?
Is that a problem? The Christian understanding of God as creator, pervading and upholding all things, is just a hairline from pantheism — but it is an essential hairline. It’s the same thing with contemplative prayer. It is very close to syncretism but that is not to be despised. It is to be appreciated and taken advantage of. This is why my order was urged by the Vatican, 30 years ago, to get into dialogue with Hindu and Buddhist monasticism because our monastic practices were the closest thing that we had in Christianity to Hinduism and Buddhism. One of our monks spent three years traveling with the Dali Lama’s monks visiting different Benedictine and Trappist monasteries in the United States. So yes, there is a closeness there, an almost syncretism — there is. But that is an advantage.
How do the creeds and dogmas of the church bear on the practice of contemplative prayer? Does it matter whether the practitioner denies essential elements of the faith?
Does it matter where the finger is pointing? If you want to go to the moon and the finger is pointing to the moon, you’re great. But if you want to go to the moon and the finger is pointing to the North Star, you are in trouble.
You mentioned the need to be formed by the teachings of the church before you enter these other levels of prayer. The Vatican letter, referred to earlier, also says that “the seeking of God through prayer has to be preceded and accompanied by ascetical struggle and a purification from one’s sin and error since Jesus said only the pure in heart shall see God.” Can someone live contrary to the moral teachings of Christ and his church and effectively practice contemplative prayer?
“The Cloud of Unknowing” starts out with that. He says, don’t give this book to anybody unless you’re sure that he is a Christian struggling to live the Christian life. And then he goes a little further. He says, go to confession, receive Communion and then come along with me.
There are three ways in the traditional spiritual journey: the way of purgation, the way of illumination and the way of union.
The purgative way is the struggle — learning the teachings of the church, fighting to control yourself, to avoid sin, to achieve the strength of the virtues. You fall and start over again. You learn the faith, learn prayer. The great mystics say that this will lead you to salvation. But there is a further step that many are called to. This is the way of light, not the way of struggle. The way of light is the contemplative way.
Thirdly, there is the way of union. This can begin in this life but ultimately takes place in heaven. But you’ve got to go through the purgative way — the initial struggle to be a Christian.
It seems a number of people are drawn to contemplative prayer but the purgative way is not very popular. In fact, they say confession is the lost sacrament of the church. Are there dangers in beginning this way of prayer without being ready for it?
“The Cloud of Unknowing“ is very clear. Remember, in the beginning he says: don’t give this book to anyone unless they have gone through the purgations. Then he says: anyone who experiences a gentle stirring of love in his heart for God, even if only occasionally, they are called to this work of love. But then he says, watch out. Don’t give this book to the intellectually curious or to busy bodies or to meddlers or gossipers. They are not ready for it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. What is the relationship between the Eucharist and centering prayer?
The great mystics all say that God is present in the sacraments, communicating himself. Nobody can ever approach the depths of the reality behind the sacraments. To begin, you should receive the sacraments, be baptized, go to confession and receive Communion.
When I’m teaching contemplative prayer, right after Communion we sit down for 20 minutes of centering prayer. It is one of the most profound experiences you can have. Another example of the connection to the sacraments was last year. A pastor was going to have perpetual adoration at his church and he wanted me to teach centering prayer so the people would know what to do at the feet of Christ.
To read the Vatican letter in its entirety, click here.