Centering Prayer & Lectio Divina—Dismantling the sales pitch

By Cheryl Schatz

Practitioners and teachers of these “spiritual disciplines” have made inroads into many denominations from seminaries on down to the local church. The “sales pitch” is pretty impressive—promising a way to gain a more intimate relationship with God and to hear God speak. But are these Biblical promises made by God or a sales pitch promoted by mere humans? To determine the answer we need to understand what each of the practices are, what promise is included in the sales pitch, and how these match up to what God has said in His word.

What is Centering Prayer?

Centering or Contemplative Prayer are terms for the same thing. I have chosen to use only the term Centering Prayer in this article to stay consistent. Centering Prayer is not actual “prayer”. Instead, it is a method of posturing the body and the mind to give consent to receive a mystical experience with the “presence of God”. Centering involves relaxation (adherents are told to sit comfortably with their eyes closed) and it relies on special practices to “quiet” the mind. The mind is quieted by using a “sacred” word or phrase that is repeated over and over again. Author and conference speaker Jan Johnson who calls herself a “Spiritual Director” writes “To ease into the quiet, it may help to repeat a certain word.” While she says that the repetition of a word is “not a chant to empty the mind of logic and reason” she does admit that the repetition does “empty out” our inner thoughts when she quotes Henri Nouwen. Johnson writes, “The repetition can in fact be soothing and very freeing helping us, as Nouwen says, ‘to empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God.’” From When the Soul Listens by Jan Johnson. Johnson also admits that silencing the mind (the first goal of Centering Prayer) results in an empty mind. “This silencing of the mind results in silencing the mouth as well. (This is not automatic—many times, mouths move when minds are empty.)” Page 2 of Johnson’s article Surprised by God.

The practice of Centering Prayer has in common techniques found in the mystical practices of eastern religions. All of these practices seek to stop the normal flow of thought. Newsweek magazine did a report in 1992 called “Talking to God” that showed how this is done. Kenneth L. Woodward writes, “The techniques (cardiologist Dr. Herbert) Benson teaches—silence, appropriate body posture and, above all, emptying the mind through repetition of prayer—have been the practices of mystics in all the great world religions. And they form the basis on which most modern spiritual directors guide those who want to draw closer to God..."Silence is the language God speaks, and everything else is a bad translation,” says the Trappist’s Father Thomas Keating, who taught "centering prayer" to more than 31,000 people in workshops last year. Centering prayer presupposes that God makes his presence known from within and thus requires an interior quieting of the mind as well as outward silence. To do that, Keating suggests that those who pray repeat some "sacred word," as God or Jesus, to center the mind. All other thoughts, even the most religious, are to be pushed aside until eventually—with practice—nothing remains but the presence of God.”

Many “Spiritual Directors” use a repeated phrase to gain interior silence. Author Jan Johnson and Phileena Heurtz (a co-founder of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism) both use the phrase, “Be still and know that I am God.” They repeat the phrase, leaving off the last word each time they repeat it until they end up with the one word “Be.” The phrase is used to empty the mind of interior thoughts and becomes their sacred phrase or mantra

What is promised by advocates of Centering Prayer?

Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach says that “Centering Prayer… (is) a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.” His website states that the source of Centering Prayer “is the Indwelling Trinity”; that through Centering Prayer “we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself.” In Jan Johnson’s article Contemplation: No Better Place to Be Than With God, she quotes Gerald May as saying, “The term contemplation implies a totally uncluttered appreciation of existence, a state of mind or a condition of the soul that is simultaneously wide-awake and free from all preoccupation, preconception, and interpretation. It’s a wonder-filled yet utterly simple experience.”

These sales promises state that Centering Prayer is a practice that brings us to communion with Christ which is closer than breathing, or even our own consciousness. Thus, Centering Prayer is essential to our relationship with God and makes us free from preconceptions. Is this God’s promise or is it the sales pitch from a salesman selling false spiritual promises?

What does God say about Centering Prayer?

If the practice of silent, “Centering Prayer” is from God, then He would have revealed it to us from His Word. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Did Jesus teach them to sit in a comfortable spot, use repeated words to gain inner silence in order to experience God’s presence? He did not! Jesus answered the request to teach on prayer in Luke 11:2. He said, “When you pray, say…” Jesus taught prayer using words, not an inner silence. What about the Old Testament? Did God promise that His people can experience His presence by silencing their minds, breathing deeply, and then He would become closer to them? No, He didn’t! What about the verses that talk about silence? Are they promises made to those who practice Centering Prayer? Let’s look at the context. A key passage used by modern-day mystics is Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God…” Does the term “be still” mean to sit in a comfortable position, silence your thoughts through the repetition of a word or phrase in order to receive an inner presence of God? Hardly!

Psalm 46:1-9 tells us that God is our strength and our refuge “therefore” we will not fear though everything around us falls apart. Although kingdoms totter, the LORD of hosts is with us. We are invited to come and see the works of the LORD. Then verse 10 in the NASB, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” What does “be still” or “cease striving” mean? The Hebrew means to stop doing what you are doing! Don’t be afraid or dismayed at the enemy all around you for God is your stronghold. Verse 10 is a command to stop striving and to look at God and trust Him. It is NOT a command to sit in silence, empty your mind, and repeat a phrase to have communion with God! I have not found even one verse in the Bible where God promises to give an interior experience of His presence to those who empty their minds and sit in silence!

What are the dangers of Centering Prayer?

Thomas Keating, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, wrote in the foreword to Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality, that Centering Prayer is Kundalini. He writes, “Kundalini has long been known in Taoist, Hindu, and Buddhist spirituality...Since this energy [Kundalini is occultic energy] is also at work today in numerous persons who are devoting themselves to contemplative prayer, this book is an important contribution to the renewal of the Christian contemplative tradition. It will be a great consolation to those who have experienced physical symptoms arising from the awakening of kundalini in the course of their spiritual journey…” 

Kundalini is a “force” said to lie dormant within one until activated and such activation is said to lead one toward spiritual power and “eventual salvation.” The practice of silence has led many to spiritual and physical manifestations to the point that even a Catholic church writer has warned about its danger. In an article titled The Danger of Centering Prayer, Rev. John D. Dreher writes, “in fact the techniques of centering prayer are neither Christian nor prayer. They are at the level of human faculties and as such are an operation of man, not of God. The deception and dangers can be grave.” He also wrote, “Centering prayer differs from Christian prayer in that the intent of the technique is to bring the practitioner to the center of his own being. There he is, supposedly, to experience the presence of the God who indwells him. Christian prayer, on the contrary, centers upon God in a relational way, as someone apart from oneself...In the view of centering prayer, the immanence of God somehow makes the transcendence of God available to human techniques and experience. Centering prayer is essentially a form of self-hypnosis...Centering prayer claims for itself the experience of God...It takes these characteristics not from Christian tradition but from Hinduism, through the medium of Transcendental Meditation.”

From where does Centering Prayer come? The sales pitch promises a deep relationship with God through its practice, but the Bible knows no such practice. There is no Biblical support for the claims that a relaxed posture, deep breathing, or emptying the mind of thoughts is a God-ordained way to gain a closer communion with Jesus. It’s not Biblical.

What is Lectio Divina?

Lectio Divina is a term that means “divine reading” and it is said to be “an ancient Christian practice of praying the Scriptures”. It originated in the 6th century and was practiced in Catholic monasteries. Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach describes the practice as: “a person listens to or reads the text of the Bible with the ‘ear of the heart,’ as if he or she is in conversation with God…(it) is a participatory, active practice that uses thoughts, images and insights to enter into a conversation with God.”

The focus of Lectio Divina is on your personal feelings about the text and the practice of visualizing yourself in the story of the text. How you “feel” about the text is more important than what the text actually means. Lectio Divina is not Bible study. It is a mystical practice that uses one’s five senses to gain an “experience”. Author Jan Johnson writes, “...enter into Scripture with all five senses…(this) allows you to experience the text in a fresh way...participants wait for a word, phrase or image from the passage to emerge and stay with them…(and ask) What does this passage say to me right now? 

What is promised by advocates of Lectio Divina?

The practice of Lectio Divina is said to allow you to respond to the “movements of the Spirit within.” It promises to “nourish our relationship with God”, to allow one to “rest in God’s embrace”, it makes our energy to become “one with the Divine Energy” and gives the ability for one to “live in union with God.” The sales pitch promises a deep closeness to God through using one’s imagination by placing oneself into the text, but are these God’s promises?

What does God say about Lectio Divina?

While Jan Johnson writes that “imagination supports the penetrating Word of God’s ability to become active in our lives”, the Bible gives no promise that the use of imagination will make a text active by providing an individual private interpretation of the text to come alive. In fact, the Bible says that private interpretation is not intended. God’s Word was written to reveal God’s meaning to all.

2 Peter 1:20–21 NASB
20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,
21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.


What are the dangers of Lectio Divina?

Putting yourself into the text subjects the text to your feelings. Jan Johnson encourages Christians to put themselves into the narrative of Matthew 8:23-27. However, many of those who have done this have found themselves feeling angry at Jesus for being asleep in the storm. Putting yourself in the midst of the text can make one feel that Jesus is not there for you when things are rough. Does he not care about you? Why is He not awake when the storm is all around you? People who place themselves into the passage find themselves not only angry with Jesus but have experienced doubt in Him. 

But true Biblical meditation is not putting yourself into the text. Instead, it is looking at the text objectively to glean the truths that are there for everyone. Let me walk you through the difference this makes. In Matthew 8:23 we see Jesus entering the boat first and the disciples followed Him. In the parallel passage in Luke 8:22 Jesus says they were going over to the other side. Jesus knew where they were going, and He led them. In another parallel passage in Mark 4:38, the disciples were questioning Jesus’ care. They said, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” However, in Matt 8:26 Jesus said, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Jesus called their questioning of his care as a very weak trust. But what kind of faith did Jesus have? Jesus is the example of great faith. What does great faith look like? It is shown in the One who is asleep in complete peace without fear in the midst of a violent storm. Jesus trusted the Father to take them safely to the other side. He was leading the disciples through the storm with great faith! Looking at the passage objectively as a revelation of the character of God through the person of Jesus brings us to faith and trust in Him. Practicing Lectio Divina in imagining oneself into the text subjects the text to your own feelings. The fruit of Lectio Divina can produce doubt in the goodness of God.

A woman who practiced Lectio Divina began questioning it. She said, “Where am I wrong? I’m suddenly feeling a little lost in the enormity of it. What was so easy to understand in earlier years, I now feel like it is escaping me.” Practicing the mystical method of meditation took her away from faith and away from Biblical understanding. People who have come out of this type of “praying of Scripture” express their leaving it as coming into a freedom they did not know that they had lost. God’s safeguard is through Biblical meditation, mulling over the meaning of what God has written for all. Using Lectio to get a private meaning is outside the safety zone.

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