Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jesus prayer vs. Centering prayer

      After a talk at my church about the Jesus Prayer I was made aware that I offended a few people. The offense came about when I lumped centering prayer among other non-Christan Asian techniques.The reason why I did this was to demonstrate how the Jesus prayer is far from a centering prayer even though some methods they use are the same. I pointed out how the Jesus Prayer is part of a tradition called Hesychasm, which is a tradition that involves a lifestyle focused on Christ. Unfortunately, many people believe that Hesychasm and the techniques of the non-christian prayer traditions are all the same. My point in my talk was that the Jesus Prayer cannot be practiced apart from a life of repentance. In contrast, what is often associated with centering prayer has no real requirements. Consequently, even though you might see some methods in common between the two forms of prayer the Jesus Prayer can not be separated from Christian discipleship.
     Centering prayer and the Jesus Prayer are often believed to be same mainly by those outside of the Byzantine tradition. The main reason for these conclusions is based on the psychosomatic results of the prayers. In fact, it has been scientifically proven that Centering prayer and the Jesus Prayer have therapeutic effects on the body and mind. Unfortunately, by judging the content of the prayer based on the effects there is often little room for spiritual discernment. The therapeutic effects of these prayers are easily self generated and with out proper discernment its easy to conclude that they are an experience of God. In recognizing this, Elder Sophrony a great teacher of the Jesus Prayer tradition once said, "In diverting our mind from all images, meditation can afford us a sense of tranquility, of peace, release from time and space, but there is no feeling of standing before a personal God. It is not real prayer-face to Face.(On Prayer pg.139)." As he says here, its entirely possible to generate the therapeutic effects and miss God completely.
     From my own testimony I know this for fact. In the beginning of my journey I experimented with many prayer techniques. I would sometimes focus on breathing, emptying my mind, or finding an object to focus on. Of course, the feelings that I got were peaceful. Even at times I would do this for many hours and find great peace and pleasure and on demand. However, in my moral life I was very arrogant, controlling, and far from a life of charity. These things I’m still working on but at that time I was unaware of just how much of a sinner I truly was.
     With out the spiritual discernment that I needed I thought I was a holy man because of the peace I got from my prayer techniques. This peace that I could create was not completely a bad thing but it was in many was incomplete. It lacked an important element which could only be achieved through sincere repentance. There is no doubt that God could use the psychosomatic effects that I generated but He is not an "effect". In my opinion, this is often overlooked  in many of the popular forms of centering prayer today. In contrast,  in the tradition of the Jesus Prayer (Hesychasm) any techniques used are of themselves extensions of repentance. They are considered ascetic actions that bring the mind and body into subjection to Christ. From this point of view, the psychosomatic effects, as an ascetic experience, creates a different context for Jesus Prayer when compared to other centering prayers.
     One of greatest truths that shows that the Jesus Prayer tradition is different from what is commonly known as centering prayer is the fact that you don’t have to repent to center. Just look at what is going on in Hollywood and how these people living sinful lifestyles get into centering prayer, such as found in Yoga or TM. In fact, you can be an atheist and practice centering prayer and get the peace that it achieves.Some atheists have even proved that the experiences that are achieved in centering prayer can be acquired by using profane means. For example, repeating the word fried chicken in combination with different centering techniques achieve the same effects.It could also be said that this is expressed to a great degree in the religion of Buddhism, which is built on the atheistic philosophy of non being. In Buddhism they have created a whole religious system based in centering demostrating in great degrees that the therapeutic effects are achieved without any relationship to God. 
     Unlike what we see in various approaches to centering prayer the methods of praying the Jesus prayer cannot be separated from Divine Revelation. Even the methods, such as fasting,controlled breathing, posture, and repetition, methods of centering prayer, are brought to a greater context through practicing the teachings of Jesus Christ. The actions are synergistic, which makes them a work of God and man. Consequently, any achievement through methods opens a person to a deeper encounter with Christ and does not end in mere therapeutic effects. The methods themselves lead a person to become more like Christ and we often hear some of the Eastern Christian fathers quoting the scriptures when speaking about the methods.For example, in 2 Cor. 10:5 we read that the apostle teaches us to take every thought into captivity into obedience to Jesus Christ. The apostle who is a Hesychast also teaches us that in 1 cor. 9:27 that he makes his body go into submission to Christ. We find in these passages the tools of those who pray the Jesus Prayer, the Hesychast, those who train their body and mind to receive Christ.
     In distinguishing the Jesus Prayer from the popular forms of centering prayer I cant say enough that we need to recognize that the techniques for the Jesus Prayer are ascetic and are always the fruit of personal repentance. They are designed to focus the body and the mind upon a person (Christ). Regardless of any therapeutic experience there is NO Guarantee of spiritual experience or peace in this process. It in fact at times praying the Jesus Prayer invokes morning and tears of repentance. This is why we sometimes find tassels on the ends of our prayer ropes (chotki) to wipe our tears.
      The bottom line is that praying the Jesus prayer in the Byzantine tradition is a way of life. Centering prayer need not be and most often is a pure technique not requiring repentance.  As I said, centering prayer could be done by anyone even atheists.However,the Jesus Prayer can never be separated from a life of repentance and Divine Revelation.To pray the Jesus Prayer in its ascetic context means that I want more of Jesus Christ, to be like Him.

Note: Centering Prayer has many different forms and variations. There are even Christians who have their own version that is much like Hesychasm. Unfortunately, due to its lack of definition and association  with non-Christian religions it is a practice that is more and more associated with the New Age movement and the Occult. It has even become a scandalous topic in the Catholic Church and so much so that the pope released a teaching to help Catholics know the right way to pray. Click here to read the pope's teaching: (ON SOME ASPECTS OF CHRISTIAN MEDITATION)

19 comments:

  1. I appreciate your comments, yet I would invite you to consider what Yves Leloup says about praying the Jesus Prayer in his book Being Still. He says that it is much more than a prayer for mercy. I admire all who pray the Jesus Prayer. Whether one uses that prayer or maranatha or centering prayer in which a prayer word is used to recall one to stillness and receptivity to the indwelling Christ, some degree of physical and psychological peace is going to be a byproduct because we are psychic and bodily beings. Sitting still and praying/meditating is often going to result in "good feelings", though that isn't the goal. Most of us have enough distractions where we wonder if we meditated at all! As far as repentance goes, I don't know of any people who use centering prayer or the word "maranatha" and are unaware of, much less uncaring about their own failings and sin. As for murderers and other criminals, in my experience as a lay Catholic prison chaplain, individuals who practice maranatha, centering prayer, or the Jesus Prayer, tend to become more loving, which is the only sign of spiritual growth that really matters.

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  2. Gary,
    Thank you for your comments. However, I don’t think your statement about the Jesus prayer has its foundation in authentic Eastern Christian spirituality, even though it comes from a so-called “spiritual master”. The Jesus Prayer is intrinsically linked to the person of Jesus Christ and is in the deepest sense a prayer for mercy. In Eastern Christian spirituality a person who participates in the teachings of Jesus Christ (not just moral precepts but teachings geared to how to love a real person) becomes a partaker of a divine nature. A person who practices immorality cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1cor. 6. 9-11). Centering prayer requires no moral action no discipleship and if you’re a Buddhist no real divinity. It is true that such practices can make one peaceful but as the Rastaman might tell so will smoking a reefer.

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    1. Gary,
      Thank you so much for your insight. I am to be chrismated in April. Sometimes I need the love of the Theotokos and I'll pray Oh Holy Theotokos Save Us. I'm not certain if that is correct as She can pray for us intercede for us, but not save us. What is your thoughts on this?

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  3. Dear Ric,
    I have long experience with many types of prayer and have found in many (not all) a way to approach God. It is an astounding, miraculous thing to touch God (or really, allow God to touch us). This miracle reverberates down through our human life and helps us, but as it helps us, it comes into contact with our bondage and can become mixed with other concerns and worries. One has to see this, in the moment. Any of the methods of prayer, including the Jesus Prayer, can become mixed with our own "stuff" and we must cultivate a constant attention and renewal.

    Can we see how this question of openness to God and how it can become mixed with human concerns, gets abducted into a certain kind of protective abstraction about which method is correct? Some methods may in fact be "incorrect", but they can still bring us closer to God where they can begin their correction. Some methods may be "correct" and ironically become the most vulnerable to becoming incorrect because we forgot to watch for the way in which the "correct" prayer becomes lost.

    Here is the crux: that it is as dangerous to say that there is only one way, as it is dangerous to say that any way will work.

    Stay with the Jesus Prayer if in it you are finding your way to God. This is your miracle. Do not wander away from it. But notice the little beginning of distraction that is always possible and how it sometimes takes the form of a dismissal of the other ways. Do not dismiss other Miracles wherever or however they may happen. And do not forget that each method has its own particular way that it becomes lost. In this way you yourself will find it easier to stay on the Way. For all ways have a ditch on the right and on the left and to stay on the path one must watch.

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  4. A person certainly is instructed to focus on the personal relationship with Christ in centering prayer. Most people who do centering prayer try to follow the teachings of Christ. The instructions in centering prayer is to focus on developing a personal relationship with Christ, and not to expect any personal experience as they are dependant on Grace. In fact Fr. Thomas Keating explicitly said not to expect centering prayer to bring peaceful feelings or other experiences but rather that the Holy Spirit will uncover and increase our awareness of our sinfulness. This may in fact be very uncomfortable. You are obviously confusing centering prayer with eastern psychophysical techniques such as TM or eastern impersonal consciousness altering methods of inducing trance state. This is not what centering prayer is about. You might want to check where you are getting your misinformation about centering prayer from, lest you interfere with the movement of the Holy Spirit.

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  5. If your focusing on Jesus the whole time it's no longer a centering but a personal prayer. I don't know if you are a Catholic or not but you may want to read Official Church teachings on the subject: http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfmed.htm.I actually went to one of Father Keating's seminars. The way he taught me to pray there was to blank out by reciting an impersonal word and calling it a sacred word. The positive thing about this practice that has its roots in eastern religions is that it helps you free your mind where you can focus on Jesus if you choose to. He as it states on his website tries to keep the focus on Jesus and this is commendable but as he states its a WAY to open the mind and heart to prepare one for God. This of course is not traditional Christian practice because being open and focusing on Jesus Christ are two differ things. The openness experienced is often confused for an experience of God as the Pope himself expressed in the link above and is no different then what you find by traditional Buddhist practice. Christian prayer is always personally focused on God. You can enter the state the Father spoke of by using a word like hot-dog, breathing in hot-exhaling dog. In Hesychasm we are taught from the very beginning to focus on the person of Jesus Christ. By doing this we achieve a similar freedom that you find in centering prayer. On the other hand, we never enter into a blanking out or loss of our personal identity. Two things remain in the recitation of the Jesus prayer the reality of Jesus Christ and who we are in relation to him. If your focusing on Jesus the whole time as you say you might want to check where you get your misinformation from because you have changed what traditional and universal centering prayer is. In addition, there is nothing in Holy Scripture that supports centering prayer. When Jesus prayed he prayed to the Father-he did not center himself. When the publicican said be merciful to me a sinner he always focused upon a person. In fact every prayer in the bible is focused upon a the person of God. The Jesus Prayer is a personal prayer and can never be a sacred word or mantra.

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  6. What the author describes is not 'centering prayer' as taught by Fr. Thomas Keating and others, but is in fact a form of Christian meditation popularized by Dom John Main. Centering prayer does not involve constant repetition of a word or phrase, and is not linked to breathing. The author should have gotten his facts straight before writing this.

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  7. Elder Sophrony describes in his book "On Prayer" the subtle illusions that come from Eastern meditation techniques, which are similar to centering prayer. He had personal experience in this when he explored Eastern religions before his conversion. He says:

    "All those are deluded who endeavour mentally to divest themselves of everything that is transitory, relative, in order in this way to cross some invisible threshold... Ascetic efforts of this kind enabled some strugglers to a certain extent to rise to a meta-logical contemplation of being; to know the state when the mind is stilled, when it goes beyond the bounds of time and space. In like states man may feel the peace of divestment of the constantly changing manifestations of the visible world...
    ...In any case after this experience of divesture some such form of mental abberation may arise in the mind... I will say from my own experience that the True, Living God - the I AM - is NOT here in all this... All contemplation arrived at by this means is self-contemplation, not contemplation of God. In these circumstances we open up for ourselves created beauty, not First-Being. And in all of it there is no salvation for man.

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  8. I'd be interested in what you think of Bishop Kallistos Ware's cd set entitled Kingdom of the Heart. In it he makes a detailed comparison of Dom John Main's method of Christian Meditation and the Jesus Prayer and comes to the conclusion that they are essentially the same. Neither "method" ascribes to mechanical repetition (a la "hotdog). Prayer is always about relationship--it begins in faith and ends in faith.

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    1. I do not know John Main or his method or teachings so i can not comment. Prayer is always about a relatioship but with whom? Just becasue i pray or center does not mean im doing it with the reality of Jesus Christ.Any kind of repetition is automaticlay mechanical when it is not mixed with repentance. Like i said people that dont believe in God can do centering and they will feel its effects.

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  10. Ric,

    I'm glad you took the effort to engage this issue and I'm not surprised that it has garnered such interest and such varied responses. The concerns you draw our attention to are valid and I hope those reading can acknowledge that and that they arise out of the experience of how certain spiritual practices can often be separated from the context of the ascetical and liturgical life of the Church as a whole. One does not need to be defensive in reading your post but simply heed its valid warning. In the West, especially, there is definitely a tendency to approach the life of faith and spirituality to the exclusion of the ascetical life or at least minimizing its importance in ordering the passions and seeking purity of heart. For a period of time the centering prayer movement lacked clarity and perhaps still does. It is understandable of course given the void that many experienced in the Church in regards to solid teaching and exposure to the spiritual tradition. Despite this, however, it is our responsibility to seek with humility to educate ourselves in that tradition and to seek out those who can guide us faithfully. Thanks again Ric for your time and effort.

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  11. I agree with much of what you have to say. The Jesus prayer was my companion for many years, but now I have taken to the method advocated by John Main, and appreciate its gentle wisdom more and more. At first I also found it a purely repetitive technique, particularly after the extraordinarily powerful effects of the Jesus prayer, but sensed that I needed to move on and find more stillness. This is partly to do with the simple fact that John Main's method is less verbal, and is easier to perform for longer periods. I think it is also a bit counter-productive to compare the two, particularly to the detriment of one of them, without being experienced in both. I wonder how many are.

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  12. I have done centering prayer for years and have compared it, through experience, to various other meditation methods, east and west. I have to say that centering prayer is a powerful practice for opening the heart to God. True centering prayer--centering prayer in the context of Christian faith, as it was originally taught--is no different in essence than prayer in the hesychast tradition. The aim of authentic centering prayer is always to surrender to God from the heart. Anything less, or other than, surrender to God is not true centering prayer.

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    1. The problem is what you define as "true centering prayer" may not be the census. Prayer in general has no census. We pray according to our traditions and as you said you do centering prayer in a Christian context. So you are bond by rules, which may be the same rules by Hesychasts. I think my contrast is in the popular application of centering prayer, most notably the kind promoted in the New Age movement.

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    2. Fair enough. The centering prayer I'm talking about is the kind in the tradition of the Cloud of Unknowing, expounded in modern times primarily by Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating, et al. These are the folks who coined the term "centering prayer," so any other use or application of the term is derivative.

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  13. I also have found it more than enlightening. It was Yesterday when i prayed ten of the Jesus Prayer and ten of Oh Holy Theotokos Save Us in repition and a profound insight occured. I realized that I was not 'holy' I was boastful. I had ruined relationships with my arrogance and hurt so many. It all came out. On top of that I was listening to quotes from the Philokolia and I saw the beginnings of it all in less than an hour and I feel more humbled now than ever. The strange thing was it was not as earth shattering as I would have thought it would be. I am repenting continuously I see myself as a sinner which makes me pray even more. The Jesus Prayer works. It is a way of life.

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  14. I am finding all of this very interesting. In past times when I was a Roman Catholic seminarian I learned centering prayer. In the past year I have begun to use the Jesus Prayer and a prayer rope. Just today I was wondering about the difference as I had not used centering prayer in quite a while. And so, I used my prayer rope and recited the Jesus Prayer out loud at first. My prayer rope has 50 knots on it. Then I began praying the Jesus Prayer, using my prayer rope, silently, in my mind. Then I found myself repeating the prayer without really thinking all of the words, except that the word "mercy" kept resounding in my consciousness. After 150 knots I simply let my conscious use of words stop, except when I felt distracted, and then I returned to the word "mercy". In the past, as well, I have found that not concentrating too much on the individual words of the Jesus Prayer and not reciting them out loud, after my first 50 knots, was more conducive to being in God's presence. Today I felt like I had somewhat combined the two, starting with the Jesus Prayer and continuing with centering prayer. It seemed right and I intend to try this again.

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    1. To me, saying the prayer is part of my loving attentiveness to God. I think the difference with centering prayer is that centering prayer is all about techniques in producing results. Saying the Jesus prayer is not a technique it’s a response to a person and part of life style of remembering God. It is a means to be healed rather than seeking results through a psychosomatic experience.

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