Skip to main content

The Carmelite Tradition and Centering Prayer Christian Meditation 1

by Ernest E. Larkin, O.Carm.


In this paper I propose to interface the Carmelite tradition on contemplative prayer and two popular forms of contemplative practice called centering prayer and “Christian Meditation.” We are asking how these widely used, current practices fit into that tradition. Do the new forms agree or disagree with past thinking? What does the Carmelite tradition have to say pro and con about them?

We have a double question: what can Carmelites learn from these new movements and what can centering prayer and Christian Meditation learn from our tradition? These forms are new, though their proponents maintain that they are simply the contemplative tradition of the Church in contemporary dress. How should Carmelites regard them? Are they in continuity with the past and to what extent do they represent something new? These are the questions of this paper.

An Historical Vignette

Let me begin with a little history that sets the stage for our inquiry. One of the first generations of Discalced Carmelite writers, José de J.-M Quiroga (1562-1628) set down the method of mental prayer taught by St John of the Cross. It consisted of three steps: 1) the representation of some mysteries; 2)

pondering them; and 3) experiencing the fruit of the process in “an attentive and loving quietude toward God,” “a peaceful, loving and calm quiet of faith,” or a “simple attention to God.”1. The method was contemplative, because it led into passing moments of contemplation; these moments became longer and longer and soon dominated the prayer.

The moments coalesced into the habit or state of contemplation, as taught by St John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel [2.14.2.]. Thus the habit of contemplation was built up, according to the adage: sow an act and you reap a habit. This result was called acquired contemplation, a contemplative experience of God that by definition could be achieved by ordinary grace and human industry.
Contemplation was thus deemed accessible to any sincere seeker. According to Quiroga, John of the Cross expected his novices to reach at least this state of initial contemplation by the end of the one-year novitiate, an opinion shared by Thomas of Jesus (1564-1627) and others. (Arraj, 64-65).

This thumb-nail history recalls a time very much like our own, a time of great enthusiasm and optimism about reaching contemplation. The concept of an “acquired contemplation” democratized contemplation and made it available to all. John himself spoke explicitly only about the gift of special, infused contemplation, a mystical gift which presumably was not available to everybody. This transitional, acquired contemplation was there for the taking according to the early Discalced teachers, who claimed John of the Cross as warranty for this opinion.

In this paper we accept both kinds of contemplation as valid outcomes of contemplative practice.2 We believe that acquired contemplation is the same reality as initial infused contemplation; only the naming and theological explanation are different. The legitimacy of acquired contemplation was defended as recently as the l940’s by the eminent Discalced Carmelite, Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen.3

Contemplative Prayer Today

We cite this history as a backdrop for the topic of this paper. Today thousands of devout Christians are pondering the mystery of God’s presence in daily contemplative prayer. They sit silently before an ikon or the tabernacle and if asked, they would describe their prayer as simple, loving attention beyond words or images. “I look at him and he looks at me.” They ponder in very simple attention as John of the Cross’ second step directs and they experience a sense of loving presence as in the third step of John of the Cross’ method of meditation. The third step in fact is the point of the prayer, its beginning and end. The ability to stay in this posture of attention to God is assumed, and no clear distinction is drawn between the discrete acts and the state of contemplation that is developed.

The ancients postulated a long and consistent effort at daily meditation to reach the state of acquired contemplation — one year was thought sufficient but also necessary among the Carmelites cited above. This view would be considered optimistic by older religious and clergy who were trained to expect progression in mental prayer that saw contemplation as a far-off goal. Now we are being taught to practice directly and immediately a quiet, gentle resting in God that is itself considered to be contemplation and to lead to ever higher degrees of contemplation.

The contemplation that is the outcome of theses contemplative acts is seldom defined. The contemporary methods consist in the very acts that were seen as the fruit of the representation and the pondering in John of the Cross’ meditation. The contemplation in these contemplative acts is seldom defined. It is left generic in nature, having lost its specificity. In modern writing contemplation describes almost any mental prayer that is silent and wordless, from quiet resting in the divine presence to infused contemplation. Infused contemplation remains as a special mystical gift, admittedly rare and extraordinary in the spiritual life. But contemplation as such is for everyone to practice in these new methods.

What are these methods? We single out centering prayer, taught by Contemplative Outreach under the leadership of Thomas Keating, and Christian Meditation as developed by John Main and promoted by the World Community for Christian Meditation under the leadership of Laurence Freeman. These two methods of simple, non-discursive, loving attention to God are chosen for study out of a plethora of non-discursive ways of praying, because they are widely known and practiced in North America today. They are lumped together, because they are similar in approach. They have the same roots in the western mystical tradition, and while they have significant differences, they are more alike than different and they offer name recognition for each other

Lectio Divina

Let me introduce these prayers in the context of lectio divina. Lectio divina is the ancient, monastic formula for appropriating the biblical text and for leading the practitioner into the experience of contemplation. A biblical text is read, pondered, prayed over, and finally experienced. The first three acts of lectio divina — reading, meditating, praying — culminate in the fourth act of tasting or touching the reality in the text. The fourth act is called contemplation; it is more receptive than the first three, though the whole lectio divina in the monastic tradition is a contemplative exercise.

Thomas Keating often presents centering prayer as a way to restore this contemplative dimension of lectio divina. For too long the prayer has been too heady and rationalistic; the first three discursive acts have received almost exclusive attention and the final act is neglected. He would correct that imbalance by promoting the fourth act on its own as the way to renew the contemplative character of lectio divina. The Trappists designed a prayer form that begins and ends with the fourth act. This centering prayer is to be practiced methodically and regularly twice a day as the keystone of one’s prayer life. Centering prayer does not replace lectio, nor is it a new form of lectio divina. It is an exercise to sharpen one’s contemplative awareness, a way to renew all four acts by raising the contemplative character of a person’s life. Christian Meditation has a similar purpose. John Main considers his discipline of meditating to be the traditional, Christian meditation of the past. He is simply renewing the meditative or contemplative practice of the past, and both of these are the same one practice. He calls his prayer “contemplation, contemplative prayer, and meditative practice,” all three terms being synonyms of meditation.4 John Main’s meditation, in his view, is mainline Christian practice from the past, and it is practiced in the rosary or litanies, in the “Jesus prayer” and in the short ejaculatory phrases as taught by John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing. Christian Meditation for him stands on its own as the meditation of the Christian tradition over against the rational, discursive methods of the counter-reformation; it is receptive and non-discursive by definition.

These two methods of prayer represent one answer to the yearning for the experience of God in our time. Centering prayer came out of the sixties and seventies, when many people, youth especially, were turning to Eastern religions and transcendental meditation for spiritual experience and enlightenment. Older spiritually awakened Christians were likewise experiencing a hunger for God and for a deeper prayer life. Both young and old were concerned with the practical question of how to pray contemplatively. They were looking for methods like those available in the Eastern religions.

The architects of these new prayer forms learned from the East, but they based their teaching on the ancient, western mystical tradition. The Trappists at Spencer, Mass developed centering prayer largely from The Cloud of Unknowing. John Main discovered Christian Meditation in John Cassian. As a layman he had learned the original lines of his approach from an Eastern swami, but he found his way of meditating in John Cassian and The Cloud. John Main made the teaching of contemplative prayer to lay people the life¬work of his latter years.

The new styles of contemplative prayer go right to the heart of prayer, seeking experience and contact with the living God in loving faith and quiet presence. The new methods are “spiritual exercises,” designed to raise up the whole spiritual life as aerobics or a workout in the gym tone up the physical body. The practice takes place twice daily, for twenty minutes to a half hour, and the two periods are the anchors and the catalysts of the rest of the prayer life of the participant. These two periods represent a conversion, a new commitment that is to be the heart and soul of a new prayer life. The two periods are to be faithfully carried out as the first order of one’s prayer life each day. The rest of one’s spiritual life is energized from here. The contemplative union fostered in centering prayer or Christian Meditation brings a contemplative dimension to the celebration of liturgy, to bible reading and the practice of lectio divina, to vocal prayer, to community life and ministry.

The new methods are not magic. They are providential discoveries of our time, gifts of God that are there for the taking and promising intimacy with God. They are active prayer, but the activity is simple and receptive. One sits before the Lord, and the hoped for outcome is the in breaking of God “from the other side,” the divine touch that is God’s response to the human efforts, which themselves are antecedently inspired by God.

The contemplation or experience of God is not necessarily verifiable psychologically. The divine visit is validated by the fruits of the Spirit. The person strives to be open and welcoming, to be empty and poor in spirit, and these attitudes are invitations to a deeper divine presence. Whatever the empirical experience in the human consciousness the contemplative activity is bringing about transformation in the depths of the person, and this conversion will show itself in the person’s life.

The whole person - body, soul, and spirit — is engaged in the prayer. The body is brought into the process via posture,breathing, relaxation, and the use of a holy word or mantra. The psychological functions of thinking, feeling, willing and loving are definitely in play in muted, simple ways. The main task of the one praying is non-discursive attention by use of the mantra throughout the prayer in Christian Meditation or attending and consenting to the presence of God within and using the sacred word as needed in centering prayer. The one praying is knocking ever so gently at the door of the Spirit deep within, awaiting further action from the indwelling God.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."