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Centering Prayer

and the Healing of the Unconscious

ISBN13: 9781590561072

ISBN10: 1590561074

Publisher: Lantern Books (30 Sep 2007)

Extent: 312 pages

Binding: Paperback

Size: 2.1 x 13 x 20 cm

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  • In this searching study, Fr. Murchadh Fr. Ó Madagáin describes the life and thoughts of Fr. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who was one of the founders of the centering prayer movement. Centering prayer aims to reclaim the Christian contemplative and mystical traditions after centuries of neglect and to make it available for modern spiritual seekers. Fr. Ó Madagáin traces its roots back to the fourth- and fifth-century Desert Fathers such as Evagrius and John Cassian. He shows how it was used in the medieval classic The Cloud of Unknowing and practiced by saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, then revived by Thomas Merton during the twentieth century. 


    Fr. Ó Madagáin illustrates how, by bringing the insights of contemporary psychology to bear on this ancient method of prayer, Fr. Keating has not only revitalized the contemplative tradition, but also has enabled it to become a powerful tool for people of faith to gain insight into themselves and God, whom Keating calls the "divine healer." Fr. Ó Madagáin also unpacks the processes at work in centering prayer and clears up some of the common misunderstandings that surround it. 


    Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious is an essential work for all those interested in the history and practice of centering prayer. In addition to describing the background of this unique and effective practice, Fr. Ó Madagáin offers unique insights into the ideas of one of its leading contemporary teachers and practitioners.

  • Murchadh Ó Madagáin

    Fr. Murchadh Ó Madagáin is a priest of the Diocese of Galway in the West of Ireland since 1998. He completed his doctorate in Spiritual Theology in the University of St. Thomas Aquinas ("The Angelicum"), Rome, in 2005. He now works in a parish in Galway and also lectures in Spiritual Theology. In addition to Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious and By the Word of Their Testimony, Fr. Ó Madagáin is also the author of Thérèse of Lisieux: Through Love and Suffering, published by St. Paul's in 2003.

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  • Chapter One


    Fr. Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. (Trappist) is an American Cistercian priest, monk, and abbot, currently living in St. Benedict�s monastery, Snowmass, Colorado. Born in Rhode Island on 7th March 1923 to a wealthy although not particularly religious family, he experienced an awakening of his faith while studying at Yale. He found his religious worldview deeply challenged by a philosophy class, which got him thinking about his faith. Anne Simpkinson, in an interview with Keating, describes the initial experience that he shared with her and about what first got him interested in the contemplative side of his faith.



    While in the library reading Thomas Aquinas�s Catena Aurea, a line-by-line exposition of the four Gospels by the great Church fathers, he experienced a profound conversion: He deeply grasped the fact that Christianity was a contemplative religion. He realized that the spiritual sense of the Scripture was much more important than the literal and that union with the Divine was not only possible but available to all. �That insight,� says the 74-year-old Trappist monk, �was the seed that has continued to grow all through my life. What I am doing now is trying to share that insight.�


    After he graduated from Fordham University in 1943, Keating entered the Cistercians in Valley Falls, Rhode Island. Later he became novice master and then abbot, and has spent most of his life both practicing and studying contemplative prayer. Because of a fire in their monastery, the monks later moved to St. Joseph�s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. In 1971, Keating attended a meeting of Trappist superiors in Rome, where Pope Paul VI addressed them and asked them to try to help the Church rediscover the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. Throughout the 1970s, as the monks of St. Joseph�s watched many thousands of people going to the East each Summer in search of �enlightenment� and to experience something of the Eastern traditions of meditation, they felt a great desire to set up some way of introducing people to the rich tradition of contemplative prayer that the Church has to offer�a tradition that so many were unaware of. As a result, in 1975, Fr. William Meninger developed the contemplative practice that became known as Centering Prayer, based on the fourteenth century classic The Cloud of Unknowing. This was then offered at retreats for priests, although it was mostly lay people who took the practice up with great enthusiasm. Fr. Basil Pennington also joined in the work, and retreats and workshops began to be offered to an ever-widening circle of interested people. In 1981, Thomas Keating resigned as abbot of St. Joseph�s and moved to St. Benedict�s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. He then began to explore the possibility of intensive centering prayer retreats. In 1983, the first intensive retreat was held at the Lama Foundation, San Cristobal, New Mexico. Since then, these retreats have become increasingly popular. They are now in great demand in the United States and are slowly beginning to acquire interest in Europe.


    Thomas Keating is a founder of the Centering Prayer movement and of Contemplative Outreach. He has written extensively on the subject of contemplative prayer, and especially on centering prayer as a doorway to contemplative prayer.


    Keating holds that it is important to present contemplative prayer and the method of centering prayer in a modern form, using psychological language, since so many people have a prejudiced idea of the spiritual life and are easily turned off by using the more traditional terminology

    It is my conviction that the language of psychology is an essential vehicle in our time to explain the healing of the unconscious effected during the dark nights which Saint John of the Cross describes. For one thing, it is a language that is better understood than the traditional language of spiritual theology, at least in the western world. It also provides a more comprehensive understanding of the psychological dynamics which grace has to contend with in the healing and transforming process.
    What Is �Silent Prayer�? Before we go any further we need to address one important question: What do we mean by silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, and why should we bother with it anyway? When we begin to take our spiritual life seriously at all, when we open the door to the Holy Spirit and allow the Spirit to lead us forward in our relationship with God, the Spirit takes us through various different stages of growth, bringing us ever deeper and �closer� to God. This may take various forms. It may be that someone suddenly decides that they want to learn a bit more about their faith, or it may take the form of a conversion experience, as it did with me. Whatever form it takes is not really important. What is important is that we respond to this invitation from the Holy Spirit to begin or deepen our relationship with God. After an initial awakening of our faith we may experience great joy and enthusiasm. Perhaps we might become interested again in the mass as never before, or begin reading scripture for the first time. We may find that we have a new interest in our faith as never before. Either way, let us say that our faith has been rekindled to some degree and we want to take it more seriously. Most people find that devotional prayers such as the rosary or the chaplet of divine mercy are a great help. They help us to reflect on the mysteries of Christ and relate to him a little better. The scriptures of course are probably the best guide of all, as they are the inspired word of God, and the Holy Spirit speaks to us through them like nothing else. But after some time, which may be months or years, many people find themselves more attracted to spending time in silence. Here a dilemma arises for many. They begin to wonder, should I spend more time sitting in silence before the Lord, or should I give the time to my prayer as it has been up to now? Is this sitting in silence a waste of time? Would I not be better �doing� something? Am I wasting time that I could be using to pray for someone else? These are good questions, which we will try to answer.


    St. John of the Cross says that at a certain stage when someone finds themselves drawn to spending more time in silence it can be an indication that the Lord is bringing them to a new stage of prayer. It usually comes with three signs, which we will come back to. St. John says that when people find themselves attracted to silence, it is important not to be afraid of it, but to go with it. It is as if our devotional prayers and reflections have given us as much benefit as they can, and now the Lord wants to do more of the work in us and only asks us to be quiet and to rest in this silence. This is where good spiritual direction is so important, although it is often sadly lacking. This attraction to silence does not mean that we should forget all our devotions, but it often does mean that we should go along with it, as it is more important than any other kind of prayer that we could do.


    So when we talk about prayer of silence, we are really talking about being quiet and allowing God to do more of the work in us. We are required to �do� less and to �be present� more. This may sound easy, but in practice most of us are not very good at being still and we need some kind of method to help us do this, as well as a bit of understanding as to why we should be quiet and what happens.


    Healing and What Needs to be Healed It is said that one of the fruits of the practice of any kind of prayer such as centering prayer, is the healing of the unconscious. If healing is needed in the unconscious, that would seem to imply that there is something wrong with it to begin with. But how can we know? Then, if it is unconscious, how do we know that �it� needs healing and whether it has been healed? Finally we must look at contemplative prayer, what it is, how it works and why it might be a tool that will bring about healing in the unconscious.


    Thomas Merton writes

    Christianity is a religion for men who are aware that there is a deep wound, a fissure of sin that strikes down to the very heart of man�s being. They have tasted the sickness that is present in the inmost heart of man estranged from his God by guilt, suspicion and covert hatred. If that sickness is an illusion, then there is no need for the Cross, the sacraments and the Church.


    One thing that everyone in the world has in common is the search for happiness. They may have very different ideas of what they consider happiness to be, but everyone wants to be happy. Why is it then that so many are not? What is it that prevents us from finding happiness and why does it seem to be so hidden from us? According to Thomas Keating this is because we come to full reflective self-consciousness without the sense of the presence of God. We feel alienated from God and so the world is a frightening place to be in. If we had the sense of union with God, we would not be afraid; but since we do not, we feel alone. So we search for happiness in all the wrong places, in power and symbols of security, or emotional supports of various kinds. We are living out of what he calls �the false self.�


    The False Self When we come into the world as helpless infants, we have many needs. We need to be fed, kept warm, loved, touched, kept clean. We also have three very basic psychological needs, which could also be called &ldquoenergy centers.� They are the need for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control. As children, almost all of us experience a lack, or perceived lack, of at least one of these basic psychological needs to some degree. For example, when we were infants we may have been born into a family with only one parent, or into a hostile environment where we got the sense that we were in danger a lot of the time. If one or both of our parents were going through a stressful time, perhaps under great economic pressure or with marital problems, we will have sensed the tension, the dis�ease, but we will have been too young to be able to reason that this was not our doing or fault. We may well have unconsciously concluded that the lack of love or security was our fault, or directly related to us. We then develop what could be termed �emotional programs�4 to compensate for this perceived lack. In other words, we develop an unconscious way of behaving to help us make up for the perceived lack. We usually see it as a way to attain what we perceive as happiness, or what will make us happy. We therefore put huge investment into symbols of our perceived lack, such as symbols of security or love and affection, depending on which of these basic needs we feel most deprived of. Needless to say, all this is done quite unconsciously. It also goes without saying that these symbols in which we invest so much energy cannot possibly bring us happiness, because they are finite

    The fulfilment we find in creatures belongs to the reality of the created being, a reality that is from God and belongs to God and reflects God. The anguish we find in them belongs to the disorder of our desire which looks for a greater reality in the object of our desire than is actually there: a greater fulfilment than any created thing is capable of giving.


    When baby John first comes into the world, his parents are completely enamored by him. They delight in his every move and do their best to attend to his every need. As he begins to grow and they start to teach him, they will usually use a certain amount of discipline to help him to learn. However, what can often happen is that the mother or father will begin to communicate messages that imply something like this: �Daddy only loves you if . . . you eat your vegetables, be good, succeed in school.� Of course it is not said in words, more often in a silent language, but all the time we are picking up the messages that we are only lovable if we have something (success, achievements, prestige, wealth, etc.).


    The false self is the self that we have grown up with. It is the understanding we have acquired that we are not lovable in ourselves, but rather for what we do and achieve. So we live and work to please others. Most of us when we grow up introduce ourselves by saying, �Hello, my name is John, I�m an accountant,� or, �I�m a teacher. But of course �I� am not a teacher, or an accountant. If I quit my job as a teacher, �I� will still be here, so �I� must be much more than a teacher/accountant, or whatever.


    The only thing I can definitely say �I� am is a center of consciousness. I may live out my life as a priest, accountant, teacher, or anything else, but this is not what �Irdquo; am. We tend to associate ourselves with what we do because we tend to equate what we do or do not do with how valuable or lovable we are. This is what we have learned growing up. Very few people will introduce themselves by just saying, �Hello, I�m John.� And if they do, someone else will probably soon ask them, �What do you do?� This is living under the �false self.� We have created a false self for ourselves and need to be set free from it. If we really perceived that we are totally loved by God just by virtue of the fact that we are, then we would be free from the need to present ourselves to others in a certain light, to show that we are worth something. However, most of us do not enjoy such freedom from the false self and live our lives trying to make up for this lack of �something� within us. We are deeply influenced by what people think and say about us. The fashion industry alone is a striking witness to this. We are dominated by the false self, made up of what Keating calls our �emotional programs for happiness.� These programs are what cause us to put great investment into what we think will make us happy. But as long as we are living under the false self, this can never be. The false self must die or be dismantled so that the true self can live in fullness: �Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it� (Mk 8:35).


    In his writings, Fr. M. Louis of Gethsemani�better known as Thomas Merton�describes his own journey to becoming "a new man," in other words the death of the false self and the new vision that comes with the freeing of the true self. He, in turn, drew his knowledge of the true and false self from the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He describes the journey beautifully in many of his writings. In Seeds of Contemplation, he presents us with a picture of the false self, in these words

    Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. . . . My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the radius of God�s will and God�s love�outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. . . . For most people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. . . . Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself; and if I find my true self, I will find Him.
    To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be.
    For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.


    The false self is therefore, literally, a self that is not real, not really who we are at our core. It is a self we have created and spend our life trying to please and maintain, although in vain, since it can never be satisfied or pacified, as it is false. It is not made in the image of God. If we are to find peace, we must turn away from this false self, or rather allow it to die. This is something that we cannot do by our own efforts, but it is something that God can and will do, if we allow him. According to Keating, one of the ways that this will happen is through the regular practice of centering prayer. By continually being silent before the Lord, or being to God in the depths of our soul, we give no room for the false self, which will eventually die as it is no longer being nourished. It kind of starves to death.


    As we grow older if we encounter a situation that seems to affect one of the emotional programs for happiness that we have developed, we react, because we feel that our happiness is being threatened in some way. This is because we have convinced ourselves, albeit unconsciously, that we must not be deprived of these symbols (whatever symbols in particular we have come to associate with our lack of security or esteem, etc.), or we cannot be happy.


    Since all this happened at an age when we were too young to reason what was going on, and that it probably was not our fault that we were deprived of these basic needs, we developed these unconscious programs at a very early stage, which then became firmly embedded in our unconscious9. From then on, it influenced how we see the world and how we act. Through centering prayer we take the road that will help us return to the true self and gradually dismantle the false self. This takes time. The true self that we are trying to get in touch with or set free is our deepest self, created in God�s image. In order to reach our true self, we must unblock it of all the emotional wounds that we have accumulated throughout our life. In The New Man, Thomas Merton describes the true self in these terms

    Self-realization in this true religious sense is then less an awareness of ourselves than it is an awareness of the God to whom we are drawn in the depths of our own being. We become real, and experience our actuality, not when we pause to reflect upon our own self as an isolated individual entity, but rather when, transcending ourselves and passing beyond reflection, we center our whole soul upon the God who is our life. That is to say we fully �realize� ourselves when we cease to be conscious of ourselves in separateness and know nothing but the one God who is above all knowledge. . . . The image of God is brought to life in us when it breaks free from the shroud and the tomb in which our self-consciousness had kept it prisoner, and loses itself in a total consciousness of Him who is Holy. This is one of the main ways in which �he that would save his life will lose it. . . .�
    The recovery of the divine image in our souls, insofar as it is experienced by us at all, is an experience of a totally new manner of being. . . .
    The recognition of our true self, in the divine image, is then a recognition of the fact that we are known and loved by God.


    Psychology recognizes that traumatic events in our early life (and later on as well) that are too difficult or painful to cope with can be buried or frozen in the unconscious as a means of coping with the pain. However, these feelings can and will affect our behavior unless properly attended to at some stage.


    Keating uses the example of a wealthy businessman with millions of dollars in the bank. He already has more than he could ever spend, yet he is never satisfied. He always wants more and he continually tries to make more, to the point that he is willing to obtain it even through fraud. What is driving him to act this way? Unknown to himself he is acting out of an emotional program that is trying to help him find happiness in a way that can never succeed. This may be a lack of security from his early childhood that unknown to himself is still influencing how he works and behaves. Perhaps because he lacked security when he was small, he then began to place huge emphasis on symbols of security or power (such as money) to try and make up for this real or perceived lack. Now, no matter what he does, even if he has a conversion and joins a monastery, he will continue to act out of these false programs for happiness until he faces these issues in himself. In a different situation it would simply come out in a different way, unless he faces the underlying problem: �At some point we have to face the fundamental problem, which is the unconscious motivation that is still in place, even after we have chosen the values of the Gospel.�.


    Often when people experience a conversion of some kind, they joyfully begin to live the Gospel message (if they happen to be Christian) and may initially feel that they have left their old habits and life behind. However, after some time the dust settles and then the old patterns of behavior resurface, often to the dismay of the individual, who may now begin to wonder whether their trying to live the Gospel was a foolish idea, as they do not seem to be able to do it after all. As nothing really seems to have changed, they may feel cheated or foolish, and see the Christian life as being impossible for them. To themselves they appear to be just as bad as before, if not worse. However, all that is happening is that they are beginning to see the false self, something that they may never have been aware of before. This is a normal part of growth and with good direction they will be encouraged to go on, as now the real spiritual journey is getting under way.


    This fundamental need that we experience, or lack of �something� that causes us to act this way, Keating calls �the human condition&rdqu0;
    "The human condition is my term for the doctrine Christian tradition has referred to since St. Augustine of Hippo first proposed it as original sin and its consequences."12 St. Augustine called it "original sin" and modern psychology is recognizing more and more that there is some kind of a universal �lack� or �flaw� common to all people.13 Benedict Groeschel calls it �the original wound,� since it is something that we are suffering from, rather than something that any one actually did.14 Keating further explains it thus:

    The term original sin is a way of describing the universal experience of coming to full reflective self-consciousness without the certitude of personal union with God. This gives rise to our intimate sense of incompletion, dividedness, isolation and guilt.
    As a result of this �human condition,� we begin to develop the false self,16 out of which we live and act. It becomes our way of thinking and seeing the world:
    Even though my natural acts are good they have a tendency, when they are only natural, to concentrate my faculties on the man that I am not, the one I cannot be, the false-self in me, the person that God does not know. This is because I am born in selfishness. I am born self-centred. And this is original sin.


    Since this is a misguided way of seeing the world, it will drive us in the direction of seeking happiness in all the wrong places. In their book Psychic Healing and Wholeness, Anna Terruwe, M.D., and Conrad Baars, M.D., acknowledge that it is essential that our emotions be fully integrated with the whole person if we are to reach full maturity. Emotions that are suppressed at any stage are simply �buried alive� and will make themselves known at some stage in a person�s life, one way or another

    . . . in each developmental phase, all emotions specific to that phase must be given the opportunity to be experienced and satisfied and not held back and repressed. This holds true for all age levels�infancy, childhood, puberty, and adolescence�but the earlier these emotions become repressed, the graver the consequences will be.


    Through the regular practice of centering prayer, or some other method of prayer that disposes us to contemplation, the false self is gradually dismantled and the Holy Spirit begins to re-integrate our emotions, helping us to re-assess values taken on as children and to become free and open to the presence of God within us since our baptism. Without the help of God, we cannot do this

    The conscious resolution to change our values and behavior is not enough to alter the unconscious value systems of the false self and the behavior they engender. Only the passive purifications of contemplative prayer can effect this profound healing.
    Robert Assagioli affirms that a moral conversion is not enough by itself to help us become whole or integrated. There is a whole process that we must go through to reach this stage of fulfillment or self-realization
    In the past a moral conversion, a simple whole-hearted devotion to a teacher or savior, a loving surrender to God, were often sufficient to open the gates leading to a higher level of consciousness and a sense of inner union and fulfillment. Now, however, the more varied and conflicting aspects of modern man�s personality are involved and need to be transmuted and harmonized with each other: his fundamental drives, his emotions and feelings, his creative imagination, his inquiring mind, his assertive will, and also his interpersonal and social relations.


    The human person is a complex reality and both growth and healing take time. So what need to be healed are the suppressed emotions, which are now causing us to look for fulfillment in the wrong places. This healing can and does come about through the regular practice of centering prayer. It also may require psychotherapy, depending on how much damage has been done.


    One obvious difficulty is how to tell when someone is "healed." This is not really something you can measure. How can you tell if the unconscious has been healed and these false emotional programs have been dismantled? This is told more by the fruits of the person�s life than anything else. There is no hard and fast measure for this, at least not in the spiritual life.

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Centering Prayer