‘Centering Prayer’ is a phrase which has been generically applied to a wide variety of practices. In the Carmelite world, it is a reference to a method for centering oneself on Christ, focusing one’s heart and mind on Christ. However, the phrase has multiple meanings and not all ‘Centering Prayer’ is the same. It is also commonly used to refer to practices of ’emptying the mind’ and a pantheistic focus of Eastern origins.
Here is what our Catechism says (emphasis added):
“2726 In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures. Many Christians unconsciously regard prayer as an occupation that is incompatible with all the other things they have to do: they “don’t have the time.” Those who seek God by prayer are quickly discouraged because they do not know that prayer comes also from the Holy Spirit and not from themselves alone. (2710)”
The Catechism is an eloquent and awesomely inspired document and it is worth reading the whole section on Contemplative Prayer (2709-2724) and also the section on the ‘The Battle of Prayer’ starting at 2725.
The Vatican document A Christian Reflection on the New Age says:
“All meditation techniques need to be purged of presumption and pretentiousness. Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love, one which “implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from ‘self’ to the ‘You’ of God”.(61) It leads to an increasingly complete surrender to God’s will, whereby we are invited to a deep, genuine solidarity with our brothers and sisters.(62)”
Although, on the surface, this makes it sound like our Carmelite charism of solitude and stillness and “Nada” is in contradiction to what the Church teaches, it is not a contradiction. It is a question of focus and purpose and goal. Just as the purpose of prayer is not stillness, nor is the goal self-contemplation or self-emptying. Stillness may assist in our goal of focusing on the presence and loving gaze of God. But Pope John Paul II specifically warns against prayers “which in practice tend to set Christ aside in preference for a mental void“. Unlike New Age prayer which by its nature is de-personalizing, “Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian.”
If you read Carmelite articles that are out on the Internet regarding centering prayer (e.g., Fr. Larkin’s), it is about focusing the mind on Christ, not emptying the mind. References to “self-emptying” are about detaching from self-will and from detaching from focus on self to focus on God. That is “Practicing the presence of God.” This is a key distinction and one that is important to understand.
For more information, you may like to read the CDF 1989 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Churh on some aspects of Christian Meditation