David Frenette on The Path of Centering Prayer

In Part 1 of our series this week, we introduce two authors who are breaking Christian boundaries and are inviting men and women to find the deep riches in the Christian tradition. In Part 2, we interview Chris Haw, who talks about his odyssey from the Willow Creek evangelical megachurch to a Catholic parish in a poor neighborhood. Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with David Frenette in …


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.DAVID CRUMM: Let’s start by describing the history of “centering prayer.” Readers probably know that it’s an ancient form of contemplative prayer—something associated with monasteries. But, there’s a very important part of this history we should mention: In the 1970s, three Trappist monks decided to teach these traditions to modern people in practical ways. They were Father Thomas Keating—your mentor who writes an introduction to your new book—plus Father William Meninger and Father M. Basil Pennington. So, tell us how you connected with these teachings. I know that you were raised in a family with no real religious practices. Then, you studied Eastern religions for quite a while. You’re trained in psychology. Tell us more.

DAVID FRENETTE: I first met Father Thomas Keating in 1982. At that point, I had become a Christian, and from earlier studies I already knew a lot about Buddhist and Hindu and Sufi practices of meditation. So, when I met Father Keating—here I was listening to a talk from a Christian master in this kind of meditation. I felt an immediate connection with him as a teacher and as a spiritual mentor.

Then, I exchanged a letter or two with Father Keating. I was wondering about becoming a monk but I wasn’t feeling called to a permanent monastic cloister. I got this card back from him that said, “Dear David: I understand what you’re talking about.” That line struck my heart. I felt even more of a connection. Here was someone who understood the journey I was on. I went to another workshop of his and then on a retreat that he gave and that retreat was really the beginning of my own more formal public ministry in centering prayer.

I’m trained as a therapist particularly in the transpersonal field of psychology. It’s been around for some time now as a school within psychology. I’ve worked as a psychotherapist in the past, but these days I’m primarily working as a spiritual director and a teacher.

CRUMM: If readers turn to the opening pages of your book (see Part 1 of our series), they will find a short excerpt of Father Keating’s own words that help you to complete this mini-history. Clearly, Keating seems to be anointing you as someone he hopes will keep the centering prayer movement going. He even describes your own work as the next wave of “contemplative research and development.” So, how do you describe to newcomers the range of this practice? In your book, you suggest it could run all the way from the Quakers’ meditative silence to more Eastern practices of meditating with a focus on one’s breathing, or on a single word that is repeated.

FRENETTE: The instructions and the contemplative attitudes I describe in this book are taken from small-group teaching and retreats on what we call “centering prayer.” In our practices, we do encourage people to choose sacred symbols or sacred words to use in this form of prayer. So people may find connections with practices in a number of traditions, but what I am describing in this book come from the centering prayer communities where I have worked. I lived for 10 years in a centering-prayer retreat center.

DAVID FRENETTE: Experiences that go beyond words

David Frenette (left) with Father Thomas KeatingCRUMM: Given your years of living, as a lay person, in a centering-prayer community, you know that this practice normally is taught in person. It’s taught in a retreat or it’s developed one-on-one with a spiritual director. Are people really going to pick up that much from reading about it in a book?

FRENETTE: This is a good question. This book really comes out of the deepening needs of our communities. How do we help more people to learn about these practices? You’re right that the heart of the Christian contemplative life is one that always has been awakened and transmitted in settings with other people. This goes all the way back to the ancient Desert Fathers, where we find the first recorded teachings on how to live the contemplative life. Those teachings arose in small communities and often between an elder—a father or a mother—and a student. Trying to share more widely these kinds of personal encounters, Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating both used books to convey these ideas. Merton’s books are a good example of written words that help to form and shape something that goes beyond the words for readers. (chuckles) But, you’re right! Any book on contemplation is really in the service of something that cannot be articulated in words.

DAVID FRENETTE: Turn 180 degrees. Start with ‘Amen.’

CRUMM: In your instructions for prayer, you deliberately reshape our use of words—drawing from ancient, worldwide traditions of using words as doorways to deep medtiation. I encourage people to read the whole book to understand the full scope of this. But let’s give just one example. You flip around the almost-ignored last word in most prayers, “Amen,” and turn it 180 degrees to begin a new form of prayer.

FRENETTE: “Amen” is the word that ends most Christian prayers. It’s the end of the Our Father. But, “Amen” also is a disposition that goes to the heart of contemplative prayer. The word means “so be it” or “let it be.” In contemplative prayer that’s an important truth. We don’t have to go out and search. God is there already. We are opening ourselves up to God and receiving God. So, at one point in the book, I write about that contemplative attitude of “Amen” as a way to show that even the word that ends traditional Christian prayers is actually an opening to deeper meditation. I’m trying to show people that we’re really talking about an orientation of prayer that stems from what we already experience in traditional prayer.

CRUMM: This is important. Centering prayer isn’t taking people away from orthodox Christianity. I know that some strict evangelicals are suspicious of this form of prayer. But, the truth is: This form of prayer arises right out of the New Testament teachings of Jesus.

FRENETTE: That’s right. Contemplative prayer and the whole tradition of Christian meditation goes back to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew Chapter 6 where Jesus is asked how to pray. He says to start by going into your inner room, closing the door and praying in secret. Then, Jesus tells us, our Father who sees in secret will reward you. Jesus goes further to instruct the prayer we call the Our Father, which is a prayer about daily life—forgiveness and relationships, temptation and difficulties with other people.

DAVID FRENETTE: From an inner room—into the world

CRUMM: One of the myths about contemplative prayer is that it carries people away from daily life. It’s a way of fleeing from the needs of our families, our communities, our world. While there are some famous locked-away communities of contemplatives, the movement you’re describing in your book always takes us back out into the world, right?

FRENETTE: The words of the Our Father focus on very practical things—like our daily bread. Yes, you can see this in the sequence Jesus presents to his followers in Matthew. He doesn’t instruct the Our Father first. He says, first: Go to your inner room and pray in secret. That passage is one of the great sources in the gospels for contemplative prayers.

For most people the trajectory of Christian contemplation is to develop a daily practice, supplemented by going on retreat once in a while, then the contemplative practice is expressed through the commitments we make in daily life. Jesus teaches this in that same chapter, Matthew 6. Jesus says that giving in compassionate ways to people in need should be done in secret—so your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing. He’s saying that we shouldn’t do this driven by a hidden agenda. Jesus is teaching us to cultivate a contemplative form of prayer, then have it expressed in life through service in practical ways as a natural expression of daily living.

DAVID FRENETTE: Discovering that we are home, already

CRUMM: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking of the writings of Frederick Buechner, one of my own life-long inspirations. Among my favorite Buechner books is The Longing for Home: Reflections at Midlife. What you describe in this whole practice of contemplative prayer feels like what Buechner tries to describe as a longing for home. Is that a fair connection to make?

FRENETTE: Coming home or realizing that we are home—that’s a wonderful image that lies at the heart of the contemplative life. Unfortunately, we seem to be alienated from our true home in God—our true home in the deepest sense of who we are as men and women created in the image of God. We are distracted in so many ways in our daily lives. These days, there is so much technology stimulating us, drawing our attention. Yet, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves—that’s also one of the great teachings of the contemplative life.

We don’t have to search for God—rather, we allow ourselves to be loved by God. When we quietly sit and pray at the start of the day, even for 20 minutes, we are brought into an awareness of the divine presence. As we cultivate this, we remain aware of this presence throughout our day. We discover that we don’t have to be in a monastery or a church to be at home with God. We can be at home with God while driving a car, working at a desk or doing dishes in the evening. What we are talking about is the awareness that: Wherever we are, home is possible.

CRUMM: So, last question: Is this movement of prayer growing? Or fading?

FRENETTE: I see Christian forms of contemplative prayer and meditation moving in waves. The explosion of interest we saw in the 1970s settled in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now, I think it’s deepening further. Meditation practices from Asian traditions are going deeper now. Today, people talk about the development of a uniquely Western or even a specifically American form of Buddhism. Reaching that point shows real spiritual depth in these movements.

For American Christians, the first wave of contemplative prayer came in the 1950s and ‘60s with writers like Thomas Merton. Then in the ‘70s and ‘80s there were those Trappist monks led by Thomas Keating offering practices like centering prayer to people outside monastic cloisters. Then, in the current generation I think the wave is more widespread, moving in more subtle ways that may be more difficult to see as easily. But, people are developing more teachings. New small groups are forming in many places. Now, we’ve reached a point where contemplative prayer practices are available in many different Christian denominations—and even to people who start this practice saying that they’re from no specific religious tradition. More and more people are recognizing that God is working in their lives and they want to actively cooperate with that through centering prayer and practice. I hope that this book helps to spread that good news.

Care to jump back and read Part 1? It’s a story that introduces Chris Haw and David Frenette as two important barrier breakers in Christianity. In Part 2, we talk with Chris Haw.

Want the book? You can order The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God—from Amazon.

Care to learn more about Centering Prayer? In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Father Thomas Keating about his decades of teaching contemplative, centering prayer.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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