By Netanel Miles-Yépez
For almost 40 years now, that great Trappist triumvirate from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spenser, Massachusetts—Father Thomas Keating, the late Father Basil Pennington, and Father William Meninger—have been teaching the practice of Centering Prayer (which Meninger, the one-time retreat master there, revived from indications in the anonymous mystical classic, The Cloud of Unknowing). At first, it was taught only to their brethren in the monastery and to retreatants who wished to practice a Christian form of meditation; but, by the mid-1980s, the three ‘fathers’ were taking it out of the monastery and teaching it to the larger community of Catholic and Protestant Christians around the world.
Brilliant teachers all, they have each written popular books, looking at Centering Prayer from different angles, creating the verba seniorum, the ‘sayings of the fathers,’ of Centering Prayer. But what will happen when these men, ordained by the Church, with their aura of monastic authority, are all gone? Will there be enough stability and strength among the lay leaders of the Centering Prayer movement to hold the lineage of practice together? These are questions I have asked myself in recent years. For it seemed to me, that until the ‘children,’ the leaders of the next generation, began to create their own body of teaching and commentary on the practice, the establishment of a long-term tradition and lineage of Centering Prayer was in doubt.
Thus, I was delighted to hear that David Frenette (one of Father Thomas Keating’s most senior students and an important teacher for Contemplative Outreach), whom I have known in a casual way for a number of years, had finally come out with The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God (Sounds True, 2012). I have long had a sense that Frenette was somehow carrying the practice of Centering Prayer out of the monastic context in a very authentic way, in a way that manages to preserve the more important structures of the contemplative life. But it wasn’t until I had read his book that I knew this for sure. In The Path of Centering Prayer, Frenette’s mature understanding of the practice and humble authenticity come across on every page, and in the end, he accomplishes what none of his predecessors has been able to do, convincingly—give believable expression to the contemplative life as it is lived in the world outside of the monastery.
The sixteen chapters of the book are divided into two parts, the first giving increasingly subtle and nuanced instruction in Centering Prayer, and the second discussing different “contemplative attitudes.” The two parts of the book are meant to compliment one another, so that if the reader becomes “overburdened by instructions,” he or she may flip to Part II and dip into its more expansive reflections. But, in my opinion, it is the subtlety of instruction in Part I that really sets the book apart. For, although it is still accessible enough to be used by beginners in Centering Prayer, its insights clearly reflect the extremely subtle understanding of an experienced meditator who also wishes to guide his students through the deeper levels of awareness only accessible through the practice. Frenette gives the reader instruction he or she can ‘grow into’ over many years of practice, returning to the book whenever necessary for new understanding. Thus, The Path of Centering Prayer is also a ‘second level’ manual of spiritual practice (a rarity in today’s market which seems almost entirely comprised of ‘beginner books’). But it is precisely the book’s multi-leveled accessibility to beginners and experienced practitioners alike, to professional religious and laity, that will help to ground and sustain Centering Prayer as a tradition of living practice for many years to come.