Review by Ron Dart.
Cynthia Bourgeault (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2004) These days are characterized by a strong interest in spirituality, contemplation, and the mystical approach to knowing and living a meaningful life. Typically, this has taken the form of a reactionary stance by many in the West, who turn to the East to slake such a thirst. But the last few decades have seen a reversal of this trend, whereupon people are digging deeper into the Western Tradition for the contemplative and mystical way. Some sensitive and alert people have also attempted to think and live through the best of the Eastern and Western contemplative and mystical ways. It is in this latter approach that Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault must be located.
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is a must read for anyone interested in the present state of the contemplative and mystical ways. It knits together, in a delicate and wise way, the “Centering Prayer Tradition” of Thomas Keating and the “Christian Meditation Tradition” of John Main. Bourgeault also makes clear how centering prayer is distinct in theory and purpose from various Eastern perspectives.
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is divided into five sections: I) The Method of Centering Prayer, II) The Tradition of Centering Prayer, III) The Psychology of Centering Prayer, IV) Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening and V) Epilogue: The Way of the Heart. Each of these sections, with much insight, grace and incisive ease, highlights how centering prayer stirs and awakens the inner life. Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening builds on the ideas of Thomas Merton, William Johnston, Bede Griffiths, Thomas Keating, and John Main, but takes such a perspective to a more applied level.
Despite these positive points, I have five questions and concerns about this book (as I had about Bourgeault’s earlier work, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart: 2003).
First, Bourgeault seems to think Merton’s interest and commitment to the contemplative way can be traced to the 1960s (p.55). In fact, Merton, the American Beats (Snyder, Kerouac, Kyger, Whalen, Ginsberg) and, in Canada, George Grant, were interested in recovering the contemplative way in the 1940s and early 1950s. But this is a small historical point.
Second, many of the great contemplatives of the past and present (in the West and East) wedded the mystical with the political. The unio mystica was as much about inner awakening as it was about peacemaking and seeking justice. The fact that Bourgeault does not integrate the mystical and prophetic means that her approach to centering prayer and inner awakening borders on the Gnostic and is one-dimensional.
Third, Bourgeault’s commitment to the apophatic and via negativa as the deeper source and centre of the contemplative way can be questioned and doubted. The greatest mystics of the Church have held in tension the apophatic-cataphatic way. Bourgeault has a tendency to pre-define what the real state of inner awakening and attentiveness should be. The mystics of the Latin West and Greek East had a broader, more gracious and deeper sense of the mystery of where and how inner awakening begins, buds, blossoms, and bears abundant fruit.
Fourth, I would have liked to see more about how such centering prayer and inner awakening connects with the complex nature of parish and church life. Bourgeault lights but does not really land in this area.
Finally, it seems to me that Bourgeault’s metaphysics can collide with her mystical theology. The world of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and clan do, when day is done, take the devotees to different places than many of the contemplatives of the Christian West and East. This does need to be noted and thought through in more depth and detail.
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is a fine primer on an essential topic, but there are worrisome aspects to this tract for the times. Perhaps, in the future, Bourgeault will deal with such issues in a more substantive manner.