Centering Prayer and The Cloud of Unknowing
In the prologue to The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author writes, “I do not desire that this book should be seen by worldly chatterers, public self-praisers or fault-finders, newsmongers, gossips or scandal-mongers, or detractors of any kind.” Instead, he instructs his student that the book should be read only by someone who has “undertaken truly and without reservation to be a perfect follower of Christ—not only in the active life, but at the highest point of the contemplative life that may be attained by grace in this present existence.” Ideal readers, it is fair to say, are few and far between.
As Eastern philosophies became more popular in the West across the twentieth century, Christians in the English-speaking world sought to understand and learn from them. One of the most famous examples is Thomas Merton’s sometimes controversial engagement with Zen Buddhism, in which he saw a model for taking seriously a tradition of mystical and apophatic thinking. Many attempts have been made to develop Christian versions of the sort of meditation practices that now enjoy widespread popularity. Consequently, despite its inauspicious sales pitch, interest in the Cloud has grown in recent years; the methods for prayer it describes are familiar to those with experience of Eastern meditation practices.
In the 1970s, three Trappist Monks—William Meininger, Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington—developed the practice of ‘Centering Prayer’, an attempt to make techniques of meditative prayer, based on the Cloud, available to a wider audience than the author intended. Since then, the movement has enjoyed considerable success and has been the subject of dozens of books and workshops.