A good friend recently asked me to explain the difference between traditional Catholic mental prayer (meditation on the life of Jesus that the Spanish mystics called oración mental) and New Age centering prayer (amorphous meditation promoted by pseudo-Eastern groups.) My online series on mental prayer called Video Lectio Divina tries to teach the former, but I have never tackled the difference in definitions.
So what is the difference between mental prayer and centering prayer? A decent answer would be that that mental prayer looks outwards to God and centering prayer looks inward to self. This would be a decent answer. However, it’s not a perfect answer because great mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila say we actually do look inwards in mental prayer. Yes, you might be surprised that within the Catholic view of mental prayer, one also looks inward. However, it is important to notice towards Whom the human’s inward gaze is directed during Catholic mental prayer, as seen in the following descriptions by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila on how “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21):
If a soul wishes to speak with its Father and enjoy His company, it does not have to go to heaven…It needs no wings to go in search of Him but only to find a place where it can be alone and look upon Him present within itself.—St. Teresa of Jesus, The Way of Perfection, 28.
It is to be observed that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is hidden, in essence and in presence, in the inmost being of the soul. Wherefore, the soul that would find Him must go forth from all things according to the affection and will, and enter within itself in deepest recollection, so that all things are to it as though they were not… God, then, is hidden within the soul and there the good contemplative must seek Him with love.—St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 1.6