The Real Reason Why Some Evangelicals Dislike Contemplative Prayer?

Here’s an interesting article from the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal: David Harris, a former Baptist minister, next month will be ordained a Catholic priest.

What I found particularly enlightening was the role that mysticism, Thomas Merton, Cistercian monasticism, and especially contemplative prayer had to play in the Rev. Harris’ process of conversion.

One of the joys of being a convert to Catholicism is my deeply held belief that God’s grace flows abundantly everywhere — a person certainly does not have to become a Catholic in order to have that grace shower upon him or her. But likewise it doesn’t surprise me that Protestant clergy who are drawn to contemplative spirituality might also be called to enter the Catholic Church. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend: the more Protestants learn to contemplate, the more of them will be enrolling in RCIA.

Perhaps those Protestants (mostly evangelicals) who are so blustering in their hostility to contemplation do so out of a deep-seated “fear” that God just might be using contemplation — and Catholicism — to further the work of salvation? Heaven forbid that God behave in ways contrary to their interpretation of scripture!

Okay, I’m being facetious here. But you get the drift.

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  1. I read an article about this issue last week. It was by and large a very anti-catholic piece coming from some reformed type who still thinks all the issues that Luther wrote in his thesis are still all very current!

    I am not Roman Catholic, and I am pleased to say that there are plenty of Protestant denominations who are using contemplative disciplines in daily and corporate worship. Unfortunately some evangelical types (SB’s and and other Reformed (but stopped reforming soon after Luther) seem to think that anything that isn’t a rule or doctrine should not exist. Baby and bathwater methinks….

  2. Since I’m president of a local chapter of an international and interdenominational organization of Christian women, I rub shoulders daily with evangelical, Lutheran, pentecostal and non-denominational women. I find that among these the problem with contemplation is mostly a fear of silence and a fear of the unknown.

    The strong thread of Calvinist thought, which permeates American protestantism of all stripes, teaches that the imagination of man is evil and cannot be trusted. Those who have grown up in that tradition are, therefore, wary of silence because because in silence the mind and the imagination rise up to fill the void. They have not been taught how to place their minds and imaginations into submission to the Holy Spirit so He can bring forth truths beyond what they can perceive in the natural world. Strangely, I find Pentecostals some of the ones who are most bound to only what they can apprehend with their senses.

    There is, however, a bright note here. In the last year, I have seen a growing facination among my protestant sisters with what they call “soaking prayer.” Soaking prayer is a time set aside to just “soak in the presence of the Lord.” Usually, they insist upon have soft music playing, a distraction for me, but they seem unable to settle into prayer without it. I have been attending a monthly day of “soaking prayer” sponsored by our central Colorado area leadership team, and have been touched by the sweetness of this prayer fellowship.

    I was amused last month to overhear one of the women say, upon leaving the chapel, “Sarah is so lucky. Her church has been doing this kind of prayer all along. They call it Adoration.” Yes we do. Amen, amen, amen.


  3. Thanks, Sarah, this is actually quite helpful. I need to be reminded that most of contemplative prayer’s critics really are rather frightened of it – not always easy to keep in mind, when reading the venom on websites like Lighthouse Trails Research or Apprising Ministries.

    Do you know of any helpful resources (online or books) on soaking prayer?

  4. Actually, I hadn’t taken time to check out what’s out there on soaking prayer, but since you asked, I took a quick look on the web. The following is the best source I found:
    There is a, but that site promotes soaking prayer as a time of concentrated one on one prayer ministry. I also noted that Lighthouse Trails Research has taken the trouble to denounce soaking prayer. How sad to live in so much fear.


  5. Well, I would say there is an appreciation of conemplative prayer among at least some in my Presby church, and certainly no hostility toward it. And I’m about to do an internship in a church that’s interested in my doing some teaching on prayer and spirituality. I don’t think either church is at all unique in this regard.

    I can’t remember how I found your blog, but I have enjoyed it for several weeks.)

  6. The key word in my post is some. Some evangelicals indeed are opposed to contemplative prayer, but for that matter, so are some Catholics! But as you well point out, many Christians – of all denominational persuasions – are truly open to the riches of silent prayer.

  7. zoecarnate says:

    But I think you’re right – most heresy-hunters think that contemplative prayer (and indeed, the emerging church conversation) are really crypto-Catholic converters in disguise. And because they have serious theological beef with Catholicism (at least, pre-Trent Catholicism :) ), having their own convert to such an ‘insidious’ denomination would never been as the behavior of God, but rather, that of the dark lord Beelzebub. Alas.

  8. Pre-Trent, post-Trent, pre-Vatican II, post-Vatican II… some of the hostility I’ve seen aimed at us “Papists” seems to transcend all Catholic categories!

    Even Episcopalians jump on this bandwagon. Right after I entered the Catholic Church I was at a mysticism meetup – a public event – and an Episcopalian, on hearing that I was a former Anglican who became Catholic, said, “Well, that’s regressive!” I was stunned. I always thought that if Episcopalians were anything, they were polite… but apparently, not where Catholicism was concerned. :-)

  9. OK, now that I have taken look at Lighthouse Trails and Apprising Ministries, I see what you mean. Phew!

    As far as the Baptist minister’s conversion to Catholicism and ordination to the Catholic priesthood, that only works for about half the population. The female half is perhaps called to use our imaginations to build bridges between Catholic and Protestant understandings and practices from our home in Protestant tradition.

  10. judith collier says:

    I like how Sarah explained this. I found the imagination one of the hardest to overcome but I am somewhat of a dreamer. In my 9 yrs. of helping with a mental health group this was a difficult dicipline. There should be training (at least an awareness ) of pitfalls. That’s why I left the Evangelicals, I wasn’t buying it when they said they heard from God ALL or most of the time.. I do know the Spirit impresses Himself upon us but interpretation has to come with much reason and knowledge and by immersing in the written word of God as a basis of truth. “My sheep hear my voice and follow me”. Being a dreamer and not fearing where my mind would go helped but I was unaware early on of my my own preconcieved deeply imbedded thoughts. God does bring a good lot of this to light and this constitutes growth along with His grace and our stumbling like the children we are. We mostly learn by our mistakes.

  11. Sarah has hit a major dominant chord here, the fear that our imagination is evil.

    I remember the first time I heard any teaching to the contrary of that: it was around 9 years ago in an Inner Healing/Transformation seminar by John and Paula Sandford. The Sandfords teach very directly that the imagination is a basic human faculty (gift, talent) that can be brought to the Cross and transformed into a powerfully beneficial part of our walk in sanctification. They have tons of examples of imagination in the popular culture of their generation–literature, music, movies–and the principle which applies in the present and future generations as well.

    A more recent author that I highly recommend on this subject is Brad Jersak, a Canadian writer about the history of contemplative and mystical prayer and its application to our current walk, notably in his book Can You Hear Me?

    I acknowledge that much of this is ancient wisdom, and I see the truth of Sarah’s statement about fear-based believers (quoted below). I think her key insight has to do with the fear of the imagination; this single criterion will be enough to slice open the major energy behind most of the heresy-hunters and contemplation-haters (and literalists, and cessationists, etc) that we have been running across:

    “They have not been taught how to place their minds and imaginations into submission to the Holy Spirit so He can bring forth truths beyond what they can perceive in the natural world.”

    And I rejoice with Carl as he sees that this fear is quickening their venom. This may help in establishing a stance in response to them; might it not be easier to have compassion on them, to “love our enemies,” if we see that they are wracked with fear rather than driven by hate? Of course the two may be linked–but this principle can apply to our relationships with Muslims and atheists as well as cessationists and other in-house enemies. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God…


  12. judith collier says:

    I take my hisband and his brother to a car club each week because they are blind and they enjoy the camaraderie. In a rather large group there is only one other woman who enjoys a relationship with Christ. Neither of us spouts Bible verses or judges these people. We accept them and value them as creations of God. Since we are seniors, and this is sort of funny but someone is always sick. Pauline and I are always praying for them and they have accepted our prayers in and out of the hospital, we don’t push it. This group, for the main part, has never known the love of God for themselves. We try to present the gospel in words they can understand and relate, but never, never pushy. And only when they ask “wherein lies your hope” in their own vernacular. If we were to shove bible verses down their throat, beg them to get saved by coming to one of our churches, etc. they would buck. This is what contemplation does for a Christian, this is what the mystical experiences of Pauline and myself have shown(she is a different denomination than myself). It is about love, not believing what we believe theologically but an awareness of the love of God towards them. The rest we leave to the Holy Spirit.

  13. Carl,
    Back in May, I think, we were at the Sara Miles event. You invited me to write on your blog, so here goes… Ms Miles was inspiring, too.

    I was amused by your comment above, quoting the impolite Episcopalian, who remarked about your conversion path being “regressive.” I would never say that about anyone else’s spiritual journey, I only know it would be regressive for me, a former RC. Why? Several reasons: a church that does not ordain women lacks all validity or capacity to witness, in my view. A church that claims to be the authentic repository of truth is embracing a heresy, in my view, because it places itself equal to the mystery of God, insists on being the mediator of that mystery (people have an unmediated relationship with God, whether they know it or not), and raises this sort of teaching to the magisterial level. Obviously, I reject the magisterium.
    Further indication of the ecclesiolatry I am referring to is the canon that restricts communion to RCs, except in extreme cases. Who the hell do they think does the inviting to the feast? I think you get the idea.An institutional church does not know the mind of Christ, and essentially _cannot_ know that, and must be rejected if it pretends to. If you are seeing the word “ecclesiolatry” for the first time, that’s good, because it is exemplified _par excellence_ in the RC church.
    In your brief spiritual biography, elswhere on this site, you make it appear you jumped directly from Wiccan/Paganism observance directly to Catholicism, which I happen to know is not the case. Blest Be, J/

  14. John, thanks for your message. I know that many people who were raised Catholic have profound concerns about remaining within the Church, and I fully respect that. We each have to follow our conscience in regard to where we believe God calls us to be.

    Many of my Episcopal friends — as well as my Neopagan friends — have expressed consternation at my joyful embracing of the Catholic faith. The litany is always the same: “No ordination of women… hostility to gays and lesbians… unreasonable teachings regarding human reproduction… arrogance on the part of the pope and/or the magisterium… ” To me, these are more political questions than spiritual ones. I know many faithful practicing Catholics who share these same political concerns, and would never dream of leaving the Catholic Church because they would see that as abandoning those who remain in the thrall of the Church’s injustice.

    Here’s an analogy that might prove instructive: people will move to a country with a hostile political environment, like China or Iraq, in the interest of pursuing a business opportunity. They may not like the politics, but they believe that by being there they can make a difference. If they stay there long enough, they might even become citizens, having fallen in love with their adopted homeland.

    Substitute “spiritual” for “business” and you’ll have a glimpse into why I am pleased and happy to be part of the Catholic community. The spiritual graces I am receiving from the Cistercian and Claretian communities here in Atlanta far outstrip the not inconsiderable political challenges within the Church today.

    P.S. Just to set the record straight: I was a practicing Episcopalian from 1985 through 1997; from ’97 to ’04 I was involved in a variety of Wiccan, Neopagan, and Druidic communities, and then in 2004 I began attending mass which led to my becoming a Catholic in 2005. So, indeed, I did in fact go directly from being a Pagan to being a Catholic.

  15. “I think you get the idea.An institutional church does not know the mind of Christ, and essentially _cannot_ know that, and must be rejected if it pretends to. ”

    My intuitive response to this would be: why? While I except the truth of what you are saying, that no institution or person, can truly know the mind of Christ, I do not understand or except the idea that rejection of that church is the only response.

    It seems to me, on the contrary, that there is a core of people growing within the R.C. community who are, at some point going to reach critical mass and really change that part of the Christian community. I do not pretend to know what form that change will take. Only the Holy One knows that but it seems to me that this is a really good argument for people like Carl staying with their community.

    Lest I be accused of being a Catholic apologist :-), I will say for the record that I would have to tick the box “no preference” if asked about my religious convictions.

  16. Some evangelical Christians dislike contemplative prayer for the same reason that many Catholics dislike it – because Western Christianity in general has bought into the idea that God is known through doctrines and intellectual schemes rather than direct experience. It should be noted, too, that contemplative spirituality evokes a similar response from doctrinaire types as Charismatic practices, like glossolalia, do. The distinction is that Charismatic practices seem to find a nice among extroverted personalities who seek experience as part of a group, while contemplative practices find a niche among introverted personalities who seek experience of God within themselves.

    The idea that evangelicals fear contemplative spirituality because it leads to Catholicism is absurd. The most popular form of contemplative spirituality being explored by evangelical Christians is the Jesus Prayer, which is Eastern Orthodox in origin. Catholicism has no literature comparable to the Philokalia. The only Catholic mystics of any worth, Meister Eckhart and Madame Guyon, were ex-communicated and possibly killed by the Catholic Church. The other Catholic mystics – St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avlia, etc. – express a sort of repressed sexuality that seems grotesque and appalling to modern spiritual seekers. An evangelical Christian exploring contemplative spirituality is likely to find the Jesus Prayer – a deeply-biblical, Christ-honoring prayer – and see how it was corrupted beyond all recognition into the Marian Rosary. Not much draw to Catholicism there…

    But then, I suppose I’ll be dismissed as an anti-Catholic bigot just because I find Catholic ideas silly and arrogant. It’s easier to dismiss those you fail to impress as bigots than it is to engage in serious debate where you admit the possibility that you might be wrong. You know, I’ve been talking to God for over 30 years now, and He hasn’t mentioned anything to me about how I need to throw myself at the feet of some Bishop in order to be part of the true church. I live in one of the most Catholic areas of the country, and extremely few Catholics – far, far fewer in percentage than Protestants – have any serious relationship with God or understanding of their faith. For most, it is a mere ethnic tradition. Hard to see how an institution that fails so seriously in its pastoral mission, and fails so catastrophically to even behave morally towards its own children (and you know what I’m referring to), has any benefits that it’d make it worth my while to convert. If there is a “one true church” that comes from ancient times that we all must belong to, then I’d bet on the Orthodox Church long before I’d bet on the Catholic Church.

  17. Julie Dufaj says:

    In those 30 years of talking with God, my friend, did He happen to mention that we are to treat lovingly and with respect those with whom we disagree? You paint with a very broad stroke.

  18. Julie Dufaj says:

    My comment was for my friend, Xinosaj.

  19. This evangelical may object at times to contemplative prayer. The focus for me is the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ is the mediator/gateway into the Trinitarian experience and reality. Becoming a Catholic certainly doesn’t conflict with that! However the world of contemplative prayer may do so.

    Christian prayer is an expression of “for through him (Jesus), we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” Ephesians 2:18 and “ we have the boldness to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” Hebrews 10:19-20 Christian spirituality is based on humbly and boldly relying on, trusting in, and using Jesus’s saving death and risen living person as the means to come before the Father and to have the Holy Spirit.

    Contemplative spirituality may contradict the above and present a general mystical experience having the Lord Jesus at best an option, dethroning him as the Son of God who is in the Father’s eyes to have pre-eminence. All that is needed instead is a Christless approach of the soul to God with Christian contemplative prayer a sub-variety of Contemplativa mysticus or at best the Rolls Royce model of it. “Christian” contemplative spirituality may subtly set aside Jesus as the chief means, replacing the Living Christ with contemplative prayer and mystical methods, and not be true to the Gospel message. It can be a type of unbelief in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life and the more than adequate source of the Holy Spirit and the revealer of the Father.

    Yes, I thoroughly object to the setting aside of the person of Jesus as the central and necessary means and method of coming to God. Conservative Catholics also object. Without Jesus you simply won’t have the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christless contemplative activity delivers a counterfeit spirituality and not the Living Triune God. You can relabel Christless contemplative spirituality all you want, saying it really brings you to God, but it doesn’t deliver the Trinity to its participants, only Jesus can.

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