The Right Way and the Wrong Way

In response to my comments about the forthcoming Catholic Prayer Bible: Lectio Divina Edition, where I complained because the ad for this Bible suggested that lectio divina culminates in “action” rather then “contemplation” (see Lectio Divina as a Tool for… Creating an Action Plan?!?), a Facebook friend of mine who is a Catholic author says the following:

I read your blog comments on the Paulist Press Lectio Divina Bible. I agree absolutely with you that contemplatio does not equal action, and that contemplation is an important element in lectio divina. However, I would not agree that lectio divina necessarily has four steps as described by Guigo II in the medieval work, The Monk’s Ladder. My writing advocates a broader and more ancient understanding of lectio divina that predates the four steps of Guigo II and offers a critique of Guigo II.

He’s going to send me a copy of his book (published by a reputable Catholic press), and after I take a look at it I’ll blog about it here. In the meantime, I thought it was worth commenting on the fact that all of our spiritual practices — not just lectio, not just meditation, not just contemplation — can take a variety of forms. The key work in my friend’s comments is “necessarily.” I agree with him: lectio does not “necessarily” require the four steps that Guigo set forth in the twelfth century. There is nothing dogmatic or magical about the cycle of lectio -> meditatio -> oratio -> contemplatio. But there’s nothing wrong with that cycle, either (although it will be interesting to read a critique of it).

I’m reminded of the centering prayer wars that rage on within the Catholic Church. For those of you who may not be dialed in to this, there are a number of critics of centering prayer who insist that it is dangerous because of its origin as a Christianized form of transcendental meditation (which isn’t entirely true; centering prayer was developed as a Christian alternative to TM, drawing its inspiration from ancient Christian sources such as the writings of John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing). At root here is the question of whether God can bless and use something that isn’t “purely” Christian. Many of centering prayer’s advocates would say yes, while its detractors say no. Of course, now that TM isn’t nearly as faddish as it was in the 1970s, the centering prayer movement has distanced itself from the language of meditation associated with TM; for example, the repetitive use of a single word to quiet the mind is no longer called a “mantra,” but a “prayer word.” Centering prayer’s critics accuse the movement of bad faith here, but I think that accusation itself reflects bad faith: the detractors are not willing to acknowledge that centering prayer originally appealed to Christians who were interested in eastern spirituality, and found in centering prayer a good reason to remain within the Christian faith. To the nay-sayers, only the purest forms of Christian practice (usually meaning “the way my grandparents did it”) are good enough; everything else smacks of heresy. Alas, even the Vatican has weighed in here, issuing a pastoral letter in 1989 that warns against forms of meditation that draw on non-Christian practices — which, of course, has only emboldened those who attack centering prayer.

Now, if a person is not drawn to centering prayer, he or she shouldn’t do it. If others are drawn to centering prayer, and they remain part of the Christian tradition, then for them centering prayer is a bona fide Christian practice. If they leave the church, my hunch is that they would have done so with or without centering prayer. I suspect that more Christians leave the church who have never practiced centering prayer than those who do. Perhaps we should attack the critics of centering prayer, since they are preventing some Christians from discovering a practice that might enable them to remain in the church!

Yes, I’m being satirical, but there might be a grain of truth in my silly logic. When Christians attack spiritual practices that we do not like, instead of attacking poverty and racism and sexism and violence, are we really furthering the reign of God? It’s easy to say that Satan is behind a spiritual exercise that we see as “foreign,” but then we ignore how demonic forces have insinuated themselves into the way we spend our money, or the way we treat those we consider our inferiors, or the way we over-consume. Just something to think about.

So back to lectio. I’m interested in seeing how my friend critiques it. But I don’t think I’ll be swayed that only one way of doing lectio is the “right” way. Now, I remain convinced that it’s a mistake to substitute action for contemplation in a lectio practice, but that’s not to say that “action” has no place in the spiritual life. On the contrary, action is an essential part of every Christian’s life. My criticism has more to do with language. Calling a spiritual practice geared toward action “lectio divina” makes about as much sense as calling the recitation of the rosary “centering prayer.” Being tolerant of a variety of spiritual practices is not the same thing as being sloppy with our language.

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough. To me, a good rule of thumb is this: better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. In other words, respect those whose spiritual practices differ from our own. Try to be as faithful as possible with our own practice. Spend less time judging others and telling them how wrong they are, and more time loving them — and begging God for growth in our own holiness. It seems to me that if we all did this, we’d create the space for God to do some pretty amazing things.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Yewtree

    I like centering prayer even more now that I know it has been criticised by conservatives. Possibly this is slightly curmudgeonly of me.

    I like centering prayer because sometimes words are too much, and only silence and contemplation will do. But then I am very focussed on the apophatic qualities of the Divine. And I try to do centering prayer with a concept or an image rather than a word. Not being a Christian, from a spiritual point of view, I couldn’t give two hoots where it came from, as long as it works; though from a historical and interfaith point of view, it’s very interesting indeed.

    As to lectio divina – one might hope that contemplation would lead on to action, but I am very much with you on the idea that there’s no single right way to do anything.

  • noel

    the call to”pray at all times”
    make every action prayerful
    i think maybe merton found something in zen too

  • noel

    “pray without ceasing”

  • Sue

    I think more people leave the church because of patently ridiculous dualistic ideas about the “good” stuff being “Christian” and everything else being “bad”. How unbelievably childish and naive. No wonder people leave environments like that.


  • noel

    to sue, that s very zen

  • Sue

    Is it, Noel? Yay! :) Haha.

    I just get frustrated at this ridiculous Christian dualism (and I am a Christian myself) that says that if the Buddhists see things a certain way, or have a certain idea about something, then it’s like they’ve copyrighted it and it must therefore be “bad” and not “Christian”. It’s bizarre.

  • James

    love your point Sue!! Happy Christmas Carl and all!

  • Carl McColman

    What saddens me is that the same people who unconditionally reject non-Christian spirituality are also, all too often, hostile to Christian mysticism as well; usually because they erroneously believe that Christian mysticism is necessarily “tainted” with non-Christian ideas and practices. Of course, many contemplatives tend to be deeply open to interreligious spirituality, which only adds fuel to the detractors’ fire. I wish that those who insist on maintaining strong boundaries around their faith would be just a bit more tolerant toward those of us who are more open to interfaith and interreligious exploration.

  • Gary Snead

    A Samaritan traveler with balm, bandages and a burden-bearing beast became Jesus’ example of a merciful neighbor, not the religious and undoubtedly praying priest or levite. We are neighbors, your yard is not my yard, but mine is worthless if I will not dispose of whatever portion even to the totality of it in order to be merciful to you.

  • Carl McColman

    Well said, Gary.