Bhakti Jesus?

I know a monk who criticizes devotionalism. Rosaries, novenas, consecration to Mary, that sort of thing: he sees no use for it. He simply prefers methodless silent prayer. We have an ongoing conversation/debate about this. I keep saying that such devotionalism is a valid, cataphatic form of spiritual practice. He is willing to accept that but only if cataphatic spirituality is seen as a prelude to the “higher” apophatic form of practice.

Incidentally, cataphatic (also spelled kataphatic) spirituality is the spirituality of using images (ikons, visualizations, recited prayers, etc.) to connect with God. By contrast, apophatic spirituality is imageless spirituality, characterized by centering or contemplative prayer. Since no human word, concept or image can ever capture the fullness of God anyway, apophatic spirituality seeks to connect with God by doing away with all such imperfect representations of the Divine.

What bothers me about his perspective is that I see the same kind of perspective coming from the devotionalists. They are as scornful of centering prayer as my monk friend is scornful of their novenas. It seems that those who attack centering prayer are, generally speaking, those with a stronger “bhakti” form of spirituality. If someone finds meaning in saying the rosary or praying novenas, it seems (in my experience) that he or she is more likely to reject centering prayer as a “dangerous” or “non-Christian” practice. Even those devotionalists who do accept contemplation as an orthodox Christian practice often see it as something that only a very tiny minority of people are called to, and therefore is best left alone.

Like my monastic friend, I clearly prefer a more apophatic spirituality. But I think there’s a place for cataphatic spirituality, and sometimes I find my own meaning in it. I love sacred art, architecture and music. I even enjoy contemporary Christian music (my family and I are all excited about going to see the David Crowder Band up in the mountains of North Carolina next week). I think it is one of many paradoxes of mysticism that both cataphatic and apophatic spirituality can usher us into the experience of God’s transforming presence.

In Hinduism, bhakti yoga is the spirituality of devotion. It is the spirituality of relationship with the god or goddess to whom one is devoted. It seems to me that Catholics who engage in the daily rosary, or Protestants who engage in regular conversational prayer, are essentially bhakti Christians. Meanwhile, contemplatives (those who prefer silent, non-discursive prayer) are essentially the Christian equivalent of raja yoga (“royal” yoga), the yoga of liberation through meditation (meditation, as understood in eastern spirituality, is more properly termed contemplation in western parlance). Now, I don’t know enough about Hinduism to speculate whether bhakti yogis look down on raja yogis (and vice versa), but somehow I get the impression that there’s more of a live-and-let-live approach to these two forms of religious practice. I think Christians have something to learn here. Christians who express their faith in terms of a lively devotion, and Christians who cultivate a sense of Divine presence through contemplation, are neither one better or more advanced than the other. Each type of spirituality represents a particular way of responding to grace. How lovely it is that there are so many different ways of finding connection to God in our lives.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Pentecost and Ecstasy
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.

  • Ioannis

    Devotional practices provide balance to contemplation. After a period of contemplative activity–often wordless and motionless –reciting the Psalms aloud, as appointed in the Offices of the Church, reinvigorates contemplation to follow. A sentence, phrase or single word from the Psalms may focus the soul’s eye for a time, providing direction from the Lord of the heart to return home to holy silence inside the heart.

  • Carl McColman

    A very good point. One of my teachers insists that practitioners of centering prayer need to be immersed in the Daily Office as a safeguard against narcissism or relativism. I think he’s right. Compare that to Ken Wilber, who maintains that practitioners of meditation need to be engaged in complementary disciplines such as psychotherapy, strength training and cognitive exercises in order to have a more “balanced” or “integral” spiritual practice. Ultimately, for most of us anyway, a balanced diet of cataphatic and apophatic practice may be the most spiritually beneficial.

  • Mary Halsey

    Nice article. Lots of good things to ponder.
    I find in Nature, that the creatures respond to the Divine in much the same way.
    Birds respond to the air, fish the water, ground dwellers to the earth. With one exception. What they have and we, humans don’t, is the judgement. In this sense, maybe we should learn from them. The Divine gives and we respond. To one is given a rosary, another a Bible, and another a quiet place on a mountain. How we respond is a gift by itself. Humility is the key here. Happiness and Peace are sought after in all our attempts, whatever they may be.

  • frater minor

    My feeling is similar that of Ioannes: I am committed to the practice of Centering Prayer, but I also pray the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary each day. The polarization in our society has taken hold in our Church and in our spiritual lives, as expressed in your opening comment, Carl. We need to remember the ancient axion:
    “In medio stat virtus.” It would serve us well to escape from the temptation of “either/or” and be more catholic in our approach: “both/and”. Thank you, Carl, for! v

  • brazenbird

    I agree with the other posters: my practice involves both types of devotion and I find that on days when I only do one or the other I don’t get that sense of communion. I always feel like I only did half and I thusly feel half-full.

    I also agree with the frater minor about the polarization that has taken hold of us so strongly. I reject the either/or model of thinking and find it hard to believe that God, in God’s infinite glory could be relegated to only one way of reaching out to God’s people.

    I do have one question Carl, if you don’t mind? What did you mean by:

    One of my teachers insists that practitioners of centering prayer need to be immersed in the Daily Office as a safeguard against narcissism or relativism. I think he’s right.

    ? Being relatively new to centering prayer and meditation practices, I’m not sure I understand how either could lead to narcissism or relativism. Would you please say more about that?

  • Ron Krumpos

    Devotional and contemplative practices are accepted on all faiths, especially within their mystical traditions. A quote from summarizes five:

    Seekers of spiritual knowledge might ask, “What’s love got to do with it?” Devotees of devotion reply, “Divine love is everything.” In mystical “marriage,” divine union, you can’t have one without the other. Divine Love and divine Truth are One in divine Reality.

    In Sufism of Islam, knowledge is the key which opens the lock of love. Ma`rifa, spiritual knowledge, is essential to properly guide those who are intoxicated with mahabba, love for the divine. They are two of the last stations on the mystical path. Sufism often uses exquisite poetry to convey our longing for the divine. Some of the verses were considered too erotic by orthodox Muslim clerics. Sufis say that they are just allegories to express the inexpressible.

    In Hinduism, bhakti is our devotion in love and adoration of the divine. Jnana is knowledge of the way to approach the divine. Both are considered paths to realize divine union and to be released from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth. The way of devotion is the preferred path of most Hindu movements, as in many orthodox religions; the way of knowledge is emphasized in Vedanta; preferred and emphasized, perhaps, but they are not mutually exclusive.

    The “Song of Songs” (Song of Solomon) in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, are a series of love poems which may appear to be secular. Both Jewish and Christian mystics, however, interpret them as love of God for his people. The “mystical marriage” is mentioned frequently in the Kabbalah of Judaism and by Christian mystics, although the latter often allude to love between Jesus and his faithful. Divine union is the joining of the lover and beloved; it is also the unity of knower and known. Love and knowledge are coequal and complementary.

    All Buddhists are devoted to the Buddha; many may also worship bodhisattvas and celestial gods or goddesses. They do not “love the divine” in the common, theistic sense, but that which is found in highest spiritual experience. Sanskrit prajna, the direct awareness of sunyata, emptiness of self, is the perfect wisdom. Love is usually expressed as loving kindness, universal love for all beings…a concept and virtue shared by the traditions of mysticism in all religions.

    This life’s mortal loves, mundane truths and worldly realities are finite and transient. In the divine One, endless Love, absolute Truth and ultimate Reality are infinite and eternal.

  • lightbearer

    if in all situations we find ourselves in touch with , if we listen to jesus telling us as he told his diciples ,to first and foremost bring peace
    the rest is unneccessary baggage
    luke 10:1-12,17-20 which is the gospel for next sunday,Independence day

  • Carl McColman

    Being relatively new to centering prayer and meditation practices, I’m not sure I understand how either could lead to narcissism or relativism. Would you please say more about that?

    Great question, and deserving of a more in-depth answer than I can provide here. Please see this morning’s blog post: Centering Prayer, Narcissism and Relativism.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    meditation, as understood in eastern spirituality, is more properly termed contemplation in western parlance

    Contemplation and meditation are not one and the same. The distinction between cataphatic and apophatic forms of spirituality as you describe them is, perhaps, illustrative of the difference. From the Wiki: “The word contemplation comes from the Latin root templum (from Greek temnein: to cut or divide). It means separating something from its environment and enclosing it in a sector.” As such, contemplation is a form of analysis.

    It’s been posited (and I agree) that the Modern paradigm is all but thoroughly analytical and that this is one of the primary drivers of fragmentation, atomization, individuation, and the resulting collapse of Western civilization. Christianity has not escaped from this “rational” emphasis in Western thought and, in fact, is still vastly more -ology than -osophy. The militant atheist vs. militant theist (and vice versa) wars, in fact, appear to be a show-down between Urizen and his mirror image, the same as all other extremist nonsense occurring today.

    Cataphatic and apophatic spirituality might be considered “lower” and “higher” forms of spirituality in a non-conflicting sense as representative of the “‘vertical dimension’ of existence“. Thing is, the cataphatic historically has been practiced and promoted to the exclusion of the apophatic in Christianity (and not just by lay members) when, as our Eastern friends tell us, all opposites are complementary.

    Might the facts that “each type of spirituality represents a particular way” and practitioners of them (exclusively) within Christendom are obviously antagonistic toward each other indicate the crux of a severe issue formerly addressed on Anamchara as variations on the theme of a deep-seated division and, therefore, conflict between subjective/objective, internal/external, introverted/extroverted, personal/transpersonal, cultural/transcultural, etc.? I think, maybe, it does.

    • Carl McColman

      Your dictionary/etymological definition of contemplation is not consistent with how it is taught in the mainstream Christian tradition, from Evagrius to Cassian to Richard of St. Victor to Guigo the Carthusian to The Cloud of Unknowing to John of the Cross down to Thomas Merton. Christian contemplative prayer is non-discursive, and therefore non-analytical. Christian meditation, however is discursive, and therefore, analytical. See Guigo the Carthusian’s The Ladder of Monks for a concise, 12th-century discussion of the difference between meditation and contemplation as understood within Christianity.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    I don’t get the impression the examples provided are representative of the mainstream — historically or presently — though, hopefully for Christendom overall, they are swiftly becoming mainstream. It is for this reason that “Centering Prayer” (as opposed to what appear to be rather confused notions of “Contemplative Prayer”) strike me as having struck a healthy balance between cataphatic and apophatic forms of devotion.

    I could be wrong, but I get the impression the danger your monk friend senses is that practitioners of purely cataphatic forms of devotion (as opposed to spirituality) are in danger of what’s popularly referred to as “taking the map for the territory,” which is to say, becoming so accustomed to images of the Divine, they become entrapped in them rather than “seeing” through them to the essence of what lies beyond…if that makes sense.

  • Carl McColman

    Well, the mainstream of the Christian mystical tradition, which, alas, is hardly the overall Christian mainstream, sad to say.

    I think you’re right about the map & the territory. In today’s post I wrote about the dangers of contemplation that is not anchored in the tradition; perhaps I should do another post about the dangers of devotionalism without a contemplative heart.

  • Lewinna

    The teachers of bhakti yoga that I have met say that bhakti is a higher form than jnana or raja because there is no way that we in the Kaliyuga age where our lives our short and unfortunate and we simply do not have the time, in one life, to do all the meditation and purification that we would need to do to become liberated. The quickest and surest way to liberation (and the only one possible to achieve in this age) is bhakti yoga. Bhaktis may meditate, but they meditate on God, and they surrender and devote themselves to God, doing everything in service for God. It’s not about just chanting some beads once or twice a day (though they do that), it’s about consecrating everything they do for God’s sake and God’s pleasure. Treating God as the thing you love most, in other words, more than yourself.

    My understanding of Christianity is that it is a bhakti religion (not just certain practices in it). Jesus taught bhakti. Understanding this has helped me to understand why Christianity is so transformative, spreads so quickly, maybe is even so convinced that other stuff doesn’t work, and powerfully impacts people’s lives. If bhakti is the only yoga that works to get us to God in this age, I have seen well enough evidence to believe it.