Contemplation, the Demonic, the Shadow, and Original Sin

Consider these two quotations, found after only the briefest of Google searches. The quotes are verbatim, but the emphasis has been added:

And I know that Scientology, Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age, and even some strands of “Christianity” offer techniques for you to control your mind: auditing, “mind exercises”, contemplative prayer, meditation, chanting, yoga, etc. What you are actually doing with these is giving full control over your mind to evil spirits that allow you to THINK that you are in control when the truth is that THEY are calling the shots.

— from the Jesus Christ is Lord blog

Passively yielding one’s mind through meditation, hypnotism, yoga, etc., and seeking knowledge or information from any type of “spiritual entity” is an excellent way to become demon possessed.

— from www.biblebelievers.com.

Alas, I am afraid that this thinking is rampant among many Christians who fear (yes, that’s the right word) the core spiritual practices of meditation and contemplation. I first encountered this at a centering prayer workshop I attended at the monastery where I now work. I noticed that several people in the audience brought up the question of demonic attack. It seemed that people assumed that entering into a spacious awareness where thought would be gently laid aside would be to actually leave oneself vulnerable to psychic attack from evil spirits. It amazes me that a spiritual practice that is so obviously good for us could be so deeply misconstrued by Christians. What lies beneath this is a cautionary tale about how a spirituality of fear can become its own worst enemy.

I have a dear friend who “tried” centering prayer once, but when she experienced something that she felt was a dark, malevolent presence, she became frightened and stopped the practice. She never brought this issue to anyone who was trained as a spiritual director or a centering prayer instructor. Instead, she leapt to the conclusion that meditation was spiritually dangerous and therefore contrary to the Bible, and so now she is a fierce critic of something that, as best I can tell, she simply doesn’t understand.

Incidentally, this is an example of why anyone wishing to explore meditation and contemplation must have spiritual direction and a loving faith community. Without such support, this kind of practice really can lead to scary places or easily misconstrued experiences.

In truth, meditation and contemplation does in fact open us up to experiences that can be frightening, both in terms of a sense of personal vulnerability or in terms of staring face to face into our own “shadow” — the deep basement of the psyche where we store our unhealed wounds, our rage, our lust, our desire for revenge, and other such “evil” things.

Encountering such powerful forces is not a matter of demonic attack, but rather is a consequence of dealing with our own spiritual poverty and need for healing and grace. Rather than making us vulnerable to attack, contemplation actually offers a sense of serenity and inner peace that can facilitate true healing exactly where it needs to occur — within the depths of our own souls.

The desert fathers and mothers, particularly Evagrius Ponticus, felt that demonic attack, if it were to come at all, comes not through the lack of thoughts, but by our thoughts. Indeed, we speak of how we sin through our “thoughts, words and deeds” — the Confiteor does not mention “our silence” as an arena for sin! If we take Evagrius and his contemporaries seriously, then we might well conclude that contemplation is one of the safest things we can do, since it involves ignoring our thoughts, whether they are “holy” or “sinful” in nature.

Meanwhile, this morning I was reading William Johnson’s The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing, and in the chapter on the “Necessity of Purification” Johnston makes this assertion: “So deep in us are the roots of original sin that evil thoughts arrive spontaneously in the mind.” In other words, if we insist that the darkness within us is something more than just our own unhealed shadow, Johnston — following orthodox tradition — declares that the root of our unloving inclination lies in original sin, not in demonic activity. I think this is an important point that Christians who see the devil lurking in centering prayer need to take to heart. To insist that a demon is going to attack me (just because I’ve cleared my mind through meditation or contemplation) smells like the sin of pride. It assumes that I’m important enough for the devil to bother with. It is far humbler — and, therefore, I believe, truer — to recognize that the fear, rage, lust, violence, selfishness, etc. within me is simply evidence of my own sinfulness. Acknowledging this can help us to become more firmly resolved to engage in healthy spiritual practices that foster healing, transformation and holiness — such as contemplation. We live in an age that tries to evade personal responsibility, and this is one of the ways Christians manifest this: by blaming the devil for their own faults.

I don’t like to write about original sin, because I know it is controversial, even among Christians, and certainly outside the church. I do think there is truth in recognizing that we human beings are prone to engage in selfish behavior that can be willfully and knowingly harmful to others and/or to our selves. I don’t care if you call that original sin, concupiscence, or mental illness — but it’s real, it exists, it’s a fact of the human condition. I think we tend to evade this fact in two apparently opposite ways. On the one hand, we try to deny it, by pretending that we are really perfect just the way we are, that we are actually gods and goddesses, and how dare anyone suggest otherwise! But this, I believe, is tied in with that tendency to blame others (up to and including the devil) for all the imperfections in our lives, rather than taking responsibility for our own excrement. Meanwhile, the other distortion is a trap that many Christians fall into, both now and historically: and that is to magnify the notion of original sin into the idea of total depravity, the idea that we human beings (and the world surrounding us) are so filled with evil and perversity that no one — not even God — can be trusted (who would want to trust a deity who is looking for the slightest opportunity to punish his own creations in everlasting torment?). It is out of this magnified idea of original sin and evil that it is easy to see the devil lurking behind every corner, just waiting for us to do something (like meditation or yoga) so he can pounce.

Giving the devil more power than his due is, it seems to me, almost always tied in with a psychology of fear: of fear of the other (especially other religions or cultures), fear of the body (the more obsessed we become with Satan, the more obsessed we become with sex), and perhaps even a general fear of life itself. At this point, religion veers into pathology, and one probably needs therapeutic care. Unfortunately, many religionists do not deal with their fear and pain, but rather project it outward. Gay people become the enemy. So do new agers. So do liberals. So do, alas, the practitioners of contemplative prayer.

Those who attack meditation and contemplation, ironically, probably stand to gain the most from it, if only they would try it (with proper communal support, of course). But just as the schizophrenic fears the medication that will heal him, so does the demon-obsessed Christian fear the healing balm of God’s loving silence. Perhaps we who do rely on the contemplative practices would do well to keep such persons in our prayers.

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  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    You know, maybe I am being arrogant, but the kind of Christians who say that stuff like meditation & contemplative prayer is evil (and persecute gays and people of other religions) are the reason why I could never call myself a Christian. I enjoy exploring the spirituality and mysticism of the Christian tradition, and I admire you for embracing it as you have done, but I couldn’t do it.

    But anyway, I agree with what you have written here about the benefits of contemplative prayer, and the likely causes of opposition to it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I don’t know that you’re being arrogant; it sounds more like you’re simply self-aware. Every religion has its shadow and I think the secret to finding one’s path is, at least in part, finding that path where we can deal with its shadow. When we can’t, or choose not to, deal with a particular religion’s shadow, then perhaps we can best appreciate the blessings of that path from a distance.

  • brazenbird

    There was a time when I wouldn’t have even opened this post from my Google reader because of the title. And only last week when I heard someone say that we need to know our “shadow selves” I felt a little uncomfortable. There is a lot of jargon that I am still uncomfortable with and I’ve been able to relax a little bit realizing that it’s simply because it’s a lack of understanding on my part. But your post actually helped to clarify the concept of shadow-self and why I would want to know it, much less get comfortable with it. How else am I supposed to know that which needs to be worked on with help from God?

    One of the realizations that helped me away from my fear of the devil lurking around every corner waiting to “get me” is the pride issue you raise in your post. But the other thing I realized is that I believe God loves me deeply and I believe that God will protect me, especially when I’m opening myself up for the express purpose of communing with God so as to become a better servant (not to mention asking specifically for protection). One day I had to ask myself, “Do I trust God or do I not? Do I trust God to be Who God says God is or do I not?” Suddenly I felt the peace that surpasses all understanding. It wasn’t long after that I had my first moment where I didn’t fear death.

    All this babbly-babbly to say that your post resonates with me and I appreciate the supportive tone and encouragement therein.

    Blessings to you and yours on this Summer day.

  • http://www.jeffsextonwrites.com Jeff

    First, thanks for the article. It was a good read and I’m glad I stumbled upon it. On the whole, I’d say there is much here that I agree with. But I guess I had two twinges of concern while reading it:

    1) “…and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” That line taken from the prayer to Saint Michael is in almost direct contradiction to your line of “…it assumes that I’m important enough for the Devil to bother with.” Tradition seems to say, that, yes, you ARE important enough for the Devil (or at least his minions) to bother with. I think to assume otherwise is – at best – unwise and couter to tradition and, at worst, a perilous mistake. That said, I didn’t get the feeling you were trying to dismiss this concern altogether, so much as trying to counter a perceived exaggeration (possibly with a slight exaggeration of your own?). Still the way you phrased it was disconcerting to this reader…

    2) While there are some Christians who see all meditative and contemplative prayer as dangerous, there is also a fairly large group of Catholics who embrace traditional meditative prayer (such as Lectio Divina) but who see centering prayer as NOT within that tradition and something to be wary of – and this statement made even from contemplative monks themselves. While I don’t think this was your intent, your actions in addressing only the least thoughtful of your critics came close to a straw man argument. How would you address the critiques made more along the lines of this:

    http://rickmk.com/rmk/Cath/meditation.html

    - Jeff

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Thanks, Jeff. To continue the conversation…

      1. You are right in that the tradition certainly sees demons as actively seeking to harm us. I should have been more careful in acknowledging this. I could have made my argument (that silent, non-discursive prayer does not by itself render us vulnerable to demonic attack) without appearing to dismiss this aspect of the faith.

      2. It seems to me that even the more sophisticated critics of Centering Prayer (e.g., Thomas Dubay) generally have just one or two gripes about it: its 1970s-era ties to transcendental meditation; and the insistence that even acquired contemplation cannot be reduced to a method. Of the second concern, I am confident that Fr. Keating himself would agree wholeheartedly that reducing any form of prayer to a mere method is missing the mark. Centering prayer is all about fostering a contemplative disposition of prayer, and makes no claim to guarantee an “experience.” So I think the attack on CP because it is a method is based on a misunderstanding of the practice and its aim.

      So we are left with CP’s “oriental” (to use Dubay’s term) connection. I think we can agree that CP is an “emergent” practice, inspired by TM but also looking back to Christian antecedents such as Evagrius, Cassian, and The Cloud of Unknowing for its inspiration. So this brings us to the question of whether or not Christians may engage in non-Christian practices for the express purpose of deepening their Christian faith. CP stands with yoga and zen as the kinds of practices at question here. Certainly, as a matter of conscience, different Christians will arrive at different conclusions regarding the permissibility of such practices. I’m a lay associate of a Trappist monastery, and within the community we have CP advocates and critics. I do think there is a legitimate concern that CP can be misused — as a sort of “exit strategy” away from orthodox Christian practice. But there are other practitioners, including some of my fellow monastic lay associates, who after years of CP continue to grow in their faith as well as their commitment to more unquestionably orthodox practices such as the Daily Office. For this reason, I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that CP necessarily erodes orthodox Christian faith and practice. For that matter, lectio divina without spiritual direction could lead to fundamentalism; excessive use of the rosary could exacerbate obsessive-compulsive tendencies. In other words, my concern about CP would be a concern I have about any serious effort to engage in contemplative practice: it must be embedded in community and should be undertaken under the guidance of a competent spiritual director or soul friend.

      Having said all this, I do have some concerns that many of the critics of centering prayer seem to have nothing more than a xenophobic basis for their criticism. Their problem with CP is not that it’s new, but that it has ties to non-Christian practice. I am concerned that xenophobia, particularly when cast in demonic language (“Buddhism is a satanic practice”) can be just as deleterious to the Christian faith as fundamentalism, relativism, or scrupulosity.

  • http://odysseusjak.blogspot.com Jack+

    Carl,

    I like this and it’s been helpful. Back in the day, I was one of those who claimed it was ‘of the devil’ and the like. But, because of God’s Grace, I no longer hold to that. I have found that contemplation is very helpful.

    I will make mention of the ‘original sin’ part. I agree to an extent. However, I would say a lot of the time, we stop at the ‘shadow’ (like the woman in the example) without going DEEPER. I believe that deeper than our falseness, our ‘shadow’, is the Light of God. Contemplation is the tool that allows us to go deeper than our shadow-self. It is from that place of Light that we find the Healing that we need. It is through that process of contemplation/meditation that the Light begins to grow and get stronger, burning away the shadow. We can’t do it alone. We need the Love of God, though the Spirit, to blow over the ember until the Light of God becomes a sun transforming us to shine as bright as the sky during noon-day.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Regarding the link in Jeff’s comment (to an essay by Rick Kephart): I actually address in my book the question of distinguishing between Christian meditation, non-Christian meditation, and Christian contemplation. Kephart is correct in how he defines his terms. But it’s a mistake to assume that because Christian meditation is discursive in nature, that there is no such thing as non-discursive Christian prayer. Even a cursory reading of Evagrius or The Cloud reveals that Christianity has a long tradition of such prayer-beyond-thoughts. But properly, such prayer in a Christian context should be called “contemplation” rather than “meditation.”

  • http://www.jeffsextonwrites.com Jeff

    Carl,

    Thanks for the response. It adds a lot to the original article. Although I laughed at the thought of anyone harmed by praying the rosary, your overall point was well taken. Thanks again for taking the time to craft such a well thought out answer to my questions.

    - Jeff

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Yes, I grant that the idea of the rosary itself being harmful is rather silly. But someone misusing the rosary, while refusing to deal with the very compulsiveness or scrupulosity that leads them to do so? That’s another story…

  • Mike Dorough

    Carl, my profound gratitude for this post. Let me be flamboyant in saying that Holier words have been written, but these that you have written here are in hot pursuit and draw nearer to the Divine. Draw me nearer as well…A large portion of ‘main stream’, fully entrenched Christianity has become a religion of Fear, with as you said is spiritually of fear that is it’s own worst enemy. Amen. You are painfully correct in all your assertions and it breaks my Heart; that some will to believe that a “created being” fell from grace (to self), rebelled against the Will of GodMostHigh, then ‘fell’ to earth to sabatage (with evil) The “plan for man” – some would call assent of man I guess. I mean believing in that manner leads to little personal incentive to InAct a righteous Life – Live Holiness, I mean what’s the point of trying – one wrapper on the side of the road won’t constitute trash, right? Hell I might as well just live for self and Blame Others or Satan. It’s a losing proposition and man is losing, those Christians are “lost in personal darkness” because they live in Fear and have deluded themselves into Justification and are afraid of Santification – Holiness. Please!!! and LOL When will Christianity “discuss” logically, rationally that if Satan exists – then God created him; and then where did “evil” come from? I thought we all believed in a God AlphaOmega? That translates “ALL” does it not, and evil does exist but it is contained (still) within All, right? So here we are back to Original Sin, sorta! If Satan exists, then he is me. Man is Satan and we seek a path or theWay of Life back to Christ/logos/AlltheAboveLove! And Oneness with Our Creator. Recognition of an enemy is at least Half the battle, when will Christians ever ‘think’ of the possibility that Satan/someDevil does not exist except in the Hearts & Minds of Man(kind) – There is Evil (and Good)! It does not exist in the Natural World, or the Universe as we can know it during these Times. Self is Satan, Self is the EvilOne mankind’s history of Knowledge of History (and all religions, practically) proves it. We have no One other to blame, we each must accept responsibility or simply pretend otherwise by way of Doctrine,Dogma &Fear and live for self. So sad, it suffers my Soul. Thank You Carl you bring literal tears of Joy (my Heart becomes over-pressurized and I leak – Love.), Mike

    PS There is NoFear in my Heart or Mind. And Christians want to talk about Liberty&Freedom, those that fear have a small concept – so sad. I will pray.

  • http://knownunknown.wordpress.com/ prickliestpear

    I do have some concerns that many of the critics of centering prayer seem to have nothing more than a xenophobic basis for their criticism. Their problem with CP is not that it’s new, but that it has ties to non-Christian practice. I am concerned that xenophobia, particularly when cast in demonic language (“Buddhism is a satanic practice”) can be just as deleterious to the Christian faith as fundamentalism, relativism, or scrupulosity.

    Very nicely put. The way some people talk, you’d have to imagine they think Christians (or Jews) invented things like petitionary prayer or the worship of a deity.

  • http://knownunknown.wordpress.com/ prickliestpear

    Sorry — I tried to italicise the first paragraph to indicate that it was a quotation. Didn’t work.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I fixed it for you. :-)

  • InfiniteWarrior

    Not to burst any bubbles (or perhaps precisely to burst bubbles), but this is not a purely Christian issue, though Christianity historically has contributed to it. The reasoning as to why contemplative practices are considered by some Christians to be avoided at all costs must be among the more imaginative, but more to the point, it nonetheless appears just another symptom of what has been termed “the human condition”: narcissism.

    References abound, biblical and otherwise, attesting to the fact that central to Jesus’ teachings is something preeminent among those of all the world’s great spiritual teachers and that is dissolution of the egoic “I-self” in presence. In Christianity, the “destination” is obviously most often referred to as God’s presence. Unfortunately, ‘presence’ is not among the concepts literalist Christians urge be taken in any way literally despite the 18th fragment of the Gospel of Thomas (likely one of the primary reasons it was left out of the official canon); the promise of “eternal life”; and many other concepts central to Christianity.

    That it can be dangerous is a given being that the subconscious mind has been suppressed for hundreds of years in the West. The advice, then, to initiate the practice under spiritual direction and, especially, in a loving, supportive community is sound and seconded, though it’s not always been necessary. Case in point: Emily Dickinson.

    Though Dickinson did have the love and support of her family and perhaps even the Calvinist community whose conversion attempts she resisted, her poem, I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, is one of the finest examples in English literature of being liberated from incessant, discursive reasoning (aka, the Cartesian cogito) and identification with same to arrive in “the peace that surpasses understanding.” (That the critique accompanying the linked version of the poem, though not a bad read itself, suggests the line, “and finished knowing — then –”, indicates leaving open “the door for the nightmare-horror of madness” is most unfortunate as I firmly believe it does no such thing.)

    This dissolution of ego-identification is prerequisite to being in “God’s presence”; it is prerequisite to being “made whole”; it is prerequisite to forgiveness…. In fact, it is prerequisite to a great many things, but most important of all in a Christian context, it is prerequisite to Divine Communion.

    Not to start a firestorm (or perhaps precisely to start a firestorm)…. Most people say it’s the behavior of many Christians that turned or turns them off to Christianity, but — given that this teaching is the very crux of “salvation” — I say that until Christianity starts teaching it as Jesus taught it, Christianity itself will continue to undermine precisely what Jesus gave his life to help others realize.

  • InfiniteWarrior
  • James

    Carl, thanks.

    On another topic, you may be interested in this piece in thinking faith on celtic spirituality: http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20080314_1.htm

  • Al Jordan

    Thank you, Infinite Warrior, for your insightful comments on the egoic nature of too much discursive reasoning and the relation of that to essential meaning and message of Jesus; that being communion with God, which necessarily requires dissolution of the narcissistic, ego self. Sometimes, I get so wearied of the incessant navel gazing of discursive theology until it drives me out of myself into the singular presence of being itself. How we cling to our mental constructs as if God is to be found there. Thank you again.

  • http://www.raxweblog.blogspot.com Paul Rack

    Gee, whom to believe: every mystic/contemplative who ever lived in every spiritual tradition, including all branches of Christianity, or a some paranoid fundamentalists…. It’s a tough decision….

  • An Inquirer

    Wonderful Blog, Carl. I have it on my iphone and consult it almost every day. I’m glad I found it at this point on my journey. I have dabbled in a few meditation practices, including Centering Prayer. I like them all and am giving some consideration to going deeper with Centering Prayer. The fundamentalist criticisms of meditation practices by Christians do not concern me. There is a small conern I have, though, about CP’s strength as a meditation practice (not as a prayer practice). CP and the very similar Transcendental Meditation are NEW meditation methods and I am finding that some meditation teachers have some questions about the technique, since other meditation forms–Zen, Vipassana, and even the method in Christian Meditation–are ancient with millennia of tradition and refinement. I’m concerned that CP’s loose attachment to the Sacred Word–it seems that this is a mixing of methods and some meditation instructions warn against this as a barrier to its effectiveness. I’ve got not doubt that Centering Prayer can be prayer and have a sacramental value, but I’m wondering about its ability to accomplish other very important meditation goals: slowing the busy mind, decentering and balancing the ego.
    I’d love to have some comment from folk, for my own journey. I’m just not finding this particular angle discussed out there.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    An Inquirer,

    I’d hoped someone involved or trained in Contemplative Prayer might answer as I’m equally unsure of its effectiveness when practiced alone. As some people describe it, CP actually seems little removed from the “religion by rote” kind of mentality it’s supposedly intended to offset. For that reason, I find Centering Prayer a more descriptive term as it connotes striking an agreeable balance.

    The difference between meditation and contemplation, imho, is one between direct intuition and indirect comprehension. Meditation is a stilling of the mind into silence (or as close to it as one can come) with stray thoughts and sensations observed as they arise and fall away without attachment or judgment, while contemplation is a (preferably non-deliberate) consideration of something heard or read — an allowing of something to “sink in” until it registers on a conscious level and is properly understood.

    Whether CP is practice of the latter, however, I am entirely unsure.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    I’m not sure what “centering prayer” is or how it differs from other forms of prayer, but I think “original sin” and the devil are more closely linked than you suggest, and saying that things are caused by “original sin” as opposed to the devil is actually making a separation between things that are quite clorsely linked.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks for your comment, Steve. I suppose we’re parsing out distinctions related to the question of free will, but I think “the devil made me do it” is the ground zero of cop-outs. Is the devil behind sin? Certainly. But does the devil cause sin? I think suggesting as much would be to assign ol’ Scratch more power than he really has. Is sin, by definition, a matter of full consent of the will? I don’t know what the Orthodox tradition says, but here the Catholic tradition is clear. Perhaps the devil may tempt me, but never does he force me to sin.


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