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.