Fast Food Mysticism?

Consider these two interesting quotes. This one comes from Simon, who commented on my essay The Hidden Tradition of Christian Mysticism:

One of the dangers of Centering Prayer, as I see it, is that contemplation is being served up as some sort of fast food. MacContemplation, so to speak!

And this, from Ali at Meadowsweet & Myrrh, reflecting on the Northern Ireland retreat:

What is the connection between silent contemplation and peace? Is there one? … so far the lesson of this week seems to be that: silent contemplation leads to connecting with God (or merely feeling good?), which leads to being a good person, which naturally involves being peaceful. Several times various speakers have mentioned that they believe without God or religion, there could be no peace — but none of them have gone into the details of exactly why this is. Is it merely the same kind of tendency as thanking Jesus for your basketball win?

As I see it, these comments are not unrelated. They both point to the problem, perhaps the danger as Simon puts it, of reducing contemplative spirituality to a method or a technique. It becomes a spiritual quid pro quo: I clear my mind and attend to my breathing, and then God blesses me (with mystical enlightenment, or inner peace, or some other type of spiritual goodie). And as Simon so cleverly points out with his idea of “MacContemplation,” this utilitarian way of thinking about contemplation is embedded in our fast food culture’s demand for convenience and immediacy, even at the expense of quality or nurture.

I think a paradox lies at the heart of this issue. We human beings live and die in the stream of time, and so we cognitively organize our experience around concepts such as cause and effect, or growth and development. We teach our children that success is measured by how well we set and achieve goals. From the beginning, Christian spirituality has not been immune to this, with mystics as early as Origen of Alexandria (3rd century) “mapping” the spiritual life as a progression from purgation to illumination to union. Two of the greatest of Christian mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, do the same thing: Teresa uses the metaphor of moving through the mansions or rooms of the “Interior Castle” to describe spiritual growth, while John gives us the metaphors of the “Ascent of Mount Carmel” or the movement through the “Dark Night of the Soul” (which comes only after the “dark night of the senses”).

But if it is human nature to mentally organize our experience in terms of temporal progression or cause and effect, the other wing of this paradox is the truth of kairos time, rather than kronos time. Kronos is time as linear progression, time as measured by seconds and minutes and days and years and aeons. Kairos is the “present” or “opportune” moment: in which such abstract categories as past and future fall away. Contemplation is a true kairos experience: we engage in the practice not to “get somewhere,” but rather to “be  here now.” Alan Watts used the example of a symphony: an orchestra does not play a symphony just to get to the last note, as if that were the whole point. Rather, each note has its own purpose and beauty. The symphony may play out in kronos because it is our nature to live in the stream of time, but its purpose is to invite is into the experience of kairos — moment by harmonious moment.

Contemplation functions the same way: we don’t relax into the silence in order to get somewhere so much as to simply be somewhere: here, now. So contemplation, strictly speaking, gets us nowhere (“now here” — get it?). Contemplation does not magically summon God to appear, the way Lucy Pevensie in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader inadvertently summons Aslan to appear when she performs a spell to make hidden things visible. Nor does contemplation necessarily make us feel good, or become more peaceful, or find resolution to all our subconscious “issues.” We may be tempted to see contemplation in all these ways, but that is simply an indictment of  how utilitarian our way of thinking is.

Here’s how I responded to Ali’s comments:

I see contemplative practice as an important, and perhaps even necessary, component in an overall integral spirituality, which must also include cognitive development and the engagement with the shadow (both individually and collectively). In other words, contemplation must always be situated in the context of the values of peace and justice in order for it to foster peacemaking and justice work. It is possible to be a proficient contemplative but also hold values contrary to peace and justice, just as it is possible to have all the right values but be locked in a non-transformed, thoroughly dualistic/oppositional level of consciousness.

Just as contemplation does not make us “see” or “experience” God, but does in fact dispose us to an awareness of the Divine Presence, so too contemplation does not make us peaceful, but rather disposes us to embrace peace. A subtle, but important distinction.

I don’t know that I can respond to Simon’s concerns in such a way that would put his fears to rest. Frankly, I think to be concerned that centering prayer (or any other method of contemplation) could lead to fast food spirituality is a valid concern, and so having such a fear (in due proportion) is probably healthy. But this is an indictment not of centering prayer but rather of the human condition, and the spirit of our age. Centering prayer is easily abused by anyone who sees it as a shortcut to enlightenment, or as a substitute for the long,  hard,  unglamorous work of growth in holiness. But this is no reason to abandon centering prayer, as its critics seem to be saying. Rather, it is a reason to continue to drink deeply from the well of the wisdom of the mystics, and then try as best we can to apply that wisdom to our lives: not only to our prayer, but to every aspect of our journey.

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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

    Hi Carl,

    Isn’t the danger of MacSpirituality or MacContemplation the reason why you spend the first half of your Big Book of Christian Mysticism exhorting would-be Christian mystics to embed themselves in a Christian community, to contemplate Christian theology, and to get a spiritual director? And not to treat mysticism as a means of getting results or experiences? Karen Armstrong has a similar message when discussing phenomena like the “Great Awakening” in her book The case for God.

    Most magical traditions enjoin their practitioners to embed themselves in a particular tradition for at least a year before trying other traditions. I expect there are similar injunctions in other traditions, too.

  • Carl McColman

    Well, yes.

    But as we know, there are plenty of d.i.y. magic books out there (Scott Cunningham leaps to mind) that either imply or state outright that magic really doesn’t require such a period of apprenticeship. And while I think Thomas Keating and the other leaders of the centering prayer movement are careful to commend practitioners to the tradition, I’m not sure that this message always gets out to the average person on the street, whose life and mind is so shaped by the kronos mentality.

  • mike hoffman

    Be careful. The necessity of having experienced direction when beginning centering prayer practice can not be over empahsized.

    When I first began to practice, I did not have any guidance and very early deep experiences were bewildering and very scary. I now believe that these intense spiritual experiences burned me in some manner not easily overcome.

    I only found help when I turned to Zen Buddhist meditation practice and teaching.

    • Carl McColman

      Mike, if I gave you the impression that I believe direction is not necessary, I apologize. I’m trying to say the exact opposite: the direction (guidance/accompaniment) is not only necessary but essential, if for no other reason than to help practitioners overcome the bias of our goal-driven, results-oriented society.

  • Donnie Ray

    I agree with you and Simon, Carl, that we should be alert to the dangers of reducing contemplation to a technique; although I think his comment rather misses the point of centering prayer, a common mistake in the popular understanding of it. Centering prayer is not primarily about “emptying the mind.” It is about the practice of “letting go,” or as Cynthia Bourgeualt says, maybe even more clearly “letting be.” This movement of kenotic self-giving love along with the development of a stable inner observer as a witnessing presence is maybe it’s real contribution to creating peace, inner and outer. Interestingly enough, some of these same dynamics can be found in the teachings of neptic prayer, the practice of “guarding the heart by watching the mind,” which comes from the tradition Simon alludes to in some of his comments.

  • mike

    Hi Carl,

    I understand this and thought to reinforce it.

    I wish people to understand that deep spiritual experience is in no manner a fast food experience. IT can sear the soul and having some help available when it does can make a big difference in having the ability to move oneself into surrender the next time one sits down.

    I thought, when beginning and despite some warning to take it slowly, “How can God hurt me when I do this?

    Learning to respect power is exactly that sometimes.

    When and if I return to what I called the “place of light” it will happen only when the upwelling of fear first found in its overwhelming power is unlearned.

    This fear is in me, not in the experience. That is JOY!

    With practice I think anyone can learn the inner landscape of spirituality to a point. At that “last” point one must surrender, give life itself, willingly and completely.

    This is required. And just the beginning.

  • brazenbird

    Wow, thank you everyone for the comments which are illuminating and of course, Carl, for the article itself.

  • mike

    “… reducing contemplative spirituality to a method or a technique.”

    This would be pulling the horse with a cart.

    Spirituality is fostered by “tuning in” over and over again. Contemplation is an inner experience, which accumulates, and, at some point, becomes the experience which engenders faith.

    Communion is just this.

    At this point, the practice of contemplation becomes much more ordinary, everyday doing.

    It is worth recalling what Paul said of this stuff.

    “See through the mirror, but remember it is dark.”

  • Simon Whitney

    Donnie Ray

    Thanks for that comment: I think his comment rather misses the point of centering prayer, a common mistake in the popular understanding of it. Centering prayer is not primarily about “emptying the mind.” It is about the practice of “letting go,” or as Cynthia Bourgeualt says, maybe even more clearly “letting be.”

    Yes – those who are concerned (or outright oppose CP) do have this as a major part of that concern. I am one of those who oppose and I do see it as “emptying the mind”. Rahner commented once that emptiness is not the same as God’s silence which is full of the Word of God, that is, Christ. (Sorry – I don’t have the reference).

    For me, the “silence of the mind” comes when God acts – it is not something that I can induce through any technique. I also believe that that is what mystics have taught – such as Teresa of Avila and Ruusbroek, for example.

    Comments such as: “When I first began to practice, I did not have any guidance and very early deep experiences were bewildering and very scary. I now believe that these intense spiritual experiences burned me in some manner not easily overcome.” from Mike Hoffman and “I thought, when beginning and despite some warning to take it slowly, “How can God hurt me when I do this?” from Mike (assuming they are not the same person) are not part of my experience of God and contemplation. And I would personally be very wary of any contemplative experience that led to such comments.

  • mike


    I wonder about the possibility of there being empty mind. Or thought less mind.

    In practicing centering prayer each of us brings all of our “self ” into the experience. That “self ” is an endless continumn; from saint to sinner, we are complex beings. Often we are quite unaware of the complexity, or if aware, we reject or supress those aspects of self which we find uncomfortable or unacceptable.

    Centering prayer, meditation, is an experience which is designed to break down the walls of self so that Self can be “hear” more clearly. This can be a painful unpleasant experience at times just as it can be otherwise. To reject an aspect of what is Whole is to reject all of it.

    If there is risk in CP practice, I think it is to be found in not being forthright in establishing some understanding of the complexity of the Mind or Word or God’s Presence experience before the petitioner surrenders to just being present.

    The range of possibilities I believe are glossed over or glibly dismissed with Christian cant in Centering Prayer literature, at least that which I have read.

    This is a disservice to the practitioner and it is correctable.

  • Donnie Ray


    I think those kinds of concerns can be raised about any form of contemplative practice particularly when not properly understood and applied ideally with some form of spiritual direction or guidance. This can be true of the prayer of the heart as well as centering prayer; the classic fictional example of Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” comes to mind but the Monks of New Skete site a similar example in the chapter ‘What About Techniques?’ of their book “In the Spirit of Happiness.” Although it is not my personal practice, I feel that centering prayer when properly practiced as a method of surrender actually avoids some of the dangers of more concentrative or awareness based practices.

    I completely agree with you that in a Christian understanding any contemplation, stillness, peace or “silence of the mind” is a result of God’s action and a free gift of God’s grace not the result of any technique. The most any method can do is to “dispose us to an awareness of the Divine Presence” as Carl says.

  • Simon Whitney


    Thanks for the comment about some of the tougher aspects of a life of contemplation being glossed over or glibly dismissed. I do agree that this is rife in CP literature. I think it is also correcting itself and CP seems to be morphing into a more traditional Christian meditative practice. But I have to say that when I find that Contemplative Outreach UK offers a Correspondence Course in CP I cringe!

    Donnie Ray
    Yes – there have always been Marthas and Marys and the Marthas will always question the “self-indulgence ” of the Marys. And in many ways that is a good thing – those of a contemplative temperament need to be sure that they are in the right zone and not being led astray by a sense of their own importance. Not “comparing themselves with themselves” as Paul says somewhere.

    I have to say that I have noticed some trends amongst many practioners of CP. They are convinced that they are right (which is not necessarily a bad thing). But they are unable to enter into a discussion. They get cross and pompous when anyone raises the meekest of objections. Over time, they tend to lose belief in some of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. There is the belief that they alone are re-igniting the torch of contemplation in the Church. The truth is that it never went out. But it is also true that there will always be more Marthas than there are Marys.

    Of course, that is not the case on this board and it is very refreshing.

  • mike

    What a good conversation!

    Perhaps we begin to encounter difficulty in any contemplative practice when we begin to put a name to experience. Perhaps experience is enough.

    I laughed at Simon’s recounting of the UK Centering Prayer correspondents course. However, it was because of an email conversation with a CP facilitator that I found the references and help which regrounded my prayer experience without destroying the experience.

    Here is an question (not mine) concerning how to “judge” the validity of any mystical or contemplative experience.

    How is it that you know, without any question or doubt, that it is your mother who you meet and speak to when this occurs?

  • Donnie Ray

    Well said, Simon! There are indeed more Marthas than Marys, which may actually be for the best if that is what God wills, and there are even fewer Lazaruses who completely abandon themselves to God and wait on the cry of the Lord, “Lazarus, come forth!” and “Loose him and let him go.”

    Regarding the trends you mention among practitioners of CP, I can’t really argue with that. As a non-practitioner of CP in contemplative circles, I have experienced that attitude myself; not from all or even most of the CP practitioners I have encountered but present none the less.

    I would also like to expression my gratitude and appreciation along with you and Mike for what a wonderful and refreshing conversation this has been. And a big “Thank you” to Carl for supplying the occasion for it in his most excellent blog. Love today’s Quote of the Day from Saint Teresa! Very relevant to this discussion, eh?

  • mike

    Donnie Ray,

    ” …. Lazaruses who completely abandon themselves to God and wait on the cry of the Lord, “Lazarus, come forth!” …. ”

    This just stops me in my tracks. Thoughts and threads ripple out in every direction. Even one such as this blesses and illuminates all.

  • brazenbird

    Again – following and appreciating the discussion.

    Thanks to all of you who strongly suggested that a person have a spiritual director/guide, I have made an appointment with someone to do just that. I’m looking forward to having some stability and direction as well as someone to talk about these things with face to face.

  • Donnie Ray

    It is amazing to think about, isn’t it? The idea comes from Thomas Keating’s book “The Better Part:Stages of Contemplative Living.” Such a one is indeed a blessing! Brings to mind the saying of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, “Acquire peace and thousands around you will be saved.”

  • Isabel Castellanos

    Well, it’s interesting (and surprising!) to read that one of the dangers of Centering Prayer may be that through it contemplation is being served as some sort of Fast Food…. Hmmm… I don’t know what experience the writer of that comment has of CP, but in the Intro to CP workshop offered by Contemplative Outreach (right at the beginning), presenters emphasize that practitioners should approach the prayer without any expectations of any kind. It is also taught right from the start that the purpose of CP is to consent to God’s presence and action within, period. Centering Prayer is a contemplative practice in which we try, as best we can, not to hoard easy spiritual food, but to let go of everything that is not God, including apparent spiritual experiences…. The hoarding impulse is part of the human condition, as Carl points out, and CP is one way (among many) of learning how to let go of it… I invite the writer to try it for a few years and to truly find out how many Big Macs she gets? I assure her…..not (m)any! Ah! but eventually she may start to taste the dry bread of pure faith!!