Concerning Contemplative Prayer and Spiritual Xenophobia

Contemplative spirituality is a spirituality in which, in the words of Richard Rohr, “everything belongs.” It’s a spirituality of inclusion, rather than exclusion. It seeks to build bridges rather than walls. To me, this is part of the towering beauty of contemplation. But we live in a world where not everyone sees things the same way, and contemplation, like anything else, has its critics. Generally speaking, my experience shows that the critics of Christian contemplation reject it for two reasons: 1) it is similar to, or has been influenced by,  non-Christian spiritual practices, and 2) it is believed to be spiritually dangerous (i.e., contemplation renders one vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits). In the past, I have refuted both of these positions, but the arguments of the anti-contemplatives can still easily be found online. A recent email I received shows clearly how those who hate contemplation — and their message — can actually sow seeds of doubt and fear.

Here is that email, which the author gave me permission to reprint, slightly edited to preserve anonymity:

Hello, I wanted to say thank you for your writing on Christian mysticism, particularly from an interspiritual and Catholic perspective. I am a Roman Catholic convert, and I wanted to add that I appreciate your balanced perspective on Centering Prayer.
I struggle with clinical depression and my Catholic therapist recommended Centering Prayer as both prayer and a means to reduce my anxiety. And it works great. Thus I was dismayed to find, in some cases, such visceral suspicion and denunciation of the practice by other Catholics online.
I particularly am grateful that you spoke out against this overreaction and favored a more balanced view, particularly when it came to the accusations of the demonic.
I’ll be honest, I had grown even more depressed and anxious thanks to others’ negative reactions to Centering Prayer, especially when it has helped me so much. Reading your posts on the subject has given my confusion and frustration a voice and I’m very grateful. I plan to resume the practice and reap the benefits to my peace of mind and relationship with God.
Thanks again for all that you do and God bless!

Here is my response, also slightly edited for the purpose of this blog.

Thank you so much for your message. I do believe that most of the critics of Centering Prayer are either simply uninformed about its solid roots in the Catholic tradition, or else are so ideologically opposed to interreligious dialogue and practice that they refuse to see the grace that is so present in this form of prayer. Incidentally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly commends for all the faithful to maintain a positive, appreciative and learning-oriented disposition toward other faiths, so the Centering-Prayer-haters are really exhibiting poor understanding not only of contemplation, but even of Catholicism itself.
We must never forget that once upon a time books by the great saint and doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas, were publicly burned because he dared to quote a pagan philosopher (Aristotle). It seems that the church has always encompassed both those who are xenophobic as well as those who find their faith enhanced by engagement with wisdom from outside of the Catholic world. I think it is important to be charitable toward those who disagree with us, but to stand firm on the convictions of our own conscience.

And now, just a few more thoughts.

Like the reader, I too, as a convert to Catholicism, was simply blown away at the degree of fear and misunderstanding among some Catholics (as well as other Christians) about the nature, theology, and practice of Centering Prayer (and contemplation in general). They don’t merely criticize contemplation; they are hostile to it; frankly, they are spiritually xenophobic. I think such opponents of Centering are actually a small percentage of the faithful, but they are quite vocal, so their influence seems to be greater than their numbers. I knew something was amiss the first time I attended a Centering Prayer retreat day at the monastery, over eight years ago now. It was amazing how the participants worried that Centering Prayer would “expose them to the devil.” Clearly, people were not just making this up. They had been frightened into thinking that Centering Prayer was dangerous.

Later, I learned that a subculture exists within the Catholic world that views Centering Prayer with suspicion because of its perceived ties with eastern forms of meditation. The monks who first wrote about Centering Prayer were honest and upfront about how eastern practices like TM and zazen inspired them to delve into the Christian tradition of contemplation. As they saw it, the widespread popularity of eastern spiritual practices in the United States was an opportunity for Christians to re-connect with our long-lost spiritual heritage. By stressing the ways in which Centering Prayer is similar to non-Christian forms of meditation, we can reach out to cradle-Catholics and other cradle-Christians, who may have turned their back on their faith of origin because of their interest in meditation. Centering Prayer is a way for Christians to appreciate that our tradition has its own rich heritage of meditation and silent spirituality, very similar to what other traditions like Zen or Vedanta have to offer.

Evagrius Ponticus, fourth century Christian contemplative

But unfortunately, those who are hostile to contemplation don’t see it that way. The anti-Centering Prayer narrative goes like this: “Centering Prayer is basically eastern meditation that has been given a thin Christian veneer. And since we believe Christians should have nothing to do with non-Christian forms of spirituality, Centering Prayer is therefore unwholesome and should not be practiced by Christians.” Furthermore, these same folks have developed a theory that “emptying the mind” is a way to make one vulnerable to demonic attack. I have no idea where this idea came from (can anyone enlighten me?), but it seems particularly pernicious, since it not only is an attack on Centering Prayer and eastern meditation, but even on secular forms of meditation like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Basically, because of a fear of the devil, the opponents of Centering Prayer are willing to reject meditation, despite the scientific evidence of its beneficial qualities as a means of stress reduction and fostering inner peace and serenity — and despite its roots in Christian writings from authors like John Cassian, Evagrius Ponticus, and The Cloud of Unknowing.

Hey, everyone is entitled to believe what they want to believe. If a Christian feels like it’s wrong for him or her to engage in interfaith dialogue or interspirituality, then I support his or her efforts to practice a limited, strictly Christian spirituality. That’s fine. But what bothers me is when this kind of spiritual xenophobia gets projected outward: “I think it’s wrong for me to practice non-Christian spirituality, so therefore I think it’s wrong for everybody.” Speaking as a Catholic, I should point out that, for Catholics, this perspective is actually disobedient to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which makes a fairly strong statement of respectful learning and dialogue toward non-Christian religions.

So, to summarize. Some Catholics (and other Christians) find profound meaning and spiritual nurture in the practice of contemplation (including the rather precise technique of silent prayer known as Centering Prayer). But other Catholics (and other Christians), frightened by Centering Prayer’s similarity to non-Christian forms of prayer, have decided this practice is bad. To strengthen their hostility to Centering Prayer, they have also decided that silent prayer renders the person praying vulnerable to demonic attack.

To the first argument I would say (speaking as a Catholic) that Catholicism includes room for a conscientious engagement with interfaith dialogue; but also that Centering Prayer, understood historically, has its roots firmly within the Christian tradition and can be practiced by all Christians, including those who do not engage in interfaith work. To the second argument I would point out that historically, Christian spiritual teachers like Evagrius Ponticus saw our thoughts as the means by which evil enters our heart: not silence! In fact, using that traditional logic, silent prayer is therefore perhaps the most spiritually safe method of prayer, since by placing our attention on silence, rather than thought, we are protected from the temptation to pride, lust, greed, or various other sins that come to us — you guessed it — through our thoughts.

I believe that people who are frightened of contemplation, and frightened of non-Christian faiths, and frightened of the devil, probably are simply people who confuse faith with fear. They find comfort in the idea that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” but they forget that the beginning is not the end. Our God is a God of love, not fear, and “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18); Jesus repeatedly told his followers “do not be afraid” (John 6:20, for example). So to those who are afraid of contemplation in general, or Centering Prayer in particular, I would say, “are you afraid of contemplation because you are afraid of God? Perhaps if you obeyed Jesus and allowed love to cast out your fear, you’d find that not only you didn’t need to be afraid of God, but you don’t need to be afraid of contemplation either.” Will that win anyone over to contemplation? I think that’s a meaningless question. Again, for contemplatives, everything belongs. We’re not on a “side” for people to be for or against. We just seek intimacy with God, and God is on everyone’s side. We just wish people wouldn’t be afraid of contemplation, and we wish that those who are afraid of it would stop trying to make everyone else afraid, too.

Finally, here is my hope for people like the person who emailed me; in other words, for anyone who has been disturbed by the kind of anti-Centering Prayer rhetoric that can be found on the internet: I hope you will consider that there are multiple ways to think about contemplative prayer, and that the monks and other teachers who advocate for silent forms of prayer are men and women of honesty and integrity who have found meaning and intimacy with God through contemplation. Their teaching is worth considering; the prayer of contemplation is healthy, spiritually nurturing, and meaningful for anyone who genuinely seeks a closer relationship with God. It is a prayer of faith and love, not of fear. It is a prayer where everything belongs.

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