Answers to Contemplation’s Objectors

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I continue to be amazed at how some Christians reject, if not outright attack, contemplative and centering prayer. As best I can tell, the anti-contemplation arguments can be distilled down to three basic ideas:

  1. People shouldn’t practice contemplative prayer before they are ready;
  2. Contemplative and centering prayer are “un-Christian” because of their similarities to eastern forms of meditation; and
  3. If a person silences his or her mind, it’s an invitation for the devil to enter.

Now, the most obvious irony is that the first objection sees contemplative prayer as such a paragon of Christian spirituality that most Christians aren’t good enough to do it; while the second objection sees it as so sullied by non-Christian influence that it is therefore not good enough for Christians to bother with. The third (and saddest/most ridiculous) of the objections is nothing more than the paralysis of metaphysical fear, but obviously this does impact how some people approach life (let alone spirituality), so it needs to be addressed. Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these objections in turn.

Objection 1. Contemplative Prayer is such an advanced form of Christian spirituality that people should not do it before they’re ready: they should just stick to “ordinary” prayers like the rosary or intercessory prayer.

I do believe that centering/contemplative prayer needs to be part of a “balanced spiritual diet.” In other words, it is important to cultivate a discipline of daily silent prayer in the context of regular scripture study, lectio divina, frequent participation in corporate worship (the Eucharist or the Daily Office), working with a spiritual director/confessor, and a commitment to bringing the light of Divine Love to the world through feeding the poor, caring for the environment, or some other work of mercy.

But saying that one shouldn’t engage in contemplative prayer before one is ready is kind of like saying one shouldn’t read the Bible before one is ready — or participate in the Eucharist — or even repent of one’s sins. Contemplation is a gentle and loving spiritual practice, challenging on some levels but within the grasp even of children and teenagers. The experience of the many thousands of ordinary individuals who have found a closer, more intimate, more loving relationship with God through contemplative prayer makes it clear: far from waiting until you’re “ready,” silent prayer is something so valuable that it’s best to start it as soon as possible.

Objection 2. Contemplative prayer is dangerous, because it contains non-Christian elements, and/or is based on/resembles eastern meditation.

There are two ways of responding to this objection. First of all, how quickly the anti-contemplatives forget! In the 1970s, Christianity as a community was hemorrhaging members, as more and more individuals opted for either a secular life or a new approach to spirituality through eastern mysticism, transcendental meditation, and yoga. The early proponents of Centering Prayer (Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, William Meninger) recognized that TM in particular was attracting a growing community of followers. They reacted to this with consternation, since Christianity had its own tradition of meditative spirituality: contemplation! This can be seen not only in the historical writings of Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, The Cloud of Unknowing and other mystical writings, but in the ongoing practice of silent prayer as preserved in Christian monasteries. So the earliest centering prayer programs were designed specifically to offer a Christian alternative to the rising popularity of eastern meditation. It’s kind of like contemporary Christian music: CCM artists often imitate the popular music styles of the day, from rock to rap to metal, as a way of reaching teenagers with a Christian message. The Centering Prayer movement did the exact same thing, dressing up a traditional Christian spiritual practice (contemplation) in the jargon and postures of currently popular non-Christian practices, simply as a way of reaching out to people who were seeking a deeper spiritual life. I myself would think that Christians should applaud the founders of Centering Prayer for their insight and ingenuity. But instead, they get attacked for introducing “non-Christian” elements into their spiritual practice. Go figure.

The most vocal opponents of Centering Prayer and contemplative prayer even discount the long tradition of contemplative prayer in the life of the church, arguing that it all goes back to pagan influences in the days of the desert fathers and mothers, and therefore is suspect all the way down. Perhaps this is a fair assessment, since we do know that mystical theology is strongly influenced by the pagan philosophical school of Neoplatonism. But this leads directly to my second response to this objection: if contemplative prayer represents a Christianised version of non-Christian spirituality, well, so what? It’s hardly the first time this has happened. If Christians want to be zealous about purging non-Christian influences from their faith, they’d better get rid of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which shows direct influence of pagan philosophical concepts. They’d better chuck out most of the symbolism associated with Christmas and Easter (even the word “Easter” comes from the name of a Germanic goddess!); in fact, most of the liturgical year would need to go: All Saint’s Day has its origins in the pagan festival of Samhain, while Christmas is clearly aligned with ancient winter solstice celebrations like Saturnalia or Yule. In fact, while we’re at it, perhaps we should just get rid of the entire Old Testament (i.e. Hebrew Scriptures), since it is the sacred writings of the community that largely has rejected the claim of Jesus to be the messiah.

If this seems increasingly absurd, well, that’s my point. If conservative Christians really want to go on a witch-hunt (pardon the pun) against everything in their faith that has a non-Christian (or even non-Jewish) origin, they will be left with a diminished faith that will be craven in its xenophobia. This would be direct disobedience of Christ’s command to “be not afraid.” But fear, it seems, is what really lies at the heart of the anti-contemplative agenda (see below for more on this topic).

Let me end this section by quoting from a pre-Vatican II edition of A Catholic Dictionary (edited by Donald Attwater, 3rd edition, 1958): “In paganism, especially before the Christian revelation, the Church has always recognized the existence of natural goodness and truth, the seeds of which the Fathers declare are to be found everywhere. All that is wise and true in the philosophies of antiquity, of Plato, of Plotinus, especially of Aristotle, has been incorporated into the Catholic system; all that is good and beautiful in their literature, arts and culture, whether of Hellas or Honolulu, is welcome to the Catholic mind.” I think here the word “Catholic” needs to be understood in its deepest meaning of “universally Christian.” True Christianity is not afraid of that which is non-Christian. Rather, it embraces all that is good, true, and beautiful within non-Christian culture. So it is with eastern forms of meditation: for if contemplation truly is “eastern” in its origin (and I’ve yet to see the smoking gun), then it is a perfectly good and truly beautiful spiritual practice, transformed into a Christian practice, offered with love and devotion to God through Christ.

Objection 3. Silent forms of prayer are dangerous because in clearing the mind one is opening it to the devil.

With this objection we finally see just how paranoid the anti-contemplatives really are. Theirs is a metaphysics of weakness and vulnerability, in which an open, spacious, silent mind is basically left undefended by Christ and the Holy Spirit, for Satan and his angels to wreak all sorts of malevolent havoc. Eek!

If this is true, then I guess we’d better stop sleeping (I don’t know about you, but every night as I drift off to sleep my mind gets clear), and such things as gazing at sunsets or the seashore must be verboten as well. You never know when the devil will pounce!

But the truth is, this notion that the devil attacks through a silenced mind has no grounding in the Bible or in Christian tradition whatsoever. Indeed, just the opposite is the case: Christianity has long taught that it is thoughts by which the evil spirit can tempt or attack us.

Everyone has disturbing or even malevolent thoughts (indeed, psychological tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory will gauge if a person lies on the test by scoring how honest they are about having negative, violent, paranoid, or other antisocial thoughts). Sure, for some people these thoughts may be “worse” than others, but it’s long been recognized that even psychologically healthy people sometimes have disturbing thoughts. Here’s what is interesting: traditional Christian theology does not regard such “evil” thoughts as sinful — unless a person cultivates them, takes delight in them, or (heaven forbid) acts on them. That’s because such thoughts have historically been regarded as temptations.

So what gives? Does temptation come to us through silent prayer, or of enticing thoughts? Traditional theology points to the latter. So why is the silence of contemplative prayer seen as so dangerous? I think because it’s viewed to be like offering the devil a blank slate on which he can write his evil intentions. But this is silly reasoning: for if everyone has tempting thoughts regardless of whether they contemplate or not, then obviously the devil doesn’t need a blank mind to do his dirty work. But what the anti-contemplatives fail to acknowledge is how the calm, opened mind of contemplation is, in truth, an offering not to the devil, but to God. When I engage in silent prayer, I relax into the silence between my thoughts, which allows for a slowing down of the fuss and chatter of my mind so that I can simply rest in the loving presence of God. Frankly, I can’t think of anything the devil would find more distasteful! Instead of being a source of tempting thoughts, Centering Prayer and contemplative prayer actually function as a tool for healing a mind that is troubled and disturbed by thoughts that lack goodness.

I think the argument that the devil will pounce on the contemplative mind is an argument that gives the devil more power than God. This flies in the face of Christ’s continual message of “Be not afraid” (Matthew 14:27, among others) and “Be of good cheer… for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The “world” here refers to the tendencies toward evil that we find, even in our own hearts and minds. We can trust in the light and goodness of God, even when facing our own inner demons. The silence of contemplation does not empower the “dark side” within us, but rather shines a light onto it, thus facilitating true healing which comes from God.

Contemplative prayer has a long history in Christian tradition, going back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the teachings of great mystics like Teresa of Ávila and The Cloud of Unknowing. It is based on loving God and resting in the light of the Divine presence. A regular practice of it not only fosters a closer sense of God’s presence in our lives, but it also brings measurable physiological and psychological benefits (reduced blood pressure, inner calm and serenity). Given how good contemplative prayer is for us — body, mind and soul — I rather think that it’s not contemplation that is so wrong, but rather the prejudiced attacking of it.

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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

2 Comments

  • I still think this is one of the best one-post responses to contemplative objections I’ve read. Since he doesn’t allow HTML in his comments, I thought I’d direct you to a conversation about contemplative prayer-wariness on my friend Earl Creps’ blog. Read it here. It’s your typical “Why-do-you-associate-with-Emergents-and-contemplative pray-ers?” criticism being leveled at Earl, something that particularly stings in his Assemblies of God denomination. The fascinating thing is that Earl had never heard of contemplative prayer ’till his critics started ‘charging’ him with it, even though he’s quite the progressive Pentecostal and has even written a book on spiritual disciplines!

    I tend to be an optimist, and think that innocent non-awareness is the #1 reason for fear and inhibition regarding the Christian mystical tradition. I hope that we can avoid the hard right turn that Islam has taken in alienating their own Sufi tradition; by God’s grace, can the contemplatives of the world increase?

By Carl McColman

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

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