Christian Mystical Theology
Addendum 1: Varieties of Transcendental Meditation and how they differ from authentic Christian Contemplation.
In transcendental meditation the continual repetition of a given mantra is used to induce and maintain a calming of the inner mind. The practice is used as a means of reducing anxiety and tension and allows the mind to rest and recharge its energy, stimulating it to new forms of creativity, ‘though these benefits are often exaggerated by those who promote TM. Its appeal is its utter simplicity. It is easy to understand and easy to practise and its benefits can be experienced immediately, hence its popularity. However its Christian promoters mistakenly identify it with the Mystical Contemplation taught by the Desert Fathers and their spiritual followers in subsequent centuries. The overwhelming majority of spiritual theologians however beg to differ for the following reasons: –
- The Christian mystical tradition continually asserts that any man-made means or techniques cannot attain true contemplation, which is a pure gift of God.
- The gift of contemplation is only given after years of practising prayer in the context of an ascetical life-style. There is no such thing as instant mysticism in the Christian tradition. Techniques that purport to lead to the same are bogus.
- Authentic Christian prayer never begins by introducing mantras to teach people how to pray, but by introducing them to a loving person to teach them how to love. It is only when first love leads them on, that words or phrases are taught, not to generate or maintain states of inner peace but to maintain the heart’s attention on the love that radiates from God. They should not be repeated, come what may, but should be discarded the moment this love begins to make itself felt, so that it can be savoured in silent contemplation.
- The experience of contemplation then, is not due to the recitation of mantras calming the mind, but to the tangible experience of the love of God drawing the heart to ever more absorbing degrees of intensity. The use of words or phrases is merely a means to this end.
- The ultimate aim of Christian contemplation is not to search for an experience of inner peace, but to search for God whose love eventually leads them into experiences that infinitely transcend any form of man-made mysticism, gradually transforming them into Christ.
- It is beyond question that God can lead non-Christians to him in different ways to Christians and that the use of mantras, for certain eastern religions, can be one of those ways. However a Christian is a person who believes that God is primarily to be sought and loved in the human flesh and blood of the most loveable person to have walked on this earth, Jesus Christ. Prayer then for them must always begin by seeking out and experiencing God’s love, as it is embodied in Christ, not by turning to methods employed by alien religions in the belief that they promise a short cut to mystical experience.
NB.1. Music or some other form of relaxation may help a person prepare for prayer, but forms of mental Yoga similar to transcendental meditation do not constitute prayer, nor do they lead to contemplation as understood in the Christian tradition.
NB.2. In recent years many believers, who have taken prayer seriously enough to be led on and into the mystic way have turned to gurus who teach the use of mantras, because they cannot find help elsewhere. Understandably they initially find the use of mantras helpful. However when, for the reasons I have already explained, their use does not initially lead to the inner peace of mind that the guru expects, but to a mystical purification, problems arise. Although they usually think otherwise, the guru’s lack of knowledge about the Christian mystical tradition can lead to serious spiritual harm to those who trust them. When all their expertise in eastern mystical technique fail, and as they are convinced that their methods cannot be wrong, they begin to think that there must be something psychologically or spiritually wrong with their clients. A rift between guru and client is only a matter of time.
NB.3 The reason why many lay-people are misled is because the promoters of “Christian” forms of transcendental meditation are monks, friars, priests and religious of one sort or another. This gives credibility to their teaching that might not otherwise be accepted. It is difficult for lay-people to imagine that they could be ignorant of the Christian mystical tradition in such a way that they misrepresent it, not knowingly of course. Sadly this is all too often the case, for reasons that I have detailed in my book Dear Susanna, reasons that are unfortunately too lengthy for me to go into here in detail. However for a brief explanation read addendum 2. below. It should be pointed out to those susceptible to accepting forms of “Christian transcendental meditation” because of the religious status of those who promote them, that the vast majority of their ‘peers’ are highly sceptical, if not positively opposed to their methods.
Addendum 2: A relevant Quote from Dear Susanna Ch 16.
“Perhaps the two most influential orders after the Council of Trent were the Carmelites and the Jesuits. Under the influence of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, the Dominican School of Spirituality that stressed the action of God reasserted itself. Once again the Carmelites emphasized how God acts in the spiritual life and most importantly in the deep contemplative prayer without which apostolic action soon falters. Under the influence of the Jesuits the emphasis on the need for man to co-operate with God was emphasized in a new form of ‘apostolic spirituality’, that had more influence than any other single order down to the present day.”In harness these two religious orders would have been complementary and could have brought about the renewal that the Church needed with perfect balance, but it was not to be. Sadly many would-be mystics misinterpreted the writings of St Teresa and St John falling into the heresy of Quietism. They so over-emphasized what God does, that they did virtually nothing for themselves, not even fighting against temptations. This led to gross immorality. The most infamous Quietist was a priest called Molino (b 1628), who was charged and convicted of many acts of serious sexual indecency arising from his bogus mystical teaching. Naturally the Church came down heavily on any form of Quietism. The reaction against this heresy gave way to the ‘anti-mystical witch hunts’ that suspected any form of prayer that emphasized stillness, recollection or quiet. In this climate the great Carmelite reformers became suspect and their teaching was either misunderstood or considered highly dangerous. The only safe way was the way of intensive activity both in prayer and in the apostolate. In this climate the spirituality of the new Jesuit congregation was ideally suited to take the lead. Over the subsequent centuries it did sterling work bringing about renewal in the Church. However without the emphasis that the Carmelites had once given to contemplative prayer an imbalance crept into virtually all other religious orders.
“To the present day seminaries, student houses and houses of formation still place all the practical emphasis on academic knowledge and the skills necessary for intensive apostolic endeavour, whilst preparation for prayer to contemplation is rarely if ever to be found anywhere in the official programme. This is why so few priests feel confident enough to give spiritual direction, whilst others are deceived into accepting and promoting counterfeit forms of contemplation that lead people away from the authentic tradition which should be their spiritual birthright. What we need in the church above all else is the leadership of priests and religious who are firstly taught how to receive and experience the wisdom that comes through deep contemplative prayer, and secondly the knowledge that comes through books. Then the renewal we are still waiting for will have begun in earnest and not before time!”
Addendum 3: Another relevant Quote from Dear Susanna Ch 46.
“When they teach people who have never prayed before, or who are beginners how to use ‘mantras’ they are generally highly successful to begin with. Both the method and the theory are so simple that anyone can follow them and they begin to practise what they call ‘contemplative prayer’ or ‘contemplative meditation’ immediately. They have not in effect taught them how to experience true contemplation, which is a gift from God, but a certain peace of mind obtained by the repetition of a mantra.”It is a form of mental yoga or self-hypnosis hardly dissimilar to the methods used in transcendental meditation except that a Christian mantra is used. Similar methods are actually employed in the National Health Service to help a person suffering from anxiety or tension by helping to induce a peaceful state of mind. ‘Contemplative meditation’, or whatever else it’s called can certainly be very helpful to enable a person to acquire a certain inner peace, but it is not mystical contemplation. The peace that Jesus promised at the Last Supper is far deeper far more profound, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit and can never be obtained by man-made methods or techniques.”Now having said that I don’t mean that their methods are valueless. They can be useful and help a person to acquire an inner state of tranquility in preparation for prayer, but they are not essentially prayer let alone contemplation in the Christian sense of the word. However those who promote it deceive themselves into believing that it leads to instant contemplation and then they deceive others, albeit with the best will in the world. I have no doubt that they find it helpful to inject a certain peaceful tranquility and order into their lives, but it will never enable them to lead ‘perfect’ Christ-like lives. Only the experience of the Holy Spirit working in them through genuine Christian contemplation can do that.”
However, real harm is done if it leads beginners away from the Incarnation, which is central to our Christian faith. It does this when it leads them away from meditating on the life of Jesus that will, under the influence of the Holy Spirit lead to true Christian contemplation. It can also cause terrible harm to those who, after persevering for long enough in meditation, are led into ‘obscure contemplation’ at the beginning of the mystic way. Finding themselves helpless and utterly unable to control their hearts and minds that endlessly plunge them into distractions the ‘mantra men’ seem to offer them the salvation they need. They immediately find that the use of a mantra helps and the assurance that this is the way the ‘Desert Fathers’ used to pray reassures them.
Now precisely because the use of a mantra does in fact help, it leads them on more quickly to keep their hearts and minds together and open to the action of the Holy Spirit. The result is not however the peace of mind that the ‘mantra men’ promised, at least in the first instance, but inner turmoil. You see success means that the Holy Spirit is given free reign to begin the purification that must always precede the union for which they crave. Faced with a disciple for whom the recitation of the mantra has led to the opposite of what had been promised the guru does not know what has happened or what to do. They begin to think and even suggest that there might be something psychologically wrong with them, or perhaps some past or present sins are preventing the tranquility that their mantras usually lead them to. This can have a devastating effect on a person experiencing ‘obscure contemplation’ it can set them back for years on the journey that could be facilitated with understanding, compassion and genuine guidance by a competent spiritual director. At this point a person realises that the guru who first helped them can help them no more and they inevitably part company. However someone, who though they may well be wise in the ways of the East, is in effect ignorant of their own tradition, and often does serious damage.
The form of prayer that they encouraged and the peace that they promised is in effect the prayer of the humanist, and the peace of mind that they promised is the ‘apatheia’ promised by the Stoics to the person who becomes the architect of their own sanctity. In short, ‘though it has a therapeutic application that can be valuable, from a spiritual point of view it is no more than ‘Pelagian prayer’ that will not only confuse and mislead a Christian, but can do them serious harm.
I have never come across Christians drawn into ‘The World Community for Christian Meditation Movement’ for instance who have not been thoroughly good people. They don’t just take the external practice of their faith seriously, but also put aside regular time for daily going into ‘the inner room’. I identified so closely with their personal sincerity and the sincerity of their search that I have until now found it difficult to make any criticism of them. Sadly they have been misled into thinking that methods of eastern mysticism involving the continual repetition of mantras is not only in conformity with the Christian mystical tradition, but the high point at which Eastern and Western religion meet. However contemplative prayer is so important for the future reform in the Church as it has been in the past that it must be protected from its counterfeit.
John Cassian is usually the person quoted to prove that Eastern and Western mysticism are ultimately one and the same. He was a priest born in the fourth century who spent 12 years mainly in Egypt studying the teachings of the Desert Fathers. His copious writings had a profound influence particularly on Irish and Benedictine monasticism. Now because a tiny fraction of what he wrote about prayer and the spiritual life could be misinterpreted to make him seem to have used mantras, as used in the East, his status has been raised to enhance his authority. He is often referred to as ‘St John Cassian’, a title never given to him by the Church. He was explicitly cited for falling into the heresy of semi-Pelagianism. This is a heresy that leads people to believe that they can become the architects of their own perfection, and that contemplation for instance can be obtained by man-made means like mantras and other techniques. This is explicitly denied by the authentic Christian mystical tradition. If anyone wants to be guided by this tradition rather than by its counterfeit then they must look in the first instance to Jesus himself who never taught the use of mantras.
He not only knew that he was filled by the love of God but continually experienced it. It was this experience that was the source of his inner strength that transformed all he said and did. Later mystical writers used the word ‘contemplation’ in order to describe the psychological experience of feeling the divine life that he felt continually throbbing within him. They taught that all Christians, who embraced a prayer life similar to Jesus, could eventually come to experience what he experienced.
St Thomas Aquinas explains this profound teaching in detail. Read what he has to say on prayer, read his clear definition and description of contemplation and his explanations of the ascetical preparations necessary to prepare to receive what finally comes as a gratuitous gift of God. No other theologian has been accepted so whole-heartedly by the Church as the voice of orthodoxy. Then read the writings of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, who was made a doctor of the Church for his unsurpassed exposition of contemplative prayer. Why look elsewhere and spend so much time looking for a sentence here or a sentence there in minor or questionable spiritual writers to endorse an alien form of mysticism that has no more than a thin veneer of orthodoxy.
If you find the great spiritual Masters too daunting, read the works of the great Dominican theologian Garragou-Lagrange. He has written a unique theological synthesis of the teaching of St Thomas, Saint Teresa, and St John of the Cross on prayer and the spiritual life. If you want to understand the tradition from a psychological point of view read the classic work ‘The Graces of Interior Prayer’ by the Jesuit master Pere Poulain.
I consider it my life’s work to re-state this profound tradition time and time again, because it is desperately needed in the Church today. The saints and spiritual leaders that the Church desperately need for the spiritual renewal that is still well overdue, will not be formed by man-made techniques, but by the purifying love that operates through genuine Christian contemplation