Mini-Course on Prayer
Section 2 Christian Meditation
Part 13 – Genuine Christian Meditation and its Counterfeit
Editor’s Note: In part 12, David Torkington wrote of Lectio Divina, love as the ground of our being, and discuss some aspects of meditation. Today, he will focus on what is and what is not true Christian meditation.
Before God’s love was made flesh and blood in Jesus, no one had been given the opportunity to attain union with God, even though they experienced the deep desire for love rise within them, as we do. Before God’s love was embodied in a real, tangible, touchable, and loveable human being who was truly man and truly God, that union with God was impossible. It was only through being firstly united with Jesus, that what was impossible before became possible. However, this did not stop ancient peoples trying to make contact with their creator in weird and wonderful ways, using myriad forms of magic, chanting, and dancing, sometimes aided and abetted with drugs, drink, and other hallucinatory potions. Philosophers tried, by using their reason, to devise methods that can only be achieved by love. But it is only God’s love that Jesus sent and continues to send that can draw us up into him and through him to be united with God, our common Father.
Do not be deceived by some ‘methods of prayer’ in common use to-day that even some Christians call ‘meditation’. They are in fact techniques that do not come from our earliest Christian forebears but have been adapted from places like India, albeit using Christian words or mantras to recite or chant instead of Indian mantras. These methods are so attractive because they promise all but instant experience of God to the modern ‘Me, Me’ society that must have what they desire, and must have it now! However, they cannot and do not generate the love of God – the Holy Spirit who draws us up into Christ’s Mystical Body from where we are led on and into union with the Three in One. The real experience of God comes through love, the love that is first generated in the Christian meditation that is the product of our long and ancient tradition that is the subject of this series. To suggest otherwise is to convict oneself of absolute ignorance of our genuine mystical tradition. Those who introduce and encourage these practices for Christians, undoubtedly have the best of intentions, but their ignorance of authentic Catholic mystical theology has meant that they have only cherry-picked what they wrongly think confirms their erroneous teaching from the genuine Christian mystical tradition.
Compare the promised ‘mystical experiences’ that never rise beyond the therapeutic despite very many years of practice, to the experiences of the great mystics. More particularly compare them with the mystical experiences detailed by St Teresa of Avila in her masterwork Interior Castle, for which she was made a doctor of the Church. Not even chalk and cheese can describe the chasm between the two. The teaching of the deceased Fr John Main, OSB is a good example of this new counterfeit meditation. Let me quote from a letter that I have written to all the Bishops in England to make my point.
In his own words John Main writes, “When we begin to meditate we must say the mantra for the whole twenty or thirty minutes of our ‘meditation’…I repeat this to re-emphasise what is essential and perhaps the only advice worth giving about meditation which is simply, to say your mantra” (“Word into Silence” Page 56, John Main). I also show how this form of prayer has quite evidently been seriously criticised by the Church in more than one document although here I only quote from one, the Vatican document, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life – A Christian reflection on the “New Age” published in 2003. It makes it clear that the mantra movements have one thing in common. Their meditations are self-centred, directed towards attaining feelings of inner relaxation, peace and mindfulness, and are totally opposite to authentic Christian prayer. The Vatican document puts it this way, “Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love, one which implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from ‘self’ to the ‘You’ of God.” (see also Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2705–2719).
Writing for “The Tablet”, Fr Main’s successor, as director of the World Community for Contemplative Meditation, Fr Laurence Freeman recommends the same process. In his own words, “Sit down. Sit still and upright. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly, begin to say a single word. We recommend the prayer-phrase Maranatha. Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently, but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise. Thoughts and images will likely come, but let them pass. Just keep returning your attention, with humility and simplicity to saying your word in faith, from the beginning to the end of your meditation.” If the criticisms that I have levelled at the ‘mantra movement’ are equally valid against ‘centering prayer’ then it should equally be condemned.
The notion that believers can come to experience mystical contemplation by the continual recitation of a mantra, is indeed to fall into the old heresy of semi-Pelagianism – the belief that one can come to experience the presence of God by self-generated psychological techniques, often introduced by an exotic sound to encourage self -hypnosis. Jesus himself never taught the use of a mantra, nor did the Apostles, nor for that matter did or does any genuine Catholic mystic. These new methods are in fact variations of the methods and techniques used by pagans before Christ came, that I referred to earlier. After Christ came, authentic Christian meditation has always involved coming to love Christ through firstly coming to know him through poring over and assimilating all the writings and traditions about him that have been handed down to us from the beginning.
Main’s teaching and that of his successors contains no knowledge of mystical theology, although they pepper their writings with quotations from the saints and mystics. In this way, they try to deceive their readers into believing that their teaching is utterly orthodox and in total conformity with the great contemplatives who preceded them, which it most certainly is not!
The Sin Against the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the endless repetition of mantras, is that it actually prevents those who use them from generating the love that is learnt in authentic Christian meditation. It is here that Christ himself is central, not the mindless repetition of some word, no matter whether that word has a pagan or a Christian origin. Its whole purpose is to produce a man-made experience of inner peace, but it will never lead to the profound mystical union that is the result of the love that is generated when our love is suffused by the love of God, as meditation leads though contemplation to mystical union. The real wickedness of this modern counterfeit contemplation is that those who teach and encourage it, and those who practise it, are actually preventing the love of God from transforming his people into the image and likeness of Christ, preventing what the Church calls ‘the dialogue of love’, which is the very essence of authentic Christian prayer that opens every believer to the action of the Holy Spirit. It is he alone who purifies and refines each one of us, for the profound mystical union with God that is our ultimate destiny.
Finally, authentic mystical contemplation can never be attained by any man-made techniques of any sort. Mystical contemplation is the experience of being loved by God. Like all experiences of being loved, they are the result of relentless and selfless giving of oneself to God in authentic Christian prayer and through acts of Christian charity, not for a few minutes, but for many years. Next time I want to explain how genuine Christian meditation leads to true mystical contemplation, that is but a brief preview here on earth of what we will experience in ever greater depth and intensity in heaven and to all eternity.
These ideas are developed further in my two major works on prayer – Wisdom from the Western Isles and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics, – and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy which shows how deep contemplative prayer grows to perfection in the life of St Francis of Assisi.
Editor’s Note: In Part 14, David Torkington will continue his discussion on meditation.
Art for this post on genuine Christian meditation and its counterfeit: St Carlo Borromeo, Orazio Borgianni, between 1610 and 1616, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons. Detail of Holy Spirit from Pentecostés (Pentecost), Fray Juan Bautista Maino, 1612-1614, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Restored Traditions, used with permission.