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Christian Mysticism and its Counterfeit

December 5, AD2016 15 Comments

A Reflection on the Vatican’s document on New Age Spirituality.

The Vatican document on New Age Spirituality is subtitled, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life – A Christian reflection on the New Age. Published in 2003, it insists that a clear understanding of our own tradition is the best antidote to alien influences that have already led many astray. This is particularly true of the theory and practice of Mystical Theology where ignorance of their own tradition has led “many people to be convinced that there is no harm in ‘borrowing’ from the wisdom of the East”. The document continues by warning that, “The example of Transcendental Meditation (TM) should make Christians cautious.”

In the Western Christian tradition, a mystic is a person who not only knows with the eye of faith that God loves them but one who tangibly experiences that love as it rests and then rises within them to degrees of intensity that are totally dependent on the grace of God. The first Mystic was Christ himself. He was continually aware of his Father’s love as it possessed every part of his personality. It was this experience that was the source of the inner maturity and security that made him the most loving and loveable person to have walked on the face of this earth. When those who were called to follow him came to know him, they came to know and love the God who possessed him, and who manifested himself through all he said and did. Without this love acting within and working through them, Christ knew that his followers would be incapable of doing anything, let alone live the otherwise impossible standards and ideals that he had taught them to observe for. “Without me, you have no power to do anything” (John 15:5).

Christianity, therefore, is primarily a mysticism because no one can possibly live the moral teaching of the Gospels unless they are given the power to do so. That is why the deep personal prayer that opens a believer to receive and experience the divine life is not only important but essential.

The second-generation of Christians who did not know Christ in his earthly life learnt from the oral and written memoirs of the first-generation Christians how to come to know and love him as they had done. The first meditation manual was the Scriptures, most particularly those texts that introduced them to Christ. When in later years ordinary people were unable to turn to the Scriptures through illiteracy, or because native languages had not developed sufficiently to produce the necessary translation, or because many of the first translations were unacceptable to the Church, alternatives had to be found. Books were written on the life of Christ, meditation manuals were composed and devotions were devised like the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, and the exercises of St Ignatius to open to those deprived of reading the sacred texts at first hand, the opportunity of coming to know and love Christ.

All the great spiritual writers show that it is through prayerful reflection on the life and death of Christ, by whatever means, that knowledge gradually leads to love. Then believers begin to express their love and gratitude in the language of love. Finally, as in human loving, words become less and less necessary as all they want to do is to gaze at the One whose love begins to envelop them. Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2705-2719), this Vatican document, reiterates that, “Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love.”

At the beginning, this first stage of prayer is often called first fervour because it can be highly emotional and spiritually fulfilling. However, it cannot last. A profound purification must now take place to create a sufficient likeness in believers to prepare them for the union for which they yearn. Sadly, ignorance means that the clear majority give up regular reflective prayer at this stage, but for those who persevere through the ensuing dryness and aridity, a profound experience of God’s presence begins to envelop them.

Summing up the teaching of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus (AD 345 -399) calls this period of aridity,  Accidie and the experience of presence that follows it,  Apatheia. St John of the Cross details the characteristics of Accidie in The Dark Night of the Soul whilst St Teresa of Avila does likewise for Apatheia in her masterwork Interior Castle. Through a sort of spiritual hide and seek, believers are purified by the alternating experiences of absence and presence that convinces them that it is God and not they who are in control of their spiritual destiny. At times they are cast into the depth of all but despair, at other times they are raised to the heights of ecstatic joy and to almost every state between the two before purification is complete. Then, what the early Fathers called Theosis or Divinisation, and their spiritual descendants called The Transforming Union or The Mystical Marriage takes place, enveloping the whole person, body, and spirit as they are possessed ever more fully by the same Spirit who possessed Christ

In the light of this brief résumé it is immediately possible to distinguish authentic Christian prayer from its counterfeit. Firstly, in the Christian tradition we are taught how to come to know and love God as embodied in Jesus Christ, by prayerfully reflecting on the sacred scriptures or through other traditional methods of meditation, not by using mantras to by-pass the mind. In the Western Christian tradition, meditation primarily means prayerful reflection on the person of Christ, to enter into him through love. In the far East, meditation primarily means the repetition of mantras.

If using these mantas leads to a certain inner stillness, peace, or what is sometimes called mindfulness, it may well contribute to a certain self-generated psychological equilibrium, but it must never be confused with the true mystical contemplation of God. This cannot be generated in a matter of minutes, but only in years of selfless giving in dryness and aridity and is then a pure gift of God. That is why this Vatican document insists:-

There is a tendency to confuse psychology and spirituality. Many of the meditation techniques now used are not prayer. They are often a good preparation for prayer, but no more, even if they lead to a more pleasant state of mind or bodily comfort”

The notion that believers can come to experience profound mystical contemplation by their own unaided endeavour is to fall into the old heresy of Pelagianism – the belief that human beings can come to experience the presence of God within by what are in effect self-generated psychological techniques, or if you like, by various forms of mental yoga.

To appeal to the writings of John Cassian and to other Desert Fathers as confirmation that the Western Christian tradition teaches the use of mantras in the same way as the Indian tradition, is quite simply nonsense. This should be evident to any open-minded reader.

In the same way, The Cloud of Unknowing is a favourite of those trying to justify the use of mantras. The author of this mystical work however, is not writing for beginners, but for those who after successfully meditating on the Life of Christ are languishing in Accidie or in the Dark Night when their minds and hearts are being drawn towards God in such a way that they have no desire nor any ability to meditate as before. The Author of The Cloud suggests the repetition of a word, not as a mantra, but as a practical device to help keep the heart and mind fixed as it were “in naked intent” upon God, not to generate inner psychological states where the attention is not placed upon God but on oneself. Using medieval symbolism, he encourages the believer to use a word such as, “God” or “Love” for instance, as a spiritual spear and shield. When used as a spear the word helps the heart’s desire penetrate the “Cloud of Unknowing” while at the same time parrying the distractions and placing them under what he calls, the “Cloud of Forgetting.”

The Cloud merely presents to medieval readers an ancient form of prayer, first referred to by Abbott Macarius who taught those of his disciples who were afflicted by Accidie, the use of a short prayer to do for them what the author of The Cloud wanted to do for his readers. He taught them to cry out to God “To the rescue,” or call out the name, “Jesus” so that he would come to the rescue. This is the origin of what later came to be called the Jesus Prayer. The Prayer of Faith was the collective title later given to various short prayers used most especially by those who languished in Accidie or in The Dark Night of the Soul.

To suggest that these prayers were meant to be used as mantras, as used in the Indian tradition, shows a total ignorance of the Christian mystical tradition. Hopefully this Vatican document will help to alert people of good will to the heinous heresy of Pelagianism that is once again being spread amongst us, often by people of good will who are nevertheless deceiving others as they have been deceived themselves.

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About the Author:

David Torkington is a Spiritual Theologian, Author and Speaker, who specializes in Prayer, Christian Spirituality and Mystical Theology. He was educated at the Franciscan Study Centre, England, and the National Catholic Radio and Television Centre, Hatch End, London where he was later appointed to the post of Dean of Studies. He was extra mural lecturer in Mystical Theology at the Dominican University in Rome (The Angelicum). His personal spirituality is predominantly Franciscan, and his Mystical Theology Carmelite. He has sold over 300,000 books in more than twelve different languages. His personal conviction is that there is only one way forward for the serious searcher who wishes to be transformed into Christ in this life, and that is, in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “There is only one way to perfection and that is to pray. If anyone points in another direction then they are deceiving you.” David's website is His three most recent books are 'Wisdom from the Christian Mystics - How to Pray the Christian Way', in which he describes the daily mystical spirituality given by Christ to the early Church. 'Wisdom from the Western Isles – The Making of a Mystic’ teaches the reader how to pray, from the very beginning to what St Teresa of Avila calls the Mystical Marriage. and ‘Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love’ shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by St Francis. He is at present working on three booklets commissioned by the Catholic Truth Society: Prayer Made Simple (March 2018), Meditation made Simple and Contemplation made Simple.

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