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Christian Mysticism and its Counterfeit

December 5, AD2016


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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.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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, all welded together with a solid blend of Benedictine moderation. He has sold over 300,000 books in more than twelve different languages. His book ‘Wisdom from the Western Isles’ teaches the reader how to pray, from the very beginning to what St Teresa of Avila calls the Mystical Marriage. 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 http://www.davidtorkington.com

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  • justthefactsmam

    Having dealt with the new age back in the 1980s, I think what the author is trying to get at in basic terms is that Christian mysticism focuses on God which illuminates the soul of the individual, whereas the new age focuses of the self, the individual only, and ignores God completely. The new age tends to blur God into numerous variations of what eastern and pagan ideology want God to be which is anything but what Judeo-Christian mysticism sees God as, which is the Creator. When nature or the earth is god, then you are worshipping the creation and not the Creator.

  • Bon Marie S

    There is so much more to prayer…Fr. Chad Ripperger has a great talk on prayer on youtube. He mentions the nine levels of prayer and a lot of other things that we sometimes never hear about praying, for instance that we must be in a state of grace when praying, that we should be in the habit of praying, if not then we have a vice of not praying, etc. Very great talk that helps keep one on the right path of prayer! God bless

    • Bob B

      Our Lord came to us, suffered for us and died and rose for us while we were still steeped in sin(not in a state of grace) and no chance of reconciling with God on our own. Whether we are in a state of grace or not does not impede us from praying and asking for forgiveness and the grace to repent our lives so that we ARE living in a state of grace. If we cannot or are not allowed turn to God in prayer if we are not in a state of grace we are doomed then?

      Bob

    • Bon Marie S

      If you’re not in a state of grace you can’t MERIT anything. “Your prayer is completely inefficacious if you’re not it a state of grace. All it does is, it might dispose you towards receiving grace, but God has no obligation to give it to you. No mortal sins. If you commit a mortal sin your prayer is completely inefficacious. It doesn’t do you any good, except insofar as it helps you to direct your faculties to God, but in the end, you don’t merit anything from God if you’re not in a state of grace.” from Fr. Ripperger’s talk on prayer.

      This article is talking about those who are most likely already praying and finding ways to meditate and progress in the spiritual life.

    • PalaceGuard

      Was the Prodigal Son in a state of grace when his father saw him on the road? No. But his father *ran* to him and embraced him. Did he “merit” this? No. Was he loved? Yes. And so his father ran to him. He did not need to remain cowering among the swine until his father remembered him and sent for him. His return journey was a prayer for help and forgiveness. And his father understood. And heard. And forgave.

  • Thank you for posting this excellent article, David! This is not an easy subject to write about. So many people have been led astray and they become deeply offended when they are told they are in error. Instead, they should be thanking you for showing them the truth. Jesus is and must always be the center of Christian prayer. Prayer is not a technique. Union with Christ has little in common with the “mysticism” of Hindus and Buddhists, regardless of how sincere the practitioners may be. We should be meditating on the Scriptures when we are able to do so without excessive effort. Contemplation is a pure gift of God.

  • Mark Davis

    Amazing Thank you.

    • Dear Friends,

      Forgive me for answering the points you raise together, and for the length of what follows, but the matter in question is of the utmost importance because it involves a pernicious heresy that is sweeping the Church at present and seriously destroying the spiritual development of countless genuine searchers. I am writing this then as a theologian with a responsibility to defend orthodoxy, and that is why I am taking this unusual liberty.

      Mystical contemplation is a pure gift of God and to suggest that it can be attained by man-made methods and techniques is heretical. It is the old heresy of Pelagianism. Even if they have been practising it for thirty years or more, a person will only be able to attain a certain inner peaceful equilibrium that is light years away from true contemplative experience, as can be seen by reading Interior Castle, by St Teresa of Avila, who was made a Doctor of the Church for her authentic teaching on Mystical theology.

      In medieval times heresies, such as this would be stamped out with the utmost severity. However, in more ‘enlightened modern times’ when political correctness inhibits the truth being told loudly and clearly, sincere but misguided Catholics can continue for years in error without any official or unofficial guidance coming to their aid. What is worse than a teaching that leads people to turn in upon themselves and away from the love for which they were created? What teaching is more pernicious than teaching people a form of prayer that closes them to the love for which they were made, and which instead teaches them to concentrate on themselves, by practising self-generated techniques to produce various forms of psychological peace and inner equilibrium. In my home where I am working, my wife, a psychiatrist, teaches such techniques to her patients as part of the requisite therapy to lead them back to normal psychological well-being, and rightly so. She knows as well as I do that the techniques will never lead a person to experience true mystical contemplation, but in medicine they have their place to help a person return to relative normality. Nevertheless, similar methods can, as the Vatican document says, help some people to slow down as a countdown to prayer. Having said this, so also can going for as walk, having a swim, listening to music and so many other gentle activities, but they are not prayer, though they may help as a preparation for prayer. The old catechism defined prayer as ‘the raising of the heart and mind to God’. Since the sending of the Holy Spirit this action takes place for Christians within Christ in whom we now live and move and have our being. That is why we always pray in him, with him, and through him in our private prayer as we do in our public prayer at Mass.

      The quality of our prayer therefore depends for its power, strength and efficacy on the quality of our closeness to the person of Christ. That is is why from the very beginning deep personal Christian prayer begins by coming to know and love the most loveable person who has ever walked on the face of this earth. That is why authentic Christian meditation does not begin by using mantras, but by prayerfully reading and reflecting on all that Jesus said and did so that the love that always yearns for union is generated. When this happens, a period of highly charged emotional prayer often prevails for a time. However, as you cannot be united with someone who once lived on this earth, a change from what was sometimes called ordinary prayer or meditation takes place. Now the deep desire for union with Christ is transferred to the risen Christ with whom we can be united here and now, and in, with and through him begin to contemplate the Father in true mystical contemplation. That this union with Christ and the contemplation that we share with him be brought to completion, a profound purification must take place under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, in what has come to be called the mystic way. This does not take weeks or months but years of daily prayer. The gift of true contemplation comes as this purification is taking place, not when we choose, but when God chooses because it is his gift. But it is nevertheless correlated to our endeavour in the purification or in what St John of the Cross calls ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’.

      St Teresa of Avila details the ascending quality of this experience as it engrosses our total being to the point of ecstasy and beyond, as it overflows into our whole being, body and soul in what she calls the Mystical Marriage. To compare this, or to equiparate it to instant self-generated psychological states is not only wrong but risible, if it were not lamentable, because it has led so many astray. The brief words, or short prayers, used from the earliest Christian times were never introduced as mantras, as ignorant ‘spiritual directors’ insist today, but to help travellers pray in the mystic way when they are plunged into dryness and aridity and are no longer able to meditate as before. Sometimes this is made clear from the context, sometimes it is stated explicitly. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing for instance, vigorously insists in his introduction, that his book must not be given to beginners, indeed it must at all cost be kept away from the general reader else it will do harm. It is only for those far advanced and in the mystic way. This stricture is completely ignored by those promoting the mantra movements. They seize on his use of single words to exploit a superficial likeness to canonize their own erroneous teaching. It is true that St Augustine encouraged the use of short prayers or what he called ‘ejaculations’ for everyone and at any time, but that is completely different. He encouraged people to use them ‘to raise their hearts and minds to God’ but never to turn them inwardly upon themselves. To refrain from denouncing bogus forms of mystical theology for fear of acting uncharitably is to turn the meaning of charity upside-down.

      All forms of genuine Christian Prayer are centred, not on self or for self-satisfaction, but on God; to love him with our whole hearts and mind and with our whole bodies and souls. Like all other genuine forms of loving, the delight and joy that a person experiences in doing this is the by-product of selfless giving. If a person spends their time seeking pleasure for themselves, in or outside of prayer, the peace and joy that we all ultimately desire will continually elude them. Remember the words of Jesus, “Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his goodness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

      I apologise again for the length of what I have written, but I consider it essential that the truth be proclaimed; not my truth, but the truth proclaimed in the Vatican document, because it is clearly calling us back to the authentic mystical tradition that is being parodied today on a massive scale by a plethora of erroneous mantra movements and false prophets, some of whom are sadly priests, religious, monks and even theologians, who have been deceived themselves as they are deceiving others. The enthusiasm and the certainty with which they promote counterfeit mystical theology is sadly a terrible indictment of their lack of knowledge of true mystical theology and therefore of the superficial character of their own personal prayer lives. You cannot be a genuine traveller in the mystic way and continually proclaim a way of prayer that embodies the heresy of Pelagianism condemned by the Church since St Augustine. Understandably the instant mystical theology that they preach is far more attractive to the inhabitants of the selfie, do it yourself, quick fix society that we live in, rather than the long journey asked of those who are called to take up their cross daily. These are called to journey on in prayer beyond the beginnings into the mystic way, where selflessness is gradually and painfully ‘spirited away’ so that finally we can be prepared to receive and to relish “the height and the depth, the length and the breadth, of God’s love that surpasses the understanding.”

    • james

      I’ve had the benefit of 12 years of parochial education from two fine orders of nuns. Most
      Catholics never come close to the subtle and overt theology that I had the privilege to be
      instilled with – and so re: the topic under consideration I will end with this. In leaving the
      99 to find the lost one I cannot help but believe that Jesus will be much less impeded by someone seeking a false peace, if that is what is being advanced, than say, how much more challenging it is to providing the necessary grace to one steeped in a deadly sin(s)
      to find his way back home.

  • Patty

    That was a very nice article and very clear. Since it’s Advent, I’d like to point out: What was Mary doing when she conceived Jesus? Praying. What was Mary doing when she birthed Jesus? Praying. Praying, Praying, Praying. Awesome path.

  • Mark McCann

    Thank you for the excellent piece, David. I studied Mysticism in college (long, long ago!) I remember writing a paper on John of the Cross, but found his writings somewhat dry and difficult to grasp at times. However, someone clued me in to a John Michael Talbot album of songs based on the poetry of John of the Cross and it made writing the paper a more enjoyable task. I found that I enjoyed the poetry and simple imagery of the mystics over some of their deeper theological writings. Maybe that’s because I’m a poet at heart, but I was wondering about your take on the matter. Again, great, informative piece!

    • NYCFiredog

      Studying Mysticism from what you wrote is an “intellectual” thing. From the “mental” realm. If it stays mental, it may leave out the heart. I think it’s very valuable, but it reminds me of something Jonathan Bradshaw once said. He was a man who hid in his intellect. If after I died, I found two lines, one leading TO Heaven and the other leading to a lecture ON Heaven, I would have gone onto the line of the Lecture. I think we need to be accessing the Left Brain AND the Right brain as we do this and ask God to pull us UP to a frequency where we can access that Mystical connection to God.

  • NYCFiredog

    To your point,>>>> “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”<<< I agree that psychology is NOT Spirituality, but our ability to manage our emotions by being aware of them (mindfulness) is KEY to a healthy Spirituality, pausing before we act upon emotions and NOTICE when we are in a moment of temptation so we can pray our way out of it. Training in "Mindfulness" is not the end goal, but a means to strengthen our Prayer / Meditation and ability to stay concentrated ON our Prayer and to "Listen" for God's guidance and answers.

    To paraphrase one of Einstein's maxims……True freedom is the ability to pause between stimulus and response and WITHIN that pause—to choose. Mindfulness trains the mind to BE aware in that pause, and to choose NOT to sin.

    And one of my, what you call mantras, is the Hail Mary and Divine Mercy. Also, look at the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox who pray it in 100 knots of their prayer cords.

    And in one of my periods of "Aridity" I made up this one, "Jesus, help to thirst, love, and serve you." I was mentally chanting this while I was on the subway and I noticed a couple of mentally handicapped women in front of me looking desperately on the subway map and one saying, "Don't worry, someone will help us." I asked if I could help them. I told them they were a few stops away and I would lead them out to the street they needed. And all of a sudden I felt a waterfall of Light flooding me awash of my aridity and I heard Jesus say in my heart, "That is how you love me and serve me."

    Most people are living their faith at a superficial level because they have never known how to take it deeper.

    • james

      Very well said. The point the author is trying to make I believe is that for the uninitiated the yoga
      focus is an attempt at mind over body bypassing the spirit. Definitely first stage. Mind, being in no coherent spatial time system, belongs to a universal realm. It is in the mind that prayer forms as best it may for each individual and there, not the body is where the peace of Christ may form its own dew point which in meteorology is the point where water vapor turns to a liquid under the right temperature. The basis of mindfulness is to set the stage: right thought for actions outside the body. For the CC, it is the same fear that suspects Rikki may superimpose itself over the Logos when in fact it is a valuable tool that I and many others use in Hospice care. Both views presented here are valid and worth consideration.