I am as delighted as all other orthodox Catholics that the Spanish Bishops have spoken out against all forms of prayer involving Eastern meditation techniques and the mindfulness movement in their document, My Soul Thirsts for God, for the Living God: A Doctrinal Orientation on Christian Prayer (published 3rd September 2019). But is it too little, too late? This spiritual heresy has been deceiving people to my knowledge for over forty years with little official condemnation, leaving the laity in limbo-land, looking for guidance and looking in vain. Most of these techniques have been imported from Buddhism and have no place in Catholic spirituality. The particular form that I am familiar with is taught by ‘The World Community for Christian Meditation’ which was founded by a Benedictine monk, Fr John Main. Let me tell you a spiritual horror story to show just how dangerous the teaching of this movement is.
An Unfortunate Meeting
Only a few years ago a very good friend of mine, Amelia Tyler, died. She was president of the secular Franciscans for the province of Florence. Shortly after setting up a house of prayer in Tuscany she found herself deeply in the Dark Night. She discovered for herself that it was a great help to use a short simple prayer as encouraged by the Catholic Mystical tradition. Unfortunately, she was unable to find a spiritual director who understood her. So when she heard of a monk in Canada called Fr John Main whose whole spirituality seemed to revolve around saying a short prayer, she went to see him at great expense to seek his advice. She was surprised to find that he originally came from London, not far from where she lived with her English husband where she ran a shop in New Bond Street selling fashions imported from Milan where she was born. Sadly, her initial joy at finding a person whom she thought would be her spiritual saviour turned into a disaster.
Buddhist Prayer not Christian Prayer
John Main’s method of ‘meditation’ which he learnt as a layman in the Far East perfectly embodies this erroneous approach. In his own words, the essence of his teaching is this.
‘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).
Writing for the Tablet, Fr Main’s successor, Fr Laurence Freeman recommends the same process. ‘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’.
Authentic Christian Contemplative Prayer
Fr. Main told Amelia to keep repeating the word Maranatha. He explained that by repeating this mantra, she would almost instantly come to experience inner peace and inner recollection. Furthermore, he told her, quite erroneously, that what she was experiencing was, in fact, the mystical contemplation as described by St Teresa of Avila in her masterwork Interior Castle. Exactly the opposite happened to her because she was using the word as a short prayer, not as a technique to generate inner peace. She was, in fact, using it to ask God to come into her and to abide in her. Her prayer helped her to keep the deep primordial desire for love, that is in all of us, fixed on God the source of all love. The selfless loving embodied in her constant prayer acted as a spiritual lightning conductor directing God’s love into her heart.
However, in authentic Catholic Mystical Theology, as explained best by St John of the Cross, the fire of God’s love first reveals and then draws out of a person all the sins and all the sinfulness that prevents being totally possessed by him. What the receiver must then do is to see the sins and the sinfulness that is preventing God’s love totally possessing them and confess them, receive absolution and continue praying as before to enable God’s love to continue the process of purification in what St John of the Cross calls The Dark Night of the Soul. Far from leading to inner peace, it leads to inner turmoil and sometimes to spiritual depression to see oneself laid bare.
Sent to a Psychiatrist
To a competent mystical theologian, this is how God acts in the Night of Purification. But Fr John Main was not a competent mystical theologian, nor for that matter do the later leaders of his movement know anything about mystical theology. Inevitably Amelia was tragically spiritually violated by a charlatan. When she explained how despite what he told her to do she experienced, not peace and tranquillity but inner turmoil, he was perplexed. His ignorance was responsible for giving her potentially disastrous advice. As he and his bogus way to mystical contemplation could not possibly be wrong, he concluded that there must be something wrong with her.
He sent her to England to receive psychological help from a psychiatrist in London whom he recommended. Once cured she could then return to him and he would teach her how to attain mystical contemplation in no time at all, simply by endlessly repeating a mantra. Her problem he believed was that she was psychologically ill and therefore unable to benefit from his mystical teaching which is, in fact, the old heresy of Pelagianism. Believe me, it is utterly devastating for a poor soul struggling in the Night to be told they are mentally ill because it confirms their worst fears and it can not just destroy their spiritual lives but devastate their whole lives, sometimes permanently. These false messiahs must be stopped and stopped for good.
My Soul Thirsts
Before she could see a psychiatrist, she met a Dominican Nun who attended my lectures on Mystical theology in Rome and that is how I came to know her. She never did see a psychiatrist but continued to run her retreat centre in Tuscany, whereby personal experience she was able to help many others who like her had been deceived by various forms of the mantra and mindfulness movements that are commonplace today.
Many others were not so fortunate. Huge numbers of good serious-minded searchers who have been led into true mystical contemplation have been spiritually abused by this man and his successors. A very close and dear relative told me that for over forty years her prayer life was destroyed by their evil teaching. Like all totalitarian organizations of every sort, they are never wrong and those who disagree with them must, therefore, be seen as suitable cases for psychological treatment. My Soul Thirsts makes it clear that their methods are wrong and the Bishops unequivocally reject their teaching on meditation techniques that purport to lead to instant experiences of inner peace equated to the mystical experiences as described by St Teresa of Avila.
Continual Selfish Actions Make a Person Porous to Evil
What is so pernicious about these mantra movements is that the whole emphasis is on self, and seeking self-satisfaction, in the form of inner states of peace or of esoteric forms of transcendental awareness. If you are continually encouraged to act selfishly time and time again seeking psychological palliatives you become more and more selfish. Selfish acts lead to selfish habits and selfish habits eventually lead to an inner disposition, not of love but of selfishness which in the end makes a person porous to evil. In the same way selfless acts that pertain to the very essence of authentic Christian prayer make a person porous to love, the love of God. In authentic Catholic teaching the profound experience of God’s love does eventually begin to abide with and in genuine mystics, but only permanently after the purification that the mantra-men know nothing about.
True Charity Means Proclaiming the Truth
In medieval times the heresy that is clearly intrinsic to the mantra movements would be stamped out with the utmost severity. However, in ‘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 created? It turns them away from God’s love and his desire to draw them up and into his infinite loving for all eternity, and all for the sake of a little self-generated bogus ‘contemplation’ that is no more than mental yoga. To refrain from denouncing bogus forms of mystical theology for fear of acting uncharitably is to turn the meaning of charity upside down.
Making the Whole of Life into the Mass
The God-given spirituality that Jesus Christ bequeathed to the early Church was a call to love God by acting selflessly. This selflessness was learned inside of prayer where they were taught to continually raise their hearts and minds to God despite the distractions and temptations that would try to induce them to turn in on themselves, as does the teaching of the mantra and mindfulness movements in every shape and form. This is where they first learned how to carry the daily cross without which they could not be Christ’s disciples. This is where those not called to physical red martyrdom learned to practise white martyrdom where what was learned inside of prayer was put into practice outside of prayer. It was this that led to ‘the prayer without ceasing’ where they practised the selfless other-considering love, as they did everything for God. It was in this way that all they said and did became the Mass, the place where they continually offered themselves to God through acts of selfless-giving.
Prayer was then and is now, the place where selflessness is learned, not the place where a person goes to seek psychological palliatives or esoteric states of transcendental awareness. I hope more and more authoritative statements by the hierarchies will condemn these imported techniques from the Far East that offer instant contemplation. Teach us how to prepare for the real thing instead, the most important action that a human being can perform.
However, it is too late for thousands of good Catholics called to contemplation by the Holy Spirit in the last forty years who have had their spiritual lives devastated by the spirit of arrogance and ignorance in those who should have known better. Reparation should be made now and without delay by re-introducing courses on Mystical Theology into all seminaries. All future priests whose education is paid for by the laity should have a right to expect that they are well prepared to guide them in their spiritual lives. To this end, they should be thoroughly grounded in the teaching on prayer of the two great doctors of the Church, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross.
That error be defeated the truth must be proclaimed.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles – The Making of a Mystic, Wisdom from The Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love. See www.davidtorkington.com