Contemplative Prayer Movement and Its Origin
Published in the Christian Chronicle – By S. E. Ray – 06/18/06
There is a prayer practice that is becoming popular within the evangelical church. It is primarily known as Contemplative Prayer. It is also known as centering prayer, listening prayer, breath prayer, and prayer of the heart. The practice is now widely embraced and taught in secular and professed Christian seminaries, colleges, universities, organizations, ministries and seminars throughout the United States. Academic promoters have introduced these practices into the fields of medicine; business and law while countless secular and Christian books, magazines, seminars, and retreats are teaching lay people how to incorporate them into their daily lives. Promoters promise physical, mental and spiritual benefits desiring to bring about positive social change.
The essential function of contemplative prayer is to enter an altered state of consciousness in order to find one’s true self, thus striving to find God. Proponents of contemplative prayer teach that all human beings have a divine center and that all, not just born again believers, should practice contemplative prayer. To achieve the state of emptiness, one uses a “mantra,” a word repeated over and over to focus the mind while striving to go deep within oneself. The effects are a hypnotic-like state: concentration upon one thing, disengagement from other stimuli, a high degree of openness to suggestion, a psychological and physiological condition that externally resembles sleep but in which consciousness is interiorized and the mind subject to suggestion.
In the early Middle Ages during the 4th through 6th centuries, there lived a group of hermits in the wilderness areas of the Middle East. They were known to history as the Desert Fathers. They dwelt in small isolated communities for the purpose of devoting their lives completely to God without distraction. The contemplative movement traces its roots back to these monks. They were the ones who first promoted the mantra as a prayer tool. “The meditation practices and rules for living of these earliest Christian monks bear strong similarity to those of their Hindu and Buddhist enunciate brethren several kingdoms to the East… the meditative techniques they adopted for finding their God suggest either a borrowing from the East or a spontaneous rediscovery.'” From A Time of Departing, p. 42, 2nd ed. (Ray Yungen)
[See photo of Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton below.]
Most New Agers, occultist and Eastern Mystics teach this type of praying, along with certain individuals within Christianity. Two influential writers who have popularized “contemplative prayer” in the evangelical church are Richard Foster and Brennan Manning. Both these men have written popular “Christian” books about contemplative prayer. And, both quote the Catholic mystics such as Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Father Keating and two other monks met with Buddhist and Hindu teachers in an effort to understand the mass defection of young Catholics at the time, people drawn in part to the East’s meditation practices. Their research led Keating, then an abbot at a Massachusetts monastery, to begin unearthing a similar meditative method based on the Christian tradition. The East was mixed with Catholicism to yield new appeal to the defecting younger generation of that time.
Contemplative Prayer differs from Christian prayer in that the intent of the technique is to bring the practitioner to the center of his own being. There he is, supposedly, to experience the presence of the God who indwells him. Christian prayer, on the contrary, centers upon God in a relational way, as an independent power apart from oneself but realized intimately through the Holy Spirit. The confusion of this technique with Christian practitioners arises from a misunderstanding of the indwelling of God. The fact that God indwells us does not mean that we can capture his presence by mental techniques. Nor does it mean that we are identical with him in our deepest self as gods. Rather, the Creator God indwells us by grace that does not blend human effort and His divine presence.
Contemplative prayer claims for itself the experience of God, while setting aside external realities and overcoming the “otherness” of God. It takes these characteristics not from Christian tradition but from Hinduism, through the medium of Transcendental Meditation. The practice of TM is Hinduism adapted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu guru, for use in a Western cultural setting. Fr. Pennington, one of the authors of centering prayer and an ardent supporter of TM, says, “Mahesh Yogi, employing the terminology of the ancient Vedic tradition, speaks of this ‘to plunge into deep, deep rest for fifteen or twenty minutes twice a day’ as experiencing the Absolute.” The prayer technique may also incorporate the Buddhist Zen practice of Zazen, or sitting meditation, which involves the detached observation of the thoughts.
Paul writes in scripture, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” (I Corinthians 14:15 NIV). He does not say that he will pray with the spirit and clear the mind, but with the spirit and the mind. Clearing ones mind as to be vacant, and trusting God to fill it with whatever He desires, not only has no biblical grounding but also is an open invitation to spiritual invasion of unfriendly familiars. Buddhists call this state Nirvana or Satori, the New Age calls it “at-one-ness”, and Christian mystics perceive they have experienced some kind of ecstatic union with God. Former practitioners have reported insomnia, new fears and paranoia’s, unusual emotional outbursts without restraint, swirling emotions with confusion among others. There is a complete vulnerability in the psychological state of one who practices contemplative prayer, a state that may allow unwelcome visitation without resistance. Contemplative prayer, TM and such practices drop the physiological and psychological boundaries that, in our fallen state, are a fail-safe protection for the human mind and spirit.
The meditation of occultists is identical with the prayer of Christian mystics: it is no accident that both traditions use the same method for the highest reaches of their respective pursuits. Occultism is defined as the science of mystical evolution; it is the employment of the hidden mystical faculties of man to discern the hidden reality of nature, and to experience God as the all in all. In New Age meditation, human efforts are relied upon to realize God. The goal is not to seek God as an Other, but to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Where a Christian seeks dialogue and interaction with God and, with his help, the “restoration of all things in Christ,” by a certain “participation in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 NIV), the Mystic seeks God in the inner self and escape from the distractions of the outer world.
Richard Foster in his book, Prayer: Finding the heart’s True Home, he speaks of the practice of “breath prayer,” in which a Christian-sounding word or phrase is repeated over and over again like a mantra. Foster wrote “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it” (pg. 72). This “breath prayer” idea has gained popularity in charismatic circles that frequently sing of “breathing in Jesus” or variations thereof. Jesus instructed his followers NOT to use vain repetitions as the heathen do (Matthew 6:7). Mantra meditation was practiced by pagan religions (including Hinduism and Buddhism), centuries before Christ was born. Jesus knew about this form of prayer and most scholars agree he was referring to it directly in his teaching.
“Silence, appropriate body posture and above all, emptying the mind through repetition of prayer—have been the practices of mystics in all the great world religions. And they form the basis on which most modern spiritual directors guide those who want to draw closer to God.… Silence is the language God speaks … says Thomas Keating who taught “centering prayer” to more than 31,000 people last year. Keating suggests that those who pray repeat some “sacred word,” like God or Jesus.” Newsweek, January 6, 1992, article called, “Talking to God,” p. 44.
“In advising against being carried away by artificial practices such as Transcendental Meditation I am but repeating the age-old message of the Church…. The way of the Fathers requires firm faith and long patience, whereas our contemporaries want to seize every spiritual gift, including even direct contemplation of the Absolute God, by force and speedily, and will often draw a parallel between prayer in the Name of Jesus and yoga or Transcendental Meditation and the like. I must stress the danger of such errors…. He is deluded who endeavors to divest himself mentally of all that is transitory and relative in order to cross some invisible threshold, to realize his eternal origin, his identity with the Source of all that exists, in order to return and merge with him, the nameless transpersonal Absolute. Such exercises have enabled many to rise to supernatural contemplation of being, to experience a certain mystical trepidation, to know the state of silence of mind, when mind goes beyond the boundaries of time and space. In such like states man may feel the peacefulness of being withdrawn from the continually changing phenomena of the visible world, may even have a certain experience of eternity. But the God of Truth, the Living God, is not in all this.”Archimandrite Sophrony of Mount Athos, former Eastern mystic converted to Christ.
“The mystical “spirituality” that is so popular in evangelical and charismatic circles today is a yearning for an experiential relationship with God that downplays the role of faith and Scripture and that exalts “transcendental” experiences that lift the individual from the earthly mundane into a higher “spiritual” plane. Biblical prayer is talking with God; mystical spirituality prayer is meditation and “centering” and other such things. Biblical Christianity is a patient walk of faith; mystical spirituality is more a flight of fancy. Biblical study is analyzing and meditating upon the literal truth of the Scripture; mystical spirituality focuses on a “deeper meaning”; it is more allegorical and “transcendental” than literal.” Way of Life, David W. Cloud.
What would the martyrs of the faith say to us if they could speak of our current Western practice of intermingling Christianity with Eastern religion and the occult? Those who were put to death for their faith in Jesus Christ after departed from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Paul words ring true today and is a strong exhortation to those who try to mix the ways of darkness with the light. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils; you cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils.” (I Cor. 10:21 NIV, II Tim 3:5). With extreme prejudice, examine everything against scripture and be cautious about receiving the popular “new” teachings being promoted today in the Church by trusted leaders who are entrenched.