Thursday, September 11, 2008

Eastern Meditation and Contemplative Prayer

As promised, this posting will give you more information about Contemplative Spirituality/Prayer and also begin to show some of the parallels with Eastern Meditation that is popularly practiced by those in the New Age movement. I will also provide some early Christian history about how Eastern meditation began appearing in Christianity. You will note that those who promote contemplative also promote the idea that individuals have a divine spark within and all religions are the same. This ecumenism or interspirituality is a topic for a later posting.
(I have all of the definitions in a separate blog, so now, hopefully, the unlined words will take you there. Today’s additions are mostly quotes that define these terms rather than Wikipedia definitions)

Marcia Montenegro, a former professional astrologer, writes this about the similarities:
"The influence of Buddhism and Hinduism on Contemplative Prayer is apparent. Words such as 'detachment,' 'transformation,' 'emptiness,' 'enlightenment,' and 'awakening' swim in and out of the waters of these books. The use of such terms certainly mandates a closer inspection of what is being taught, even though Contemplative Prayer is pre­sented as Christian practice."
Winter 2005 MCOI Journal

What is Eastern Meditation?

Meditation is a practice that is found in many Eastern religions including Hinduism, Buddism, Taoism, Islam, Sikism, Janism and Baha’i Faith. It is also found in the mystical expressions of Christianity and Judaism. In meditation, the meditator sits comfortably and silently, centering attention by focusing awareness on an object or process (either the breath, a sound: a mantra, koan or riddle evoking questions; a visualisation, or an exercise). The goal in meditation is to quiet the mind so that one can reach some higher level of being or divine power within. Often, the meditator will reach an altered state of awareness, or alpha brain wave state during the process.

“Meditation involves four steps: find a quiet place; close your eyes; pick any word; and say it again and again. This word is called a 'mantra'. The aim is to transcend thoughts and feelings, to enter an altered level of consciousness, and to move into pure consciousness, which is the intuition of your true Self, and thus find the god-centre or god-energy.”

“In Christian spiritual training, meditation means thinking with concentration about some topic. In the Eastern sense, meditation may be viewed as the opposite of thinking about a topic. Here the objective is to become detached from thoughts and images and opening up silent gaps between them. The result is a quieting of our mind and is sometimes called relaxation response. In Christian mystical practice, this practice is called 'contemplation'.”

The idea of stillness and silence is important to Eastern meditation just as it is to Contemplative Prayer. The objective is to become detached from thoughts and to find the true Self, the god-center, or the divine within. Eastern meditation techniques (adopted by the New Age Movement) have been adapted and increasingly practiced in Western culture and now, once again, in the Christian church.

What is the history of meditation/centering prayer in Christianity?

In 1 John 4:1, the apostle warned the believers about “false prophets that have gone out into the world.” He was speaking to them about several heresies that had already sprung up uniting Platonic thought and Christianity. One of these heresies, Gnosticism, taught that only the intellectually enlightened could enjoy the benefits of religion. These heretical teachings did not go away and were incorporated into the practices of some of the early monks beginning in the 3rd century and continuing through the 18th century. These monks, nuns and mystics and their writings and practices were denounced by the Roman Catholic church and many of these “desert fathers” were imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their anti-Biblical beliefs. Some believe that they were influenced by Eastern religion and meditation since the Middle East was the center of religious thought.

But if we were in doubt as to the Eastern religious influence in the lives of the “desert fathers”, we have no doubt about the influence in modern day Catholic monks.

The current practice of centering prayer can be traced to the mid-1970’s, St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass., and three monks, Abbot Thomas Keating, William Meninger and Basil Pennington. Their work was a response to the exhortations of the Second Vatican Council to become more knowledgeable about other religious faiths through dialogue with believers from these traditions and to revitalize the path of contemplative prayer in order to help Catholics, especially those who had left the church, to find such experiences in their own faith tradition. In the Protestant church, Richard Foster, a Quaker, also began writing about spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer in his book, Celebration of Discipline, 1978.

“Fathers Keating, Meninger and Pennington entered into intense, sustained dialogue with leaders from other traditions who lived near the abbey. They invited to the abbey ecumenically oriented Catholic theologians, an Eastern Zen master, Joshu Roshi Sasaki, who offered weeklong retreats on Buddhist meditation, and a former Trappist, Paul Marechal, who taught transcendental meditation. The interaction between these Christian monks and practitioners of Eastern meditation helped distill the practice of Christian contemplative prayer into a form that could be easily practiced by a diverse array of "non-monastic" believers: priests, nuns, brothers and lay men and women.”

Why did the Roman Catholic Church encourage the revival of these practices since they were seen as heresy and apostasy in early church history? Because the Catholic Church has an agenda to maintain a position among the world’s religions. I will write more about this in upcoming posts. Since the 1970’s centering or contemplative prayer has been taught and promoted in Catholic churches as well as Protestant and Evangelical churches, seminaries, universities and colleges.

Lest we think that these three monks were the only ones to actively bring Eastern religions into the Catholic faith, let me give a few more examples. Thomas Merton, also a Trappist monk and influential writer, was strongly influenced by Buddhist meditation, particularly as found in Zen – he was a lifetime friend of Buddhist meditation master and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and was also an acquaintance of the current Dalai Lama. He had a great influence the general public regarding contemplative prayer. And Richard Foster was, in turn, influenced by Thomas Merton.

Thomas Keating in The Transformation of Suffering says:
"This understanding of the unity of the human family is central to Christianity. Our spiritual journey, especially contemplative prayer, together with its practices for daily life, are processes of becoming aware of just how profound that unity is with God, ourselves, other people, other living beings, the earth, and all creation."

Ray Yungen, a researcher of contemplative spirituality/prayers for over 10 years, writes in A Time of Departing about Merton:

"What Martin Luther King was to the civil rights movement and what Henry Ford was to the automobile, Thomas Merton is to contemplative prayer. Although this prayer movement existed centuries before he came along, Merton took it out of its monastic setting and made it available to and popular with the masses. It is interesting to me that many people still think celebrity star Shirley MacLaine was the greatest influence in the New Age. But for me, hands down, Thomas Merton has influenced New Age thinking more than any person of recent decades. Merton penned one of the most classic descriptions of New Age spirituality I have ever come across.” A Time of Departing, p. 58

The following quotes are from Merton himself:

"Contemplative consciousness is a trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-formed consciousness … it can shine through this or that system, religious or irreligious" Thoughts on the East, p.34

"I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity ... I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can." (David Steindl-Rast, "Recollection of Thomas Merton's Last Days in the West" (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969)

"It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, ... now I realize what we all are .... If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are ...I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other ... At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth ... This little point the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody." Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1989 edition, pp. 157-158)

"When one enters the deeper layers of contemplative prayer one sooner or later experiences the void, the emptiness, the nothingness ... the profound mystical silence ... an absence of thought." —Thomas Merton biographer, William Johnston (A Time Of Departing, p.33)

"I'm deeply impregnated with Sufism.” The Springs of Contemplation, p. 266

And from Richard Foster:

"[W]e must be willing to go down into the recreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation. In their writings, all of the masters of meditation strive to awaken us to the fact that the universe is much larger than we know." Celebration of Disciplines, p. 13

"We now come to the ultimate stage of Christian experience. Divine Union.... Contemplatives sometimes speak of their union with God by the analogy of a log in a fire: the glowing log is so united with the fire that it is fire ..." Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, p. 159

And then this quote which shows the impact of the Merton/Foster connection:
“Merton’s writings are quoted by today’s advocates of his contemplative prayer methodology that he derived from dark sources as already documented. Look in the notes of any modern book on prayer, and see if you find Merton quotes. This leaven of doctrines of devils has found its way into such popular "Evangelical" books as Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Brennan Manning’s, Ragamuffin Gospel, books that grace the shelves of many church bookstores.”

Why am I so concerned about meditation/contemplative prayer that is being practiced by the evangelical church, especially our youth, today?
Here is a quote from Steve Muse, a former occultist, who personally experienced the dangers of contemplative prayer encouraged by both Catholic and Protestant and, today, Evangelical leaders.

“More than thirty years ago, as an occultist, I was deeply involved in mysticism and the practice of contemplative prayer. I learned this meditation technique from studying Catholic mystics who said then, and even teach now, that one does not have to believe in Jesus Christ to enter into the contemplative experience but that all roads would take us to the same destination. I went even further by becoming a disciple of Transcendental Meditation, which was identical to the Catholic contemplative prayer techniques I had already learned. Those I walked with into this journey of mysticism experienced a much deeper spiritual realm leading many into relationships with seducing spirits rather than with God. These same techniques are encouraged by today’s new mystics and especially New Age advocates—such advocates feel encouraged to see Christians moving into this type of prayer experience.”

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world." 1 John 4:1