I have recently come across numerous people talking about “contemplative” or “centering” prayer. Some disparage all forms of contemplative prayer as forms of New Age Eastern religion, and others encourage it as a way to come into the presence of God. Many talk about learning from the Desert Fathers and early Christian Mystics like St. Teresa of Avila who taught “ways of attaining spiritual perfection through prayer and its four stages, as in meditation, quiet, repose of soul and finally perfect union with God, which she equates with rapture”.
Jim Goll, who I respect, has taught on contemplative prayer for some time and wrote a book on it in 2006 called, The Lost Art of Practicing His Presence. He writes that the difference between the New Age and what he practices is that they seek “awareness”, while he is “concerned with divine love between God and a person”. But when you look into this a bit further, things tend to get a bit muddled. For instance, the New Age is focused on becoming aware of the god within us, while Christians are focused on God outside of us, but who also so happens to live within us.
Take a look at this YouTube video by a Catholic priest named Laurence Freeman, who teaches on the contemplative life and Christian meditation:
The techniques he teaches sound exactly like New Age meditation which he appears to speak of approvingly. He simply comes from a Christian faith tradition and so he puts a layer of Christian terminology on top of it.
Recently, I spent time watching a BBC documentary called The Big Silence, that was presented by a Catholic monk who sought to teach five volunteers the benefits of having regular times of silence in their lives. While each of the volunteers had spiritual experiences during their eight day retreat (including one businessman who at the start was anti-God, but who significantly changed after hearing God speak to him), in the end three of the five said they didn’t want to join a “religion” (the other two started out as Christians). Worse, the businessman said, “when we came out of the silence, I said I’m just going to invite the universe into my life now, and I’m going to go with whatever the universe brings me”. The documentary says he is planning to study psychotherapy, a course that “he hopes will take him further into himself”.
Clearly a crucial difference here is that Christians should be focused on Jesus, not just the inner self.
But even that is perhaps not sufficient. I noticed that the monk in the documentary believed that by being still or silent, that people would first find the “very center of who we are” and that would then lead them to finding God. And it is true that when we quiet down we begin to confront all the issues in our hearts that we have pushed down. So while there is a good aspect to this, it can also unfortunately lead us to be more focused on ourselves than on God.
Part of my concern here is from my experience with the prophetic and seeing how prophetic words are so frequently a mixture — part of a prophetic word may indeed be from God, but other parts are often from our own hearts. For me, what this comes down to is our tendency to what to control our own lives. We like what God does for us. We like some of the things He says to us. But in the end, we tend to want to run our own lives.
Thus, I’m thinking that a better way to do contemplative prayer would be to not just invite God into our stillness, but to invite His kingdom to reign in our stillness, i.e., we should purposefully recognize that we are coming before our King who rules and reigns, at the same time that we are seeking to know and Him.
But isn’t this exactly what Jesus taught when he taught us the Lord’s prayer? He said to pray, “Thy kingdom come”!
I listened to a Dayspring podcast recently that had sociologist Tony Campolo (and fantastic storyteller) speaking about contemplative prayer. I liked how he used the Lord’s prayer as a basis for how we should do it.
We do need to know our God, to experience Him, to hear Him, to be close to Him. But we also need to test and discern what we hear (or experience) much more than we seem to be doing. People in the world today seem to be more accepting of spiritual and mystical experiences, but they also seem to be open to just about any type of spirituality or experience. So, how do we help people differentiate between what is good and what is not good? What are the core differences between Christian mediation and Eastern meditation, between Christian contemplative prayer and New Age contemplative prayer?
For me, some of the core differences are – Who are we seeking awareness of, ourselves or God? Who are we inviting to speak into our hearts, the universe or God? Who are we putting our faith in, our experiences or God?
Further, do we test what we hear (against scripture) and attempt to discern what the source is (God, spirits, our own souls, or a mixture)? In the end, are we contemplating who God is and how He has reached out in love to us through His Son, or are we contemplating who we are and whatever we happen to experience a connection to?