Sunday, November 26, 2023

How to Tell Christian Prayer from New Age Meditation

A "Centering Prayer" group, encrusted with Boomers as to be expected

We live in a world which rejects Catholic tradition while simultaneously professing great interest in spiritualities influenced by the New Age. Christians have been traditionally reluctant to embrace such practices, as they contain elements that are fundamentally opposed to the most basic tenets of Christianity. Some, however, have merged various elements of eastern mysticism and New Age neo-paganism with traditional Catholic spirituality, thrown in some Christian vocabulary and are now peddling these practices as compatible with Catholicism. For example, the method of "Centering Prayer" promoted by the late Cistercian monk Basil Pennington is a good example, but there are others. These practices are promoted as Christian forms of "contemplation", and Catholics are encouraged to participate. In this article we will look at how to discern whether a spiritual practice is authentically Catholic or just New Age esoteric mysticism in a Christian veneer. We will use the 'Centering Prayer' spirituality developed by Fr. Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington as an example, but what we will say can be applied to any questionable spirituality.

This will call for shrewdness, as these New Age practices often adopt Christian vocabulary; their promoters fabricate Christian pedigrees to make them more palatable to a Christian demographic. Therefore it is not sufficient to simply look at what sort of words they use or whose name they drop; you really have to dig in and get to the theological and philosophical roots of the practice to judge it.

In my opinion, there are five basic criterion against which you can measure such practices:
  • Does the practice originate within the Catholic Tradition or is it influenced by pagan, New Age, or Asian religion?

  • Does it focus on the person and life of Jesus Christ or does it emphasize a pantheist-deist "Absolute"?

  • Is the purpose of the technique holiness through union with God, or is it self-realization/self-enlightenment?

  • Does its content consist of meditation on the life and teaching of our Lord and the Saints, or is it preoccupied with breathing techniques, mantras, etc?

  • Does the spirituality sufficiently value the role of grace and mortification in spiritual progress or does it claim to be a "short cut" for people to "get in tune with God" with relative ease?

From What Root Hath it Sprung? 

Thus, when presented with a plan or program of contemplation, it is very helpful at the very outset to research where this technique originated. Let us go back to M. Basil Pennington and Centering Prayer. According to Pennington and apologists of the method, Centering Prayer is can trace its derivation from late Catholic medieval mystical works like the Cloud of Unknowing and ultimately from the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox tradition. However, a little bit of research reveals that this pedigree is fabricated; the origins of Centering Prayer goes back to a few Trappist monks in the 50's and 60's and their interactions with members of the Zen Buddhist school in the United States. Fr. Thomas Keating, the originator of Centering Prayer, developed the method after consultation with Buddhist and Hindu teachers. The purpose of these consultations was to discover what was attracting young westerners to Eastern religions and then Christianize it. Centering Prayer was the result. Basil Pennington's books, while speaking a vocabulary of Christianity, also direct the reader to Mahesh Yogi and the Vedic traditions.

We could go on, but the point is clear. If the spirituality comes from a source outside of the Christian tradition, then it is to be held in extreme skepticism. In the case of Centering Prayer, the "Absolute" of the Asian tradition is pantheistic and completely incompatible with Christianity. In Pennington's theology, the determining factor in our spiritual growth is not grace but "psychic energy," and the focus of our prayers are on "the Lord present within us" (1). A spirituality that encourages us focus intensively on God's presence "within us" treads dangerously close to Gnostic pantheism, while its omission of the concept of grace in favor of "psychic energy" renders it totally incompatible with classical Catholic spirituality.

But one does not need to go through all the theological exercises to figure this out. As a very reliable rule of thumb, if the practice has its origin in or was formulated in imitation of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism or any other Asian spirituality, it ought to be rejected as incompatible with Catholicism, inasmuch as the spiritualities of these theological traditions are fundamentally at odds with the Christian revelation. "A good tree does not produce bad fruit, and a bad tree does not produce good fruit" (Luke 6:43).

As mentioned above, you will have to be discriminating here. Many New Age "contemplation" methods claim to be derived from old Catholic spiritual traditions. The orthodox Jesus Prayer, the Cloud of Unknowing, and the works of Evagrius Pontus are often cited as sources. Usually these works are appealed to erroneously, and further investigation reveals that the advocates of neo-pagan spirituality are actually distorting what the Cloud of Unknowing says or misunderstanding the purpose of the Jesus Prayer. In other situations their practices do share real similarities with something in Christian history, but with a deviant interpretation of that spiritual tradition. This is the case with spiritual practices based loosely on the writings of the 14th century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart or the 12th century abbot Joachim of Fiore. Again, do your research.
Centrality of the Life and Person of Jesus

Prayer in the Catholic Tradition never occurs outside of the context of the life and person of our Lord Jesus Christ. All prayers are offered in His name. The mysteries and sufferings of His life and death are the content of Catholic meditation. Catholic prayers are centered on the person of Jesus, such as the Anima Christi or the Litany of the Sacred Heart. The end purpose of Catholic spirituality is to become Christ-like by transformation in the Spirit. Thus, any true Catholic spirituality will give pride of place to the life and person of Jesus Christ.

Spiritualities influenced by the New Age, however, tend to push the person of Christ into the background in favor of pantheistic or deistic terms like "Absolute", "Divinity", "God", "Spirit", etc. This is because these spiritualities are ultimately pantheist; they view God as immanently present in every person and in the world. This means that mankind needs no mediator between God and man because God is already intimately present in man; all man needs to do is realize this truth. The importance of the person and redemptive work of Jesus fades into the background.

Understand that the question is not whether or not the name of Jesus is used; advocates of Centering Prayer propose the name "Jesus" as a "sacred word" for meditation, as we shall see below. What needs to be examined is whether the focus of the meditation is the person of Jesus Himself, or whether the name Jesus is merely being used as a mantra to clear the mind. 

What is the Purpose of Meditation?

It has been noted that meditation techniques inspired by Eastern or New Age spiritualities have a different purpose from Christian meditation. We have stated above that an authentically Christian meditation is inseparable from the life and person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. All authentically Christian meditation seeks an increase in holiness through deeper union with Christ as its end. However, given that pagan-influenced spiritualities usually downplay the importance of Jesus in favor of union with "the Absolute" or a generic "God," union with Christ is no longer the end purpose of these meditative techniques.

What then, is the purpose of spiritualities influenced by the New Age or Asian mysticism?

No matter what label it is givenCentering Prayer, Enneagram, or whateverand no matter how its proponents try in vain to attach it to some legitimate Christian custom, these New Age spiritualities cannot get away from their pantheist origins. This means the end of these techniques is ultimately going to be unity with the Absolute that is found "within us," to use the words of Basil Pennington. The focus in these practices will always be on the subject, not on a transcendent God or His laws. Learning to commune with God within you. Attaining self-enlightenment or facilitating self-development. Becoming in tune with one's own personality type. These are common phrases used by proponents of these practices. However it is worded, the core idea is that the ultimate end of meditation ought to be a more thorough understanding of the self.

If the ultimate end is a more perfect self-realization, the secondary end is the emptying of the intellect as a means to facilitate self-realization. All New Age inspired spiritualities share a profound mistrust of the intellect as a means of apprehending the divine. The intellect is not something that grace builds upon or elevates; rather it is seen as an obstacle that must be overcome. Thus these techniques will advocate the "emptying" of the mind, the "stilling" of all thought, the "return" of the mind to a place of relaxation and peace with the purpose of attaining a cessation of all intellectual activity. A perfect stillness, a blank tablet of the mind to create a space for an encounter with the divine within us.

If the spirituality in question seems to focus on self-enlightenment obtained through practices aimed at completely stilling all intellectual activity, it is highly suspect. The purpose of the intellect is to discern the true from the false; this is inherent in human nature. Thus the active cessation of intellectual activity in these sorts of spiritualities in effect "lets the guard down" over the soul. It exposes its practitioners to all sorts of spiritual influences without the discerning faculty provided by the intellect.

Authentic Catholic spirituality has never denigrated the intellect; it embraces the intellect while understanding that under the influence of grace, God often will take the mystic beyond the realm of the intellect. But to go beyond or to build upon is not to negate. God uses the intellect as a stepping stone to touch our souls in a manner consistent with our nature and elevate us beyond where it could take us on our own. This means a fundamental disposition that is God-focused, not self-focused. A Christian contemplation can never be solely focused on self-enlightenment. We occasionally engage in introspectionsuch as during an Examination of Conscience or discerning the inspirations of the Soiritbut it is ultimately for the purpose of making ourselves pleasing to a transcendent God. Pagan-inspired spiritual proponents will agree with Catholics that union with God is the end goal of meditation, but further discussion will reveal that they only assert this in an indirect way; union with God is attained by means of the path of self-enlightenment. Thus the focus of activity remains the self. The will is focused on ourselves instead of God. This should always be a red flag. 

Self-realization itself does not constitute holiness. This kind of introspection is only valuable to the degree that it helps us realize our need for divine grace and orient our wills towards God, who, while He may be experienced within us as He wishes, is ultimately outside of us and beyond us. 

Content of Meditation

Pagan inspired prayer techniques are also recognizable by their content. While the content of these prayers may contain Christian language, the manner in which this vocabulary is used is quite different than what most Catholics throughout the centuries have been used to. Being that the aim is to empty the mind, most New Age inspired meditation makes use of a mantra to accomplish this end. A mantra is a word that is selected as an "anchor"; this word is dwelt on slowly and intentionally to help "center" the heart. Fr. Keating, the founder of Centering Prayer, says, "Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor" (2). The sacred word can be anythingJesus, Abba, Lordas long as it signifies the desire of the soul to be united to the divine, it will suffice. Thus the mantra, the interior or exterior repetition of sacred word is the method by which the requisite emptiness is attained.

Please note, the people will not use the word mantra; Basil Pennington calls it a "love word". It is ultimately irrelevant what name it is called by; the fact is that it is a special phrase repeated for the purpose of negating any intellectual activity, and this is a mantra, regardless of what anyone may say. Also note, the use of a repetitive word to clear the mind in and of itself is not problematic; the Jesus Prayer and even the Aves of the Rosary could be said to perform a similar function. Rather, it is the use of the mantra in conjunction with these other criteria that should raise red flags about a spiritual practice.

A Shortcut to Mortification?

In the Catholic Tradition, grace is freely available but holiness necessitates that a believer dispose himself to grace by acts of penance and self-denial. This self-denial is known as mortification. As the believer mortifies his passions and disciplines himself, he gradually enters into a more intense relationship with His Lord. Though this development is punctuated by occasional periods of desolation (St. Ignatius) and even by the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross), ultimately the believer who is faithful will be brought through these trials of faith to a place of union with God in the spirit.

Do these New Age inspired spiritualities emphasize self-denial, penance or mortification? Do they acknowledge with Acts 14:22 that "with many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God"? Too often these spiritualities do not adequately stress the penitential aspect of the Christian life. More importantly, they often ignore the fact that communion with God, truly deep, unitive communion, takes a lot of time and effort. There is no "easy way" or "shortcut" for people to achieve union with God; it certainly cannot be boiled down to a few talking points in a best-selling book or a fifteen minute appearance on Oprah. If the spirituality you are looking at boasts that it is a "shortcut" or "easy way" for "anyone" to experience deep union with God while making no mention of mortification, it is most likely incompatible with Catholic tradition.

The connection is very logical: New Age spirituality is about discovering the self, which is basically good and only needs to be recognized as such. That being the case, repentance for sin or acknowledgement of our own sins is not emphasized in these practices. Consequently, mortification, self-denial, penance, joyful acceptance of suffering, etc. really have no logical place in this system.


A Catholic who is truly steeped in Catholic spiritual tradition should intuitively recognize the incompatibility of these neo-pagan practices with the Catholic faith. Taking into account its roots in Buddhist, Hindu or New age sources, its diminishing of the unique, salvific importance of Jesus Christ, its focus on self-enlightenment instead of personal holiness, its use of mantras to still intellectual activity and its marketing as a 'short cut' or 'easy path' to communion with God, Catholics should avoid Centering Prayer and all similar sorts of neo-pagan spiritualities, whose end purpose is ultimately the glorification of self rather than God.


(2) Thomas Keating (2009), "Intimacy with God: an Introduction to Centering Prayer," 17

Thursday, November 23, 2023

In What Sense is the Pope Above Canon Law?

A common refrain when from hyperpapalists when the pope disregards canon law by his actions is, "So what? He can do that. The pope is not bound by canon law." 

It is, of course, true that the pope is not bound by any human law, including ecclesiastical law. Not only is this due to the pope's status as the supreme juridical authority within the Church, but also because the pope himself is a source of canon law. Since canon law is subject to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, it is clear that is cannot be bound by it in any coercive sense.

Does this literally mean, however, that the pope can break canon law at will as a normal exercise of his authority? When the pope violates canon law, is this to be understood as a legitimate exercise of his juridical authority?

Sunday, November 12, 2023

"Strict Consistency with the Past"

Whilst casually flipping through my old copy of the 1929 New Catholic Dictionary, I looked up its entry for "Pope" and found an interesting little nugget. After a rather boiler-plate explanation of papal authority (universal, immediate, perpertual, etc.), it addresses the question of whether pontifical power is to be understood in an absolutist manner. After discussing the pope's practical dependence on the curia for his governance, the article answers the question in the negative: 

Sunday, November 05, 2023

The Last Gasp of Our Akhenaten

Pope Francis's new motu proprio Ad Theologiam Promovendam has called for a "paradigm shift" in Catholic theology, citing the "profound cultural changes" of the modern world as the justification. The pope insisted on a "courageous cultural revolution" within Catholic thought, calling for our theology to become "fundamentally contextual." Among other things, he called for theology to be primarily "inductive," focused on "dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian confessions and different religions, openly engaging with everyone." He contrasted this new approach with "abstractly re-proposing formulas and themes from the past," which the pope characterized as "desk bound theology." 

Monday, October 16, 2023

A 1971 Proposal for a New Form of First Confession for Children

Bishop Pieter Jan Antoon Moors of Roermond, who in 1964 became one of the first bishops to revise how the Sacrament of Penance was administered to children.

[Oct. 15, 2023] Franz Heggen (b. 1930) is a Dutch theologian who was a peritus for Bishop Pieter Jan Antoon Moors of the Diocese of Roermond, Netherlands. Before the Second Vatican Council had even ended, Bishop Moors (1964) issued directives in his diocese for a reevaluation of how penance was administered, asking priests to consider preparing children for confession in stages through prayer and song rather than traditional catechesis (1). Franz Heggen was a part of these discussions and an advocate for a restructuring of the sacrament in such a way that absolution was conferred collectively in order to stress the communal character of the sacrament.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Another Older Catechism on Capital Punishment

[Sept. 24, 2023] Back in June of 2019, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski published a piece at Rorate Caeli exploring on how pre-Vatican II catechisms treated the subject of capital punishment. Entitled "What Good is a Changing Catechism?", the article demonstrated a consistent teaching on the liceity of the death penalty going back to Council of Trent at least. I also published an article on the subject ("Pre-Vatican II Catechisms on the Capital Punishment") arguing the same. These collections of pre-Conciliar catechism quotes are important pieces of evidence displaying an indisputable continuity of the Church's teaching across the generations.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

An Injustice from the Beginning

[Sept. 14, 2023] I was baptized Catholic as a baby in an ethnically Catholic household (Sicilian-Irish-Polish), where getting children baptized was just what one did. But I never saw the inside of a Catholic Church, nor received any instruction or sacraments as a child. I had, in every respect, a totally secular upbringing.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Book Review: Blosser & Sullivan's Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination

[Sept. 3, 2023] It is getting tougher and tougher for me to get around to book reviews these days what with the sheer quantity of material that people send me, not even counting my own voluminous "to-read" pile that seems to grow larger no matter how much reading I accomplish. But when I received the book that is the subject of today's post, Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination, by Philip Blosser and Charles Sullivan, I knew I had to make the time for it. Speaking in Tongues (published by Pickwick Publications) is the first in a three volume series dealing with the subject of tongues. Volume 1 is subtitled The Modern Redefinition of Tongues and concerns how the understanding of tongues has been revolutionized in modern Christianity.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Church's Historical Blindspot

[Aug. 26, 2023] If you have never read it, I highly recommend my readers pick up a copy of the British historian R.I. Moore's 1977 book The Origins of European Dissent. Moore's book focuses on the emergence of heresy in Western Europe between 1000 and 1200 and chronicles the Church's attemps to respond to the rising tide of heterodoxy, with emphasis on how the increasing challenge posed by heterodox sects went beyond the ability of local bishops to manage, leading to the eventual interventions of the papacy and civil authorities. It is a very scholarly work that I think is integral to anyone interested in the origin of medieval heresy.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

On the Superior Merit of the Traditional Mass

[Aug. 13, 2023] I just reviewed an old article by Fr. Chad Ripperger entitled "The Merit of a Mass." The article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of the Latin Mass Magazine.

The article concerns the question of the "merit" of the two forms of the Roman rite. Fr. Ripperger concludes that the Traditional Rite of Mass is objectively more meritorious. He argues that
Since one of the primary obligations of those in authority in the Church is the glory of God through the salvation of souls, they have the obligation to encourage, and, in some cases, require the ritual of the Mass which is most efficacious.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Stop Using This Word So Recklessly

[August 10, 2023] Imagine the spectacle of members of the laity proclaiming, based on their own convictions and by their own authority, that Pope Francis has lost the papacy or is not the validly elected pope. How ridiculous! How arrogant! How absurd! 

Now imagine, if you will, the spectacle of members of the laity proclaiming, based on their own convictions and by their own authority, that certain fellow Catholics (who have never been censured or labeled as such by the Church) are in the canonical state of schism and under anathema. How equally ridiculous! How equally arrogant! How equally absurd! 

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

"The Pope's Authority is Bound to the Tradition"

[Aug. 8, 2023] Just a friendly reminder that the idea of the pope's boundedness to Sacred Tradition is not some invention of Trad Catholic bloggers. Going back 23 years to the publication of Joseph Ratzinger's pivotal work The Spirit of the Liturgy, we find the following:

Saturday, July 29, 2023

The Obedience of St. Padre Pio

[July 29, 2023] I was recently privileged to publish a book entitled Wounds of Love: The Story of St. Padre Pio (TAN Books, 2022). Wounds of Love is a dramatized historical fiction novella about the life of the great St. Pio of Pietrelcina, written for teens but enjoyable for adults as well. I spent months immersed in the life and writings of Padre Pio and learned a ton about this amazing modern saint. Padre Pio has been in the news a lot lately with the release of Abel Ferrara's smutty and underwhelming film; for anyone looking for a more wholesome and spiritually edifying dramatization of Pio's life, I humbly recommend getting a copy of Wounds of Love (here is an excellent review of the book on Gloria Romanorum if you'd like to learn more). It does a good job of covering the major points of Pio's life while introducing readers to his deep spirituality in a narrative format.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Tucho Fernández's "Essentialist" View of Scripture

"There are biblical texts that should not be interpreted in a 'material' way, I don't want to say 'literal'. The Church has long understood the need for a hermeneutic that interprets them in their historical context. This does not mean that they lose their content, but that they should not be taken completely literally. Otherwise, we would have to obey St. Paul's command for women to cover their heads, for example." (Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, July 15, 2023)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

[July 17, 2023] It is, of course, true that the Sacred Scriputres need to be interpreted in context, with attention to the literary genre being employed and the intention of the sacred writers. This is nothing new; St. Augustine says as much, and so affirms the entire Catholic tradition. And this is emphatically not what "Tucho" Fernández is suggesting in his now infamous July 15 statements to the journalist Ale Villegas, as reported by Rorate Caeli (here are the English and Spanish translations of his comments).

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Cardinalate's 80-Year Rule—A Critique

[July 15, 2023] Most Catholics are familiar with the rule that cardinals lose their right to vote in papal conclaves if they turn 80 before the papal throne falls vacant. [1] This rule comes from Paul VI's 1970 motu proprio Ingravascentem Aetatemwhich stated that cardinals "lose the right to elect the Roman Pontiff and therefore also the right to enter the Conclave" upon the completion of their eightieth year. [2] According to the motu proprio, this rule was instituted because—