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


Mercurial Thomist said...

Although I fully agree with these criteria, care must be taken in giving them to novices in prayer. The first step on the path of mental prayer is to quiet your mind of external things, so that it might be filled with Christ, and for that, the breathing and relaxation and repeating of the name of Jesus is actually useful. Once you do "set aside the things of the world outside", then you can actually begin your prayer. Similarly, speaking of "God within you" can be deceptive, but the Carmelites are quite serious about the dwelling place of God in the soul of a person in the state of Sanctifying grace. As with everything in the modern Church, talking in this way is equivocal, but the traditional way of speaking, while theologically accurate, was, at least in my own prayer life, pedagogically unhelpful, and care must be taken when explaining how to pray to beginners.

Boniface said...

@Mercurial good comments! I think, for a beginner, it is sufficient to say, "Stay away from things that originated outside the Christian tradition (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.)"

Mercurial Thomist said...

Yes, I certainly agree with that. With the understanding that you are speaking specifically of prayer. I have nothing against the (very judicious) use of things originating outside the Christian tradition for, say, the treatment of mental illness and training in emotional regulation, for the world is a whole lot louder than it used to be, so getting back to being able to perceive yourself to even start considering your fallen nature takes a while. You need to do that first, for "why would the gods speak face to face to us, till we have faces?"

Anonymous said...

This is a topic of great interest to me. I find keeping still and concentrating on my breathing for 5 or 10 minutes to be helpful at calming my sometimes-crippling anxiety. This is sometimes known as 'mindfulness'. This was recommended by a Catholic psychiatrist, Dr Kevin Majeres, who really knows his psychology and his Thomism. Look him up on Youtube. I'm aware this can be a prelude to something Buddhist (and therefore sinful), but it is not in and of itself Buddhist. That's the conclusion I've come to anyway, though I'm happy to revisit it if there's good reason to.

So yes, insofar as one is trying to pray apart from Christ, one is on dangerous ground. Insofar as one is simply trying to apply some useful technique's to calm one's overactive mind (in order that one can pray, work, fulfil one's duties, etc), I think it's all good. Of course, sometimes the line can be hard to draw.

Anonymous said...

Please recommend books on good teaching of true Catholic meditation.