Avoiding false teachings on prayer (Part I of III)

Betende von Chodowiecki ''Devotka Popolska''
Woman Praying with Rosary
by Daniel Chodowiecki (Wikimedia Commons)


This series by Dan Burke originally appeared at SpiritualDirection.com and has been reposted by permission. Stay tuned for parts II and III.

A faithful follower of the Lord asks: Dear Dan, I enjoy reading more modern writers about prayer and the spiritual life but I am always worried about false teachings that could lead me away from the heart of the Church. How can I know when an author is not orthodox or teaches something that could lead me to deception instead of to God?

You are wise to be concerned about finding the pure teaching of God on the matter of prayer. If the enemy can confuse us about the manner in which we communicate with our Lord, he can do much damage to our faith. Unfortunately, it seems that for every one good book on the topic of prayer, there are ten that contain various kinds of pseudo-mysticism that sound good and can yield positive temporal outcomes, but lack authentic mystical tradition.

I will attempt here to provide a summary of the most common problems with modern teachings on prayer so that you can effectively navigate past the empty teachings of the world and toward the truth of God.

Lost without distinctions

With respect to trusting particular modern authors, the first and most common red flag is that they ignore the distinctions provided by the Church between the different kinds of prayer. Whether done out of arrogance, ignorance or sloppiness, this disregard is a signal that the author is not at all concerned with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the thousands of years of spiritual wisdom in the Church. These are writers to avoid.

The Church outlines three distinct forms of prayer in the Catechism (part four, chapter three), each with their own definition and related teachings. These are: vocal prayer, meditation and contemplation. Often meditation and contemplation are incorrectly presented as the same thing, though they are not synonymous. When authors do this, any differences between these two distinct forms of prayer are ignored or explained away – an approach that is a sure path to confusion and a clear sign that you’ve uncovered unreliable teaching. This is particularly true because meditation is a work of the will and intellect of a person. Said another way, fruitful meditation can be experienced through the will and the intellect. Contemplation however, especially what is known as “infused contemplation,” is strictly the realm of God’s grace. In summary, meditation is the work of humanity (for the most part), and contemplation is the work of the Divine. Put in the light of faithful tradition, the danger of confusion between these two forms of prayer and the negligence of some modern writers becomes more clear.

“Prayer” methods rooted in spiritual naturalism

The second danger sign is a perspective that is rooted in a form of spiritual naturalism. This orientation is the outgrowth of well-intended persons using purely human means (e.g. psychology or non-Christian meditation techniques) to overcome common challenges in prayer. The confusing twist here is that these ideas are usually wrapped in spiritual terms in a way that often masks their purely human trappings.

For example, to deal with distractions in prayer, the pilgrim is instructed to focus on a “sacred word” or a mantra instead of receiving guidance on how to focus on and engage with the Lord himself. Though these purely human methods can help to minimize distracting thoughts, this positive gain is not in the direction of the Lord, but of earth or self. In the end, it does nothing, in and of itself, to draw one deeper into union with Christ in prayer. Properly used, these methods can provide fertile ground for focus on the Lord, but more often the end is silence of the mind and centering in self rather than engaging with God.

To be clear, the problem here is not necessarily in the methods, but in a shallow focus. This focus diverts our attention from the understanding that prayer is, in its essence, a communion between persons, not a spiritualized mental or psychological exercise. I am not discounting all of these methods wholesale. The problem is primarily rooted in misuse and a misunderstanding of authentic ascetical and mystical theology as the appropriate backdrop for the understanding and use of any prayer method.

In our Part II of this series, we will cover the progressive nature of prayer and how a misunderstanding of this reality can lead us way off the narrow path of a deepening relationship with God in prayer.

Dan Burke is the Managing Editor of the National Catholic Register, President of the Avila Institute, the administrator of SpiritualDirection.com, and the author of several books on mystical theology.


Common errors of Centering Prayer practitioners

Common errors of Centering Prayer practitioners

Centering Prayer practitioners are often very sincere people who are seeking a closer relationship with God. For some, a Centering Prayer group at church was their first introduction to the idea of cultivating a deep prayer life. Others have read the saints’ works about prayer, but have not understood them. Both groups are vulnerable to false teachings about prayer.

Unfortunately for them, they are taught a skewed interpretation of the saints, the fathers, and even the Catechism. Theses errors take root. People become emotionally attached to their method of prayer. It is very difficult to convince them that the practice is not in line with Catholic tradition.

Today I’d like to address a few of common misunderstandings I meet in discussions about Centering Prayer. My hope is that even for those of us who would never practice Centering Prayer, this discussion will lead to a greater understanding about the nature of prayer.

The Place of silence

I have written a whole series about silence in prayer. Today I want to attack this question from a different angle. Centering prayer practitioners fall prey to fallacious reasoning that goes like this:

  1. Silence is necessary for contemplation.
  2. Centering Prayer helps one cultivate silence.
  3. Therefore, Centering Prayer leads to contemplation.

Do you see the error here? Silence is necessary for contemplation, yes. The first statement is more or less correct (though inexact and potentially misleading).

Even if we grant number 1, that does not mean silence causes contemplation. And if silence does not cause contemplation, cultivating silence does not necessarily lead to or even pave the way for contemplation.

I would suggest that the orthodox view is rather different:

  1. God alone makes a person a contemplative.
  2. Silence accompanies the gift of infused contemplation, but is not a cause of it.
  3. The one who seeks God in prayer to the exclusion of all else is drawn more and more towards sitting silently in His presence.
  4. Seeking God above and beyond all things prepares the heart for contemplation.
  5. God will grant the gift–when He sees fit–to the heart that has prepared itself.

See the difference?

The place of detachment

Centering Prayer makes a similar error regarding detachment. It goes like this:

  1. Detachment is necessary for contemplation.
  2. If I follow my own thoughts and feelings or inspirations during prayer, I am attached to them.
  3. I must set aside all thoughts, feelings, and inspirations in prayer.
  4. Doing so creates a void that God will fill with Himself.

But the saints would say:

  1. Detachment is necessary for contemplation.
  2. God loves me beyond my wildest dreams and is incomparably greater than any created thing.
  3. It is foolish to hold onto created things and lose God.
  4. If I understand God’s love and greatness, I will desire only Him.
  5. I should seek to understand and experience God’s love and greatness by meditating upon them in prayer.
  6. Doing so will help me set aside created things and make room in my heart for God.
  7. If I make room in my heart out of love for God, He will come to me–in His own timing.

Centering Prayer practitioners often insist that if we do not set aside all our thoughts and feelings during prayer, we are attached to them. But detachment is not a matter of setting aside any one thing–except sin. Detachment is a matter of love. Detachment manifests itself in seeking God’s will alone.

The irony of practicing Centering Prayer is that one becomes attached to a forced silence of the mind and heart. Practitioners are told that even if God speaks to them or appears to them during prayer, they are to set that experience aside and return to silence. But what is prayer for? It is for union with God. Why then should an authentic experience of God in prayer take second place to the Centering Prayer method (that is, to unnatural silence of the mind)?

Acquired recollection

One final error I run into continually. This one is a bit more complicated. It stems from a misreading of the saints and fathers.

Since the earliest years of Christianity, Catholics have recognized that prayer develops in stages. At first, one prays vocal prayers, such as the Our Father or Hail Mary. Then one begins praying in one’s own words (mental prayer). As one practices mental prayer, it becomes simpler. Slowly, one uses fewer words, sometimes lingering in God’s presence for a few minutes without thinking or saying words, simply loving Him.

This simplified stage of mental prayer is called acquired recollection. It is not infused contemplation, but it can sometimes blend into infused recollection, when God sees fit to grant such a gift.

Now, when the saints and fathers wrote about prayer, they did not always write about the earliest stages of prayer. If an abbot or a hermit or a foundress such as Teresa of Avila was writing about prayer, he or she would often assume that readers already knew about these early stages. After all, friars, hermits, and nuns have dedicated their lives to God. They seek Him in prayer daily.

They do not need anyone to teach them the Our Father. They need instruction about more simplified prayer forms. Should their prayer be tending towards simpler expressions? Is it normal and good to experience moments of sitting quietly in God’s presence? What should one do when one feels drawn to God beyond words?

The saints and fathers seek to answer these questions. They tell their readers how to act when they experience acquired recollection, or even the early stages of infused contemplation. They recommend that their readers simply and gently say a word or phrase now and then to help sustain their experience of being in God’s presence.

Now, Centering Prayer advocates read these works and say, “Aha! So we should sit silently in God’s presence and if our minds start to wander, we should say a ‘sacred word.’”

Well, sort of…

But only if you are already practiced in mental prayer. Only if you feel drawn to sit quietly in God’s presence. Only as a means of expressing your longing for God, not as a tool for setting aside thoughts as though that instead of communing with God was the purpose of your prayer.

In other words, you do not just sit down one day and decide to start practicing prayer by trying not to think anything and saying a “sacred word” every time a thought comes into your head. That is not prayer. That is New Age meditation.

Prayer is about drawing close to Jesus. And we begin drawing close to Jesus by praying over the Scriptures, pondering them, expressing our thoughts and feelings to God. And as we naturally begin to desire to listen to Him more and speak less, we use fewer and fewer words.

Do you understand the difference?

Please let me know in the comments box if you’d like me to clarify this further.

Otherwise, happy praying!

This post originally appeared at Contemplative Homescshool.