20 November, 2007

Contemplative Error

Thanks for the comments about prayer by silencing the mind. I wanted to know whether anyone was drawing their primary sustenance from such silence before I started writing about it.

I lived in a group that practiced silence increasingly for 10 years. In year 2 I wrote a strongly questioning letter on the subject to our fearless leader. By year 8 I was completely done with it, and wrote an even stronger letter. Silly boy that I was, I thought the group was running afield of his wishes. It turned out I was the black sheep of the family, as his reaction to my letter proved beyond question.

We live and learn.

Over the years I heard many members of our group call out Thomas Merton as the deepest writer they'd ever read (even more so than our leader they'd say - if the doors were shut. :-) So, I cracked his, "Seeds of Contemplation." I almost always finish a book when I start it, but this book was too wrong to spend that much time. I made it two thirds of the way through. So, I will be commenting on a book which I did not finish, and which begins with the admonition not to judge it before reading the whole thing.

Since giving up on the book, I have read a good bit of the negative press about contemplative prayer and agree with a large swath of it, but I reserve the right to question pieces of the argument too. 20+ years ago Madame Jean-Marie Bouvier De La Mothe Guyon (from memory) meant an awful lot to me, and I bet if I picked her up again her work would still appeal. There is and always will be a huge place in my life for silence in the presence of God. The question is one of goal, and Merton's and mine seem to be completely different.

I hope I can say with accuracy that this blog has never been about pointing out error, but sometimes a thing advances to the point of genuine error and makes me nervous. Having done my time in prayer by silence, I think it's worth the risk of criticizing brothers in Christ to save others from traveling down that fruitless road. Merton, and those who teach his vision, does not edify the church.

Allow me to snip from the last chapter of the book.
Then there is a quietud sabrosa, a tranquility full of savor and rest and unction in which, although there is nothing to feed and satisfy either the senses or the imagination or the intellect, the will rests in a deep, luminous and absorbing experience of love.

... you are in the presence of a more definite and more personal Love, Who invades your mind and will in a way you cannot grasp, eluding every attempt on your part to contain and hold Him by any movement of your own soul. You know that this "Presence" is God. But for the rest He is hidden in a cloud, although He is so near as to be inside you and outside you and all around you.

The most important thing that remains to be said about this perfect contemplation in which soul vanishes out of itself by the perfect renunciation of all desires and all things, is that it can have nothing to do with our ideas of greatness and exaltation, and is not therefore something which is subject to the sin of pride.

Some of you will, in those quotes, quickly see why Merton is so popular. They are high-flying promises and they ring well in the ears. The problem is that they are utterly empty. They are clouds that bring no rain.

I'm sorry that my argument will seem so obtuse. It's a function of ten years under such teaching, and ten years of seeing its fruitlesslness in perfect practice. I watched 30 people sit under a man who taught these things as understandably and effectively as Merton writes about them, and I watched five to ten people succeed at everything that was asked of them, and I watched it all amount to nothing.

And I asked why.

Merton's promises are half-truths. If you do everything he says, you will have the experiences he advertises. You will feel you have been cast loose upon the great and beautiful sea of God's love. You will sense light and energy flowing through your being, and feel at one with the Creator of everything. You will feel completely empty of any will that could possibly oppose God's. I never went there, but I trust the people I knew and loved who described their journeys. Merton's method is effective.

There are two problems.

The first is a little dramatic, and I'm sorry. The method is simply and exactly the same as any Zen meditation or Sufi prayer. I learned after reading the book that Merton was striving to be as good a Buddhist as he already was a Christian. The techniques of transcendentalism work as effectively for Christians as for anyone else, much the same as prayers to Ba'al worked as effectively for Jews as for worshippers of Ba'al. God rejected His people when they turned to idols and demons, and He rejects His people when they turn to Buddha, Allah and Gaia today.

The second problem is that none of the things promised by Merton are promised anywhere in scripture. They are not even encouraged. Merton promises that if you empty your soul of all desires, will, and thoughts you will be invaded by a presence whom you know to be God. He promises this is a good and wonderful thing, and that this is the deeper level of spiritual life for which you have been seeking. He even makes this experience the temporal salvation of the whole world,

But in the moment of time, the minute, the little minute in which he was delivered into God (if he truly was so delivered) there is no question that then his life was pure; that then he gave glory to God; that then he did not sin, that in that moment of pure love he could not sin.
They are the strength of the world, because they are the tabernacles of God in the world. They are the ones who keep the universe from being destroyed. They are the little ones. They do not know themselves. They whole earth depends on them. Nobody seems to realize it. These are the ones for whom it was all created in the first place. They shall inherit the land.

It is a plain and sad error to be able to say such things when there is not one word of Christ to support them. They are delightful promises, but they are not the promises of God. If you have been exposed to New Age mysticism, you will recognize them word for word. I listened to Elizabeth Claire Prophet speak almost exactly this same constellation of promises, in almost exactly the same words, but I never heard Christ say anything like them.

There is a glory in silence before God, and I praise the Lord for the opportunity to be silent before Him. There is no place for self-destruction of the will in order to reach silence. There is a place for deep consideration of the holy law of God. There is no place for repetition of a holy word of one syllable to silence the mind. There is a place for embracing the deep, satisfying love of God. There is no place for starving the imagination, senses and intellect in order to declare the profound emptiness that remains, "God."

If this were an isolated experiment by some Christians with vivid imaginations, I might encourage it; there is a lot to be learned by experimenting. That is not what contemplative prayer is, though. Contemplative prayer is the Christian adoption of New Age Transcendental Meditation techniques.

I don't know how much interest this post will generate, and I'm open either way. I would love to talk about how to correctly engage God through silence, why I think the contemplative prayer movement's way is wrong, or to move on to another subject.

What do you think?


Milly said...

As you were describing it I thought it sounded just like what I did in theater and yoga class in college. When I hit that other level it’s pretty neat but wasn’t a way for me to hear God. Then you said as much.

It’s a nice way to let the stress go.
I would love to talk about how to correctly engage God through silence, why I think the contemplative prayer movement's way is wrong, or to move on to another subject.

I would love to listen

Weekend Fisher said...

Well, if you're questioning yourself for commenting on a book you didn't finish, I can only imagine what could justly be said about me for commenting on a book I've never even picked up. I think I'll stick with commenting on the parts you quoted, and whether I see it quite the same way.

First off, I think it is dead wrong to try to empty ourselves of desires. That's Buddhist or at least semi-Buddhist (freedom from suffering by freedom from caring). It is not the Christian way, the way that Christ taught: love more even if it kills you, make no move to avoid suffering if it means being cold or indifferent to another human being. In that Buddhism/semi-Buddhism, detachment is a good thing. In Christianity, there is a good detachment (renouncing idolatrous connections to the world) and a bad detachment (renouncing caring about the world because it hurts too much).

Just as another example of what I mean about other traditions: my little JW friends left a booklet saying how wrong it is to celebrate birthdays because that's a pagan tradition. But what do they mean by "pagan"? Do they mean "1. birthdays are idol-worship" or do they mean "2. anything that came from Greco-Roman culture must be rejected because they were idol-worshippers"? If #1 were true, then of course we'd want to avoid birthday parties. But if it's just #2, I see no objection. Likewise with meditation. If meditation were inherently idolatrous I'd have a problem with it. But if meditation is not inherently idolatrous, but happens to be something idolaters do too, are we really going to impoverish our own tradition on that account?

That much said, I don't see any point in renouncing silent meditation just because Buddhists and their Hindu predecessors do it. We don't renounce prayer just because other people do it. Our prayers are different in that we pray to God whom we know and trust through Christ. In the same way I don't have any problem with a meditation focusing on God, even if it involves repeating / really focusing on a single word describing God or one of his names or attributes or some self-revelation of his.

On some of the eloquent promises of Merton, some may be derived from other traditions, but some of those are more Biblical than you might think. The idea that love does not sin is extrapolated from the Bible (love does no harm to its neighbor therefore love is the fulfillment of the law). The idea that we are tabernacles of God is Biblical (you are the Temples of the Holy Spirit, etc.). The idea that the world is spared because of the righteous is an understanding that goes back to the ancient Jewish community, the way they read Abraham pleading for Sodom, that God did promise if there were just a few righteous people, the whole wicked enterprise would be spared on their behalf. It is an old Jewish teaching, based on this, that God spares destruction when enough of the people are righteous before him. And Merton transitions from there into a paraphrase of the meek shall inherit the earth.

I agree from what you quoted that Merton makes some missteps. I'd just consider that there's still some good to be had in meditation. Lots of people are hungry for that kind and way of knowing God, and the Bible does commend various forms of meditation and contemplation.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Milly said...

I might be a bit confused so I have, as always, questions. Where I see value in being silent to listen to God, yes I do have those moments. ;-} I have meditated so I also see value in that for relaxation. If I’m reading this post properly, you are saying that we could fall into a pit of not having focus on God but on reaching that higher place. Now from what I remember of the place that I “went” it wasn’t reaching God, it was just a point of relaxation. To do this day in and day out might lower my blood pressure but I don’t see that it would bring me closer to God. Then again I wasn’t looking for God in those moments.

This is a difficult thing to explain with words

If you slip into place where you aren’t “in your body” and you “aren’t in your mind” then how are you listening to God when you can’t really feel or hear?

I do take into account that this was my experience and as refreshing as it is, if you don’t fall asleep first, I don’t see it bringing me closer to God.

Taking the time to be still seems more valuable

karen said...

I got through my insanity with my severe tinnitus through kind of a meditative prayer...even a hypnosis. Some would say that is the work of the devil. But, the hypnotist had me envisioning a beautiful forest, meadow, etc., and I, of course, not wanting to be alone there, went with Jesus in my mind. I think that's how I got through that.
I think that to say there is a particular way of praying is wrong. To intentionally try to pray a way is probably futile. I talk to God in the car, walking, etc. I sometimes hear Him reply. Sometimes at night if things are bad, I press into the pillow and ask Him to let me press into His chest and just be still. Those are the quiet times--sometimes the best times. In my imagination, maybe, but they have been some really enlightening times...and restful.
I admire the Quaker way sometimes, but to gather at a specific time to sit in silence and wait for a word...not so much. God speaks to us in His time, not ours.
Meditation is not to be discounted, though, and many people have had God experiences through meditation. Again, those experiences are by Him, not us.
Just MHO.

codepoke said...

Good comments, and worthy of another post. Thank you, all.

Michael Krahn said...


I just put up a series of posts about Thomas Merton that I think you’d enjoy at:


codepoke said...

Comment spam always tickles me.

Mr. Krahn. If you would like to discuss why I believe elevating Mr. Merton is a mistake, I'm certainly open to the idea.