CHRISTIAN MEDITATION: PSEUDO-CONTEMPLATION
Brother Max Sculley DLS
Note: This critique is best read in conjunction with the section on yoga in my book Yoga, Tai Chi & Reiki: A Guide for Christians which has a comprehensive glossary.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Two recent experiences have given me cause to examine Christian Meditation [ C.M. ] more closely. The first was my experience of it in the Brisbane Archdiocesan Lenten programme this year 2012. At each of the weekly sessions, the group was guided by a C.D. to spend a few minutes ‘tasting’ C.M. We were informed that this form of meditation involved the repetition of a mantra under our breath. The word we were asked to repeat was ‘maranatha’ which we were told means ‘Come Lord Jesus’. We were instructed to pronounce this word in a stylized way , in a monotone as four equally stressed rhyming syllables: Ma-Ra-Na-Tha. And it was made clear to us that we were not to attend to the meaning of the word but instead to focus on the sounds of the resonating syllables. A number of people in our group were not happy about repeating a series of nonsense syllables preferring instead to repeat the vernacular version, ‘Come Lord Jesus’. The technique proposed on the C.D. gave me some cause for personal concern. I knew from my research into yoga that this approach if used for half an hour or so, is a very effective means of voiding the mind and creating an altered state of consciousness. Such a state, as I have indicated elsewhere, can expose one to demonic influence.
My second experience was a phone-call from a friend. She had been immersed in New Age for some 10 years during which time she had advanced in Eastern meditation techniques to a point where she could enter a trance-state at will within three minutes. She believes that this practice had greatly contributed to her becoming possessed to the point where she required three exorcisms plus 18 months of concerted personal prayer and fasting to complete her deliverance. Within months of regaining her joy and freedom as a regenerated Christian, she was invited by two parishioners to join them in attending a C.M session in a neighbouring parish. She got more than she bargained for. The leader gave the group the same instructions as we had received in our Lenten group. The style of chanting reminded her of her former Eastern meditation practices and she felt uneasy that the word was being chanted in a foreign language which she did not understand. The meditative music played throughout the 30 minutes sounded very similar to that which she used to listen to in her Buddhist meditation. After five minutes she could feel herself slipping into a deep level of trance which terrified her. She remained in a state of high anxiety till the time was up. She saw this form of ‘prayer’ as a New Age practice with a Christian veneer. She vowed never to go near another Christian Meditation session again.
It was in the light of these two disturbing experiences that I decided to put C.M. under the microscope.
SITTING WITH THE SWAMI
John Main, a young, intelligent, Catholic Irishman working in Malaya in 1955, by chance encountered one of the lesser known Eastern gurus Swami Satyananda who impressed the Irishman by his ‘peacefulness and calm wisdom’1. The upshot of their amicable meeting was that Main asked the swami to teach him the yoga way of meditating. The guru accepted on two conditions: Main would meet and meditate with him weekly, and would commit himself to a half-hour’s meditation morning and evening daily.
At their first meeting, Satyananda instructed his disciple:
During the time of your meditation there must be in your mind no thoughts, no words, no imaginations. The sole sound will be the sound of your mantra, your word. The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound this harmonic within ourselves we begin to build up a resonance. That resonance leads us forward to our own wholeness. We begin to experience the deep unity we all possess in our own being. And then the harmonic begins to build up a resonance between you and all creatures and all creation, and a unity between you and your Creator.2
Main’s guru had spent some time in a Hindu monastery absorbing the teachings of Ramakrishna, one of the most famous of the Hindu power gurus to export yoga and its belief system to the West. Hence, in terms of Satyananda’s Hindu belief system, what he means in the passage quoted above is that by repeating a meaningless sound while emptying the mind, a yogi will experience being totally one with the cosmos and with Brahman, the supreme Hindu god. In the words of the eminent guru Satyananda Saraswati ( not to be confused with Main’s guru), he becomes a ‘junior god’3. This experience is both monistic and pantheistic, beliefs contrary to the teaching of Christ. However, Main’s guru has put the matter so diplomatically to our Catholic Irishman that he probably missed the Hindu overtones of the statement.
The technique which Satyananda gave Main is classic mantra yoga as described by Saraswati: ‘Mantra is a combination or assembly of powerful sound waves. As such the intellectual understanding of the mantra is not at all necessary. It is not the meaning – some mantras don’t even have a meaning – but the sound waves created by the mantra which influence the cosmos internally and externally’.4As the swami teaches, the result of this technique is to create an altered state of consciousness. And such is the effect on the mind of repeating ‘maranatha’ when reduced to a set of nonsense syllables. Main himself indicates this when he speaks of C.M. as producing an ‘expansion of consciousness’5. Father Lawrence Freeman O.S.B., Main’s successor as leading promoter of the C.M. movement, affirms the same reality when he informs us that C.M. initiates and steers practitioners in a ‘deepening movement of consciousness’6. The fact that ‘maranatha’ has Christian overtones in no way alters the movement towards an altered state of consciousness simply because we are here dealing with sound and not with meaning. And it would be presumptuous to think that one would be protected from the influence of demonic spirits by the Christian meaning of the mantra when one deliberately enters a state which opens one up to such influence. Indeed, the use of a Christian mantra can lull practitioners of C.M. into the false belief that they are practising Christian contemplation, and this may lead to spiritual pride. In such a situation, the Christian may be caught between two conflicting belief systems – the one the fruit of demonic influence and the other produced by one’s Christian faith. Such appears to have been the case with the French Benedictine priest Henri Le Saux, whose yogi name was Abishiktinanda, who sought to climb the peaks of yoga under the guidance of Hindu gurus and whose exploits are praised to the skies by Main.7 Richard De Smet, familiar with the yogi’s journey, said of him: ‘He had gone far into the [Hindu] Advaitic [ non-dualistic ] experience and was afraid it might be impossible to be true to it as well as his Christian faith. He felt, he said, perched upon the knife-edge between the opposite slopes of Hinduism and Christianity and it was agony’.8
THE SLUMBERING SERPENT
Many Eastern gurus with Saraswati believe that ‘the ultimate purpose of yoga is the awakening of the kundalini’9and he lists mantra yoga as one effective way of doing this: ‘The second method of awakening it is through the steady regular practice of the mantra. This is a very powerful and risk-free method’10. Risk-free perhaps under the guidance of an experienced guru, but possibly quite hazardous when attempted without one. And risk-free perhaps in the eyes of a Hindu, but spiritually dangerous from a Christian perspective. There are now one international New Age organization and a number of groups in different countries in the West which have spontaneously arisen to cope with the growing number of people who have had serious breakdowns through the unanticipated awakening of kundalini.11
Now C.M. is a form of mantric yoga. It is quite feasible that a person who has been practising this for some time could experience the awakening of kundalini with its roller-coaster physical, emotional and spiritual experience. In my exploration of C.M. literature, I have yet to see any discussion of kundalini awakening and how to handle it. Are C.M. leaders and mentors equipped to handle such experiences? This applies particularly to schools ( prep to senior secondary ) where C.M. is being practised. A failure on the part of C.M. leaders and mentors in this area is highly irresponsible, not to mention the moral dangers associated with kundalini practice.
MANTRA YOGA TO CHRISTIAN CONTEMPLATION
Pick up any piece of literature on C.M., listen to any of the movement’s leaders discoursing on the topic, and inevitably there will be reference Main’s ‘monumental discovery’ that mantra meditation is an ancient form of Christian contemplation. It is this event which justifies Christians using this form of yoga. The only problem is that Main’s claim is patently false. What Main discovered was not a mantric form of meditation but a form of Christian aspirational prayer.
This ‘discovery’ is to be found in the writings of the 4th century desert monk John Cassian. Cassian addressing beginners in the monastic spiritual life recommended the constant repetition of a single psalm verse, ‘O God come to our aid, O Lord make haste to help us.’12 The novice in prayer should take this as the sole topic for his meditations. The continual repetition of this verse throughout the day ‘keeps the mind wholly and entirely upon God...[ this verse ] carries within it all the feelings of which human nature is capable’13. [ emphasis added ] Over time this sentence and its meaning become a part of one’s personality.
As Cassian states, the repetition of this sentence focuses the mind, it does not empty it. And the focus is on meaning and the affections, not on the sound as in mantra yoga. The use of a sentence in the vernacular and not in a dead language lends itself to the stimulation of ideas and feelings and possibly images, this in contrast to mantra yoga which seeks to remove all these from the mind. The idea of focusing on the sounds of all the syllables in this sentence would be ludicrous.
What Main ‘discovered’ was not mantra meditation but aspirational prayer in which a meaningful phrase is constantly repeated so that the meaning and affections eventually sink into one’s unconscious and one may even repeat it in one’s sleep. And aspirational prayer did not begin with the desert fathers. It goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. Jesus in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane used this form of prayer when he cried out repeatedly to His Father for an hour or so: ‘Father, if it be possible let this chalice pass me by, nevertheless not my will but thine be done’.14 And such was the prayer of the tax-collector who stood at the back of the temple beating his breast and repeating, ‘Lord be merciful to me a sinner’.15 Likewise the blind man at Jericho kept crying out to Jesus for healing, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me’.16 These all differ from a mantra in that the focus is on a limited meaning, not on the sound of syllables.
It is obvious, then, that Main’s claim to have discovered mantra meditation in Cassian’s form of aspirational prayer is quite spurious. And hence his justification for using mantra meditation as a form of Christian contemplation is without foundation. And it is worthy of note that despite all the hoo-ha about Main’s ‘monumental discovery’, Cassian’s verse is never recommended for use in Christian Meditation! And the reason is obvious – the verse makes sense!
Not satisfied with misinterpreting Cassian, Main indulges in further wishful thinking in interpreting a section of The Cloud of Unknowing in which the author of this classic encourages his disciple to pray merely with a single word. Main interprets this advice thus: ‘Throughout The Cloud of Unknowing the author urges us to choose a word that is full of meaning; but once you have chosen it, to turn from the meaning and associations and to listen to it as a sound.’17 The first part of Main’s sentence is quite true; the second part patently false.
The Cloud in addressing one who is in the early stages of contemplative prayer encourages him if he so desires, to repeat a single word such as sin or God. And the author goes on to explain: So when we ardently desire to pray for the destruction of evil, let us say and think and mean nothing else but this little word ‘sin’. And when we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one word ‘God’.18 The author intends that these words be a cry from the depths of one’s heart in much the same way as a person cries out ‘Fire!’ when lives are in danger. Nowhere in The Cloud does the author propose that the reader ‘turn from the meaning and associations and listen to it as a sound’. This is a figment of Main’s imagination.
C.M. – A SHORT-CUT TO CONTEMPLATION?
It is repeatedly claimed by the promoters of C.M. that it is a form of Christian contemplation. A glance at the Christian Church’s tradition makes it quite clear that it is not contemplation in the Christian sense.
C.M. is based on a human technique designed to alter one’s state of consciousness. The author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ makes it patently clear that ‘techniques and methods are ultimately useless for awakening contemplative love’19. This sentiment is echoed in the then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s document directed to Christians who were practicing yoga, Zen meditation and Transcendental Meditation:
Without a doubt, a Christian needs certain periods of retreat into solitude to be recollected and, in God’s presence, rediscover his path. Nevertheless, given his character as a creature, and a creature who knows that only in grace is he secure, his method of drawing closer to God is not based on any ‘technique’ in the strict sense of the word. That would contradict the spirit of childhood called for by the gospel. Genuine Christian mysticism has nothing to do with technique: it is always a gift of God, and the one who benefits from it knows himself to be unworthy.20
In her teaching endorsed by the Church, St Teresa of Avila covers all stages of the spiritual life. For beginners she recommends discursive [conversational] forms of prayer which should bear fruit in the practice of the Christian virtues. This she considers the best foundation for contemplative prayer. However, she hastens to add that ‘however diligent our efforts we cannot acquire it...It is given only to whom God wills to give it and often when the soul is least thinking of it’.21And she issues a strong warning to those who would seek to empty the mind of all thought: If His Majesty has not begun to absorb us [ in contemplative prayer ] I cannot understand how the mind can be stopped. There’s no way of doing so without bringing more harm than good...However, once God graces the person with the gift of infused prayer, the intellect ceases to work because God suspends it. Taking it upon oneself to stop and suspend thought is what I mean should not be done; nor should we cease to work with the intellect because otherwise we would be left like cold simpletons and be doing neither one thing nor the other.’22
To give the impression that C.M. is but a new name for traditional forms of infused contemplative prayer is both untrue and quite misleading. Current Church teaching indicates that C.M. is neither Christian nor prayer. Cardinal Ratzinger’s document on Christian meditation quotes John Paul 2 who taught that creating a mental void in prayer ‘has no place in Christianity’23. The Catholic Catechism (2726) echoes this view stating that ‘the effort of concentration to reach a mental void’ is an erroneous notion of prayer.
THE C.M. CULTURE
One of the most disturbing features of the C.M. culture is its willingness to embrace a number of mind-emptying practices characteristic of Eastern meditation and New Age. The one who has given the lead in this is John Main himself. Early in his journey of C.M. he lectured on it at Gethsemani Abbey U.S.A. to the Trappist monks there. This was the monastery where Merton had lived for years. In the last decade of his life Merton had embraced the mind-altering practice of Zen meditation with a view to renewing monastic and Christian contemplative prayer. Though dead for some years, his spirit was still very much alive in Gethsemani. It was the inspiration of Merton which inspired Main to promote his form of mind-altering in the Church: ‘What Father John had learned at Gethsemani was that he must follow Merton’s lead in teaching contemplative prayer for whatever years he had left in his life.’24And as we know, Merton exerted a strong influence in leading Christians into New Age and still does.25 My fear is that Main’s form of altering the state of consciousness may soften people up for New Age in a similar way. As well, Main’s high praise for Abishiktananda could well encourage members of his movement to take up yoga.26
Freeman has taken up where Main has left off. In the C.M. handbook, he recommends the practice of hatha yoga as an immediate preparation for a C.M. session: ‘The yoga positions and breathing exercises ...are an ideal preparation for Christian Meditation.’27 The reason is obvious: both are highly compatible because they both lead to altered states of consciousness. And Freeman’s disciples in the C.M. Movement take his advice seriously. Yoga is commonly practised on retreats28. And as well, another mind-emptying practice, tai chi, is encouraged29.
Interestingly, Father Freeman in his Handbook of C.M. proclaims on the first page that the practice of C.M. can help to open one ‘up to a richer dimension of consciousness’30. This clearly implies that in the process one is altering one’s state of consciousness. And yet in two other places in the Handbook31 he defensively claims that C.M. does not involve an altered state of consciousness. One wonders why Freeman is being so defensive when all yoga authorities, including Main’s guru Satyananda stress that the key strategy of yoga is altering the state of consciousness and C.M. is a thinly disguised form of mantra yoga. Perhaps he is conscious of the warnings given in the most recent Vatican document on New Age which warns of the dangers of engaging in altered states of consciousness, mentioning mantric meditation in particular and indicating that such ‘creates an atmosphere of ‘psychic weakness ( and vulnerability )’32.
However, the person who has proved most dangerous in this respect is the outspoken founding Patron of the World Community for Christian Meditation, Father Bede Griffiths O.S.B. Not only does he proclaim to the movement that yoga is a valid method of contemplation ‘tested over thousands of years to help us discover God’33, but practices and endorses the practice of kundalini yoga with its accompanying occult psychic powers34. As well, and contrary to the Church’s teaching re voiding the mind, he endorses as short-cuts to contemplation such mind-voiding practices as zen, vipassana, and transcendental meditation with its subtle Hindu worship.35 The same Griffiths has erected in his Indian ashram a statue of Jesus Christ in the lotus position sitting on a coiled cobra representing the Hindu goddess Kundalini. The cobra’s head hovers over the top of Jesus’ head.36 The obvious blasphemous implication is that Christ is performing kundalini yoga. Added to that, Griffiths has no hesitation in using the mantra ‘om’, an invocation of all Hindu gods. Indeed, such is his veneration for it that his religious congregation of Benedictine yogis has as its official badge a cosmic cross with ‘om’ in Sanskrit embellishing the centre.37
In terms of Eastern forms of meditation, Griffiths has publicly put himself at odds with the teaching authority of the Church. In 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the leadership of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued a letter to Bishops entitled On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Among other things, it pointed out that certain human techniques such as yoga, Transcendental Meditation and Zen which create a void in the mind are not valid forms of Christian prayer much less Christian contemplation. Griffiths, while being quite dismissive of the letter as a whole, makes it emphatically clear that emptying the mind by such techniques leads to ‘something of supreme significance’38 and that through such, Christians and non-Christians alike can plumb the depths of ‘Christian mysticism’ i.e. contemplation. In support of his assertion he holds up as a model John Main. It was within two years of making this declaration in the U.S.A. National Catholic Reporter that Griffiths was made a Patron of the World Community of Christian Meditation, of which he is now regarded as the inspirer and spiritual leader.39
It was Bede Griffiths who claimed that ‘John Main is the best spiritual guide in the Church today’40. Coming from one with such a track record, this endorsement does not exactly flatter Main.
YOGA SLIPS UNDER THE RADAR AS CONTEMPLATION
Satyananda succeeded admirably in converting Main to a yogic form of meditation. One reason for the success may well have been the spiritual spell which this guru weaved over Main during a period of 18 months exposure to his influence. And the other factor which probably enabled the guru to fly under Main’s discernment radar was the use of a Christian mantra. And Main’s foggy discernment exemplified in his claim that his form of ‘contemplation’ finds justification in Christian spiritual tradition has been uncritically accepted not only by Main’s Benedictine superiors but also by his numerous disciples which includes leaders in the Catholic Church.
One cannot doubt Main’s good intention. His fundamental mistake was to confuse an altered state of consciousness with Christian contemplation.
4. www.satyananda.net/prospectus , p.1.
11. There are over 50 New Age Spiritual Emergency Centres established by Stan and Christina Grof. 40% of calls deal with kundalini breakdowns; there are kundalini help-groups in Scandinavia and Denmark.
I.C.S. Publications, 1980, Vol. 2, pp. 325-326.
An ex-New Ager who has been an advisor for my book informs me that a number of her Catholic acquaintances justify their New Age involvement by referring to Merton’s involvement with Zen.
A photo of this statue is contained in the pictures section.
Copyright 2012 Max Sculley
Permission is hereby given for limited non-profit distribution of this article.