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Christian prayer....a essay

Friday, July 23, 2004

Christian Prayer: The Tiber Flows into the Ganges

"" (John 14:6)

These profound words of our Lord taken from the Gospel of
St. John reveal the absolute centrality of Christ. In truth
the message cannot be separated from the Messenger. The two
are inseparable. Christianity is the religion of grace. It
constantly speaks of the reality of the supernatural order
and the transcendence of God. This is one of the chief
differences between Christianity and the religions of man. A
host of theologians guided by the truncated vision of the
19th century philosophies of idealism and positivism have
sought to destroy the vital distinction between nature and
grace. Despite these efforts, authentic Christianity
continues to maintain the distinction and to defend the
reality of the life of grace.

We live in a theological climate in which it is still very
fashionable to lament any manifestation of a narrow
sectarianism which sees nothing but falsehood in other
religions. The greater danger by far today appears to be the
opposite error of religious syncretism which denies any
substantial differences between religions and views them all
as just so many paths leading to the same end. Such a
position has become very common in our superficially
sophisticated, pluralistic and theologically illiterate
society. It lacks a true foundation and is contrary to the
objective scientific study of comparative religions. The
absolute uniqueness of Christ and Christianity shine through
when we examine the person of Christ and the reality of the
life of grace which He offers to man.

In our age of mass and instant communication we are
witnessing an inevitable clash of religious cultures. The
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has
recently issued a timely document entitled of Christian Meditation>. The document is addressed to the
bishops of the world and seeks to enunciate certain
essential principles of Christian prayer in order to discern
what may be legitimately borrowed from non-Christian forms
of meditation especially in their methods of prayer.

A number of basic principles are set forth which are worthy
of examination in order that the Catholic may ecclesia>. The starting point for any discussion of
Christian prayer is the realization that its essential
features are formed and guided by the Christian faith "in
which the very truth of God and creature shine forth."

Christian prayer must therefore be a personal dialogue
between God the Creator and man the creature. It has an
ecclesial dimension offered in the Mystical Body and
manifests "the communion of the redeemed creatures with the
intimate life of the Persons of the Trinity." Authentic
Christian prayer must be personal, communitarian and
directed to the transcendent Triune God.

The document next points out that Christian tradition has
shown us that there have been in the past erroneous types of
prayer which the Fathers opposed. These were based upon
deviations. The two types mentioned are
pseudognosticism and Messalianism. Pseudognosticism was a
type of spiritual elitism which has been periodically
revived in the life of the Church. It has viewed matter as
intrinsically evil and has sought a remedy in prayer which
springs from the soul and liberates it from the bonds of
matter. This liberation enables one to achieve superior
knowledge and a "pure state." This view has much in common
with various eastern forms of spirituality especially
Buddhism and Hinduism which view the body and material
reality as an illusion (maya) and evil. These principles are
diametrically opposed to Christianity which maintains: 1)
the intrinsic goodness of material creation which finds its
source in a loving Creator; and 2) the life of supernatural
grace in prayer _ again the free of a loving Creator.

The second false form of prayer is Messalianism. This refers
to the belief that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the
soul can be identified with and verified by the
psychological experience. The Fathers of the Church
vehemently attacked both positions and Christian spiritual
tradition has strongly maintained that the Holy Spirit may
be present despite one's "feelings" of anguish or

It is important to remember that authentic Catholic
spirituality, no matter what form it may take, must be
grounded in Catholic doctrine. With good reason the Sacred
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warns all
Catholics that the current fad of seeking to blend Christian
meditation with types of non-Christian meditation "is not
free from dangers and errors":

Proposals in this direction are numerous and radical to a
greater or lesser extent. Some use eastern methods solely as
a psycho-physical preparation for a truly Christian
contemplation; others go further and, using different
techniques, try to generate spiritual experiences similar to
those described in the writings of certain Catholic mystics.
Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without
image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on
the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ,
which towers above finite reality. To this end, they make
use of a "negative theology," which transcends every
affirmation seeking to express what God is, and denies that
the things of this world can offer traces of the infinity of
God. Thus they propose abandoning not only meditation on the
salvific works accomplished in history by the God of the Old
and New Covenant, but also the very idea of the One and
Triune God, who is Love, in favor of an immersion "in the
indeterminate abyss of the divinity." These and similar
proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern
techniques need to have their contents and methods ever
subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the
danger of falling into syncretism.

The path of Christian prayer must be the way of Christ. Man
is essentially a creature who even though elevated by grace
and "divinized," (as the Fathers said) the human person is
never so completely absorbed into the Divinity that the self
ceases to exist. As the document beautifully points out,
even within the divine intimacy of the Trinity, the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit remain "other" although they are of one
substance. So in Christianity the beauty, glory and dignity
of the human person as an individual, which is necessary for
any true communion, remains distinct from God even in the
direct union of the

The essential superiority of Christianity is clearly seen in
this area. Christian prayer perfects and completes that
which the natural religions long for:

A consideration of these truths together brings the
wonderful discovery that all the aspirations which the
prayer of other religions expresses are fulfilled in the
reality of Christianity beyond all measure, without the
personal self or the nature of a creature being dissolved or
disappearing into the sea of the Absolute. "God is love" (1
Jn 4:8). This profoundly Christian affirmation can reconcile
perfect with the existing between lover
and loved, with eternal exchange and eternal dialogue. God
is himself this eternal exchange, and we can truly become
sharers of Christ, as "adoptive sons" who cry out with the
Son in the Holy Spirit, "Abba, Father." In this sense, the
Fathers are perfectly correct in speaking of the
divinization of man who, having been incorporated into
Christ, the Son of God by nature, may by his grace share in
the divine nature and become a "son in the Son." Receiving
the Holy Spirit, the Christian glorifies the Father and
really shares in the Trinitarian life of God.

The Second Vatican Council, in its document on non-Christian
religions (), teaches that "the Catholic
Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these
religions." The Sacred Congregation states that a Christian
is free to take "what is useful" from non-Christian
religions but make the important qualification that this may
be done provided that "the Christian conception of prayer,
its logic and requirements are never " (emphasis

In speaking of the three classical divisions of the
spiritual life (purgative, illuminative, unitive), a number
of key points are made which should be highlighted. First,
the purpose of prayer is to achieve a perfect love of God.
It is according to Catholic dogma to achieve
this if one seeks to bypass the unique revelation of God in
the gift of His only Son our Lord Jesus Christ "who was
crucified and rose from the dead." It is only in Jesus
Christ through the Holy Spirit that we are given that
supernatural grace which enables us to share in "the
interior life of God."

Secondly, authentic Christian mysticism is the free gift of
divine grace and "has nothing to do with technique." The
Christian, as even the greatest mystics have told us, are
aware of their sinfulness and always remain unworthy of the
gratuitous, loving condescension which is the life of grace.

Many of these eastern techniques being used in the West
involve "psychological-corporal methods." Many Christians
have been introduced to these methods, which emphasize
bodily posture and position (the various forms of yoga)
without proper preparation. The Sacred Congregation believes
these may have a relative value and may be useful "if they
are in accordance with the aim of Christian
prayer." (emphasis added)

In the name of the spiritual, an excessive emphasis upon
bodily technique with its symbolism of interiorty ironically
can be turned into a form of body worship.

On occasion it appears that some Christians have mistakenly
identified quite natural feelings of peace, "relaxation,"
"pleasing sensations," "light" and "worth" with the
supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. This, in the words of
the Sacred Congregation, is "totally erroneous." This is
especially the case when the individual who believes he is
enjoying mystical experiences lives in a manner lacking the
essential moral integrity required for such graces. Such
confused and illusory thinking "would represent a kind of
mental schizophrenia which would also lead to psychic
disturbance, and, at times, to moral deviation." The
document also, with keen perception, points out a key
principle of ascetical and mystical theology: that genuine
prayer leads one to participate fully in the life of the
Church and manifests itself in zeal for souls.

Christians are also cautioned to avoid seeking escape from
spiritual aridity into various techniques of a psycho-
somatic nature. Perseverance in prayer, even when we don't
seem to "get anything out of it" is truly a sign of our love
and fidelity. Christ must remain absolutely central:

The love of God, the sole object of Christian contemplation,
is a reality which cannot be "mastered" by any method or
technique. On the contrary, we must always have our sights
fixed on Jesus Christ, in whom God's love went to the cross
for us and there assumed even the condition of estrangement
from the Father (cf. Mk 13:34). We therefore should allow
God to decide the way he wishes to have us participate in
his love. But we can never, in any way, seek to place
ourselves on the same level as the object of our
contemplation, the free love of God; not even when, through
the mercy of God the Father and the Holy Spirit sent into
our hearts, we receive in Christ the gracious gift of a
sensible reflection of that divine love and we feel drawn by
the truth and beauty and goodness of the Lord.

This document is of critical importance at this time when
the Christian West is being invaded by a host of eastern
cults. We live in an age of theological illiteracy and
widespread doctrinal confusion. Many Christians have been
seduced by a false mysticism and the error of syncretism. A
genuine discernment of spirits is required on the part of
all Christians. This document of the Church's magisterium is
a most welcome step in this area.

I wish to conclude by offering a passage taken from G. K.
Chesterton's masterpiece . Chesterton
saw clearly the absolute uniqueness of Christ. His insights
into the truth of things remains as valid today as it was
back in 1925 when the book was first published:

Right in the middle of all these things stands up an
enormous exception . . . It is nothing less than the loud
assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has
visited his world in person. It declares that really and
even recently, or right in the middle of historic times,
there did walk into the world this original invisible being;
about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists
hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a
higher personality exists behind all things had indeed
always been implied by the best thinkers, as well as by all
the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had
ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say
that the other sagas and heroes had claimed to be the
mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed
and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be
anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet
had said was that he was the true servant of such a being.
The most that any primitive myth had ever suggested was that
the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the
Creator was present . . . in the daily life of the Roman
Empire _ that is something utterly unlike anything else in
nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has
made since he spoke his first articulate word, instead of
barking like a dog . . . it makes nothing but dust and
nonsense of comparative religion.

Timothy T. O'Donnell
July 11, 1990
Feast of St. Benedict

This article was taken from the Summer 1990 issue of "Faith & Reason".
Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road,
Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at
$20.00 per year.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN
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