Appeared in Summer 1990, Vol. XVI, No. 2 Download PDF here
“I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (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 On Some Aspects 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 sentire cum 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 doctrinal 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 gift 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 desolation.
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 visio beatifica.
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 union with the otherness 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 (Nostra aetate), 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 obscured.” (emphasis added)
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 impossible 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 reformulated 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 The Everlasting Man. 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