Beyond contemplative prayer: back to God’s word
Reflecting on God’s word, in the sense of thinking it over and letting it sink in, are normal ways of learning and understanding. Using our mind is not a barrier to understanding God or his word. In fact, in Matt. 22:37-38, Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” This references Deut. 6:5, which is rendered in many versions as loving God with all one’s “heart,” soul, and strength” (or might).
The NET Bible gives this explanation about the Hebrew word, lebab, which is translated “heart” in Deut. 6.5:
“Heb ‘heart.’ In OT physiology the heart was considered the seat of the mind or intellect, so that one could think with one’s heart.”59
Even the Greek word for “heart,” kardia, used in Matt. 22, is translated as “mind” in other passages. Zodhiates says in his Hebrew Lexicon that the main use of the word heart refers to
‘the totality of man’s inner or immaterial nature’ . . . The heart is the seat of your intellect, feelings and will. It is ‘almost a synonym for mind.'”60
Vine’s Expository Dictionary states, “The heart, in its moral significance in the O.T., includes the emotions, the reason and the will.”61
The words translated as “understanding,” “mind,” and “heart” are often interchangeable in the Bible.
“The heart in the Scripture is variously used; sometimes for the mind and understanding, sometimes for the will, sometimes for the affections, sometimes for the conscience, sometimes for the whole soul. Generally, it denotes the whole soul of man and all the faculties of it, not absolutely, but as they are all one principle of moral operations, as they all concur in our doing good or evil.”62
The false dichotomy in our culture between mind and heart does not exist in the Bible! Our culture associates feelings and often spirituality with the heart, and separates that from thinking, but this is a modern concept, not a Biblical one.
We see this fictitious dichotomy in CP between the mind or reasoning on the one hand, and feelings or spiritual experiences on the other. Foster creates a theme of this in one of his books in which he endorses the prayer of the mind apart from the prayer of the heart.63 The message comes across clearly that if one is using one’s mind, one is unable to truly commune with God – one must go beyond the rational in order to actually experience closeness with God. One must go beyond words into silence to have true union with God. Not only are these concepts not supported by the Bible, but they also set up false expectations and are likely to evoke artificial experiences.
Christian prayer should be taught as it is modeled in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Some key passages include: Matt. 5:43-45 (pray for our enemies); Matt. 6:6 (pray without showing off); Matt. 6:9-13 (the Lord’s Prayer); Matt. 7:6 (do not pray with repetitions); Matt. 9:38 (pray for God to send workers into His harvest); Matt. 21:22 and James 1:6 (pray in faith); Lk. 18:1-8 (pray/petition without losing heart); ask in the name of Christ (Jn 16:23-24); Rom. 8:25-27 (the Holy Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to pray); 1 Cor. 14:15 (pray with the spirit and with the mind); 1 Thess. 5:17 (pray without ceasing – not mindlessly, but having an attitude of prayer and being in the Lord in all things); and James 5:14-16 (pray for the sick). Our prayers are to make use of words and thought.
A feature article on the Roman Catholic apologetics website, Catholic Answers, warns:
“Many people assume centering prayer is compatible with Catholic tradition, but in fact the techniques of centering prayer are neither Christian nor prayer. They are at the level of human faculties and as such are an operation of man, not of God. The deception and dangers can be grave.”64
People promoting CP often present a false dilemma between “neatly packaged” evangelical Christianity oriented toward logic and reason, versus the experiential, mystical aspects of CP. This idea is becoming more common now with the influence of postmodernism. This has been shown to be a false dilemma. By supporting reason and thinking as part of communication with God, one is in harmony with the biblical text; one is not discriminating against silent prayer, feelings or experiences.
Nowhere in the Bible is prayer a technique or a way to go beyond thinking. Creating a whole theology of prayer apart from the Bible is dangerous, precisely because we are entering an area fraught with subjectivism, truth based on experience, and therefore, an area where we can be deceived. CP teachers tell us that prayer is listening to and having “divine union” with God,65 but the Bible presents prayer as words and thoughts. CP tells us to focus inward, but the Bible admonishes us to focus outward on the Lord. An evaluation of CP reveals it to be a melange of New Age and Eastern-tinged techniques and concepts that exist outside the Bible.
Contemplative Prayer is a misnomer, since it is neither contemplation nor prayer as found in the Bible. We should be wary of any instruction that advises us to:
-Breathe a certain way before or during prayer
-Maintain a certain posture or bodily position
-Repeat a word or phrase, even if it’s from the Bible, or use a word or phrase to stay “focused”
-Go beyond thinking or thought
-To turn inward in order to find or be with God
-Be in silence in order to truly pray
-Believe that CP is true prayer
1 Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart (Rockport, MA: Benedict’s Monastery, 1992), 57.
2 Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (NY: HarperCollins, 1992), 155.
3 M. Basil Pennington, An Invitation to Centering Prayer (Liguori, MO: Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc., 2001), 20.
4 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1961), 4.
5 The Rev. John D. Dreher, “The Danger of Centering Prayer”
6 Keating, 89.
7 F. C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and An Anthology (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), 73.
9 Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (NY: Pantheon Books, Inc., 11957), 55. The writer of this article studied both Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, and was taught Tibetan and Zen Buddhist meditation by teachers in those traditions; she practiced both forms of meditation.
10 By Charles R. Fillmore, the founder of Unity along with his wife, Myrtle; (published by Unity, Unity Village, MO).
11 “The Adventure Called Unity,” 9.
12 Phil and Mary Stovin, revised and edited by the Executive Ministry Team and Management Staff of the Association of Unity Churches, “twenty questions and answers about Unity,” (Lee Summit, MO: Association of Unity Churches), 10. [Bolding is mine].
13 For a fuller discussion of this passage, see my article at Meditation and Psalm 46:10
14 The Treasury of David
15 Foster, 156-157.
16 Paul Ferrini, Love Without Conditions: Reflections of the Christ Mind, (Heartways Press, 1995).
17 Keating, 44, 57, 74, 90, 91.
18 Ibid., 36.
19 M. Basil Pennington, Centered Living: The Way of Centering Prayer (NY: Image, Doubleday, 1988), 51, 92-93, 192.
20 Catholic mystics known as the “desert fathers.”
21 Ibid., 53, 77.
22 Ibid., 95.
23 Mike Perschon, “Desert Youth Worker,” this article is no longer online; however, the passage quoted in this article is also quoted here in a critique of contemplative practices from CST News
25 Matt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45; Heb. 10:19-20.
26 Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 7.
27 Keating, 74.
28 Happold, 52.
29 Ibid., 54.
30 Keating, 127.
31 Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (The Merton Legacy Trust, 1969; Garden City, NY: Image Books Edition, Division of Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 70.
32 Happold, 44.
33 Joseph Goldstein, “Exercise/Eating” in Jean Smith, ed., Breath Sweeps Mind: A First Guide to Meditation Practice (NY: Riverhead Books, 1998), 184.
34 Watts, 20.
35 Shunryu Suzuki, “The Swinging Door” in Breath Sweeps Mind: A First Guide to Meditation Practice, 158.
36 Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Abbey of Gethsemani, 1961), xiv, 41. However, a clear understanding of the atonement is not presented and Merton states that “God wills that all graces come to men through Mary,” 168.
37 Pennington, Centered Living, 199.
38 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
39 Pennington, An Invitation to Centered Prayer, 50.
40 Keating, 51.
41 Articles on Self-Hypnosis from The Cleveland Clinic; Mindset Health; and Miracle Meditations
42 See Breath Sweeps Mind and Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).
43 Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (NY: HarperCollins, HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 23, 35, 37.
44 Ibid., 41-44.
45 Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, xi.
46 The meditator is conscious, but there are alterations in the brain patterns.
47 Keating, 7, 8, 74.
48 Happold, 34.
49 Ibid., 39.
50 Pennington, Centered Living, 7.
51 Ibid., 7, 191.
52 Ibid., 191. Sufism is a mystical offshoot of Islam that started in Persia.
53 Dreher. Note: Transcendental Meditation involves an initiation honoring dead gurus and Hindu deities, and the mantras are usually the names of Hindu deities.
54 Ibid., 192.
55 Merton, The Asian Journals (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1975), 125, 166, 179.
56 Ibid., 30. Note: Trungpa was the leader of the particular school of Tibetan Buddhism I studied in the late 1970’s. Trungpa established several centers in the U.S.
57 Ibid., 30, 31.
58 In fact, it is from these very teachings (Tibetan Buddhism and others) that I was delivered in late 1990!
59 NET Bible
60 This is no longer available online but is in Spiros Zodhiates Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible
61 “Heart=Mind: A Biblical Perspective,” from Vines Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, [W. E. Vine, ed. F. F. Bruce (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell Co., 1981) 206-207].
62 Greg Herrick, “The Seat of Sin, The Heart” at Bible.org
63 Foster, Prayer: The Heart’s True Home, 136 (this theme is found throughout the book).
65 Foster, Prayer: The Heart’s True Home, 159 (this view is also found in Keating and Pennington).