[First published in Midwest Christian Outreach Journal, February, 2005; this version has been modified with additional information]
“God’s first language is silence.” 1
“Progress in intimacy with God means progress toward silence.” 2
“The important thing is that we are relaxed and our back is straight so that the vitalizing energies can flow freely.” 3
Contemplation is “a pure and a virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word ‘wherever He may go.'” 4
Contemplative Prayer, also called Centering Prayer or Listening Prayer, has been taught by Roman Catholic monks Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington, as well as by Quaker Richard Foster, and is being advocated by many others. There is no one authority on this method, nor is there necessarily a consistent teaching on it, though most of the founding teachers quote medieval mystics, Hindu, and Buddhist spiritual teachers.
According to www.contemplativeoutreach.org,
“Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient prayer practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, Lectio Divina, (praying the scriptures), The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. It was distilled into a simple method of prayer in the 1970’s by three Trappist monks, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist Abbey, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.”
It should be added,
“During the twenty years (1961-1981) when Keating was abbot, St. Joseph’s held dialogues with Buddhist and Hindu representatives, and a Zen master gave a week-long retreat to the monks. A former Trappist monk who had become a Transcendental Meditation teacher also gave a session to the monks.” 5
The influence of Buddhism and Hinduism on Contemplative Prayer (hereafter referred to as CP) is apparent. Words such as “detachment,” “transformation,” “emptiness,” “enlightenment” and “awakening” swim in and out of the waters of these books. The use of such terms certainly mandates a closer inspection of what is being taught, despite the fact that contemplative prayer is presented as Christian practice.
Themes that one finds echoed in the CP movement include the notions that true prayer is: silent, beyond words, beyond thought, does away with the “false self,” triggers transformation of consciousness, and is an awakening. Suggested techniques often include breathing exercises, visualization, repetition of a word or phrase, and detachment from thinking.
Beyond words: The Silence
As we see from the quotes above, silence is assumed to be God’s “language.” This seems contradictory since language usually involves the use of words, or at least symbols. From whence did this idea arise? Some quote Ps. 62:5, “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him.” But the passage is about depending on God for refuge and salvation, and is not instructing how to pray. The emphasis is expectation for God only – only God can save. Even if the psalmist is praying, it is not telling us that silence is the only way to pray, or that we must approach God in silence. However, Keating states that vocal prayer is not “the most profound prayer.” 6
According to St. John of the Cross, who is heavily quoted by CP advocates, entering an “advanced state of Contemplation” requires education and training.7 This type of prayer has “nothing to do with the words and petitions of what is commonly called prayer. It is not articulate; it has no form.”8 Certainly one of the ironies of CP is that it essentially is not prayer.
It is a Zen Buddhist concept that truth is beyond words (this is also a Taoist view; Zen’s roots are in Taoism and Buddhism). Zen teaches that truth must be realized as one practices sitting meditation (zazen), cultivating an empty mind by letting go of thoughts so that rational thinking is transcended; or perhaps, as in the Rinzai school of Zen, one’s awareness is triggered by koans such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “What was your face before you were born?” According to Zen, Buddha’s
“real message remained always unspoken, and was such that, when words attempted to express it, they made it seem as if it were nothing at all.” 9
The Unity School of Christianity, a church founded on New Thought principles, and whose founders were influenced by Eastern spiritual beliefs, teaches that Jesus is a “Way-Shower” and is believed to have become the Christ when he attained perfection; all people are believed to have the inner potential to be the same as Christ. In a Unity booklet, “The Adventure Called Unity,”10 it states that prayer involves
“[C]oncentrating one’s entire intellect on God, affirming a positive statement of truth, meditating on Divine Principles, and finally turning within one’s own being in a wonderful time of quiet which Unity calls ‘the silence,’ wherein one becomes receptive to the ‘still small voice’ of God.” 11
The above, with the exception of the phrase “Divine Principles,” is similar to statements found in CP literature. Unity also asserts that “spiritual communion takes place through prayer and meditation in the silence.” 12
A popular Bible passage used to advocate silent meditation as prayer is Ps. 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” However, this is being taken out of context.13 A study of this Psalm shows this is actually a rebuke from God to those striving against Him. Some translations render this as “Cease striving and know that I am God,” (NASB, ESV). Charles H. Spurgeon’s remarks on verse 10 are
“Hold off your hands, ye enemies! Sit down and wait in patience, ye believers! Acknowledge that Jehovah is God, ye who feel the terrors of his wrath! Adore him, and him only, ye who partake in the protection of his grace.” 14
Praying in silence, or ruminating on a passage of scripture in silence, is normal, but silence should not be regarded as superior to words; nor does the Bible give any support to the notion that the “language of God” is silence. Interestingly, Foster even warns about silent CP, saying that it is for more mature believers, that “we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm” where we may encounter “spiritual beings” who are not on God’s side. He suggests a prayer of protection in which one surrounds himself with “the light of Christ,” saying “all dark and evil spirits must now leave,” and other words to keep evil ones at bay.15 I could not help but think of my New Age days when I was taught to invoke a white light of protection before psychic activity or contact with the dead. Jesus, in teaching the disciples to pray, said, “Keep us from the evil one,” but this was a petition to guard us from Satan’s schemes, not a formula for warding off evil spirits during prayer. (It is highly likely that Foster’s idea about the protection prayer came from his mentor, Agnes Sanford, who continued to hold and teach New Thought beliefs even after her alleged conversion to Christianity).
In the preface to a book about Christ, an author states that Jesus is not outside our mind, but that “it is in your mind that Jesus addresses you. He is your most intimate friend speaking to you, sometimes in words, often beyond words.”16 This book is a classic New Age book, yet these words are not that dissimilar to many statements made by CP authors.
Silence can be soothing and comforting; we can get deep insights when we are quiet. But simply trying to be quiet is not prayer, and there is no biblical basis for the belief that real prayer is wordless. After all, God has given us a written revelation, and God’s laws and words are acclaimed throughout the Bible, such as Psalm 119, which extols God’s word as a treasure and lamp. In Is. 40:8, we learn, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever,” and Jesus declares to the Father in Jn. 17:17, “Your word is truth.”
Continue to Part 2…