Response to a Contemplative Prayer Advocate from a Former Roman Catholic

Phyllis Nissila

Recently, I read a letter from a contemplative prayer advocate expressing disagreement with writers of articles critiquing that practice. The letter writer wonders why the authors would denigrate the prayer form that “had its flowering in the lives of the early desert fathers and mothers in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries.” The writer contends that “too many Christians, especially within evangelical communities, seem to think that there was Jesus, and then the last 150 years of evangelical history while lobbing off the whole history of Christianity in between.” The writer concludes by inviting the article authors to “consider that the contemplative tradition has had a very long historical place and purpose within the Christian tradition since the beginning of the Church.”[1]

I will leave the more technical aspects of why there is serious concern about this practice to apologists and scholars (see references, below). My contribution to the discussion stems from my 23 years as a Roman Catholic, one of the primary sources of such prayer, 38 years as a Christian, and some prayer directives from Scripture.

You might say my spiritual life represents “two premises,” one of which (Roman Catholicism) leaves the spiritual door open to such new/ancient devotions as contemplative prayer because in that religion “Sacred Tradition” (added to and amended through the centuries) is revered on a par with Sacred Scripture. The other (Christianity) adheres to Scripture in script and in the Word Made Flesh, “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:9). Scripture that consistently bears witness to the Triune God—only (1 John 5:7-8). Perhaps my experience can offer a different perspective for consideration.

But to start with, an exploration of Scriptures noted by the letter writer to support his/her stance is actually a good place to begin. The author of one referenced Scripture, St. Paul, is speaking to another group of spiritual seekers experimenting with belief systems and traditions: the people of Athens (see Acts 17: 18-31).

The Athenians had erected numerous statues on Mars Hill to the various and sundry gods they worshipped including a statue to the “Unknown God.” Paul used that statue as a conversation starter about the one, true God, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (verse 28, the verse the letter writer referenced). Among other attributes of God, Paul writes in that extended passage of God’s position as a judge Who will one day “judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (31). The man being Jesus, of course.

The other Scripture referenced by the letter writer also verifies Jesus as Christians’ focus. The verse (in entirety) reads, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

In their plain meaning, the verses do not have any implied reference of support for contemplative prayer which embraces the notions of pantheism (God is all) and panentheism (God is in all). In context, both Scriptures align in referencing the one, true God Who will gather all unto Himself after all is made subject to Jesus.

Since Jesus is the focal point of Christianity, then, how did He advise us to pray? When asked this, he replied: “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, for ever, Amen” (Matthew 6, 9-13, KJV). Start with worship, follow with requests, and close with worship.

Jesus also referenced prayer and fasting before specific instances of deliverance from demonic influences (Mark 9:29). In addition, he discusses presenting our petitions in faith (Mark 11:22-24 and Matthew 21:22).

Of the times Jesus went off by Himself to commune with the Father little is revealed. However, He Who came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Luke 24: 27) would not have adopted a prayer form from an alien practice developed in a future century (but actually older than that; see “Gnosticism,” below).

Some might argue that references to praying “in the spirit,” such as in Romans 8:26, which indicates the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered,” and Ephesians 6:18 which directs us to pray “always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” invite believers to participate in alternate prayer experiences that include contemplative prayer. But Jesus spoke about the role of the Holy Spirit, too, as glorifying Him (see Acts 1:8, John 15:26, John 16:7-9)—not mystical experiences that involve chanting, emptying the mind, and/or waiting for some (physical) feeling to verify God’s presence or induce what some contemplatives deem a state of “ecstasy”. Indeed, Jesus said He would never leave nor forsake us (so He is already here), and He also took care of the physical experience necessary for us to gain entrance into the presence of God. He accomplished that on a hill outside Jerusalem one bloody Friday, circa 33 A.D.

Jesus also spoke on how not to pray, in short: avoid hypocrisy (Matthew 6: 5) and vain repetitions (6: 7).

Nowhere does He recommend contemplative prayer, which, when unpacked, represents not classic Christianity, but “a belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is often wrapped in Christian terminology and that is rooted in pantheism (God is all) and panentheism (God is in all)” [2], as noted also above. Although contemplative prayer might be a part of the various and sundry practices permissible in the Roman Catholic tradition, it is decidedly not of the Christian tradition. And though some might equate it with the Christian practice of meditating on God’s Word, there is a vast difference.[4]

I posit that it is because certain aspects of the Roman Catholic religious system are enjoying an upsurge of interest in all denominations just now. Having once subscribed to that religious premise I can fully understand how one might be enamored of contemplative prayer and many other activities in the extra-biblical cache of approved Catholic rite and ritual. In fact, I wonder how far into Catholicism the letter writer has ventured.

Is he or she also familiar with other attractions including but not limited to devotions to Jesus’ mother Mary, Catholic saints, and the communion host? Is he or she familiar with manifestations such as the stigmata and weeping statues? Does he or she realize that indulgences are still “purchased,” purgatory is still taught, and bits of the bodies and/or clothing from dead Catholic saints are embedded in the base of Catholic altars? Is he or she aware of certain added doctrines such as Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception (of Mary, that is), Purgatory, and the priest’s assumed power to change bread and wine or juice into the body and blood of Christ (the newest of this group, the Immaculate Conception, dating from 1854)?

Does he or she understand that the Roman Catholic system is essentially works based? Salvation is taught primarily in terms of earnings through reception of the sacraments, prayer, attendance at mass (which is obligatory and if not attended at certain times causes a loss of salvation in the form of a ‘mortal” sin, see below) and so on. Grace is accrued not gifted. And the power of earning grace extends beyond the grave. Catholics are encouraged to pray certain prayers, perform certain rituals, and remit/donate money for masses to help reduce the purgatory time for dead loved ones.

Early on in my twelve years of Catholic school education I came to understand that I needed to do as much as I could to earn as much grace as I could or to do enough penance after a good confession so that I could secure purgatory, if not heaven, upon death. I had to avoid mortal sins (the kind that negate salvation and send you to hell if not forgiven by a priest as opposed to venial sins which just accrue more time in the fires of purgatory if not forgiven by the priest).

But even if confessed, there is still some purgatory to pay, I was taught, and one never knows how much. A few weeks? A hundred years? A millennia? The penance given by the priest never really covers all the pain due unless, of course, one prays certain prayers that accrue “plenary indulgences,” that is, indulgences that wipe away purgatory. But these are few, and timing is of the essence. Whatever sequence of actions must follow or precede the special prayers “work” only until more sins (of either omission or commission) are committed. And it’s pretty clear human beings can’t go very long without committing at least one sin, mortal or venial.

So apparently, according to Roman Catholicism, Jesus really didn’t finish what He set out to do on the cross despite His dying words.

So in this mental, emotional, and spiritual miasma of never-requited sin and penance enter a plethora of ways and means to at least feel better for a little while: rosary beads, holy medals, holy water, novenas, First Friday and First Saturday devotions, the Stations of the Cross and pilgrimages, to name just a few. Also, enter “saints” who advocate certain “disciplines” engineered to somehow make one more spiritual, closer to God, and less apt to spend extended time in purgatory. One of these disciplines is contemplative prayer. Other options came later and continue to surface.

Of course non-Catholics don’t relate to the disciplines as ways to avoid hell and reduce the purgatory sentence. They see them as new ways to get closer to God, to feel His presence and maybe to experience novel manifestations of a spiritual nature. Manifestations there are—in abundance—but they are not necessarily of God.

But in the religious milieu where Sacred Tradition enjoys equal status with Sacred Scripture, how can one know what is and what is not of God, particularly if the Church leader claims “infallibility” in certain instances and puts his official seal of approval on the item at hand, his literal imprimatur? What’s a Catholic to do?

In a religious milieu where precious little can ease the angst of perennial insecurity regarding one’s salvation, a Catholic will pursue the next experience to come down the pike, if he/she hasn’t already found one that seems to work, and hope the pope agrees it’s a good thing. Especially if it comes with an emotional or physical buzz which, after all, must mean something. And in our new century of “all roads leading to Rome” as influenced by the Ecumenical movement [3] it’s not only Catholics who are attracted to such experiences. Many others, I am sorry to learn, are following suit, many who may not know the origins of the “mysticism” that spawned contemplative prayer in the deserts of yore.

The letter writer implies that the ancient nature of contemplative prayer somehow secures its position in orthodoxy. For its roots in Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies to infect the Church, I refer the reader to the reference below, for starters. But larger considerations remain. Does the existence of a belief from antiquity justify it? Is older necessarily better? Consider just this: how soon after creation did rebellion seed itself in man’s heart? Good and evil have co-existed since creation, thus the need for discernment—since then.

And another more specific question: if we can assume that random spiritual practices from historical Roman Catholicism (or any other spiritual tradition) are okay, now, in a century saturated with a more theologically “diverse” “postmodern” spirit, for what, then, did Luther risk his life the day he nailed his 95 theses to the Bittenburg wall? For what did Jesus die?

There is really no gap between Jesus and 150 years ago, letter writer. There have always been Christians who have remained faithful to—and fought for—the original texts and tenets, who have resisted the allure of the spiritually novel pending investigation, who have tracked new beliefs, rites, and rituals and studied their alignment or lack of alignment with God’s Word. Those Christians, just like the rest of us, started/start with the same choices: who to believe and which spiritual premise to pursue.

And for those who have and are investigating contemplative prayer, this question added: Does God evolve, as Roman Catholicism (from whence the prayer form comes) implies? If He does not evolve but is the same “I Am” of Judeo-Christianity, then we’d best make sure “new” doctrines, devotions, policies, and/or practices (whether in the first or the twenty-first century) have not emanated from our arch enemy once again disguised as “an angel of light”(2 Corinthians 11:14).

How to tell? The Apostle John gives this insight—and this encouragement: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Sprit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John, 4:1-4).

I would encourage the letter writer and others involved in contemplative prayer to take the time to investigate this practice further. It is not what it purports to be and may very well be hazardous to spiritual health.

[3] See for a generic definition of ecumenism. See also: for one example of a critique. Note, however, that many are analyzing this movement and much research has been done and can be easily accessed. As always, discernment advised.

On contemplative prayer

On Gnosticism
For a generic definition, see ttp:// For Gnosticism’s influence on contemplative prayer, see Much research has also been done on contemplative prayer and its relationship to alternative religious systems and pagan practices.

This entry was posted in Commentaries, Contemplative/Mysticism, Ex-Roman Catholic/Catholicism, most recent posts, Postmodern/Emergent Church, Purgatory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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