By Ken Silva pastor-teacher on Jun 4, 2010 in Brian McLaren, Contemplative Spirituality/Mysticism, Current Issues, Dallas Willard, Emergence Christianity, Emergent Church, Features, Henri Nouwen, Leonard Sweet, New Spirituality, Richard Foster, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne/New Monasticism, Shane Hipps, Spiritual Formation, Tony Campolo, Youth Ministry
Contemplative Prayer, the Heart of Mysticism
The heart and soul of mysticism, any type of mysticism, Christian or otherwise, is the art of meditation or contemplation. Georgia Harkness informs us that “among the church fathers, ‘contemplation’ was the usual term to designate what was later to be called mystical experience.” Contemplative prayer, also known as centering prayer and breath prayer, is rapidly gaining popularity and acceptance in evangelical circles, so it is vital that we understand exactly what is being promoted and why we are concerned.
What is Contemplative Prayer?
First we must distinguish between normal prayer, which is found, recommended, and demanded throughout Scripture and contemplative prayer, which is not. Prayer is our communication with God. If the Lord speaks to us through His Word, we speak to Him in prayer. Such prayers are rational, intelligent and flow from our minds. Paul said that he would pray with his spirit and he would pray with his mind also (1 Corinthians 14:15), not either/or. We are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and in those prayers we are to make our requests known (Philippians 4:6). In prayer we praise God for His known attributes. In prayer we confess specific sins (1 John 1:9). Gibberish, mindless or wordless prayers are not found in the Word, contrary to the charismatics’ assertion to the contrary. Similarly contemplative prayer is not of the Scriptural variety; its origin is not the Bible but Eastern and Christian mystics. It should be mentioned that contemplative prayer (often simply called meditation) is the essence of Hinduism and Buddhism and is practiced virtually identically to the Christianized form.
So exactly what is it? It begins with detachment. Richard Foster, in his original 1978 edition of Celebration of Discipline wrote, “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it” (p. 15). Fill it with what? In Eastern religions a person empties his mind in order to become one with the universe (or the Cosmic Mind). In Christian mysticism one empties the mind in order to become one with God, who is found by the way, in ourselves (it is important to keep in mind Meister Eckhart’s divine spark found within the soul of each human being). Foster quotes a number of mystics to describe this experience. For example there is Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse who said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.”
The constant theme of the mystic is that union with God is possible through contemplative prayer, and that union with God is found within us. St. Teresa of Ávila states, “As I could not make reflection with my understanding I contrived to picture Christ within me.” She is quoted as also saying, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.” Such statements show why the mystics were accused of pantheism. Silence is a noted feature of contemplation. Catherine de Haeck Doherty writes, “All in me is silent and… I am immersed in the silence of God.” Francis de Dales notes, “by means of imagination we confine our mind within the mystery on which we meditate.” Imagination is highly important to the mystics. As Teresa informs us, this is not an endeavor that comes from their understanding. Mystics are hung out in thin air, so to speak, and must make contact with God through imagination rather than through the rational use of their minds. The power of such experience becomes evident as Foster tells us, “We are to live in a perpetual, inward, listening silence so that God is the source of our words and actions.”
So, through contemplative prayer the person is to empty his mind (detach) then fill it with imaginative experiences with Christ (attach) who we will find in the silence of our souls, resulting in God becoming the source of our words and actions. Sounds attractive to many, even if no such teaching is found in Scripture. But how is it actually practiced?
Just how does one go about practicing contemplative prayer? The techniques are identical to those of Eastern religions and so are familiar to most of us through media presentations of TM and yoga. Gary Thomas gives these typical instructions: “Choose a word (Jesus or Father, for example) as a focus for contemplative prayer. Repeat the word silently in your mind for a set amount of time (say, twenty minutes) until your heart seems to be repeating the word by itself, just as naturally and involuntarily as breathing. But centering prayer is a contemplative act in which you don’t do anything; you’re simply resting in the presence of God.” So, the repetition of words or short phrases, a mantra, is key to this experience. What else? While Richard Foster suggests a number of methodologies he says, “I find it best to sit in a straight chair, with my back correctly positioned in the chair and both feet flat on the floor…. Place the hands on the knees, palms up in a gesture of receptivity. Sometimes it is good to close the eyes to remove distractions and center the attention on Christ. At other times it is helpful to ponder a picture of the Lord or to look out at some lovely trees and plants for the same purpose.” Brennan Manning gives these instructions in his book, The Signature of Jesus: “The first step in faith is to stop thinking about God in prayer…. Contemplative spirituality tends to emphasize the need for a change in consciousness… we must come to see reality differently…. Choose a single, sacred word… repeat the sacred word inwardly, slowly and often…. Enter into the great silence of God. Alone in that silence, the noise within will subside and the Voice of Love will be heard.” It is apparently the repetition of the mantra that triggers the blank mind. With the mind blank and the heart open to whatever voices or visions that it encounters, accompanied with a vivid imagination, the individual enters into the mystical state. This is the state so prized in mysticism and it is made possible through contemplative prayer. Concerning all of this Foster encourages, “Though it may sound strange to modern ears, we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.” By contrast, we search in vain to find any such encouragement or instruction in the Scriptures. We do however find this type of contemplation at the heart of Eastern religions. That is why I find it both bold and revealing that Foster, in his recommendation of Catherine de Haeck Doherty’s ministry, actually admit that the title of her book is, Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man. This leaves little doubt as to the source for this type of prayer.
But Is It Biblical?
No experience or methodology promoting spirituality can be dismissed or accepted out of hand. Scripture is the final arbitrator and as we have seen Scripture in no way promotes the mysticism that we have been examining. I found the following admission in Winfried Corduan’s book, Mysticism, an Evangelical Option? to be most interesting. Corduan would not take as strong a stand on the Scriptures as we would and would even see a mild form of mysticism valid for the Christian. But toward the end of his book he raises some important questions and points.
Set into the context of the New Testament, this aspect of the mystical experience becomes problematic. For it would entail that mystical experience becomes a source of revelation, a private avenue of insight into God and his workings. If so, as Arthur L. Johnson points out, the evangelical commitment to Scripture as the sole source of revelation becomes undermined. “The Scriptures nowhere teach that God gives us any knowledge through ‘spiritual experience.’ Knowledge of spiritual matters is always linked to God’s propositional revelation, the written Word.”
Corduan sounds an important alarm. Mysticism, both ancient and modern is chocked full of supposed revelations from God. As a matter of fact, this is the draw – God will personally meet you in the center of your soul and communicate to you matters far beyond anything found in Scripture. “Christian meditation, very simply is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word,” Foster tells us. This is no slip of the pen. Foster is not advocating listening to the voice of God in the written revelation of God. He is not even equating “his word” with the Bible. He is speaking of hearing God’s voice outside of the Scriptures, and obeying that revelation. This is one of the greatest dangers of mysticism. Corduan continues.
We have claimed that mysticism is a very important aspect of New Testament theology [he defines mysticism somewhat differently than in this paper]. And yet there is no mystical experience to be sought. There is no truth to be learned through New Testament mysticism. There is no plan of asceticism or meditation to actualize this mystical reality. Rather, there are two important imperatives. The first is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus!” (Acts 16:31). Immediately the realities discussed above are actualized. The second is, “Live…. according to the Spirit!” (Rom. 8:5). The point now is to live a life in the light of the fact that those realities are given by God’s grace. Christians do not need to seek present realities, but to enjoy them. As they yield to the work of God, the Holy Spirit produces a new supernatural life in them.
This is New Testament spirituality: regeneration and the indwelling, enabling power of the Holy Spirit, all based on the propositional revelation of Scripture. If God had wanted us to encounter Him through mystical practices such as contemplative prayer, why did He not say so? Why did He not give examples and instructions? How could the Holy Spirit inspire the writing of the Scriptures yet forget to include a chapter or two on mysticism, spiritual exercises and mediation of the Eastern variety? Are we to believe that all of this is a great oversight, a huge “oops” on God’s part to have left out such vital instructions on an indispensable experience that is absolutely essential to Christian spirituality? Then, having realized what He had done, are we to believe God, centuries later, revealed this missing ingredient of Christian living to Roman Catholic monks, where it was rejected by the Reformers, only to have Richard Foster reintroduce it all to the twentieth century. This is a bit hard to swallow, but apparently is being accepted by many today.
Modern Promoters of Mysticism If the mystical practices that we have been describing were contained in some little corner of the Christian subculture we have spent far too much time addressing them. But unfortunately what was once in a corner has moved mainstream. More and more organizations, colleges, seminaries and authors are proclaiming the superiority of mystical Christianity. And the focus of all this attention seems to be directed toward the young. For example, in the late 1990s Youth Specialties, the highly influential youth ministry organization, and the San Francisco Theological Seminary teamed up to do a three-year test project to develop an approach to youth ministry which incorporates contemplative practices. The project was funded by the Lilly Endowment Fund. Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties, grew interested in contemplative prayer during a spiritually dry time of his life after reading a book by Henri Nouwen on the subject. Yaconelli and Youth Specialties have now incorporated contemplative prayer and mysticism in their annual pastor’s conferences and national youth conventions that reach over 100,000 youth workers each year. Each conference now offers courses on how to develop a contemplative youth ministry, pray the Lectio Divina (an ancient four-step form of contemplative prayer) and walk the prayer labyrinths. Christianity Today’s sister publication Christian Parenting recently published an article (Fall 2004) promoting the Lectio Divina for young people. “Christian” singers such as John Michael Talbot boldly endorse contemplative prayer as well as Eastern practices such as Tai Chi and yoga. Without question former Catholic priest Brennan Manning is steeped in mysticism yet Michael W. Smith gives away his books, Michael Card turns to him for advice and named his son after him, Larry Crabb seeks his counsel, Eugene Peterson loves his work, Max Lucado endorses his books, Philip Yancey considers him a good friend, and Multnomah and NavPress, evangelical publishers, publish his books. Mysticism and contemplative prayer is seeping into evangelicalism from many sources and a deluge could very well be in the offing. We need to be prepared to defend the faith against this highly dangerous perversion of biblical Christianity.
 Georgia Harkness, Mysticism, (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1973), p. 25.
 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 102.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 166.
 Cited in James Sundquist, Who’s Driving the Purpose Driven Church?, (Bethany, OK: Rock Salt Publishing, 2004), p. 93.
 Richard Foster, p. 28.
 Cited in Ray Yunger, A Time of Departing, (Silverton, Oregon: Lighthouse Trails, 2002), p. 84.
 Richard Foster, p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 107.
 Winfried Corduan, Mysticism, an Evangelical Option?, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1991), p. 120.
 Richard Foster, p. 17.
 Winfried Corduan, p. 138.
 Yungen, pp. 133-134.
 Agnieszka Tennant, “The Patched Up Life and Message of Brennan Manning,” Christianity Today, June 2004, p. 42.
The article (March 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 3) appears in its original form here.