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Misunderstanding Mysticism: Christianity Versus the New Age

An exploration of Church teaching on mysticism and prayer


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2 Peter 2:18: For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error.
Colossians 2: “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”


Mystici Corporis Christi, Pope Pius XII, 1943:


“Grave errors with regard to this [Catholic] doctrine are being spread among those outside the true Church, and that among the faithful, also, inaccurate or thoroughly false ideas are being disseminated which turn minds aside from the straight path of truth.


“For while there still survives a false rationalism, which ridicules anything that transcends and defies the power of human genius, and which is accompanied by a cognate error, the so-called popular naturalism, which sees and wills to see in the Church nothing but a juridical and social union, there is on the other hand a false mysticism creeping in, which, in its attempt to eliminate the immovable frontier that separates creatures from their Creator, falsifies the Sacred Scriptures.”



 

Since the early 17th-century twofold attack on mysticism by Quietism and Jansenism, both being two polar extremes to one another, the true mystical tradition has become more and more muddied, lost in the middle, lost at a time when it is needed most.


Men of today desire nothingness, nirvana, literally—“extinguishing a flame”—thus their spirituality reflects this. Ask a man what he thinks happens after death and he’ll tell you: “nothing.” However, though their end goal is inherently absent, they still believe that they must climb up a mountain, trekking upon a great spiritual journey, finding fulfillment, finding their True Self at the peak. But I say to you, the spiritual life is not a journey, no, it is a few footsteps. It is turning yourself around, repenting, and taking a step toward God. It is looking up that great mountain, which is God, and adoring Him.



True Mysticism


The purpose of this article is not to give an in-depth analysis of Christian mysticism. It’s goal is to simply distinguish it from false mysticism.


“No less far from the truth is the dangerous error of those who endeavor to deduce from the mysterious union of us all with Christ a certain unhealthy quietism. They would attribute the whole spiritual life of Christians and their progress in virtue exclusively to the action of the Divine Spirit, setting aside and neglecting the collaboration which is due from us.” (Mystici Corporis Christi)


However, "Divine favors are conferred not on those who sleep, but on those who watch," says St. Ambrose.


“For it to be prayer at all, the mind must take part in it” (St. Teresa of Avilia, Interior Castle)

According to the early quietists, perfection consists in complete absorption in God. The human will becomes identical with the divine. There is, then, no need for Sacraments, for law, for worship, and the person can indulge in carnal desires without staining the soul.


Christian prayer, however, is an encounter with the living God, a Person so spended in goodness, that we become aware of our darkness. It is an encounter with the living God, which leaves us reborn. Pure quietism is abandonment carried to the extreme, namely to annihilation and spiritual death. It is emptiness without love and mercy. It is nothingness without comfort and encouragement. It is is seeking consolation without transformation of becoming a follower of God. It is Christianity without the Cross.


True “Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, to his likeness.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2713)


Contemplation is "a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus." (CCC, 2715)


“In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer . . . as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void.” (CCC, 2726)


“Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ” (CCC, 2708)


 


Let us now read Cardinal Ratzinger's Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation:


“Contemplative Christian prayer always leads to love of neighbor, to action and to the acceptance of trials, and precisely because of this it draws one close to God.”


"Pope John Paul II has pointed out to the whole Church the example and doctrine of St. Teresa of Avila who in her life had to reject the temptation of certain methods which proposed a leaving aside of the humanity of Christ in favor of a vague self-immersion in the abyss of divinity.


(...) “Therefore, one has to interpret correctly the teaching of those masters who recommend "emptying" the spirit of all sensible representations and of every concept, while remaining lovingly attentive to God. In this way, the person praying creates an empty space which can then be filled by the richness of God. However, the emptiness which God requires is that of the renunciation of personal selfishness, not necessarily that of the renunciation of those created things which he has given us and among which he has placed us. There is no doubt that in prayer one should concentrate entirely on God and as far as possible exclude the things of this world which bind us to our selfishness. On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you. "I look for his substance in my soul and I do not find it; I have however meditated on the search for God and, reaching out to him, through created things, I have sought to know 'the invisible perfections of God' (Rom 1:20)."21 "To remain in oneself": this is the real danger. The great Doctor of the Church recommends concentrating on oneself, but also transcending the self which is not God, but only a creature. God is "deeper than my inmost being and higher than my greatest height." In fact God is in us and with us, but he transcends us in his mystery.


(...) “Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.


(...) “With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, "to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian." 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 [quoting Meister Eckhart; see section “Further Errors”]." 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.”


“In a homily given on November 1, 1982,” spiritualdirection.com remarks, St. Pope John Paul II “said the call of St. Teresa advocating a prayer totally centered on Christ “is valid, even in our day, against some methods of prayer which are not inspired by the Gospel and which in practice tend to set Christ aside in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity. Any method of prayer is valid insofar as it is inspired by Christ and leads to Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).”


Onward, in 2002, a very important document, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life, was released by The Pontifical Council for Culture & Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue:


“The New Age concept of God is rather diffuse, whereas the Christian concept is a very clear one. The New Age god is an impersonal energy, really a particular extension or component of the cosmos; god in this sense is the life-force or soul of the world. Divinity is to be found in every being, in a gradation “from the lowest crystal of the mineral world up to and beyond the Galactic God himself, about Whom we can say nothing at all. This is not a man but a Great Consciousness”. In some “classic” New Age writings, it is clear that human beings are meant to think of themselves as gods: this is more fully developed in some people than in others. God is no longer to be sought beyond the world, but deep within myself. Even when “God” is something outside myself, it is there to be manipulated.
“This is very different from the Christian understanding of God as the maker of heaven and earth and the source of all personal life. (...) God is not identified with the Life-principle understood as the “Spirit” or “basic energy” of the cosmos, but is that love which is absolutely different from the world, and yet creatively present in everything, and leading human beings to salvation.”


False Mysticism


The end result of false mysticism is the annihilation of the human will, and thus the annihilation of love of God in the soul, compared to the conformity of the will to what is good, holy, and true. It’s logical conclusion is that man is his own God. This follows because it reduces God to finite nature, as if to reduce his infinite majesty so high above ours.


The first errors listed in the Syallbus of Errors by Pope Pius IX was that of Pantheism:


“There exists no Supreme, all-wise, all-provident Divine Being, distinct from the universe, and God is identical with the nature of things, and is, therefore, subject to changes. In effect, God is produced in man and in the world, and all things are God and have the very substance of God, and God is one and the same thing with the world, and, therefore, spirit with matter, necessity with liberty, good with evil, justice with injustice.”


Likewise states the First Vatican Council: “If anyone says that the substance or essence of God and that of all things are one and the same: let him be anathema.”



St. Pope John Paul II on the Difference between Buddhism and Christianity


“Among the religions mentioned in the Council document Nostra Aetate, it is necessary to pay special attention to Buddhism, which from a certain point of view, like Christianity, is a religion of salvation. Nevertheless, it needs to be said right away that the doctrines of salvation in Buddhism and Christianity are opposed.


“At various times, attempts to link this method with the Christian mystics have been made – whether it is with those from northern Europe (Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck) or the later Spanish mystics (Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross). But when Saint John of the Cross, in the Ascent of Mount Carmel and in the Dark Night of the Soul, speaks of the need for purification, for detachment from the world of the senses, he does not conceive of that detachment as an end in itself. “To arrive at what now you do not enjoy, you must go where you do not enjoy. To reach what you do not know, you must go where you do not know. To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where now you having nothing” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1. 13. 11). In Eastern Asia these classic texts of Saint John of the Cross have been, at times, interpreted as a confirmation of Eastern ascetic methods. But his Doctor of the Church does not merely propose detachment from the world. He proposes detachment from the world in order to unite oneself to that which is outside of the world – by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God. Union with Him comes about not only through purification, but through love.”


“Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life. In the active and passive purification of the human soul, in those specific nights of the senses and the spirit, Saint John of the Cross sees, above all, the preparation necessary for the human soul to be permeated with the living flame of love. And this is also the title of his major work – The Living Flame of Love.


(...) “Herefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference. Christian mysticism from every period – beginning with the era of the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church, to the great theologians of Scholasticism (such as Saint Thomas Aquinas), to the northern European mystics, to the Carmelite mystics – is not born of a purely negative “enlightenment.” It is not born of an awareness of the evil which exists in man’s attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit. Instead, Christian mysticism is born of the Revelation of the living God. This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues – faith, hope, and, above all love.”


“Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the “enlightenment” conveyed by Buddha. Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process."


For further reading: Rescuing the Mystics






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