Contemplative Prayer: Biblical or New Age?

Christian Womanhood

Put simply, the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. It is ​an intimate sharing between friends,” to use the words of Teresa of Avila.” That’s how contemplation is described by Renovare, the ministry founded by spiritual disciplines expert and lifelong pastor, Richard Foster. 

Renovare describes six aspects of the contemplative Christian life:

  • Prayer filled “the steady gaze on Christ”
  • Virtuous “not getting into heaven, but getting heaven into us”
  • Spirit empowered “fueling our lives on the power of God”
  • Compassion “love of God makes love for the neigbor possible”
  • Word centered “ living the life giving message”
  • Sacramental “unity of physical and spiritual”

The goal according to Foster is “Transformation. Through it all, God gradually and slowly ​captures” the inner faculties: first the heart and the will, then the mind, the imagination, and the passions. The result is the transformation of the entire personality into the likeness of Christ.”

In this episode, I break down the origins of contemplation, how to discern whether it is biblical, how to practice it in a Christ centered way, and a little about the Lectio Divina.

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Transcription

Phylicia: Welcome to Verity. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer. An author, speaker, and Bible teacher. This podcast will help you embrace the history and depth of the Christian faith. Ask questions, seek answers, and devote yourself to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to settle for watered-down Christian teaching. If you’re ready to go deeper, God is just as ready to take you there. This is Verity, where every woman is a theologian. 

Hello, friends, and welcome back to the Verity podcast. Today, we’re talking about the contemplative tradition and contemplative prayer. I was actually really excited to research and produce this episode, because I know that you guys have been wondering about this for quite a while. It’s something that has been talked about in the Christian sphere more recently with the rise of New Age influences, and there’s an important question that we have to ask. How do we as orthodox believers discern between a genuine Christian contemplative tradition and something that’s actually influenced by New Age principles? Hopefully, this episode gives you some much needed clarity on this topic. 

If you aren’t familiar with this concept, essentially what it is, is a manner of approaching the Christian life and particularly Christian disciplines of prayer, meditation, and the Holy Spirit. Much of the content regarding contemplation comes out of the Catholic tradition, and the Wesleyan Holiness/Charismatic tradition. Charismatic churches are descended from Holiness churches, which are descended from the Wesleyan tradition, Wesleyan/Methodist. I’ve talked about this in the dispensationalism episode. You can go back and listen to that if you want a little bit of the church history there. But essentially, these two traditions, the Catholic and the Wesleyan Holiness, are responsible for most of our content on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, etc. Now, of course, all Christian traditions talk about in practice prayer, but specifically, contemplative prayer find its root in the history of these traditions, and the Wesleyan Holiness aspect of this pulled a lot of their content and their modeling from the Desert Fathers in the early church and in the Catholic tradition.

If you’re like, “Who are the Desert Fathers?” Good question. They were a variety of nuns and monks, essentially, in the very early monastic traditions. When monasticism began to rise and become more popular, or at least more accepted in practice, there were groups of men and women who would retreat to the desert, like John the Baptist vibes if you will, and practice these spiritual disciplines. They would practice silence, fasting, and prayer, and then, they wrote extensively about these things and those traditions were then passed down throughout church history. They are most read and appreciated in Catholic traditions, and in more liturgical traditions. Wesleyanism and Holiness movement did pull from this in developing their contemplative tradition. 

When you are reading about this today, one of the primary sources that produces content about this is Renovare which is run by Richard Foster and his colleagues, also his son, Nathan Foster. I have actually been able to hear Richard Foster speak live. He came to my city a couple years ago and I heard him speak. I’ve read two of his books, one on prayer, and the other one on spiritual disciplines. I have read extensively on his website. So, I’m actually quite familiar with what Richard Foster teaches, and what he says in his books, and I can in good conscience recommend him as an author distinctly. However, I have not read every single thing that his colleagues have written, or what they’re doing, or who they’re endorsing. So, I can’t speak to all of them and all the people who are at Renovare, but I have read Richard Foster himself, and I’ve heard him speak, and his content has been extremely powerful. My own spiritual walk, and I’ve checked it against Scripture, because I’ve been studying the Word as I’ve been reading it, and I have not found anything to be concerned about in his specific works. So, I’ve pulled as always directly from the source when developing this episode, and I want to use that content and sharing what we see the contemplative tradition today, and how we can discern that from New Age material.

Before we talk about what contemplation looks like for a Christian, I want to talk about, what it looks like in the New Age, because I think this gives us a foundation for knowing the difference. The New Age is essentially what we see in this earthy mysticism, spirituality that has risen out of Buddhism in a way. There are some people who have been really pivotal in exposing the New Age in its teachings. Steven Bancarz is one and Doreen Virtue is another. Both of them were deep in the New Age, and practiced many of its very characteristic liturgies, I guess that would be the best way to describe them, such as using tarot cards, and practicing mystical earth, Goddess-based healings, and earth worship and things like that. Now, I’m familiar with the New Age, because I live in a very agnostic area of the country. I also run in the crunchy circles, so the health food store types, because I’m a home birth mom. When you are in those circles, you inevitably run across New Age content. It’s going to be there, because it’s a big part of the home birth movement. This New Age concept connecting with your inner Goddess, connecting with Mother Earth, worshiping the earth, connecting to the earth through your baby, through the placenta, it’s a whole thing. I won’t get into that here. But essentially, what I’m saying is the New Age and the concept of becoming spiritual, and spiritually connected to the earth, pulling in some Wiccan influences even, there’s a lot of crossover there. All of this is a reality, a spiritual reality, and a cultural reality that we do need to reckon with as Christians and be aware of.

But here’s the other thing to know. All religions, all spiritual traditions have some kind of mystical aspect, including Christianity. Yes, including Christianity. All of them operate with the idea that you’re connecting to some higher power or God. You are communicating with another spirit through prayer, or chanting, or whatever it may be. Because of that, each one has some experience with the miraculous or with this spiritual feeling, and things like that. The difference for the Christian is that the Christian is communicating with a Holy God, who is historically grounded and who is representing true goodness and Holiness, whereas for the Christian, every other religion is not communicating with that God. Yes, you can have spiritual feelings, you can have spiritual experiences, you can have mystical experiences as someone who is in the New Age. But for the Christian who is looking at that, we would say, you are not experiencing the Holy God through Jesus Christ, you are experiencing something demonic. Steven Bancarz and Doreen Virtue both back this up that there is a demonic presence in the New Age, and it can be experienced, it can even manifest as an angel of light which we know Scripture says about Satan. 

So, this idea that the New Age has a monopoly on the mystical or that mystical is always bad, or spiritual experiences are always bad, always New Age, that’s not true. Because Christianity also has a mystical aspect. It has an aspect of this miraculous in the spiritual work where God will transcend the natural law such as in the ministry of Jesus Christ, where we see him healing people and bringing total newness to their physical bodies and to their spiritual lives. We see it even today, people experience miracles today in our individual lives, and I won’t get into the ones that I’ve experienced, or that I’ve seen others experience, but miracles are reality in the Christian life and we know what the source of that is. We also have spiritual experiences through prayer, or in walking side by side in the church alongside other people who are walking in the Holy Spirit, and who may have a dream or hear from the Lord that there may be something that you need to hear, and they might share that with you, and you check it against the word, and it ends up being true. 

In the Christian life, there are, what we would call, mystical experiences, and the greatest experience or truth that we have is the fact that we believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came into human flesh, died on the cross and rose again three days later. You guys, that is a pretty crazy thing to believe. We’re all used to it. [giggles] If you’re a Christian, you’re used to it. But if you were hearing that for the first time, it’s a little wild. That’s understandable. It is wild. But we have the historical gospels, we have these eyewitness testimonies, we have all this theology that is rooted in the Jewish Scriptures that tell us why we believe that Jesus Christ did this, and why we can trust it. Therefore, we say, we’re putting faith in this. We’re putting faith in this person, and this is who we believe that He is, and our lives are given to His lordship. That’s what we do. That’s our gospel. But there is still a spiritual aspect to that. I hope that gives you a little context here that, yes, the New Age is incredibly off base, dangerous, and deceitful. But it’s also sneaky, because of the very fact that Christians will experience spiritual things that may seem similar to what New Age followers experience. That does not make the experience in itself wrong. The question is, what is that experience based on, and who is it pointing to.

Let’s look at how Renovare, who again is the primo organization really talking about this defines the contemplative life. They say this. “Put simply, the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. It is an intimate sharing between friends, to use the words of Teresa of Avila.” Here are some of the descriptions they gave to describe what they call The Six Streams of the Contemplative Christian Life. Number one is, it’s prayer filled. Steady gaze on Christ is how they define the Prayer-Filled Life. This is important, you guys. Because they, very specifically define prayer as focusing on Christ. That’s distinctly Christian. That’s important. Secondly, this life is virtuous. They said, “It’s not about just getting into heaven. It’s not just about getting saved from hell. It’s about getting heaven into us.” Learning how to walk in the Christian life so that we reflect the character of the heavenly God in our own lives of Virtuous and Holy life.

Third, it is spirit empowered. Fueling our lives in the power of God. This is the one that Cessationists, people who do not believe that the Holy Spirit operates today the way he did in the Early church will probably have the biggest problem with. It’s why oftentimes, the people who buttheads the most over the contemplative life are Cessationists, people who do not believe that spiritual gifts are for today, or who believe the Holy Spirit operates in a much more limited way then continuationists do– I have a whole episode on that. So, I would recommend go and listening to that for more information to get some context. That difference of opinion, that theological difference is really at the core of the fight over the contemplative tradition ultimately. Because the contemplative tradition focuses a lot on the Holy Spirit’s role, and on prayer in the Spirit on walking in those gifts. It probably crosses over more with the charismatic traditions, or the charismatic Catholic traditions, and because of that, cessationists get a little bit wiggly about it. Prayer-filled, virtuous, Spirit-empowered. The fourth is Compassion. Love of God makes love for your neighbor possible, so it’s compassionate Life. The fifth is Word centered. Living the life-giving message, living out the gospel, Word-Centered, and then sixth, it’s Sacramental, which is the unity of the physical and the spiritual. The Eucharist is a physical reminder of a spiritual reality. We do communion as a physical reminder of the reality of what happened in Christ’s sacrifice. These six things are at the core of this tradition.

Now, what’s the point of it all? The point of it all, and this is according to Richard Foster, is that God gradually and slowly captures our inner faculties. First, the heart and the will. Then the mind, the imagination, and the passions. The result is a transformation of the entire personality into the likeness of Christ. Now, it’s important that I pause here and let you know that he is not saying that by practicing a very specific step, you’re going to shortcut sanctification and suddenly, you’re going to be in the likeness of Christ. He’s not saying practice this really specific thing, and then you will become the likeness of Christ. What he’s saying is, when you live your entire life evidencing these six traits, prayer and Holiness, and walking in the Spirit, and showing compassion and being Word centered, and practicing the sacraments, when you live that way, you will be transformed into the likeness of Christ. You guys, every Christian should agree with that, because those six things are all fundamentals of being a Christian. The ensuing transformation is a fundamental of being a Christian.

Why would somebody disagree with this then? Why would we run into a problem? Well, here’s why. Even the very best teachers and leaders, who start something that is beautiful and grounded in Scripture and dedicated to the Word will have followers who abuse their teachings. This happened during the Reformation, it’s happened all through church history, and it’s happened here. There are people who’ve taken what Richard Foster has taught what other contemplative teachers have taught, and they’ve taken it way further, they’ve made it way more vague, and they’ve downplayed the person of Christ, they’ve downplayed Scripture to the point that the resulting language sounds exactly like something you would see in the New Age. When that happens, we have a problem. Because we need to be keeping that source at the center. We need to be keeping the Word of God, the Spirit of God, the person of Jesus Christ at the center of the conversation, or it’s no longer the Christian contemplative tradition. It’s just contemplate on whatever you want to. 

A couple of interesting people who had a big part in developing the traditions that are now pulled into what we see today, one of them is St. Teresa. She’s a saint in the Catholic Church. She was a nun. She did a lot of work in teaching on intimacy with God, and prayer with God, and that personal relationship aspect of seeking Him. She also had a huge role in reforming the nunneries or the convents, and really bringing that contemplative tradition to light, and her writings are fascinating. I’m actually really excited to read more of what she had to say, because, first of all, she’s a little bit sassy, which cracks me up. But her story reminds me a lot of what I’ve read of St. Augustine and Luther. I’m just interested to do a little bit more reading into her. But she had a huge role, and you’ll see her quoted a lot in these traditions. The fact that she is Catholic is also a red flag for some people. Because there are certain Christians who will object to anything with Catholic overtures. I could get more into this here, but instead, I will refer you to an interview I did on my friend Rebekah Hargraves podcast.  I believe it’s called Hargraves Home and Hearth, where I’ve talked about Catholicism, and Protestants, and how we are to understand those differences. If you want to resource on that, you can go over there. 

But essentially, we do have to be very careful in writing certain things off simply because they came from Catholicism. There are some major disagreements – things that I definitely disagree with – reasons why I am not Catholic, things that I don’t think that line up with Scripture, but there are also plenty of things that do. The very reason that we are able to stand here today and still have a gospel is because the gospel continued to be carried through the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, and during the lifetime of people like St. Teresa.

St. Teresa had an impact on the contemplative tradition and its focus on intimacy with God, personal relationships, seeking Him in prayer, spending time with Him in silence and meditation, and just learning how to walk with Him in daily life. That’s really the goal of this tradition – how can I live a personal daily walk with Jesus Christ? How can I spend real time with Him, and not just check Him off the list or run through the reading plan or try to follow a list of rules out of the Bible? It’s really about immersing yourself in Christ and thinking about Him and praying to Him throughout the day. In that sense, it emphasizes a slowing down, a sitting with the truth of Scripture, really meditating on those truths, thinking about them.

That leads us to the Lectio Divina. Many, many moons ago, when I was a younger woman, gosh, 21, so, 10 years ago, I was practicing the Lectio Divina. One of the reasons I did this was because I took Latin in high school, I love Latin, and one of my favorite practices is actually to read the Bible in Latin, which is called the Vulgate. It’s something that I do periodically in my own quiet time, because it just helps me feel more connected to the Lord. I’ve heard from people who are bilingual and prefer to read the Bible in Spanish during their quiet time, because it helps them feel more connected. Same thing for me, except in Latin, because of the connection to church history. Through my interest in reading the Vulgate, I stumbled upon the Lectio Divina, and I loved the process so much, I actually practiced it for several years. Well, fast forward a decade, and suddenly I’m seeing people saying that this is absolutely unacceptable, that it’s wrong, that we should never do it, and I thought, “Oh, goodness, I’ve never encountered anything like that when I was practicing it.” So, I did a little digging, and I’m going to describe exactly what this looks like. Again, this is a distinctly Catholic thing that Protestants picked up. I think that’s at the heart of why many Protestants are resistant to it and find it potentially problematic.

In practicing this, you are essentially trying to dialogue with God, through His word in prayer. That’s basically what you’re doing. At the beginning of this process, you spend some time in silence, you basically sit there, find a good place to sit or pray, so, I had a closet at the time that I was doing this, and choose a text from Scripture that you’re going to be going over. I usually prayed at the beginning and said, “Lord, just speak to my heart” through Scripture, and then would open the text. The very first step in Lectio Divina is reading. You read the text, and a lot of people will read it out loud. You’re looking for phrases that stand out to you and looking for phrases that you think you will meditate more on later.

The second step is meditation. What does this text say, or how does it speak to my heart in that moment? As you find parts of the text that stand out to you, you bring them to the Lord in prayer. You have a dialogue with the Lord about that. If it brings up memories or thoughts about something in your life, you bring that to the Lord. You’re basically dialoguing with God about that passage, and how it speaks to your situation.

Some would say at this point that this isn’t prayer, it’s just meditation, because the third step in Lectio Divina is actual prayer. What am I saying to God? I would say, the meditation and dialogue portion is still prayer. It’s just more of a conversation and a questioning, whereas in the third step of prayer, you’re asking, praising, thanking the Lord. You’re talking with him in a more direct way instead of just meditating on the text.

The fourth step is contemplation. What is the Lord saying to me through this? This is where they’ll often say things like, rest in the Divine Presence, rest in the Holy Spirit, enjoy the silence, listen for the voice of the Lord, enjoy the presence of God. The whole point of this process is simply to dwell on the presence of God. There’s no like, “All right, write down three things you’re going to do today out of this time that you just spent.” The whole point of it is just to dwell in the presence of God. Why would a Christian object to this? I think there’s a couple reasons. I think that there is a lot of fear around meditation. I think that we have known people who were weak believers, who got sucked into a secular meditation. Here’s the thing. Meditation, in secular and pagan traditions, non-Christian traditions, has an entirely different goal and foundation than meditation does in a Christian tradition. That’s the first thing that we should know. I think there’s a lot of fear surrounding meditation, because we have seen and known people who’ve gotten sucked into something that is not a Christian kind of meditation.

I think there’s also some hesitancy about sitting with a text and just simply quietly asking the Lord to speak to us. There have been people who’ve said that doing something like that constitutes a Buddhist way of approaching God. I would say, that’s not true. I look at Psalms, I look at church history, and look at how Christians practice their faith over the course of history. I think the knowledge of history that I have has actually helped me understand the contemplative tradition. Because if the Word of God is your basis for your sitting with God, you do not have to fear straying into some false teaching. The starting point for the Lectio Divina is the Word of God. If you are in a church, or if you’re in a small group where the starting point is not the Word of God, if it’s just your feelings or your ideas about God, then yes, there is room for concern. But if you are practicing it the way it was originally intended, which is with an actual text or truth of Scripture, then the practice should direct you into a deeper walk with Christ, because that’s the entire point. 

As I’ve said in other episodes, we can’t build a Christian life out of fear of what could happen or say, “Well, I knew this person who walked off the deep end, because they started practicing the Lectio Divina, and all of a sudden, this is where they’re going.” The issue there was not the Lectio Divina. The issue there was their own weakness, and their lack of grounding in Scripture, and most likely a lack of strong church community to hold them accountable. You have to look at all the factors. You also have to look at your own bias and assumptions. If you’re saying, “I knew someone who was Catholic who practice this, and I think Catholics are wrong. Therefore, it is completely wrong,” without ever researching it, or reading about it, or how it works, then, you may draw conclusions that aren’t biblical or true.

The question then is, can you practice the Lectio Divina in a contemplative way based on Scripture? Can it ground you in your relationship with Jesus Christ? The answer is yes. You can practice it in a way that’s biblical, or you could practice it in a way that draws you away from Scripture. The question then is, when you encounter it, which one is being practiced? I am going to include in the show notes a variety of articles on what we’ve talked about thus far, including a couple links about Lectio Divina and a PDF that describes how to practice it and in what context it’s to be practiced. I’m also including a list of New Age practices to be aware of, written by Doreen Virtue, and in this article that she wrote, she talks about how meditation, when it is not on Scripture, that’s your first sign there’s something wrong. Or, prayer, when it’s not on Scripture or not related to Christ at all, or Father God, that’s where you start to see a problem for sure. 

I also want to look at Buddhist prayer. This was a little rabbit trail I went down when I was researching this episode, because I think understanding of Buddhist prayer and how it works helps us have a clearer idea of what Christian prayer should look like, and how it’s different from Buddhist prayer. Now, obviously, we have in John 17, Jesus’ example, the high priestly prayer, we also have the Lord’s Prayer outlined in the gospels, I think those are really helpful resources that I would recommend reading regarding prayer. But I also think when we look at Christian prayer and how it’s outlined, and then we go over and we look at Buddhist prayer, we get a clearer idea of what that New Age spiritualistic influence will look like and we are then able to compare it to the Christian version.

This is from an article I read, actually, it’s a WikiHow article on how to say a Buddhist prayer. It cracked me up, but it was quite helpful for understanding it. In this article, it said that, “The core of Buddhist prayer is connecting to yourself spiritually.” Connecting to yourself. Even though a Buddhist may pray over their food, over their family members, or all of those things, the focus is totally different than those same things are for a Christian. Our focus is on God, who has historically revealed and personally engaged with us. The focus of a Buddhist prayer is on connecting to yourself, and it’s the same in the New Age. When we look at these practices, the question is, where is the focus? Is it on Christ and becoming like him, or is it on ourselves, and becoming a better version of me? That is the question that I would start with, and then begin asking these other questions. What other influences are there? Who is talking? What’s the focus? How involved is this Scripture in this tradition and in this practice?

But the spiritual disciplines themselves are not unbiblical. Fasting, meditation, silence, sitting with a text quietly, and just waiting for the Lord to speak, listening for the Holy Spirit’s voice to enlighten the Word to you. These are things I have practiced over my entire Christian life. I do think that when you have been exposed to the charismatic church, you’re much more likely to understand those aspects of the Holy Spirit. I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a gift of the charismatic church that has been good for us. But at the same time, every branch of the church has its weaknesses. The charismatic church’s weakness is that they don’t always ground their talk about the Holy Spirit in Scripture or theology, or they give him credit for things that maybe aren’t actually his leading at all. Everything that we do in the Christian life should be tempered by, first of all, looking at the Word and what it says, growing in our understanding of that, and reading broadly across the tradition so we can see, “Hey, maybe, I could benefit from some growth in this area. Maybe I have been practicing spiritual disciplines, but I haven’t been grounding myself enough in the gospel, and now I’m starting to get distracted from the whole point of these disciplines.” Or maybe, you’ve been reading your Bible, and you’re wondering why it’s super dry, because you just don’t feel connected with the Lord personally, and your next step is to integrate those spiritual disciplines, to integrate more meditation, and more quiet prayer and sitting in the presence of God as you’re studying. Every Christian will have to walk through their life with the Lord in different seasons and have growth in different ways. That’s why understanding the diversity of the body of Christ is so important, because it helps us to see where we need that growth. It helps us to see where our own tradition should maybe be growing in understanding certain things with more grace and more depth.

Hopefully, this episode was helpful to you. All of the readings will be in the show notes on the blog, as well as the transcription in due time. Thank you for your patience on that. I hope that this encourages you to do a little bit more reading into this. The two books that I read by Richard Foster that greatly encouraged me were Celebration of Discipline, and his book on Prayer. Those would be a great start if you want somewhere to begin.