Responding to Criticism: The Radical Newness of the Gospel and “Meditation Techniques”

After I published my most recent commentary on the differences between Christian contemplation and various non-Christian “mystical” techniques, at least one reader contacted me to express disappointment that I have softened my stance on these latter techniques and diluted the Gospel. It was claimed that I had compromised Christianity by “permitting” other meditation techniques; it was claimed that I was involved with syncretism.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as I hope to show in this post.

My own experience and “qualifications”

The reader turned a variety of sources and quotes against me. I will not dispute with anyone on this issue, but I would like to defend myself by saying that I do have certain “qualifications” in this area. And those qualifications are simply my experience. And my suffering and loss. It would not be an exaggeration to say that what I have suffered and lost for the sake of my unchanging stance on the radical newness of the Gospel and the relativization of any “techniques” of “prayer” (like Main’s Christian meditation, Keating’s centering prayer, Osho’s transcendental meditation, etc.) is second to that of few people on this planet. What I know deep in my bones is what is known by the person who has fought the fight. In all material terms, I lost. But isn’t that precisely why, in spiritual terms, I should know that I won?

My story is this.

Not long after I started this blog, I became more and more attracted to the religious life (i.e., being a religious brother or religious priest in a congregation/order). Now, being the naturally inculturated person that I am, I did not for this reason flee back to my home country to try to pick up a life there first, then adjust to life there and find a religious congregation/order there. I contacted some congregations/orders here in Thailand.

The end result of the story is that, I gradually discovered that there was, in practice, no way for me to retain my convictions on meditation and contemplation from within any congregation or order in the country. All would at various times force the seminarians and catechist students to practise a form like John Main’s Christian meditation. What was worse, I was stuck in the congregation with the main leader of this practice, who was in a position of both civil and religious authority over me. (There are also more details and complicating factors.)

After several confrontations and due also to other related factors which it is not worth getting into here (in part because, while they are of moral relevance, they do not pertain to the subject of this blog), I decided to leave.

This meant I was jobless, without a home, without any legal right to continue living – in a country half a world from where I am from. I scrambled a life together to keep going and (this was the main goal for several months) not become so compromised as to be prosecutable under the law. When I look back on this time at two years’ distance, I realize that my mental health also plummeted to depths that I hope never to repeat; it took years to recover, and only in the last few months have I been anything like the human being I was before. That priests of Christ would sink as low as they did and do to one everything that they did is an experience not easily recovered from. One can only pick up the pieces gradually.

All of this was for the sake of the clarity of the Gospel. I have never compromised on the radical newness of Christ. I have never called these experiential techniques by the name of “prayer.” I have never encouraged anyone to engage in them. And I never will. This is not a mere theoretical conviction. It is one bought with real and long-term suffering. If anyone is to make any accusations against me, let these few details of my life be known. I think they “qualify” me in a rather unique way.

The practical or moral victory

I would next like to reiterate the manner in which I view the ancient and great human systems conceived by Buddhists, Sufis, and so on. I have great respect for them, just as I have great respect for all great human creations. I can marvel at the Coliseum without condoning what occurred there. I can appreciate the genius of a Rumi or a Jabir without subjecting my Christianity to something less than itself. This is part of the freedom of the Gospel. We are not in chains to a weak ideology or fundamentalism.

So, with such a respect in mind, how do I view modern practices like Main’s Christian meditation, Keating’s centering prayer, and Osho’s transcendental meditation? In the first place, I view them in the historical long run. And in that sense they are offshoots or modern variations on vipassanā, the kind of sitting, word-focused, mind-emptying “Buddhist meditation” that first comes to mind when one hears the words “Buddhist meditation.”

In the second place, I utterly relativize them in the face of the Gospel. That is my strategy, and bear in mind that it is a strategy born out of fire and fight; it is not some thought made up in the comfort of an ecumenical meeting from which anyone and everyone can walk away peacefully and happily to his own home. For the fight that I was in, I lost a home.

Although in my previous post I did not use the word, what I essentially call all these techniques is a hobby. They are a hobby or, at best, a kind of professional interest, but they are not the substance of life, they are not normative, they do not get at the meaning of life, they give no grace, they have no essential connection to the supernatural life whatsoever. They have the same status as plants, books, or food. They are fine interests to have, but they are not your goal, and if you fail to relativize them in the face of your eternal salvation, you sin (“for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” – Rom 14:23). You must certainly be stripped of everything, absolutely everything, in these interests which is not ordered ultimately to the Trinity, Christ, the Cross.

This may seem like a banal thing to say: if these (so-called) “prayer” techniques are just one natural interest among many, how does that say anything forceful about their influence?

Well, just try it. Explain to someone deeply committed to these techniques that they have a hobby. They do not have some great secret that would be fantastic for everyone in the world, but they have a mere hobby. With few exceptions, they will start to froth at the mouth. They do not consider their hobby to be a hobby. They consider it to be beneficial for any and all. Their literature will say this. They, with few exceptions, also think this. (I speak from my own experience.) They think they possess something universal and universally applicable – and you have just downgraded it to a hobby!

This is precisely where the moral victory lies. It does not lie, in practice, in condemnations and blanket bans on these techniques. It lies precisely in showing that, in the particular case of this person, these techniques have played a moral usurpation. They have claimed to be something greater than they are. The evidence is there in the practitioner’s inability to relativize and part with the technique with the detachment that is required of us towards all created goods. The practitioner of these techniques does not know the royal way of the nada nada nada y en el monte nada.

The deeper or “ontosophic” exactness

But the victory is not only practical. It has firm philosophical and theological foundations (which together I like to call “ontosophic” foundations – foundations rooted in the being of things and in all the gradations of wisdom, be they natural or supernatural).

The Gospel “makes all things new” (Rev 21:5). It is a “new and living way” (Heb 10:20). It is utterly above nature so that we call it supernatural. It is unattainable by human beings in their resources within. What the Crucified One offers us is a healing, completion, and augmentation of our self which is completely beyond any human causality.

On the other hand, all of these techniques – Main’s, Keating’s, Osho’s, the ancient Sufis’, vipassanā itself – are just that: techniques. With proper effort and application, they “work.” They are deployments, however bizarre and surprising, of the resources within the human person in its natural constitution. In other words, they are emphatically and demonstratively not supernatural. They are not grace. They do not bring us that infinitely great good which is charity and its peculiar union with God.

What they do bring us is open to interpretation. However, the best interpretations in terms of Christian understanding are undoubtedly those of Jacques Maritain, Olivier Lacombe, Louis Gardet, Henri de Lubac, John C. H. Wu, and the middle-period Thomas Merton. That is, these techniques are able to purify one and so stop the normal human mental and physical activity such that the soul is turned not outward as it normally is, nor reflective on its proper acts as it sometimes is, but bent backwards so completely and so contrary to its normal operation so as to “enstatize” in its very ontological base. It experiences what Thomists call the actus essendi or esse in a very immediate experience. It lies beyond words or utterances. The ontological light becomes blinding. The experience is ineffable. Instead of the mind thinking of its acts or any external object, the mind is turned utterly in on the great ground of being that supports its very own self, and the wall between object and subject is, for but a moment, dropped. This is nibbāna (or whatever else the practitioner names it).

Now, as great a human achievement as that is, it contains its moral dangers. One could absolutize it a bit too much. One could forget the greater structure of reality. One could sin against truth by proclaiming a kind of existential monism (“that, too, is Ātman,” for example). The road is very narrow. The more a created good almost, but not quite, fills us, the more do dangers multiply. Here, the dangers are legion.

But the point is, this experience is not grace. For the person who understands this and who truly, deeply understands the radical gift that the Gospel is, that answers all the questions, at least on their most important points. This nibbāna – even if it may be attained and no matter how wonderful an experience it must be and no matter what great benefits it may bring to one’s psychosomatic constitution or personal pre-morality – is just a created good. It is not the substance of life. It is not the reason for which God created us out of nothing, gave us a life that is his own eternal life, and then redeemed us so that this superadded and superpermeating life that we lost may be found again. To the person who has understood all this, the radical difference of level between the created goods of human nature and the supernatural gifts of grace is fundamental and will guide all decisions, without any need for condemnations and without any moralizing.

By placing these “mystical techniques” in their proper ontosophic register, one at the same time highlights the greatness, the loveableness, and the desirableness of the Gospel, which rises high above all the goods of the earth. And by painting such a picture of the radical newness of the Gospel, one makes it attractive. Christian prayer shows itself as something absolutely other, and the goal towards which it marches is absolutely and infinitely greater. Attraction will pull us in much more than condemnation will push us away.

Why these techniques cannot be “banned” or “forbidden” outright: the inherent absurdity

With all that said, it remains to address the reader’s remaining concern: Why leave any room to “allow” these non-Christian “mystical” or “prayer” techniques at all? I take it for granted that, by now, the reader is well aware that I do not “permit” these techniques to any and all, nor do I admit that any particular person has a disinterested, detached, or morally rectified pursuit of these techniques. There is a moral dimension involved, just as there is with everything in the world. (It should be clear by now how difficult, if not nearly impossible, to attain such a moral purification is for committed Christians who refuse to sin against the truth.) What, however, remains to discuss is why – in contrast to some other, more reactionary writers and bloggers – I leave a little “wiggle room” and do not resort to an outright condemnation or ban.

There are several ways one could illustrate the point.

But take Zen (Chinese: Chán) as the illustration of choice.

Now, to anyone who knows anything, Zen is Buddhism. That is to say, the goal or end or final cause of the activity of a Zen practitioner is, at least in theory, identical to the goal or end or final cause of the practitioner of other Buddhist techniques and schools: nibbāna. Now, if we grant that the “saving” or “enlightening” experience aimed at is identical, at least in broad strokes, then we must say that the technical precision of the Zen way is also a technical precision that, while following a different path from vipassanā, at least aims to, by a kind of short-circuit of the human being’s typical methods of working and thinking, attain the same natural fruition and ineffable experience. What vipassanā pursues by steady purification and emptying-out of the faculties, Zen will attain to by a structure of trust and mental short-circuiting.

So, say that someone you trust – like a teacher or a friend – asks you the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This is a Zen question. It is a kōan (Chinese: gōng’àn). And it has been asked in an environment of trust and respect. Say you think about the question. You have already participated in a Zen practice which, if completed in the right frame of mind and with the right shock value, would or could lead you abruptly to a nibbāna fruition (which, in my view is, as I have said, a naturally produceable experience of the deepest ground of being within the structure of the human person, ineffable and normally inaccessible in all its ontological energy).

Can a ban on kōan “techniques” be accomplished? How does one propose to ban such riddle-questions? Or would one ban situations of trust instead? Or riddles posed within situations of trust?

Any of these options would be completely absurd.

And make no mistake, the goal of Zen is identical to the goal of all Buddhism. It takes its methods as different from the most well known meditation techniques like vipassanā, but it does not aim to attain something less than quintessentially Buddhist “enlightenment.”

So, if we are obliged to leave some wiggle room for any Christian who has enough of a sense of humour to “allow” Zen kōans in some capacity, then we are equally obliged to leave the door open for other “techniques.” But, as I insist, these techniques must be morally rectified. If they are to be engaged with, they must be utterly relativized and de-universalized in the face of the Gospel, and they must reject any claim whatsoever to being prayer. And that is no small matter. Just witness how much the majority of practitioners will froth at the mouth at the very suggestion that their prized technique does not apply to all and has only the status of a hobby. I do not say that it is impossible, and I do not judge anyone who, for whatever reasons, attempts to place such techniques in their own proper, relativized place; for all I know, they may have their reasons, and it is not my place to be a busybody. No matter what, I would caution that the proper placing of any good in these techniques is a tall order (but I also emphasize that I have no right to say any more than that).

In what sense these techniques “may” be permitted

Based on the above, I do not consider it controversial to say that these techniques “may” be permitted. They may be. They may not be. It entirely depends on the history, abilities, and dispositions of the subject who proposes to practise them. Exactly as it is for hobbies and professional interests.

You may be permitted to go build another Sagrada Familia.

But I highly doubt it. Morally speaking, you would be required to be competent in engineering, so as to not place others in physical danger. Morally speaking, you would also be required to be a competent artist and architect, so as not to waste the financial resources of the persons who contribute to your undertaking. And the moral requirements could be multiplied. If I say that you may be permitted to build another Sagrada Familia, that just means that I think the undertaking is theoretically possible and does have a good goal in mind. There is something within human nature waiting to be deployed and better discovered or manifested. There is something inherently good involved, even if it is a limited good and must be pursued with moral conditions in mind. In other words, to say that you may do this thing says nothing of the exceptional moral conditions required to attain the goal, and though I would perhaps like the goal to be accomplished (for I consider Barcelona a bit too far from where I live and I do so love the Sagrada Familia), I do not encourage you to pursue this goal.

However, I leave the possibility open. It is not my duty to police your hobbies and professional interests. (That is hardly even the job of an individual’s spiritual director. Normally we would hope for there to be more than policing going on in spiritual accompaniment.) And that applies equally to these nibbāna techniques. In the first place, as regards the shortcuts and short-circuits of Zen – for it would be absurd to condemn thinking about riddles. In the second place, as regards some vipassanā-derived techniques – for I remain open to the possibility of a purification of their moral and theological errors.

There may come a day when enough philosophical and theological preparation has been made so that there is profound and immediate truth to this statement: “Christians may be permitted to engage with some of these techniques, purified of their moral disorders and reoriented within an ontosophic foundation of truth, both philosophical and theological, which acknowledges the profound newness of the Gospel and sees these techniques as attaining a merely relative absolute which is neither an adequate description of the whole of reality nor the goal for which we were made by the Trinity (nor even a taste of it).” I fully embrace the possibility. It is not without precedent. The Church has found its children in tension and then reconciliation before.

One thousand years ago, a kind of Christian philosophy autonomous in itself but subservient to theology and faith was but a dream. One thousand years ago, Peter Abelard was the foe of Bernard of Clairvaux. But then we had Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. A certain historical moment was passed and, instead of Bernard fighting Abelard and philosophy, then we had Friar Albert and Friar Thomas integrating it. It found and thereafter knew its place. Of course, various efforts at disintegration were felt, too, but the possibility of integration and the possibility of being a Christian philosopher remained possible from that time forward.

Likewise, today there seems (at least for most of us) to be no path opened, for the moral dangers have choked the road of these other “meditation techniques.” If they ever become possible to practise for a particular person or in general, it will be by acknowledging their status as mere hobbies or professional interests which attain to nothing of the Gospel newness, the radical greatness of grace, and sheer heights of the supernatural which comes from, is planted in, and leads back to the Cross, both in its suffering for this life and for the great glory of the Crucified One in the life to come. They will have become so relativized that their compelling force is all but lost, and the person who feels any attraction towards them knows that the smallest drop of grace implanted in us by the Three Persons who will to dwell within us by a supernatural love is infinitely, infinitely, greater than one, or even a thousand, experienced moments of nibbāna.

Implications for the orientation of this blog

Over the past four and a half years, the orientation of this blog has never changed. It was always conceived to flow within the channels carved out by Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, and part of that “spirituality on the roads” includes the above “ontosophic” analysis of the different varieties of meditation and contemplation that have sprouted up in this messy world.

The fact that I acknowledge certain human values and leave open a hope for the relativization of these second, non-Christian mysticisms in the face of grace is just that: a hope, an openness in the face of what my neighbours have lived. I will not engage in the project, vast as it would have to be, of recovery and integration. It is not a project that interests me. (If anyone else is interested in such a project, they must pursue it without sinning.)

I, for my own part, am only interested in the essentially and quintessentially Christian contemplation. The love that compels us to contemplate the Trinity, Christ in his humanity, and the potential or actual presence of Christ in our neighours will remain, as it always has been, the plan of this blog. I’m not sure why any readers were concerned about this, but I offer written testimony and assurance.

Written from Segovia, where (naturally) I came to visit the burial place of Saint John of the Cross.

At the chapel with the remains of John of the Cross (Segovia)

The Ant

The ant does not make new paths, but all follow the same way, and, when the time comes, become capable of flight… So too is it with those who live amidst the stirrings of love. They will never make fresh paths or seek unusual ways of acting, but in spite of every tempest they will follow the way of love to the place to which love leads them. And then, in due time, by persevering in all the virtues, they will be able to see God and to be carried up within his mystery.
Blessed Jan van Ruusbroec (1293–1381)

Never Enough Time, Never Enough Words

The words and deeds of Christ are also the words and deeds of God. If someone wished to write them or recount them in detail [cf. Jn 20:30; 21:25], he would not know how to do so… Even if the world were to endure for hundreds of thousands of years, the books that we could write on this subject would never succeed in perfectly elucidating Christ’s deeds and words.
Saint Thomas Aquinas