Can we legitimately mix Buddhist or Hindu practices with our Catholicism? Many people claim we can. Buddhist themselves believe anyone can practice meditation. Some Catholics take the same viewpoint. Centering Prayer, mindfulness, Yoga, and more have been introduced at parishes as either harmless for Catholics, a good preparation for Catholic prayer and spirituality, or equivalent to Catholic prayer.
Respect, Dialog, or Syncretism?
Those who promote the incorporation of Eastern spirituality into Catholic practice often quote this sentence from Nostra Aetate, which specifically refers to Buddhism and Hinduism:
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2).
They tend to ignore, however, the larger context of the sentence:
“She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
“The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”
Note that this section is about how Christians should dialog and collaborate with non-Christians in Asian lands, not whether Christians in the West should voluntarily take up Eastern practices. In the United States, our socio-cultural values are (or at least at one time were) founded on a Judeo-Christian outlook. A Catholic in the US deciding to go to Yoga class is not preserving cultural values. In some sense, she is rejecting her culture’s values for those of a foreign land and religion. Surely the Fathers of Vatican II intended no such thing!
True and Holy?
When Nostra Aetate speaks of what is “true and holy in these religions,” what is this referring to? How are we to determine what elements of a foreign religion are true and holy? The document gives us some clues. Just before this section, it reads:
“From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father…
“Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.”
First we recognize that some Hindus and Buddhists may believe in a Supreme Being. They seek to be freed from suffering, use myths and philosophy to discover truth, recognize that this life is passing, and try to find an answer for “the restlessness of the human heart.” These are good and even holy things.
The specific means they use to attain union with God or to be freed from suffering are not necessarily compatible with the Catholic faith, however. They “differ in many respects from the ones [the Church] holds and sets forth.” They “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” but the Catholic Church has been given the fullness of truth from God Himself. This truth is Christ. Thus, any practice or belief that tends to minimize the role of Christ, overemphasize man’s role in his own salvation, propose other saviors, or otherwise contradict the Gospel, can and should be rejected.
If any Catholic wants to assert that Buddhist or Hindu meditation practices can be incorporated into the life of a Catholic, the burden of proof is on him. Nostra Aetate does not support this notion. In fact, it does not speak to the issue of Catholics adopting any practice from another religion.
St. Paul is our model. In Athens, he saw a monument “to an unknown god.” He used that as a starting place to teach the Athenians about Christ. We can find common ground with other religions and work from there. But Christ is the Sun. The goodness in Eastern religions is only the reflection of one ray from that sun. Why would someone who had the sun try to warm himself with a single ray that was reflected in a pool?
The CDF on Eastern Meditation
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation in 1989 to combat current errors regarding prayer. Although it is almost entirely concerned with explaining what Christian prayer is, and voicing cautions regarding incorporating non-Christian practices into one’s prayer life, promoters of Centering Prayer, mindfulness, Yoga, and the like tend to home in on one sentence that speaks positively:
“That does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.” (No. 28)
Like the sentence from Nostra Aetate, this is often stated alone to support the idea that Catholics can practice Eastern techniques without harm. There are several problems with this conclusion.
1. If non-Christian practices can be adopted indiscriminately, there was no need for this document.
Most of what the CDF has already said regarding prayer would be rendered meaningless by this interpretation. Why caution Catholics about practices that are perfectly harmless for them?
2. This is a negative statement, but is being interpreted as a positive one.
As I have noted before, the CDF does not say, “Genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions… constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God…” It says, “That does not mean that [they] cannot constitute [such a means].” In other words, some of them may constitute a suitable means, but one must at least apply the principles of the rest of the document to discern which do and which do not. The CDF does not address each practice individually.
3. The immediate context of the quote is limited.
No. 27 stated:
“Eastern Christian meditation has valued psychophysical symbolism, often absent in western forms of prayer. It can range from a specific bodily posture to the basic life functions, such as breathing or the beating of the heart. The exercise of the ‘Jesus Prayer,’ for example, which adapts itself to the natural rhythm of breathing can, at least for a certain time, be of real help to many people. On the other hand, the eastern masters themselves have also noted that not everyone is equally suited to making use of this symbolism, since not everybody is able to pass from the material sign to the spiritual reality that is being sought. Understood in an inadequate and incorrect way, the symbolism can even become an idol and thus an obstacle to the raising up of the spirit to God. To live out in one’s prayer the full awareness of one’s body as a symbol is even more difficult: it can degenerate into a cult of the body and can lead surreptitiously to considering all bodily sensations as spiritual experiences.”
Then the first part of number 28 goes on to address practices like Yoga:
“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.”
Our quote immediately follows this caution.
In other words, Eastern Christians have used the body in prayer in a way Western Christians generally have not. Some of these practices are similar to psychophysical practices found in Eastern non-Christian meditation. The CDF notes specifically using the breath and body postures. But it cautions that going all the way to practice something like Yoga can be problematic to the point of causing “mental schizophrenia,” “psychic disturbance,” or “moral deviations.” These are not small dangers!
Even when speaking of Eastern Christian practices, the CDF cautions us. The Jesus Prayer is a beautiful and powerful prayer, but “masters” of this method teach that it is not suitable for everyone. Incorrectly understood, the rhythmic breathing that often accompanies the Jesus Prayer “can even become an idol and thus an obstacle to the raising up of the spirit to God,” or “degenerate into a cult of the body.” This is why masters of hesychasm often insist that one needs a knowledgeable and experienced spiritual guide when taking up these practices.
That leads to the next point.
4. What is suitable for one person may be dangerous for another.
If even the Jesus Prayer, used incorrectly, can pose serious dangers, how much more so practices that come from outside Christianity! In Centering Prayer, and now with “Catholic Mindfulness,” we see non-Christian practices being offered indiscriminately to all. Centering Prayer also takes instruction (such as that in The Cloud of Unknowing) given to those who are already practiced in prayer and virtue and teaches absolute beginners, or those who might not even have faith in Jesus, to follow them. True Christian teaching on prayer recognizes that there are different stages, when different practices are appropriate.
With “Catholic Mindfulness,” we see an online course that anyone can take without any screening as to their psychological or spiritual state. I encountered no cautions within the course itself that the practice was only for the mature, or for those under spiritual direction, or that one should consult his own therapist, or other limitations. On the contrary, “Catholic Mindfulness” is offered as the answer to several psychological, personal, and even spiritual ills, making it more likely that those who take the course (or read the book that is soon to be published), will be somehow struggling.
I have witnessed Catholics who began practicing Yoga, experienced the “feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations,” et cetera, and interpreted them as “authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit.” Yoga has become for these individual a favorite “prayer” practice, a means by which they think they grow in intimacy with Christ. Similarly, I have encountered numerous practitioners of Centering Prayer who think they are spiritually mature because they experience a peace which makes them more tolerant of others.
This danger is also inherent in mindfulness.
Rediscovering our heritage
If we really want to grow in prayer and virtue, and receive true Christian peace, “the peace that passes understanding,” we should rediscover our Western heritage. We began by noting that Nostra Aetate urges us to respect the socio-cultural values of others. Christians in the West are in grave danger of losing their own social-cultural values.
Eastern practices, even truly Christian ones, pose dangers for those of a different heritage. What we need in order to follow God more fully is a renewal of the contemplative heritage of the West. This heritage reached its peak in the Carmelite saints and doctors of the Church, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Few Christians today have even begun to plum the richness of these saints’ teachings.
Wouldn’t we be better off as a Church if parishes gave seminars and retreats on the teaching of the saints, instead of on non-Christian practices?
For more on mindfulness, I highly recommend Susan Brinkmann’s new book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness.