10/03/2011

5 REASONS I DO NOT PRACTICE CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER

I value quietness and solitude. In fact, it was in such a setting that I received the inspiration and direction for this article. One morning this past week I found myself wide awake at 3 a.m. Not wanting to keep Sue awake, I went downstairs and sat in a chair where, in the stillness and quietness, I thought about God and His goodness and faithfulness. At times I would voice quiet words of praise and thanksgiving as I thought on His greatness and kindness. As needs and concerns came to mind, I would present these in prayer. It was a wonderful, refreshing time. Sometime, during those quiet hours of fellowship with God, the title and layout for this article was presented to my mind.

Please do not confuse my “quiet time” with contemplative prayer. There is a world of difference. Contemplative prayer, emphasizing "silence," has roots that go back to the mystics of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The mystics were, in turn, profoundly influenced by Neo-Platonism, a pagan, mystical religion founded by Plotinus, a disciple of Plato. Although the word “contemplative” is, by itself, a positive word meaning “thoughtful” and “reflective,” contemplative prayer as taught by the mystics is entirely out of sync with what we know of Jesus and early Christianity. I am convinced that it is a hindrance rather than a help in nurturing a relationship with God.

Here are the reasons I do not practice contemplative prayer.

Reason #1
Contemplative prayer is rooted in a non-Christian concept of God

Contemplative prayer is rooted in the pagan idea of a supreme being who is impassible, i.e., one who is unmoved by human experiences of joy, sadness, or suffering. This is because he is absolutely “other than” and “separate from” this realm of physical and human existence. In fact, the ancient Greeks—particularly the Neo-Platonists and the Gnostics--theorized that from this One supreme being there had issued forth a series of lower beings resulting in a hierarchy of celestial beings. They believed that it was one of these lower (and evil) heavenly beings that had created the earth and its inhabitants. The Neo-Platonists sought for a way to ascend through this hierarchy of celestial beings and be united with the ultimate god whom they called “the One.”

Because “the One” existed in a realm absolutely “other than” this earthly realm, human reason and language were deemed inadequate for understanding or communicating with him. In fact, “the One” could not be known by human beings, but could only be experienced in a mystical encounter facilitated by a form of spiritual prayer characterized by silence and a mind emptied of any rational thoughts about deity. This form of prayer was called “contemplation” or “contemplative prayer.” If one was unable to clear his/her mind of rational thoughts, a “mantra” or “prayer” might be repeated over and over to help them center their thoughts on the task at hand—a mystical union or encounter with “the One.”

This concept of God and the form of prayer associated with it, found its way into the church of the Middle Ages, particularly through the writings of a Syrian monk who was obviously influenced by Neo-Platonism. One book he wrote was called On the Heavenly Hierarchy where, in Neo-Platonic fashion, he examined and classified the various heavenly beings in ranks of three with each having three subdivisions—seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, archangels, angels, etc. According to this writer these constituted an ascending ladder or hierarchy of celestial beings leading to the throne of God. He also advocated a form of mystical/contemplative prayer by which one could ascend through this celestial hierarchy and be united with God.

The writings of this monk, who falsely claimed to be Dionysius, Paul’s convert in Athens (Acts 17:34), became foundational for the mystical movement in the medieval church. This false Dionysius was quoted by bishops and some of the most famous theologians of the medieval church, including Thomas Aquinas. As a result, spiritual experiences and revelations through contemplation were exalted and valued while the Scriptures were often ignored and, at times, even banned by the institutional church.

As a result of the writings by this anonymous monk, the Neo-Platonic form of prayer—contemplative prayer--became the prayer of choice, especially in the monastery and the convent. Paul was interpreted through the lens of this False Dionysius and, as Dr. Justo Gonzalez says, “Paul’s entire life was viewed as a process of mystical ascension, and his letters were considered to be guides in that process.”

Scholars in the 16th century began questioning the authenticity of these works and today both Catholic and Protestant scholars recognize the claim of the author as false. The 16th century Reformers also rejected all notions of a mystical ascension to God through contemplative prayer. They considered it a counterpart to the erroneous idea that one can be justified before God on the basis of their own works.

I do not practice contemplative prayer because it is a form of prayer rooted in a pagan, non-Christian concept of God.


Reason #2
Contemplative prayer is based on the erroneous assumption that
rational thoughts and words are of little value when it comes to prayer

Contemplative prayer is rooted in the pagan idea that human thought and language is inadequate for communicating with God. One must, therefore, find God in silence; or as one mystic put it, “The quiet dark in which all who love God lose themselves.” For those committed to this approach, it is forms, techniques, and postures of prayer, breathing, and meditation that are important. These techniques help facilitate the contemplation and silence that will lead to an encounter or union with God. One striking example is that of Gregory Palamas, a 13th century monk who stressed quietness and stillness in the pursuit of a mystical union with God. As an aid to concentration, he recommended that the chin rest on the chest, with the eyes fixed on the navel.

The God of the Bible is so different from the contemplative approach. There is no demeaning of human thought and language as a means of communicating with God. In the Old Testament, God communicates His message again and again to the people in their language through the prophets. It is obvious that He expects the people to communicate with Him in their own language. Through the prophet Isaiah He invites his people to, Come now and let us reason together. (Isaiah 1:18). He also exhorts them to present your case and set forth your arguments (Isaiah 41:21).

It is obvious that God wants His people to interact with Him and know Him in a real and personal way. Through the prophet Jeremiah He declared, Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength . . . but let him who boasts boast about this that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.

In the New Testament, this truth is even more pronounced. When the disciples, in Luke 11:1-4, ask Jesus to teach us to pray, He does not respond by teaching them techniques and postures for prayer and meditation. Nor does he call them apart into silence and contemplation. Instead, He says to them, When you pray, say, “Our father who art in heaven . . ..” Jesus thus teaches them to express themselves audibly to God in prayer. For Jesus, prayer is relational and is characterized by intelligent conversation with a personal God.

In both the Old and New Testaments there are countless passages that tell us that God “hears” the prayers of His people. Take for example I Peter 3:12 that says, For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers. But in contemplative prayer there is no rational, audible prayer for God to “hear.”

I do not practice contemplative prayer because words matter and God “hears” the prayers of His people.


Reason #3
The goal of contemplative prayer is to have a mystical, spiritual experience, not to know the God of Scripture and nurture an obedient relationship with Him.

Contemplative prayer tends to turn its practitioners inward upon themselves. It is no coincidence that contemplative prayer has historically been primarily associated with life in the cloister. This is because the nature of contemplative prayer requires a separation from others and a preoccupation with one’s own experience and self—a staring at one’s navel.

This is so different from the New Testament where Jesus promises His followers a baptism in the Spirit that will empower them to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). We do not find Peter, Paul, and other New Testament believers withdrawing into solitude to seek some sort of mystical experience with God. They knew that God was continually with them, and in them, and they boldly engaged their world in that confidence.

Our goal in prayer should never be to have a spiritual experience. That is a self-serving approach. My wife Susan tells about learning this important lesson shortly after she was baptized in the Holy Spirit. As she was experiencing God’s power in new and fresh ways, she experimented with raising her hands and other expressions that seemed to bring an added sense of God’s presence. Suddenly she heard the heard the Holy Spirit speak in her heart, “Do not seek an experience. Seek Me!” Yes, we may have spiritual experiences in prayer but that is never to be our goal.

It is so interesting to note that those caught up in having a mystical encounter through contemplative prayer often neglect the Scriptures` because they tend to place too much value in their own mystical experiences. Hans Kung, the most widely read Roman Catholic theologian in the world today, addressed this problem among the mystics of the Roman Catholic Church; but his assessment also fits many in the charismatic and prophetic movements today. He wrote,

These new revelations not only overshadowed the Bible and the Gospel, but also Him whom the Gospel proclaims and to whom the Bible bears witness. It is striking how rarely Christ appeared in all these 'revelations,' 'apparitions,' and 'wonders.' Catholics who followed in the wake of every new 'revelation,' which often turned out to be fantasy or deceit, and indulged their desire for sensation by looking for the latest reports of miracles—and yet who had never once in their whole lives read the Scriptures from cover to cover.

I do not practice contemplative prayer because its goal of a mystical union with God is not Biblical; and because it tends to lead people into a trust of their own spiritual revelations more than in the revelation of Jesus found in Scripture.


Reason #4
Jesus did not practice or teach contemplative prayer.

Jesus does not advocate any form of mystical prayer. He does not teach any postures or techniques for prayer and meditation. Neither is there any mention of silence or contemplation. Instead, He emphasizes a relational approach to God in which prayer is simple conversation with a loving, benevolent Being whom He calls Abba, an endearing term used only by children for the father in the Jewish household.

For Jesus, oneness with God is not a mystical union of one’s being with God, but a practical oneness of will and purpose. Not My will but Thine be done, Jesus prayed, showing that, in His incarnate state, union with God consisted of a submission of His will to the will of the Father. I cannot imagine Jesus and His disciples all sitting in the lotus position with their eyes closed seeking to go into a place of silence and contemplation where they will ascend heavenward into a mystical encounter God. Such a picture is completely contrary to what we know of Jesus from the Gospels. Jesus believed that God was continually with Him and He moved and acted in that confidence.

I do not practice contemplative prayer because Jesus did not practice it, nor did He teach it to others.


Reason #5
The early church did not practice or teach contemplative prayer.

The early church followed in the footsteps of Jesus and prayed dynamic, relational prayers in which they recognized God’s majesty and greatness, and asked for His help in the urgencies of their lives. (see, for example, Acts 4:23-31). The miracles they experienced (healings, angelic deliverances, etc.) occurred, not in a state of mystical, contemplative prayer, but while they were going about the business of obeying Christ’s command to take the Gospel to the whole world.

The group prayer recorded in Acts 4:23-31 shows no connotations of contemplative prayer. Instead of silence and contemplation, Luke says, They raised their voice to God with one accord and said . . .. In their loud and vocal prayer they acknowledge the greatness of God, they remind Him of His promises, and they present their present need. God is obviously pleased with their prayer for when they had prayed, The place where they were assembled together was shaken and they were all filled with Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31).

There are many recorded prayers in the New Testament expressed by Jesus, Paul, and others. These prayers are all vocal, expressed to a God that they assume is personal and hears their spoken prayers.

I do not practice contemplative prayer because the early church did not practice it nor did they teach it to others.