Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
Q: Dear Dan, I enjoy reading more modern writers about prayer and the spiritual life but I am always worried about false teachings that could lead me away from the heart of the Church. How can I know when an author is not orthodox or teaches something that could lead me to deception instead of to God?
In our first post we briefly reviewed the challenges that surface when we ignore the wisdom of the Church regarding the distinctions between the three different forms of prayer and the problem of spiritual naturalism. In this post we will cover the progressive nature of prayer and how a misunderstanding of this reality can lead us astray.
Ignorance of the Progressive Nature of Prayer
The third error commonly found in most modern pseudo-mysticism is the absence of any acknowledgement or understanding of the progressive nature of prayer and communion with the Lord. In this case, the unsuspecting disciple is taught a prayer method without appropriate relational boundaries that define a loving relationship between persons.
How would you feel about a man who was openly and serially unfaithful to his wife, all the while cavalierly pursuing intimacy with her as a right or expectation? Similarly, these blind teachers will lead pilgrims to a method of intimate “contemplation” without any concern for the state of their soul or their relationship with the one with whom they are seeking intimacy.
Here’s a scenario that plays out every day in these groups that sell this spiritual poison (usually at around $200 per workshop): A Catholic sincerely desires to deepen their relationship with God. He is welcomed in with hushed-holy tones and loving smiles, directed to a prayer method, and coached to practice this method with the promise of “contemplation.”
However, there is often little concern about whether this pilgrim is actually in a state that makes it possible to even begin this prayer relationship. If this sincere pilgrim is living in mortal sin, he is incapable of fostering that relationship without first engaging in a repentance that begins with the sacrament of reconciliation.
To return to our spousal analogy, the unfaithful spouse must turn from his sinful ways and seek forgiveness and restoration. Upon the foundation of this restored relationship, holy intimacy can then begin to slowly develop, as faithfulness to the relationship is more fully realized.
A classic and specific example of this methodology comes through the use of the advice in the book, The Cloud of Unknowing. The unknown author of the book properly and very forcefully admonishes the reader that without serious preparation for the author's advice through diligent ascesis, they cannot and should not seek to trod the path revealed in the Cloud.
What does this mean? Repentance is merely a foundation of behavior that reflects what it looks like to have a loving relationship between persons. Turning away from sin and toward holiness is a long and challenging process known as “ascesis.” The pilgrim can expect a deepening level of intimacy with the Lord (up to the point of infused contemplation) to the degree that his life faithfully reflects a covenant of love between persons. An expectation of intimacy without this ongoing attention to a loving and honoring relationship is sinful narcissism that results in nothing more than self-worship of spiritualized emotions and delusion.
Suffice it to say that developing intimacy with God is not achieved instantaneously. Just as a child must learn to hold up his head, then roll, then crawl, then walk, and then run, our spiritual life develops in phases that are similarly predictable and understandable. In my book Navigating the Interior Life, I cover the three ways of the interior life that natively reflect different stages of growth in prayer and intimacy with God. Most treatments of this topic are no less than 500 pages in length — so we cannot dig into the detail here — however, the key is that depth of prayer comes through stages of development that cannot be bypassed through naturalistic methods.
In our final post on this topic we will explore the dangerous effects of a pseudo spirituality that moves the soul into a depersonalized view of God. We will also turn the corner and focus on a few ways we can dig into the real thing.