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.
A recurring theme I have encountered in my speaking, writing, and research in Catholic spiritual development is the idea that if something “works” or is “helpful” it is therefore true and good. Often enough, an individual – or even a parish – will dabble in non-Christian Eastern religious prayer methods coupled with the common conversation-ending apologetic blurt: “...it helps me, so how can it be bad?”
Whether it be from the non-Christian East, the New Age movement, or other source, the undergirding question appears to be what is the utility of prayer? The question carries a lot of weight, especially if we begin to consider the actual effect of prayer within the reality of the Providence of God; however, for our purposes and to adequately address the claim “if it helps me, it is good and therefore true,” we will consider the question: what is the effect or utility of prayer in reference to the individual who prays?
What is prayer?
It is no surprise that in finding ourselves in need of clarity and subtle distinctions we turn to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. In his question on prayer (ST II.II.83), he asks, “Whether it is becoming to pray?” In response, he quotes the Gospel of Luke chapter 18:1: “they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Man should pray, as St. Thomas states, because “we need to pray to God, not in order to make known to Him our needs or desires, but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters.” The first defining characteristic of proper Catholic prayer is that it fosters a relationship with God; it habituates the individual to understanding, loving, and depending upon Him. Sublime mystic Doctor of the Church St. Teresa of Avila provides a very personal and apropos summary: “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.”
Any supposed form of prayer that excludes God or seeks to draw the heart to some vague idea of cosmic connectedness, renders it inept by removing the true relational foundation of intimacy between persons. If we consider popular forms of meditation that advocate inward reflection or a silencing of all thought, it is apparent that these forms lack a key characteristic of Catholic prayer: the intimacy of a true and tangible friendship. While certain non-religious methods can be a helpful precursor to proper prayer – a focusing of the mind or relaxing the body before meditation– they can never be the end or goal of legitimate Catholic spirituality. The goal is not only to set the table properly, but then we must engage in the feast in order to find the nourishment we seek and to properly orient our souls God. Catholic prayer is a real act of friendship, which is, at its essence, an actual encounter with another person.
Who is the judge of proper prayer?
St. Thomas teaches that “our motive in praying is, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that, by our prayers, we may obtain what God has appointed.” Moreover, he explains, “that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God, and that we may recognize in Him the Author of our goods.” In the relationship of prayer, the movement from the individual to God is one of spiritual maturation and becoming open to the reception of the goods God has appointed. It is a theocentric relationship, as the individual abandons himself to God and adheres to God’s will.
Manners of so-called prayer that supplant God with either an internal energy, a goal of nothingness, or a general sensible tranquility are anthropocentric; when an individual states “this prayer method or teaching helps me, therefore it is good,” it is the individual, not God, that stands as the judge of whether the effect is good or not and the basis of this judgment is often very superficial (e.g. this super-sized burrito with extra sour cream tastes really good, therefore it is good for me).
There is a principle in Catholic devotion that God has to not only save his children from external dangers, but must save his children from their greatest danger: themselves. St. Teresa echoes this truth, “praised be the Lord, who has redeemed me from myself.” Answering the call of holiness, of dying to ourselves and living in Christ, requires us to trust the spiritual judgment of Holy Mother Church.
To be clear, it is not that all meditation or calming techniques are somehow illicit; rather, they become illegitimate and insufficient when they supplant proper Catholic prayer. Religious meditations that are imported from outside the Sacred Tradition yield severe shortcomings in cultivating a true friendship between God and man; or worse, they import subtle malformations in the Catholic understanding of the One True God, which is the only infallible and trustworthy understanding. Those who desire a pure friendship with the authentic God must trust the spiritual judgment of His Church and hold that nothing need augment her understanding of God.
What is a practical example of this problem?
The theme “if it helps me, it is good,” assumes the individual is the proper judge of what his soul needs and this fault is illuminated well by the rosary and indulgences. Many Catholics neglect the rosary in their prayer life because they deem it boring or they don’t find it worthwhile. Holy Mother Church has affirmed that praying the rosary as a family or in a church, grants the individual(s) a plenary indulgence; the indulgence is a remission from the totality of temporal punishment due to sin – of course this is only sin up until the act and regarding sin which has already been forgiven.
What is demonstrated in this case is that the goods God has appointed us – which includes those laid out by his Church according to the power of the keys given to St. Peter –outweigh those subjective goods regarding prayer to which we self-appoint. Without question, finding a Catholic devotion that gives you peace and joy is suggested, but the ultimate guiding light of what is good for the Catholic soul in prayer and devotion is the heart of Sacred Tradition of the Church – the accurate reflection of the heart of God. If an individual simply seeks a prayer life that “works for them,” they are liable to diminish their relationship with God; which would be tragic regardless of any pleasant feels ushered in by the self-chosen method of prayer.
In discussing the necessity of Catholic prayer, the Catechism (CCC #2744) turns to the unmitigated words of St Alphonsus Liguori: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.” These weighty words serve not only to compel us to pray to God, but to also pray according to God’s self-revelation as taught and guarded by the Church.
May we all find an authentic friendship with God