Growing up in a family that ran a health-food business, Charlene Williams learned to eat well and heal naturally.
Today the mother of four and grandmother of four raises some of her own vegetables and fruits, shops at farmers markets, and cooks from scratch. She also eats whole grains, avoids processed foods and relies on vitamin and mineral supplements, herbs, herbal teas, and home remedies like fresh-squeezed lemon and molasses in hot water for colds and sore throats.
In addition, she goes to a chiropractor and recently saw a naturopathic doctor and bioenergetics practitioner for help with stress and lack of energy.
But, as a Catholic, Williams is careful to avoid the New Age ideas and practices widely peddled in the subculture that has grown up around natural foods and alternative health care — whether it’s the crystals and books on transcendental meditation displayed in some health-food stores, Reiki treatments offered by certain massage therapists or yoga classes at the local gym.
Williams, whose grandparents started Dietrich’s Natural Foods in their home in Toledo, Ohio, in the 1930s, told the Register she doubts consumers interested in healthy living back then would have encountered the unorthodox spiritual offerings ubiquitous in the industry today.
“As the New Age became more common in our society, I started to see in various health-food stores more things like incense and crystals,” she says. “That kind of stuff was not around when I was a kid.”
Reading about the New Age from a Catholic perspective in books like Randy England’s The Unicorn in the Sanctuary (Tan, 1990) alerted Williams to New Age and Eastern religious practices within and outside the natural-healing movement, helping her discern what is and isn’t healthy for the eternal soul.
Many times, she says, “It sounds like it’s all good, [but] the problem is that the spiritual part isn’t in line with Catholicism.”
Truer words have seldom been spoken. For, although there is much to commend in many natural-healing approaches, any practice or belief that draws from a newfangled spiritual source should raise red flags for Catholics.
Eternity vs. Oblivion
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine recently issued guidelines for evaluating Reiki, an alternative healing technique that attempts to correct imbalances in “life energy” through the placement of the practitioner’s hands on certain parts of the body. The bishops point out that the central elements of the worldview suggested by Reiki theory belong neither to the Christian faith nor to natural science.
Given this, they conclude, Catholics who trust in Reiki are entering the realm of superstition, which “corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.”
Similarly, Father Mitch Pacwa, Eternal Word Television Network host and author of Catholics and the New Age: How Good People Are Being Drawn into Jungian Psychology, the Enneagram, and the Age of Aquarius (Servant, 1992), cautions that yoga, regarded by some as merely a form of exercise or relaxation, is in fact a religious practice with a spiritual goal: making the personality cease to exist. “That is incompatible with Christian goals,” Father Pacwa says. “As a Catholic,” he adds, “my goal is not simply to have this state of mind. My goal is union with Christ.”
During the 1970s, Father Pacwa says, he tried practicing something called “Christian yoga” that involved meditating on the words of Christ while assuming various yoga positions. But, he recalls, “The problem still remained. I was trying to attain a certain state of consciousness rather than personal union with Christ. I was not really connecting with Christ.”
Father Pacwa says to be wary of practitioners who claim to be able to balance or align chakras, energy centers along the spinal column according to kundalini yoga. Through meditation, kundalini yoga tries to awaken “the sleeping kundalini serpent” at the base of the spine to increase enlightenment.
Practitioners who say they work with chakras, Father Pacwa explains, may be mixing and matching different Asian philosophies. Besides failing to respect the integrity of and differences between each philosophy, he says, they could be wading into dangerous territory. “If you start opening up the chakras and don’t know what you are doing,” he says, “you are opening up yourself to grave danger, madness and even death. That’s according to practitioners of kundalini yoga. It’s not my interpretation.”
On the other hand, Father Pacwa says, he considers reflexology, which involves applying pressure to the feet and hands, a harmless (if questionably effective) nonmedical therapy.
His concern about alternative healing practices and methods in general is that their medical claims are often unsubstantiated — and they are sometimes used as a shill to draw people into New Age spirituality.
For example, he says, when a method does not work, a practitioner may propose a spiritual solution like past-life regression or the application of crystals to channel the universe’s energy.
“This nonsense,” he says, “will take your soul to the other side. It’s entering enemy territory.”
God’s Good Earth
Rebecca Otto of Leipsic, Ohio, a registered nurse and mother of six whose family’s health regimen includes chiropractic care, vitamin supplements and visits to a naturopathic doctor, says she is very much aware of the need to avoid anything that could become a portal into areas of spiritual warfare.
“There are good and bad spirits, and we don’t want to put ourselves in those areas,” she says, adding that she would refrain from involvement in yoga, Reiki, acupuncture and crystals, for example. “All I’ve had to hear is a few knowledgeable people on this,” she says. “There are a few areas I don’t feel it’s worth risking my soul to venture into.”
Although Otto acknowledges that there are times modern medicine is needed, her experience has shown that some alternative forms of healing work.
One of her sons, for instance, suffered from allergies to the point that he needed breathing treatments every spring and fall. The naturopathic doctor who evaluated him recommended several lifestyle changes and gave the boy a mixture of drops to take along with natural herbs. Her son improved so much, Otto says, that he only needs an occasional breathing treatment.
“God created nature, and he has given us ways to help other than [traditional] medicine,” she says.
Maryann Marshall of Lawrenceville, Ga., an herbalist who teaches online classes and has organized a Catholic herbalists group on the Internet, says she has discovered that much of natural healing was actually advanced by monks during the Middle Ages.
“The monasteries kept medicine alive through the Middle Ages,” she says. “They kept civilization alive, including medicine — and medicine was herbology. The monks had amazing herb gardens and vegetable gardens, too.”
Marshall received much of her knowledge about herbs from her Polish immigrant grandfather and, over the last 30 years, has added to what he taught her through her own research. In the process, she has often run into New Age material, something she finds both “distracting and distressing.”
As a result, she has learned not to proceed without some kind of spiritual grounding. She always prays to the Holy Spirit before doing any reading or studying and also consults a priest who is her spiritual director.
There’s lots to benefit from in natural foods and remedies, she says, but “you need a very, very, very firm foundation in the Catholic faith.”
Roberts writes from