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Avoiding New Age influence in spiritual reading

Dear Dan, I was inspired by Fr. John's post on spiritual reading a while back. A friend has recommended “The Cloud of Unknowing” to me but I am
worried about slipping into Catholic books that claim to be Catholic but that promote New Age thought through centering prayer and mixing Catholic prayer with non-Christian prayer teachings. Anyway, I wanted to get your advice on where I could/should start a solid spiritual reading program.

Lama_Meditation_1 By Van Derek (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsTo get an easy aspect of your question out of the way, The Cloud of Unknowing does not fall into the New Age category. The New Age movement is a recent phenomenon and this book was written in the 14th century. With respect to The Cloud of Unknowing and centering prayer, some have claimed that it teaches centering prayer or have used it to bolster related ideas. Regardless, if spiritual reading is a new exercise for you, this book is not likely to be a good place to start. The author himself heavily (and rightly) stresses that if the reader has yet to exercise a considerable amount of time and effort in the ascetical phase of spiritual development that he or she is not yet prepared for the approach to prayer proposed. This admonition is almost always ignored by those who take a more shallow approach to the spiritual life and who also have a propensity to seek direction from sources that are far less efficacious than those who find their wisdom in the pure and deep well of faithful Catholicism.

Your concern about the New Age movement and its eclectic influence on many Catholics is a legitimate one. Many well intended Catholics have fallen into the emotional trap of using methods and techniques that cause positive physical or psychological feelings but are not appropriately classified as Christian prayer. Then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said this about this problematic trend:

Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and 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 does not correspond to such experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations. (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Meditation, pp. 28-29)

These methods and techniques are often given names like “contemplation” but even a cursory understanding of the traditional use of this term reveals that classical Catholic usage and common recent usage are often at odds. Said another way, many modern authors and writers hijack words and redefine them rather than being faithful to historic definitions either provided specifically by the Church in the Catechism and other official Church documents or in the writings of the Doctors of the Church. Whether from ignorance or other questionable intent, the result is damaging to the souls of sincere pilgrims seeking to deepen their relationship to God.

All that aside, by your question it seems like you are interested primarily in reading on prayer. From the standpoint of faithfulness to the Catholic Church, the following is a good list to begin with. I have listed them in the order I would recommend they be read:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church – Part Four on Christian Prayer
  2. Prayer Primer – Igniting the Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M
  3. A Guide to Christian Meditation by Fr. John Bartunek, LC, ThD
  4. Time for God by Fr. Jacques Philippe
  5. Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.

As well, we recently asked our readers to provide their top spiritual book recommendations. A significant number of them responded so we are working on compiling those results and we will provide them to you some time this year.

Otherwise, if you want a fool proof way to stay within the sublime wealth and spiritual tradition of the Church, stick with the Doctors of the Church.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Guest

    Thank you, Dan for a very sound advice. The questioner has taken a very wise attitude towards anything untried and untested : “Catholic books that claim to be Catholic but that promote New
    Age thought through centering prayer and mixing Catholic prayer with
    non-Christian prayer teachings.”  It is always advisable to err on the side of caution.

  • jack g.

    It is hard to follow each and every post by you Guys, but they are all so needed and rich that, I just cannot say no to interaction here. I must say that Dr. Scott Hahn is the author who will occupy you for a long time, also Matthew Kelly a known Catholic speaker. I am reading his book A Call To Joy, and it is very powerfully motivating, you can check his website or for more resources.
    Ignatius Press will have so many good choices, also. There are many of books to read from modern speakers but St. Theresa of Avilla gives us so much to read and other Dr. of the Church, just like Dan said.
    I can’t wait for that list. Where would I sent/vote titles I read to be considered Dan?
    I also follow many modern mystics that have been approved by ther Church and they provide a lot of insight to spiritual life, by their example of some of the private revelation materials.

    • Mrmemitchell

      Do you contend that the techniques taught by Keating Pennington and John Main should be avoided? I have attended workshops taught by priests which advocate all 3.

      • That depends on which techniques…

  • Michaelirish

    I have just read the part quotation on meditation from  Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) . Moral deviation etc???
    I have no idea what he is on about.
    I am a devout Catholic and I find some of the techniques in Zen of great help to me in preparing me to meet the Holy Spirit in me.

    • Dear Friend: I am curious… what does it mean to be a “devout” Catholic?

  • Brad

    The Holy Father is echoing the advice of Doctor St. Teresa of Avila in her “The Interior Castle”: do not seek consolations, either false or, even, true ones; if the former come to you (or shall we say, you conjure the former), it will be harm; if the latter (truly) come to you from God, from externally, you will benefit, but God will send them as He pleases, not because you glory in them, or glory in being known to seek them.

    But alas, this is very hard advice to follow, because we are very vain, foolish souls. Myself included.

  • Tpolak2002

    What is exactly supposed to be wrong with centering prayer? Isn’t it the kind of prayer promoted by St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence and quite a few other Catholic luminaries?

    • Actually, that depends on any particular definition of centering prayer. I have talked with people who call their prayer “centering prayer” when they practice nothing like that encouraged by Pennington or Keating. Others are staunch practitioners of the silencing of the mind, repetition of a mantra, etc which are warned against by Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on Christian meditation. Let me be clear about this – as for the latter, the saints and mystics of the Church have taught specifically against many of these ideas which is why the Church warns of spiritual danger. Many of the latter practices come from the non-Christian East and are not only not helpful, but can be spiritually damaging.

  • CS

    The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin comes highly recommended. The two volume Three Ages of the Interior Life by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange is sort of a one stop, very Thomistic shop for everything spiritual, or his shorter Three Conversions is a good intro.

    Catholics are called to meditation, but I think the definition might be different than eastern meditation. We are called to things like the Jesus prayer of the East, and the hesychasts of the Orthodox Churches have practices which are to a certain extent similar to the practices of the furthest reaches of Asia. So there are places for people to go within mainstream Christianity if they want to find practices similar to those of Eastern religions, while preserving them from the New Age/pre-Christian influences which concerned Cardinal Ratzinger and concern Pope Benedict.

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