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How can I Avoid False Teachings on Prayer? (I of III)

How can I Avoid False Teachings on Prayer? (Part I of III)

…A faithful follower of the Lord asks: 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 How can I Avoid False Teachings on Prayeran author is not orthodox or teaches something that could lead me to deception instead of to God?

You are wise to be concerned about finding the pure teaching of God on the matter of prayer. If the enemy can confuse us about the manner in which we communicate with our Lord, he can do much damage to our faith. Unfortunately, it seems that for every one good book on the topic of prayer, there are ten that contain various kinds of pseudo-mysticism that sound good and can yield positive temporal outcomes, but lack authentic mystical tradition.

I will attempt here to provide a summary of the most common problems with modern teachings on prayer so that you can effectively navigate past the empty teachings of the world and toward the truth of God.

Lost Without Distinctions

With respect to trusting particular modern authors, the first and most common red flag is that they ignore the distinctions provided by the Church between the different kinds of prayer. Whether done out of arrogance, ignorance or sloppiness, this disregard is a signal that the author is not at all concerned with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the thousands of years of spiritual wisdom in the Church. These are writers to avoid.

The Church outlines three distinct forms of prayer in the Catechism (part four, chapter three), each with their own definition and related teachings. These are: vocal prayer, meditation and contemplation. Often meditation and contemplation are incorrectly presented as the same thing, though they are not synonymous. When authors do this, any differences between these two distinct forms of prayer are ignored or explained away – an approach that is a sure path to confusion and a clear sign that you’ve uncovered unreliable teaching. This is particularly true because meditation is a work of the will and intellect of a person. Said another way, fruitful meditation can be experienced through the will and the intellect. Contemplation, however, especially what is known as “infused contemplation,” is strictly the realm of God’s grace. In summary, meditation is the work of humanity (for the most part), and contemplation is the work of the Divine. Put in the light of faithful tradition, the danger of confusion between these two forms of prayer and the negligence of some modern writers becomes more clear.

“Prayer” Methods Rooted in Spiritual Naturalism

The second danger sign is a perspective that is rooted in a form of spiritual naturalism. This orientation is the outgrowth of well-intended persons using purely human means (e.g. psychology or non-Christian meditation techniques) to overcome common challenges in prayer. The confusing twist here is that these ideas are usually wrapped in spiritual terms in a way that often masks their purely human trappings.

For example, to deal with distractions in prayer, the pilgrim is instructed to focus on a “sacred word” or a mantra instead of receiving guidance on how to focus on and engage with the Lord himself. Though these purely human methods can help to minimize distracting thoughts, this positive gain is not in the direction of the Lord, but of earth or self. In the end, it does nothing, in and of itself, to draw one deeper into union with Christ in prayer. Properly used, these methods can provide fertile ground for focus on the Lord, but more often the end is silence of the mind and centering in self rather than engaging with God.

To be clear, the problem here is not necessarily in the methods, but in a shallow focus. This focus diverts our attention from the understanding that prayer is, in its essence, a communion between persons, not a spiritualized mental or psychological exercise. I am not discounting all of these methods wholesale. The problem is primarily rooted in misuse and a misunderstanding of authentic ascetical and mystical theology as the appropriate backdrop for the understanding and use of any prayer method.

In our Part II of this series, we will cover the progressive nature of prayer and how a misunderstanding of this reality can lead us way off the narrow path of a deepening relationship with God in prayer.


Editor's Note:  In addition to his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dan Burke is currently working on a comprehensive book on prayer. He is the author of Navigating the Interior Life and the founder and president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation.


Art: Praying Hands study for an Apostle figure of the “Heller” altar (Betende Hände), Albrecht Dürer, ca 1508, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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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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  • LizEst

    I love this post because it gives us some discernment tools. Thank you, Dan…and we look forward to the next installment! God bless you!

  • Jeanette

    I often hear people using the word contemplation to describe what I think they mean as meditation, so much so that I started to wonder if there are two types of contemplation. Thanks for the distinction between contemplation and meditation…it is most helpful.

    • LizEst

      …and there are a lot of people who haven’t the slightest idea what they mean by these two terms, yet they bandy them about willy-nilly. This is particularly so with New Age ideas, and by their practitioners and adherents.

    • Dear Jeanette – One important note is in order regarding your observation. There is a kind of “contemplation” that some call “acquired contemplation.” This is more in keeping with an idea of contemplation that is synonymous or nearly so to the idea of musing about something or thinking intently about something. So, we can do this with God of course and we properly can say that we are contemplating God. This kind of contemplation is much more akin to meditation than it is the state of infused contemplation. It is very much not the same as infused contemplation where the action and the actor are both and only God. This God-induced contemplation is the elevation of the soul to God in a way that is far beyond any action of the will or intellect of man. So, when we are speaking of prayer, we can’t properly say anything like, “this is my contemplative prayer time” or that this or that is the time when we “practice contemplative prayer.” These uses would be very much contrary to Church teaching.

      • Jeanette

        Thanks for the clarification Dan. Blessings!

  • Marcus

    I have found Centering Prayer as an effective method for quieting myself before God, offering myself to God and Christ so that God’s will be done in me. For me Centering Prayer is not yoga, eastern meditation, nor an emptying of the mind. I think it is all in the intention. When Father Keating rarely if ever speaks of CP as “contemplation” but rather as a preparation for the reception of the gift of contemplation. Furthermore, in CP we do not “empty our minds” or “let go of our thoughts” as an end in itself. But we do recognize that the egoic mind, our busy ego, quite appropriate for navigating the everyday world, often continues its incessant commentary as we quiet to listen to the still small voice of God. And even then, a Centering Prayer practice will not try to repress such a small voice but simply acknowledge it and return our loving awareness to the presence of God. CP is a practice of communion with is very relational inasmuch as in every good relationship, one must learn to shut one’s mouth and simply learn to be with the Other, present to the Other in silence and love.

    • Dear Marcus – with all due respect (and I do mean no harm to you in any way) having done extensive research into Fr. Keating’s writings on prayer, I can confidently assert that Keating’s approach to prayer is not consistent with the Christian understanding of prayer as revealed by the Catechism or the spiritual doctors of the Church. Your assertion that Fr. Keating “rarely if ever” speaks of CP as contemplation is patently false. As well, the claim that God’s voice is not repressed is also patently false. To be told to “set aside” or “let go” of God’s prompting is nothing less than rejecting the voice of God or relegating Him to a timetable that is different than ours – akin to saying, “come back later, can’t you see I am praying to you?”

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