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

July 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Prayer

…A faithful follower of the Lord asks: Dear Dan, I enjoy reading more modern writers about Avoid False Teachings on Prayerprayer 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 acknowledgment, 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 their 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.


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 for this post on How can I Avoid False Teachings on Prayer (Part II of III): votives, photographed by Angelo DeSantis, 30 December 2007, CCA 2.0 Generic, 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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  • Camila

    Thanks Dan.

    How does ascesis differ between a nun (cloistered) and a lay woman?

    St. Paul says “And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:34) — I ditto St. Paul.

    • LizEst

      As Dan put it, “Turning away from sin and toward holiness is a long and challenging process known as ‘ascesis.” The big difference is that a nun does not come in contact with the world. So, the turning away from sin is different than that of a lay woman, a consecrated virgin-a consecrated lay woman (or even some modern day hermits who are in the world…but, of course, not of the world). For some, this may be an even greater challenge because, since there are even fewer worldly distractions, one comes to a more exact confrontation with one’s own sinfulness and need to turn toward holiness and conversion of heart. God bless you, WS!

    • Well, one of the ways you can think about ascesis is in respect to your roles or relationships. How we discipline ourselves in relationship to service to God, others, and ourselves. By this simple breakdown we can see that there is one fundamental difference between us and the cloistered – they are married to God and we are married to humans (one at a time of course). This poses unique challenges on both sides of the cloister wall. As St Paul points out in the verse you quote, those of us who are married cannot choose ascetical practices that drive us to neglect our spouses. What might those be? For instance, married people my have a rich and even saintly prayer life. However, you won’t find a healthy marriage where either spouse prays so much that they neglect one another. Instead, God has assigned us a different kind of ascesis in marriage and in this case, instead of four hours of prayer daily we might only have two. The other two hours are then focused on serving our spouse and our family. This is the familial ascesis assigned to us by God and the means through which he loves our family and helps us to heaven.

  • Jeanette

    I read “The Cloud of Unknowing” just recently but I have to admit that I put it away to read another time because it scared me a little. The anonymous author made an admonition concerning spiritual illusions in that an inexperienced disciple can be deceived during contemplation and become a victim of spiritual fantasy. Because I do not want to have a false religious experience, I thought it best to put the book away for a time. I guess I’m not ready for this yet. Am I being too wary?

    • Yes Jeanette – your action is wise. Though there is nothing in the Cloud that is contrary to the faith, I do believe it to be a problematic work that takes the unsuspecting reader down a path that is contrary to the wisdom revealed by the spiritual doctors of the Church. There are much better resources out there to understanding contemplation and the interior life.

      • Jeanette

        Thank you. I’m sure you will let us know those resources in your upcoming book on prayer.

      • Kevin B.

        The “problem” with the “Cloud of Unknowing” is not found in the authors basic grasp and classical explanation of the mystical tradition of the via negitiva road to discovering and experiencing God as a pure entity. The difficulty is found principally in his insistence that one must actively and with the force of will, cast down the use of the intellect, in order to be covered with a “cloud of forgetting”. This proposes an activity that is not proper to the activity of a human soul, but rather, is an action that can only be accomplished by God himself, by an infusion of Divine Light directly into the soul itself. Although this book is a useful guide for those whom God has chosen to bring into a true, mystical Dark Night of the Soul, a journey that leads to a deep, intimate Union with God – this is definitely not a work on meditative/active prayer that would be useful for the vast majority of ordinary souls.

        • Well said Kevin

          Sent from my iPad

  • Janet

    Thank you! In the past I have been greatly offended that fellow Catholics would object to Centering Prayer. After reading this post I completely understand. If only I had gotten this message years ago (maybe I wasn’t ready to hear it !) I would have saved much energy wasted on that resentment.

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you for sharing this very good article Dan! I learned so much. I am very interested in your works and I hope I can read more from you. Thank you for this!

  • patricia

    I have taken a retreat along time ago with the book of the cloud of the unknowing it was a directed retreat. However the friar the priest directing it said that it would be good if I did not pursue it. For I was only 20 at the time and had alot to grow in the spiritual life and still do. I found the book difficult at that time. It is true repentance and conversion is needed before beginning something like that and if anything that takes us from the relationship with God it would not be for us. I am not a big contemplative at all. I need to take baby bit size prices and then digest. I am fearful to fall in false spirituality and false theology and teaching. The desire for us all to be taught right. I have learned in my beginning studies at Avila institute the study of theology is adoring God with our intellect. Spirituality is our relationship with God and it has to be an active relationship with charity towards neighbor. Living as a married wife there are some days I would just like to pray but then I realize loving my husband and carrying out my duties is prayer and it is loving God. There is no division when it comes love of God and Charity of neighbor.

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