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

August 2, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Prayer

…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 an author is not orthodox or teaches something that could lead me to deception instead of to God?

VisageDElisabethDeLaTriniteIn this third post, we will explore the dangers of reducing God to a cosmic force along with ways we can better gain a healthy perspective on prayer and enhance rather than diminish our progress in prayer (you can read the first post here and the second post here). It is fitting that I have completed my edits and made this final post ready on the eve of a very special day for me. It is the day on which I was received into the Church and a day that draws our hearts to the most holy disciple of Christ, our Blessed Mother, along with the most sublime instructors of prayer that God has given to the Church, the great Carmelite Doctors. Our Lady of Mount Carmel, pray for us and show us the way to Christ amidst the stormy seas of heresy and unbelief to our only true haven of rest in Christ.


The final and most dangerous aspect of modern popular teaching on prayer is depersonalization. The danger here lies in an essential denial of two central doctrines of Christianity: first, the Incarnation (Christ really did come in the flesh) and second, the distinction between Creator and creature (I am not God and he is not me).

The historical reality of the incarnation of Christ leads us to the critical understanding that God is person and we can commune with him as such. This is similar to saying, “My wife is a person, and I am a person, and therefore we can commune most fully as persons.” Now, if I were to treat my wife not as a person but as an ethereal cosmic being, communication would break down in short order.

We can envision two contrasting scenarios that illustrate this point.

1. In the non-person prayer orientation, the husband claims to love his wife and yet stares past her in a self-entranced muttering while she stands ignored. It doesn’t matter that he intends or wants to love her, or is open to loving her; his approach is self-centered rather than other-centered.

2. In a person-oriented understanding of prayer, the adoring husband kneels before his spouse and recites poetry rooted in an exalted language of love and adoration. As he offers his love, all his attention is focused on her. She receives his love, as it is clearly for her alone. This is true intimacy, even if only the beginning of a more complete intimacy of the marital embrace.

God is not a distant idea or cosmic force to be communed with in some dazed stupor or blank mind created by the misuse of a mantra-centered method. These distant, ephemeral and spiritual sounding descriptions of God and their related ideas are acid to the soul. They radically misrepresent who God is, how he has chosen to reveal himself to us, and what it means to be in a personal relationship with him.

If God is in any way depersonalized, then his Incarnational essence and personhood can easily be morphed into some kind of cosmic force to be harnessed or absorbed into. Even worse, this can and does lead unsuspecting Catholics into the pseudo-faith of pantheism: “He is everything, and thus I am he.” In the end, the gurus of this false gospel seek to lead the naive practitioner to the center of their being where they then discover who they really are. The great triumph of this false prayer is the “realization” that we are God because there is no substantive distinction between us (they call this “non-dual thinking). Clearly, this idolatry will in no way lead us to heaven and is most definitely leading many down the broad path to spiritual destruction.

How Can I Protect Myself?

The key to avoiding these errors is to be aware of them but not to focus on them. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves in the truth. How? Begin with spiritual reading and meditation on the Catechism, and the Compendium of the Catechism, on the topic of prayer. These treatments are far from dry and, word for word, are the most valuable teachings on the topic in all of the Church aside from the words of Christ Himself. Second, we should immerse ourselves in the writings of the doctors of the Church, particularly those who have come to bear significant influence on how the Church understands what it means to commune with God (like Sts Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux). Modern writers like Fr. Thomas Dubay and Fr. Jacques Philippe provide fantastic resources on prayer that are faithful to this profound and rich Catholic tradition.

Beyond these helpful resources, there are a handful of publishers of materials on prayer and the spiritual life that can be trusted without reservation. Three of these are Emmaus Road Publishing, Ignatius Press, and Scepter Publishing. Emmaus Road publishes my book, Navigating the Interior Life, in which I provide a time-tested and practical roadmap to understanding spiritual direction and what it means to enter into a progressively deeper relationship with our Lord. They also publish Ralph Martin’s marvelous work on this topic entitled, Fulfillment of All Desire. For more recommended reading on prayer and the spiritual life, check out EWTN's Religious Catalogue.

Finally, we should close with a profound example of an authentic relationship with God – a look into a heart that truly understands what it means to commune with the Blessed Trinity. In Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity’s prayer, we find a living and beautiful dismantling of all of the errors we have discussed in this series of posts.

“O my God, Trinity whom I adore, let me entirely forget myself that I may abide in you, still and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity; let nothing disturb my peace nor separate me from you, O my unchanging God, but that each moment may take me further into the depths of your mystery! Pacify my soul! Make it your heaven, your beloved home and place of your repose; let me never leave you there alone, but may I be ever attentive, ever alert in my faith, ever adoring and all given up to your creative action.

O my beloved Christ, crucified for love, would that I might be for you a spouse of your heart! I would anoint you with glory, I would love you – even unto death! Yet I sense my frailty and ask you to adorn me with yourself; identify my soul with all the movements of your soul, submerge me, overwhelm me, substitute yourself in me that my life may become but a reflection of your life. Come into me as Adorer, Redeemer and Savior.

O Eternal Word, Word of my God, would that I might spend my life listening to you, would that I might be fully receptive to learn all from you; in all darkness, all loneliness, all weakness, may I ever keep my eyes fixed on you and abide under your great light; O my Beloved Star, fascinate me so that I may never be able to leave your radiance.

O Consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, descend into my soul and make all in me as an incarnation of the Word, that I may be to him a super-added humanity wherein he renews his mystery; and you O Father, bestow yourself and bend down to your little creature, seeing in her only your beloved Son in whom you are well pleased.

O my `Three,’ my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in whom I lose myself, I give myself to you as a prey to be consumed; enclose yourself in me that I may be absorbed in you so as to contemplate in your light the abyss of your [greatness]!” (


Art: Portrait visage d'Elisabeth de la Trinité portant son habit de carmélite (Face portrait of Elisabeth of the Trinity in Carmelite habit), Willuconquer, undated, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.


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.

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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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  • Stephen B. .

    I’m a Catholic who has struggled with addiction for many years and have recently reached out to NA for help in order to work the 12 steps. Is NA anything that will draw me away from my faith? I’m also severely disabled, housebound, and there is no priest in this town, so my help is limited to online help. Thank you, Stephen

    • Stephen – I don’t believe it will pull you away from your faith as long as you are active in it. How are you receiving the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance?

      • Stephen B. .

        I’m severely disabled, mostly housebound, and there is no priest in my town. I desperately need to go to Confession, is there such a thing as Confession via video chat on google+?

        • No. It is up to your diocese to provide this help to you. Call them.

          • Stephen B. .

            ok, thank you, Dan, so much for your time. I so dearly love this blog and have an entire section devoted to it in my google+ community, it gets a lot of 1+’s

  • Jeanette

    Thank you for this great information, especially about reading the works of the doctors of the Church…especially St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila on how to commune with God. The Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity prayer is absolutely beautiful! Blessings to you!

  • RobinJeanne

    My being weeps at the words of Blessed Elizabeth , she speaks what my heart seeks. My soul, my very being longs to love God so deeply, so sweetly, with such child like inoccense….. May the Lord bless my soul one day so I may love and honor Him all the days of my life. To god be the Glory!!!!!

  • Bill

    I don’t understand all the “big” words of the prayer you posted. I just talk to Him-alot!

    • LizEst

      Good for you, Bill. It’s OK if you don’t understand those words. He wants you to talk to Him. And, you’re doing exactly the right thing. Remember to listen to what He says to you, too! God bless you, Bill.

      • Bill

        Thank you!

  • Anthony_Lilles

    Thanks for ending this third section with the prayer of Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity. Father Raphael Diamond, the former prior of the Charterhouse in Vermont once explained that Blessed Elisabeth has helped more contemplatives grow in their devotion to the Divine Persons of the Trinity than all of the tomes of theology written throughout the 20th Century. He was very concerned that contemplatives sometimes were so fascinated with God as the Absolute that they sometimes lost sight of the friendship, the realized communion of life and love that constitutes Christian life. It is the inner life of the Trinity that helps us see the form of Christian prayer as essentially “relational” The unity of relation, the subsistent relations of the Divine Persons, establishes the analogy, the harmony of the perfect unity of creatures with the Creator, a unity anticipated in this life by faith but realized fully in the life of glory to come. The more united we are to God in prayer, the more truly creature we become – that is the more fully we are able to manifest the glory of God concretely, particularly, and un-repeatably. Whereas union with a depersonalized absolute is always at the price of surmounting individuality, the communion persons established by grace in the Holy Trinity raises individuality and uniqueness to a new level of perfection – so that the love and knowledge that is shared in this communion is a true reflection of the love and knowledge in the Trinity – indeed it is a participation in it. Blessed Elisabeth’s prayer allows us to glimpse this participation and in fact is ordered to it. Thank for this again Dan – it is rich and profound.

  • $19933969

    Dan – Do you know anything about the Prayer and Life workshops developed by Father Ignacio Larrañaga, OFM Cap., ? Peace & Prayers, Jan

  • Slowly, oh so slowly, I have come to realize this Website is far too superior for my simple mind. I feel again and again, as I read each Post, like the little girl I was when I was trying to understand what my Teacher/Catechist/ Catholic Lay Leader father, or my dotting and holy Nuns were talking about God, prayer, worship, adoration and all that. I could sense it was very, very important for me to understand what they were talking about, but my small mind was undeveloped and the words they spoke I could not comprehend. This is what I have come to feel as I struggle to follow this Website and a few others. The Responses from the “Family” forcefully bring to me just how untutored I am and confirm just how ignorant I am because I am not widely read and have scant knowledge of the Teachings of the Fathers, the Doctors of the Church and the Holy Saints. But I leave it to my God to make me understand that which He wants me to know to be faithful to Him in my own simple, uncomplicated, way. Thus far have I prayed these many months that He gives me a Spiritual Director who can guide me at the elementary level of my mental capacity. I am still waiting for Him to answer my Prayers and have not lost hope.

    Providentially, recently my Daughters helped me to be connected to the Fibre Optic Cable – bought be a Plasma T.V – and I am now able to watch EWTV where I am beginning to be more and more informed about our Holy Mother Church, the Essentials my Faith not to mention the topical issues of the Catholic Church as they happen. Thank You, my Lord, and thank You for giving me such loving Girls who were determined to make their Mum Digital!!!!

  • MaryofSharon

    Thank you for the example of Blessed Elizabeth’s beautiful prayer. It is fine and well to talk about the theory of how one should pray and not pray, but it is quite another thing to have examples of actual prayers to flesh it out! Your example serves in a way similar to when Jesus taught us to pray by praying the Lord’s Prayer. I’m taking this prayer to prayer today and will pray it as my own. I can’t think of a better way to absorb what you’ve been writing about through this series.

  • MaryofSharon

    I have a little question about this prayer. Dan (or Anthony, perhaps), this really is a remarkable prayer to pray. I’ve been taking it with me to prayer in recent days, and it is both beautiful and powerful, giving words to the feeble longings of the soul for deep union with and surrender to the Beloved. As I come back to it over and over again, making the prayer more and more my own, I keep getting stuck on the part where one prays “Come into me as Adorer, Redeemer, and Savior.” It’s easy to see Christ as “Redeemer” and “Savior”, but why call Him “Adorer”? Aren’t we the ones doing the adoring?

    • LizEst

      Excellent question MaryofSharon! “True worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23c-24). This is very Trinitarian. It is easy to understand the Spirit part. Jesus is, of course, the Truth part of this.

      Yes, we are the ones adoring. But, we can do nothing good of our own. We do all good things in Him, with Him and through Him. So, in order to for us to adore and worship, to give all glory and honor to God, we need Christ the Truth, who is the true and perfect Adorer of His heavenly Father. Without Him, we can do nothing. His coming to us enables us to adore and worship through Him.

      Hope this helps. God bless you, MaryofSharon.

      • MaryofSharon

        Thanks, Liz! That is precisely the kind of insight I needed! Perfect!

        • LizEst

          You’re quite welcome. The glory, of course, goes to the Lord, who alone is perfect. God bless you!

  • I stumbled on this series from a question on Can Centering Prayer be redeemed.

    I also recommend Al Kresta’s “Dangers to the Faith” book. It’s a survey of four categories of opponents of Catholicism. In particular, the first section “Abusers of Spirituality and Revelation” is relevant.

    Also, in Dan’s book, he recommends reading “Jesus Christ The Bearer of the Water of Life, A Christian Reflection on the New Age” a Vatican document.

    These are both great resources to help us move away from false teachings and toward the truth of our Lord.

  • Pingback: Avoiding false teachings on prayer (Part 3 of 3) – Is Centering Prayer Catholic?()

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