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False Teachings on Prayer–Getting to the Root of the Problem

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Prayer

False Teachings on Prayer: the Root of the Problem

My recent series on avoiding false teachings on prayer (Part I, II, III) drew much ire and fire from a number of readers. Yes, the series received an amazing response with respect to the number that read it – approximately 20,000 pageviews – and you passed it along on your Facebook pages more than 6,000 times. I am still in the midst of a series of radio interviews from a number of different talk shows about the posts. So yes, the positive comments and reactions far outweigh the negative, even in the light of the appropriate focus on World Youth Day in the past weeks.

But even so, one common bit of angst surfaced both in the combox and in personal notes to me (all dripping with charity): the expression of the idea that any kind of prayer is just fine. I mean, it’s prayer. And as long as folks are praying, I should leave them alone and not criticize them.

Well, truth be told, I didn’t personally criticize anyone in these posts – especially those souls of good will who genuinely desire to know and love God. For them, I have nothing but admiration and a profound passion that they achieve what they desire. I did, however, point out teachings about prayer that directly contradict our Catholic faith but are, unfortunately, popular in a few confused corners of the Church today. These teachings promise to lead people to “good feelings” and a kind of peace in some cases, but they don’t lead to true contemplation or the fulfillment of all desire that so many seek.

From whence comes the authority of my observations?

Among many sources, including the Catechism and the Doctors of the Church, much of what I wrote in the series is reflected in a document distributed by the Holy See in 1989 entitled, “A Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” This letter was written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and distributed in response to growing concerns that many false teachings about prayer were creeping into the Church. The source of these problems emerged from well-intentioned, but seriously flawed, efforts to follow the admonition of Vatican II to properly honor those of other religious traditions.

Unfortunately, there was a common and serious misunderstanding among some groups of the intent of the council regarding why and how we can and should honor the truth found in other traditions. For instance, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), paragraph 2b states that:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

Some have taken this affirmation as a call to Catholics to seek to learn from – even emulate – non-Christian faith traditions about prayer and the spiritual life. Nostra Aetate calls for no such thing.

It only takes an attentive and honest reading of these carefully crafted words to realize the error in this interpretation. When Nostra Aetate points to the fact that non-Christian religions often “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” it is critical to note that the word “Truth” in the document is capitalized in its second use and thus refers to Christ himself. So, the point is that the truth of Christ does reflect, if even in a limited way, through the religious thoughts, intentions and practices of men outside of the Catholic faith. Man is made in God’s image and will always in some way reflect this reality.

The “why” of Nostra Aetate is that even if non-Christian religions only reflect truth in a very limited way (a “reflection” of a “ray”), we need to find points of agreement in order to foster mutual respect and then to help those who see this “ray” of Truth to come to the fullness of Truth. This point is made clear in the next sentence:

Indeed, she [the Church] proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

Here we see that there is an important and clear contrast between a “reflection” of a “ray” of truth and the “fullness of religious life,” which is found in Christ.

The Church, by the grace and work of the Holy Spirit, provides the clearest, wisest, most beautiful, and most complete teachings on the spiritual life that are available to humanity. Though we must be respectful of other faiths, we need not seek an incomplete truth from them when we have the fullness of the Truth in the Catholic Church. To do so is beyond foolish.

For further reading on this topic, in 2000, in response to many misinterpretations of the intent of the Council on these matters, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (by the hand of Cardinal Ratzinger) and the authority of Pope John Paul II issued the document, Dominus Iesus – On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and 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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  • David Lassiter

    Thank you for being the light in the dark and for clarifying this with the truth found in our glorious Sacred tradition and Saints. Thanks be to God

  • ThirstforTruth

    Since I number among my friends and aqaintances several lapsed Catholics, this
    is most informative and instrumental. The relativism of truth that is held today comes up in discussion frequently, as well as the tendency among them to *believe* all religions are imparting the Truth. Your words shed light on a most
    confused Christian population.

  • Maria

    Thank you for this enlightening post. I sent this to a friend who left the Church to join a massive church in Nigeria and he quoted 1 Corithans14:18 – I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all…
    suggesting that prayer should be in tongues as opposed to any other language. Can you offer an explanation please.

    • LizEst

      Maria – Your friend used only one verse in Scripture to justify him/herself. Too bad he/she didn’t quote the rest of that sentence,”but in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19). And, a little further on it says, “Thus, tongues are a sign not for those who believe but for unbeliever…” (1 Corinthians 14:22). What follows this is a whole section on how speaking in tongues should be done and observed. All of this is preceded in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 by the discourse on love and how one can have all these gifts but if one doesn’t have love, one is nothing and gains nothing.

      One can’t pick and choose words out of Scripture to justify a point of view. As St Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the gospels,
      and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

      Hope this helps…and God bless you, Maria.

      • Maria

        Many thanks Liz. God bless you too!

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