I recently wrote “More on Fortune Telling and Reiki in the Bible”, followed by an article on “Crystals, Exorcisms, and New Age.” Today, I would like to complete what I began to say about New Age spirituality and conclude with some challenges of understanding “mindfulness.”
In my last article, I introduced you to the Vatican Document, “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life” (by the Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Interreligious Dialogue, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html). The document begins by identifying itself as “concerned with the complex phenomenon of “New Age” which is influencing many aspects of contemporary culture” and as reflections “offered primarily to those engaged in pastoral work so they be able to explain how the New Age movement differs from the Christian faith” (foreword).
We, as a church, have not done a good job of providing our parishioners a solid grounding in our faith. This is a contributing factor of why some have drifted into New Age spirituality, Reiki, and haven’t seen the problems with fortune telling.
This Vatican document writes, “New Age appeals to people imbued with the values of modern culture. Freedom, authenticity, self-reliance, and the like are all held to be sacred” (1.1). Freedom is important but to truly be free in making a choice, we must understand what our choices are. The Second Vatican Council talks about “authentic freedom” in paragraph 17 of Gaudium et Spes, “Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good.”
As we read in “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life”, “The search which often leads people to the New Age is a genuine yearning: for a deeper spirituality, for something which will touch their hearts, and for a way of making sense of a confusing and often alienating world” (1.5). This is why we must give people a solid grounding in our Catholic faith. Properly taught and understood, our Catholic offers the answers people are looking for.
I personally find New Age spirituality hard to understand. In “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life”, we find a reason for this, “New Age is not a single, uniform movement, but rather a loose network of practitioners whose approach is to think globally but act locally” (2). Thus, I will only offer comments from what this Vatican document says rather than trying to provide a full understanding of New Age spirituality.
In section 2.3.3, “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life” offers the following as central themes associated with New Age spirituality. They include seeing the cosmos as an organic whole, “it is animated by an Energy, which is also identified as the divine Soul or Spirit,” relying on “various spiritual entities,” and enlightenment type thinking. The “energy” component reminds me of Reiki. I see the concepts in general perhaps appealing to those identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
The concept of God in New Age spirituality is not a personal god but more than of an “impersonal energy” that forms a unity in the cosmos (“Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life”, 126.96.36.199). In this it is a spirituality that is pantheistic (see the glossary in “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life” for a definition of “pantheism.”)
A lot more could and perhaps should be said about New Age spirituality but it is beyond my knowledge and the scope of this article to do so. My goal is not to teach you about New Age spirituality. I only wish to help you understand why New Age spirituality is not in keeping with our Catholic faith. This is perhaps most evident in the previous two paragraphs.
Now, I would like to turn to a topic that I have been asked by a friend to include in this series of articles, “mindfulness.” When I first heard the term “mindfulness,” my initial reaction was that our Catholic faith certainly calls us to be “mindful” of what is going on around us and the needs of our brothers and sisters. It turns out “mindfulness” is a term that comes from Buddhist spirituality.
Before continuing on “mindfulness”, a short mention of some thoughts from “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life” on Buddhism. In 2.2.3, it states, “New Age offers an Eastern formula in Western terms.” It speaks briefly of reincarnation in Hindu thought before continuing, “What is different in most Buddhist traditions is that what wanders from body to body is not a soul, but a continuum of consciousness.” In Christianity we have a soul given to us by God. Our soul is eternal but we live but one human life in this world. Later “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life” states, “New Age imports Eastern religious practices piecemeal and re-interprets them to suit Westerners; this involves a rejection of the language of sin and salvation” (2.4). Certainly, no faithful Christian would intend to reject our understanding of “sin and salvation.” However, when we take pieces “piecemeal” from other religions and attempt to reinterpret them to suit our needs, we are flirting with disaster, perhaps even heresy, without ever meaning too.
The Second Vatican Council talked about what is good in other religions. However, that does not mean we can pick and choose items from other religions and interpret them as we wish. We need to look at the whole of what is being taught. In his book, Living Joy: 9 Rules to Help You Rediscover and Live Joy Every Day, (published by the Augustine Institute and Real Life Catholic, both of Greenwood Village, CO in 2020), Chris Stefanick writes about the differences between Buddhist and Christianity spirituality. “Christian spirituality is aimed at self-actualization” (59), meaning becoming who God calls us to be through “an immersion in the love that is God. Buddhist spirituality is aimed at enlightenment through self-negation. That’s not to say they don’t value love and compassion, but the end goal isn’t to be fully alive – fully you – but rather, to let go of the self, which they’d call an illusion” (59). Buddhist and Christian spirituality are rooted in very different perspectives. We must never forget that. It doesn’t mean everything about Buddhism is bad but must be considered carefully.
Faith is not a big melting pot. You cannot take pieces from various religions and throw them into the great melting pot to see what comes out after it is all melted together.
Returning to the concept of “mindfulness,” before one embraces “mindfulness”, one must understand its origin. To teach “mindfulness” without informing the “student” of its origin is to take away their ability to make an informed choice. It denies them true freedom of choice.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), writing as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote (1989), “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” (https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html) He begins with speaking of the good intent of many, “Many Christians today have a keen desire to learn how to experience a deeper and authentic prayer life despite the not inconsiderable difficulties which modern culture places in the way of the need for silence, recollection and meditation” (1). In paragraph 2, he discusses how some people turn to eastern methods for this. In paragraph 3, he writes, prayer “is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God.” We must never lose sight of this as our ultimate goal and what we are created for.
Cardinal Ratzinger later writes, “The majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it, Just as “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,” (Nostra Aetate, 2) neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from that what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured” (16).
Unfortunately, there are those who wish to promote “mindfulness” as a good practice without an indication of where it comes from or its original purpose.
In her article, “Can There Be a Catholic “Mindfulness?”,” (April 11, 2018 for Catholic Exchange, https://catholicexchange.com/can-catholic-mindfulness/) Jeanne Ewing writes of mindfulness, “It’s rooted in Buddhism; 2) It’s designed to help the person reach self-knowledge without ultimately leading one to God; and 3) The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to release person from the ‘burden’ of suffering” (my emphasis). In seeking freedom from suffering, it goes against what Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Taking up our cross, embracing our suffering, can be the very thing that leads us to our salvation.
Then, in the National Catholic Register‘s article, “Apologist Warns Catholics About Dangers of ‘Mindfulness’,” (https://www.ncregister.com/features/apologist-warns-catholics-about-dangers-of-mindfulness) by Patti Armstrong from an interview with Susan Brinkmann, Brinkmann mentions a husband who “stopped praying the Rosary with his family because he found this kind of meditation to be more relaxing.” Prayer is not “just for relaxation, but to converse with God.” His mistaken intent to relax may be good but it loses the union with God. Later, in the same article we read, “Instead of a momentary escape from anxiety, the Christian alternative offers a real solution to anxiety and a permanent transformation. One practice is a quick fix; the other is a long-term opportunity for exponential personal growth toward the ultimate goal of our existence here on Earth – union with God” (my emphasis).
Before I offer some final thoughts of my own, I will mention another article by Susan Brinkman, “What’s Mission from “The Mindful Catholic” (April 18, 2018, https://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/63319) where she presents the problems of mindfulness and teaching it without mention of its Buddhist roots.
To conclude, I would like to offer some thoughts from the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul discusses the eating of meat that was sacrificed to false idols. He says it makes no difference to him because he understands the sacrifice to false gods as meaningless but he realizes if others see him eating such meat, they may be led astray. We need to draw the line someplace. Be careful of practices from unknown sources or other religions (see also Acts 15:29, Acts 21:25, Romans 14:21). If you don’t know where the line is, then don’t go anywhere near it.
Well, this brings us to a conclusion. In this series of articles, I know I haven’t given you a complete explanation of everything but I hope these articles have given you an understanding of why we need to be careful. Faith is not just a hodgepodge of various beliefs. It is faith in God. It is faith and trust rooted in what Jesus has done for us on the Cross. Seeing his love for us on the Cross, we can certainly trust in him.