Carmelite Spirituality and the New Age
October is a special month for Carmelites because we celebrate two very special feast days, that of our sister St. Therese of the Child Jesus of Lisieux on October 1st, and that of St. Teresa of Jesus of Avila our Mother on October 15th. Both of these Teresas-for their names is actually the same in Latin-are Doctors of the Church who have much to teach us about God's ways with those whom he loves. Therese's "Little Way of Confidence and Love" is well-known in our country. Fewer Americans know about Teresa of Jesus and her "Way of Perfection." Yet those who have read her works find in her an attractive personality and a ready wit at the service of the friends of Christ. She is, in fact, one of the most engaging women in history.
St. Teresa was not always so praised or understood. She carried out her work in a time that was similar to ours. The Church had held an Ecumenical Council whose decrees had sweeping results-the famous Council of Trent. The socio-political and economic worlds were in upheaval. The religious world was in upheaval because of Protestantism. And a thirst for deeper spirituality had led many to seek mystical experiences. The result was that, alongside of true Christian contemplation, there were erroneous manifestations. The worst of these in Spain were the heresies of the Alumbrados and, a short time later, the Quietists. Because of them, any interest in contemplative prayer was viewed with suspicion, and St. Teresa herself was even treated to sermons preached against her by priests who felt that it was enough for women to say the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. Anything more was dangerous.
Our own age has seen a similar hunger for an experience of God that has not always led to sound spirituality. In fact, it sometimes seems that the very word "spirituality" is suspect, for it is associated with the words "New Age." Authentic Christian spirituality and New Age spirituality are very different. In turning to St. Teresa, we quickly discover some basic truths that help us to discern the authentic tradition of Catholic contemplative prayers. Let us look at some of the differences.
Catholic contemplative prayer depends on the loving self-revelation of God in the person of the Incarnate Word, a revelation that is objectively handed on to us in scriptures and the life of the Church. New Age spirituality views the world in fundamentally pantheistic terms. Everyone is seen as a part of a single divine cosmic reality which is talked about in mythological terms. Everyone makes his or her "own truth" or sense about it.
Catholic contemplative prayer presupposes that the Father gives us everything in Christ and that we return that love by giving back through Christ what we have received. The Sacred Humanity of Jesus is central. New Age spirituality has no room for this unique mediation of Christ, for everyone is seen as being radically divine.
Catholic contemplative prayer causes us to stand with Mary at the foot of Jesus' Cross, for without the Cross there is no Resurrection. New Age spirituality avoids the paradox of the Cross; and it often focuses on feeling good.
Catholic contemplative prayer depends on the presence of the Holy Spirit who empowers us and sustains us to do what is beyond our human power to do: to know God by faith and to love God and neighbor as Christ loves us. New Age spirituality presupposes that its goals are within the reach of anyone who has the right approach or technique.
Catholic contemplative prayer draws us to a greater participation in the sacramental life of the Church. New Age spirituality may lead to the practice of ritual magic.
Catholic contemplative prayer helps us to forget ourselves and make the thoughts of Christ's own Heart our own so that it bears fruit in practical love for our neighbor with whom we form the community we call Church. It demands virtue. New Age spirituality leads to a greater "awareness" that may sometimes degenerate into a narcissistic preoccupation with self.
Today there are people who fear the practice of contemplative prayer, as there were in St. Teresa's time. Some even slander those who pray that way as being New Age. Yet if they keep in mind these simple differences, they will see that the tradition of contemplative prayer that the Church teaches us is based on very sound doctrine.
But there is another point that is perhaps the most important of all. Catholic spirituality does not exist for the sake of itself. We do not aspire to peak experiences of God. We aspire to love Christ, to make Love loved, to be the best friends and faithful disciples of the Lord that we can be, and to carry on his work of redemption. Catholic spirituality ultimately leads us to cherish the words of Mary said at Cana: "Do whatever He tells you." That is the spirit of Catholic spirituality. It is the spirit of Carmel.
-by Fr. David Centner, OCD