A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
Is it Okay to Meditate as a Catholic?
February 26, 2019
With the rise of Headspace, Calm, and all of the other mindfulness meditation apps, those of us coming from a Christian background can have a lot of very good questions: are these methods okay to use? Are they bad or evil? Are they Buddhist? Are they in line with Church teaching? I, myself, was an avid Headspace user for 3 years and at the time, I loved it. It helped me to focus and to learn to sit in silence without my mind constantly racing through my to-do list, but I always kept questioning how it fit in with my faith.
The good news, I found, is these are not new questions, and this is not a new problem. To find the answer, it turns out, we have to look no further than Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict. He wrote a letter 30 years ago addressing exactly these same questions*. He starts by acknowledging the deep spiritual need that underlies these questions:
“The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society … brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance.”
“Without doubt, a Christian needs certain periods of retreat into solitude to be recollected and, in God’s presence, rediscover his path.”
He also encourages us not to reject these ways ‘out of hand simply because they are not Christian,’ but that the Church recognizes what it is true and holy in the other world religions because they ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.’
All that being said, he raises some serious concerns about these methods of meditation as they relate to the conception of Christian prayer:
What is the core? The center and core of all Christian prayer and meditation must always be God and striving to engage in a real living dialogue with Him.
What are the consequences? Spending too much time focused on our bodily sensations and experiences (e.g., breathing exercises, body scans) can potentially lead to a number of dicey consequences. One is misinterpreting feelings of calm and relaxation as spiritual consolations and thus ignoring the interconnection with our moral condition. Another is the lack of focus on humility and the potential for an increase of self-centeredness.
Where is the focus? Many of the meditation practices common today are associated with an internal focus (e.g., on the breath, body or mind) whereas the aim of Christian prayer is always to “flee from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself.” The future Pope Benedict cites St. Augustine to help bring home this point: “On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you….”To remain in oneself”: this is the real danger.“
So where do we go from here? What are we supposed to do with all of these caveats and warnings? Should we use these mindfulness apps to meditate or not? The great news is that there’s another option: Christian meditation. It’s a method of meditation that incorporates the calming recollection that we’re all seeking with the beauty of the Christian faith. It lets us find our center, while ensuring that the center that we find always ends up being God.
This is why we built the Hallow app (available on iPhone, Android): to try and help us discover and grow in this form of prayer and recollection (we also hit on many other beautiful methods of Catholic contemplative prayer and meditation including the Examen, Lectio Divina on the daily Gospel, and the Rosary). The app leads you through easy-to-follow guided sessions on each of these methods, lets you pick across themes of humility, calm, gratitude, joy etc. or dive into traditional Catholic prayers and content (e.g., Our Father, Stations of the Cross, Saints) to re-discover and meditate on their beauty and depth. The short answer is, if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend you download and try it out! If you’re interested in finding out more about Christian meditation, though, just keep reading.
So what exactly is different about Christian meditation? Well, at the core, there are 3 big differences:
1. Why we do it
The first difference comes down to why we’re doing it in the first place. When I was meditating using the mindfulness apps, I felt like I was trying to exercise my mind into building the ability to be more present and to better myself. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right with that, but Christian meditation and prayer is distinctively different.
The point of Christian prayer and meditation is to grow deeper in a relationship and friendship with God. Sure, through this relationship you are challenged to become a better person and be more mindful, but that is not the primary goal. The primary goal is to sit with and spend time with a friend.
2. How we do it
The ‘how’ is the second biggest difference. The eastern and secular mindfulness meditation methods I had exposure to were focused largely inward: on your body, your breath, and your mind.
Christian meditation may seem like it starts off somewhat similarly. It often begins with much of the similar deep breathing exercises in order to re-collect and ground ourselves. As Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
“[All of these dangers do] not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.”
But this is where the similarities stop. The focus of the sessions must always turn from inward to outward, from ourselves to something…or rather Someone, who is at the same time both separate from ourselves and deeper within. To humble ourselves with the realization that we’re sitting in the presence of God. And through this new kind of mindfulness, to become closer to, and more like, God.
The last big difference in terms of the ‘how’ is who really is in control. In eastern practices, the more you practice letting your thoughts pass by, the better you get at it. You’re not supposed to try to force anything, but in the end, it’s you who is doing the work to improve. In Christian prayer, this isn’t the case. Our work is simply to put ourselves in the position to let God take over.
3. What you get out of it
The goal of mindfulness meditation is often described as finding calm, escaping stress, relieving anxiety, becoming happier, etc. But it is essentially the opposite for Christian meditation. While it is calming, peaceful, and joyful in many ways, the Christian life isn’t one of escape, but rather one of finding meaning and purpose in deep struggles, heavy burdens, and intense suffering. Our aim is not to discover a stress-free beach and sit watching the waves come and go, but instead to bend down, pick up our cross and give our lives to God. And when we do, we find a friend, our cross becomes lighter, and we find a Love and Peace deeper than anything a beach could offer us.