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Now Reading: Is it Okay to Meditate as a Catholic?

Is it Okay to Meditate as a Catholic?

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.”

and,

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.“

Christian Meditation

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.

*All quotes in this article are from this letter: LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON SOME ASPECTS OF CHRISTIAN MEDITATION* October 15, 1989


Alex Jones is the CEO and Co-Founder of Hallow. He attended Notre Dame and previously worked in consulting at McKinsey in Chicago.

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15 People Replies to “Is it Okay to Meditate as a Catholic?”

  1. Mark

    As a Buddhist and long time practitioner of Rinzai Zen, I’m delighted that you’re sharing this practice with your readers! I’m also grinning like a fool because the differences you point out between so-called Eastern and Christian meditation don’t actually exist. (Now, if we were to call this the difference between popular, secular meditation and Christian meditation, I’d be in agreement!)

    Buddhism practice is broken into three main phases – sila, samadhi, and prajna. Roughly translated (and pilfered from St. John of the Cross) those words mean mortification, contemplation, and direct knowledge. Buddhism always begins with moral discipline. It’s only when we’ve yoked our behaviors and have overcome our willfulness that we can even begin to contemplate pursuing the other two phases of training.

    Following the breath is, indeed, a fundamental part of Buddhist meditation. Oddly, the deeper you pursue that practice, the more you begin to realize that the breath is, in fact, outside of yourself. That may sound strange, but the phenomenology is unmistakable. This “otherness” of the the object of meditation is absolutely fundamental to effective meditation. As Buddhist, we are after what is not-shelf. Elevating or pursuing the self is utterly contrary to that aim. In fact, the Buddha provided a laundry list of meditative practices aimed at combating that tendency. Meditations like the four brahmaviharas (compassion, equanimity, loving kindness, and sympathetic joy) always have others at their center. Some schools of Buddhist meditation (e.g. most tantric sects) will even use deity visualizations.

    Most importantly, and where, I think, Buddhist and Christian practice are most similar, is that meditation is not an ends in an of itself. The calm and still mind we experience after a long meditation session or retreat must be folded back into our day to day lives. Pursuing that calm for its own sake is to pursue the self. It is selfish, self contained, and does nothing to extend our virtue into the world. If all we do is go into the wilderness pray, the light of our practice shines on no one. It is only in our returning that real fruits of practice are to be had.

    1. Alex

      Hi Mark – Really appreciate your comments and your beautiful work explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. My original experience with these practices stems mostly from the popular secular forms, which as put, vary significantly from the traditional Buddhist practices.

      You did a beautiful job of articulating the many similarities, though I would argue that once we begin to compare the truly Buddhist practices with Christian teaching important differences still remain: namely differences in philosophy and teaching (e.g., the Christo-centricity and Trinitarian aspect of Christian prayer and meditation).

      As an important caveat: though I have spent much of the past year studying this, I’m only just beginning what I’m sure will be a life-long learning on these different traditions and so am always open to learning and growing!

      1. Mark

        Oh without question – the philosophy and very impetus behind the practices are radically different. To take a page from the Catholic playbook, I’d argue that they share so many similarities simply because they are drawing on the same Natural Law. If you really hitting at the root of reality, there’re only so many unique, spiritual imperatives that you can draw from it. Eventually, you’re gonna overlap! But yeah, while faith is important in Buddhism (though I’d be more likely to use the word “trust”), our faith ain’t exactly the same as yours! 😉

        Keep up the good work! Love the blog!

  2. Edu.

    can you make this available in Spain for android?

    1. Alex

      Hi there! It should be available now! Let me know if it isn’t.

    2. Alex

      Hi Edu, unfortunately we are still figuring out exact tax and regulation requirements for expansion internationally. We’ll let you know as soon as it becomes available!

  3. Christina Jayatunge

    It is not available in my country. Please make it available

    1. Alex

      Hi there! It should be available now! Please let me know if you run into any issues!

  4. Thank you, Alex! This post and your app have been shared with my FB community and we will continue promoting the app. Here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote about the passage you quote in #2 above:
    ‘As I have noted before, the CDF does not say, “Genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions… constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God…” It says, “That does not mean that [they] cannot constitute [such a means].” In other words, some of them may constitute a suitable means, but one must at least apply the principles of the rest of the document to discern which do and which do not. The CDF does not address each practice individually.’
    The default position of many Catholics seems to be, not that “we should not reject all such practices out of hand,” but that “the CDF has given a green light to all Eastern meditation practices, as long as we don’t see them as prayer.” This position is false. Spending 2 minutes before prayer focusing on one’s breath in order to calm down so one can pray better is one thing; spending 45 minutes a day in Eastern meditation practices as some are encouraging Catholics to do, is completely different.

    1. Beautifully said Connie and thanks so much for sharing!!

      1. Nick

        Hi I think there was a lot right about the article. I also wish you had issued a much stronger caveat explaining that you are not a healthcare or mental health practitioner. There are pathologies which can grip people in ways that are clinically significant and require intervention: Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar, Profound Clinical Depression, PTSD. One very effective intervention for helping people with Borderline is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy; in fact, it was designed precisely for this mental illness. Using many of the same methods as CBT, it leads its 4-module program with a lesson in Mindfulness, because these are people who are almost literally stuck in “fight or flight,” oscillating between very strong emotions. These are people who will never be able to leave Borderline behind and who will need to practice mindfulness in order to prevent themselves from hurting themselves and others and in order to be able to engage the 3 other modules that follow (dealing with interpersonal relationships, etc). Please, please, please, for the sake of your readers, differentiate between the more “existential” (what the tradition calls “neurotypical”) forms of happiness-seeking, etc., which you describe, versus those pathologies whose symptoms can be greatly reduced by mindful modes of thinking and acting.

        1. Alex Jones

          Hi Nick – thanks so much for the feedback and comments. You’re absolutely right that I am not writing from the perspective of a mental health practitioner. The article instead was intended only to articulate and synthesize the Church’s comments on the practices, as well as introduce an additional option for those who might be interested in integrating it more deeply into their spiritual lives.

          The hope was that including the quote (below) would emphasize that the article was not meant to condemn, but merely to summarize the risks associated, as articulated by Pope Benedict.

          “[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.”

          That being said, your feedback is incredibly helpful and I will incorporate it into future posts.

          1. Nick

            Hi Connie, it’s been some time since I read it Brinkmann’s book, but I recall the central and “springboard” anecdote at the beginning centering on one therapist’s experience of gradually realizing that mindfulness was essentially in opposition to her faith life. With respect to citations, the book read like an exercise in facile proof-texting, first from the Bible (to support) and and then from folks like Kabat-Zinn (to condemn). Her all-important conclusions lacked any sort of cited support from established Catholic therapists, theologians, etc., to support her opinions on things like how the Bible addressed this issue and on Kabat-Zinn’s work. She likely lacked that support primarily because it’s hard to find these sorts of experts in the first place. People like Paul Vitz (perhaps the most well-respected Catholic psychologist in the U.S.), Gregory Popcak (another star within the Catholic therapist landscape), and Peter Kreeft (probably the greatest Catholic apologist of our generation) wouldn’t lend their support. She also has not mounted a real and sustained challenge against Gregory Bottaro’s “The Mindful Catholic,” a surprise given how quickly his “Catholic Psych” institute has begun to flourish, an institute which runs Catholic mindfulness retreats.

          2. I just wanted to reply briefly to Nick’s comment below, which is inaccurate. Brinkmann’s book has 180 footnotes.Some are of course from Scripture. Many others are from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, various studies of mindfulness and meditation, etc. It actually has very few anecdotes and the Foreword is written by a respected professor of Chinese studies. I found it a very well-researched book.

          3. Nick

            Hi Alex, thanks for the reply. I agree, that quote does leave open a window for people to determine whether or not mindfulness could be genuinely helpful. At the same time, again, it seems clear that the words are aimed at a “neurotypical” audience. He speaks of the “divided and disoriented” man, one who is clearly dealing with some sort of lack of peace on an existential (not a neurological) level, a lack resulting from the many EXTERNAL pressures that the “man of today” faces. The unsettled mind that the patient with borderline personality faces, on the other hand, has its source in neurological dysfunction and the body’s inability to regulate emotion. These pressures have an INTERNAL source. I have worked in healthcare and have seen how important it is that the everyday/clinical neurological distinction be made. It can literally save a life, for instance if a Catholic has a doctor who proposes mindfulness as an intervention, and he/she reads a book like “The Mindful Catholic,” by Dr Gregory Bottaro (Preface by Peter Kreeft), he/she could feel confident to agree to the recommendation. On the other hand, the “Women of Grace”‘s Susan Brinkmann, from EWTN, has written a book condemning mindfulness. Unfortunately, the latter, is highly anecdotal with almost no citations, relying heavily on the words of one Catholic therapist who had no contact with the sorts of pathologies for which DBT was created. This is why I want to hammer home the point about the existential/neurological distinction. Thank you!


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