Anxiety, mindfulness, and prayer: The right and wrong ways to pray

Praying to the wrong god is not the only danger we face in prayer; we can find ourselves drawing farther away from God if the goals and techniques we use are not rooted in Catholic theology.

(Image: Josh Applegate | Unsplash.com)

Part 1 of this series examined the history of mindfulness, its modern use in psychology, and arguments both for and against it which have been made by Catholics today.

Since mindfulness is essentially a meditation technique, it makes sense to evaluate it within the context of a Catholic understanding of prayer.

Prayer is a good thing, but there are wrong ways to pray

Our relativistic culture may find it difficult to understand this fact, but there are right ways and wrong ways to pray. When the Israelites created a molten calf and worshiped it (see Exodus 32), God did not treat their prayer and sacrifice to a pagan god as a morally neutral act. Following God’s instructions, Moses and the tribe of Levi killed three thousand men for their participation in false worship. But praying to the wrong god is not the only danger we face in prayer; we can find ourselves drawing farther away from God if the goals and techniques we use are not rooted in Catholic theology.

In the seventeenth century, the Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos developed a prayer practice that he called Quietism. On the surface, Molinos’ emphasis on the importance of simply being quiet in God’s presence seemed to follow Scripture. After all, didn’t our Lord tell his followers not to babble like the pagans did when they prayed (Matt. 6:7)? But there was much more to the practice of Quietism than being quiet; it included a belief that “man’s highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life.”

Most Catholics are not anxiously seeking “psychical self-annihilation”. So, of course, Molinos did not initially explain his ideas to his followers in that way. Instead, he introduced people to his concepts gradually. When you pray, he first told them, don’t use any images or words (such as beautiful pictures of Christ or even words of Scripture) because those will only distract you. Next, don’t try to stir up devotion to God in your heart; you want to be detached from everything. Once you’re truly detached, you won’t need to fight temptations to sin, because you will be so holy that nothing you do will be sinful. At that point, you won’t need to perform any voluntary mortifications, such as abstaining from food, because advanced souls don’t need to stop themselves from doing whatever they want to do.

Quietism sounds reasonable at first, but it quickly deviates from a Catholic understanding of how we should relate to God, which is why the Church ultimately labeled it a heresy. Can you imagine Mother Teresa of Calcutta telling her nuns that they didn’t need to fight temptations to sin? Since some of the ideas underpinning Molinos’ teaching were derived from pantheism and Buddhism, it’s not surprising that Quietism was judged to be dangerous to Catholics. Every prayer to God is heard by God, but not every prayer technique may lead you directly to God.

Words matter

The early Church Father Origen (185-232) has been called one of the greatest Scripture scholars in the history of the Church. His father died as a martyr for his Christian faith. Origen himself began and led a catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt, which was so highly respected that even pagans came to learn from him. He was so popular that his local bishop became jealous, and Origen had to relocate his school to Caesarea in Palestine (modern Keisarya, Israel), where he once again attracted many disciples. During the brutal persecution of Catholics initiated by the Roman emperor Decius in the year 250, Origen was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and martyred. So why doesn’t the Church give Origen the seemingly well-deserved title of saint?

There are complicated ancient traditions both supporting and opposing Origen. But perhaps the simplest explanation is that, while Origen himself was always faithful to the Church—and even died for Christ—some of the speculative theological ideas that he proposed led some of his later supporters into heterodox teachings, which were eventually condemned by the Church. Additionally, the Church had not yet developed a precise terminology for some concepts during Origen’s lifetime, and Origen’s explanations of those concepts—through no fault of his own—lack those specific terms. This confusion makes it difficult for subsequent generations to determine whether Origen supported or objected to the Church’s current understanding of those beliefs.

The Church greatly respects but does not hold up Origen as a model of Christian sanctity because some of his writings have led Catholics away from Christ and his Church. Our Church is, after all, Mother Church, and mothers protect their children. Good mothers do not encourage even one of their children to drink something poisonous.

Similarly, one cannot pick up a term, such as mindfulness, which has a specific meaning in Buddhism, use that word in a Catholic context, and pretend that the Buddhist connotations that the word implies do not exist. If even one Catholic (out of the 1.2 billion Catholics alive today) is led away from Jesus Christ because of the use of a single word, then, out of charity, we should not use that word. Jesus did not say that the road to Heaven was wide and broad (Mt 7:13); he said it was narrow. Any word we pair up with the word “Catholic” should be a word that keeps people on that narrow path that leads to him.

Beware of pride in prayer

God wants us to pray. After all, prayer is just the lifting up of one’s heart to him. But we are all born with original sin, which means we are all afflicted with pride. Our Lord particularly warned us of the dangers of pride in prayer when he compared the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:10-14). Our pride does not always look exactly like the Pharisee’s, who wrongly thought he was more righteous in God’s eyes than other people for external reasons. Pride can also make us believe that we are so smart that we can sample from other religions without suffering any harmful effects. None of us are that smart.

It is incontrovertible that some of the techniques proposed by modern psychology through mindfulness therapy have had positive benefits for many patients. Psychologists even have studies to prove it, though some of their results indicate that old-fashioned Catholic prayer and meditation—such as simply praying the rosary—can reduce anxiety too.

And that is the point. The daily headlines change daily, and new reasons to worry will constantly appear. We are free to turn to psychology for a therapeutic fix to a current struggle. Or we can go deeper, much deeper, and invite God to heal our hearts directly through Scripture, Tradition, and two thousand years of Catholic spirituality and the witness of the saints. We can limit ourselves to a trendy technique. Or we can open our hearts to the love of Christ which surpasses all understanding and brings peace to wounded hearts.


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About Dawn Beutner 14 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

11 Comments

  1. Dear Dawn Beutner, you deserve a big hug for hitting the nail on the head in your approach here on mindfulness in relation to our Catholic doctrine, and tradition. With my little experience of giving hearing and listening ears to those battling with different life issues, l can boldly endorse everything you wrote here on mindfulness in relation to its usage in our present day therapeutic measures. I’ll forward this your write-up to some of our clients, as some of them do testify how effective and lasting allowing God in our Lord Jesus Christ into our live struggles, for inner peace and deeper healing. Thank you so much indeed. Rest assured of my prayers. Please, do pray for me too!🙏👏❤️

  2. What distinguishes Doctor of Mystical Theology Saint John of the Cross, if he spoke of self annihilation as did heretic Fr Molinos, and if what Molinos said in many instances parallels the Mystical Doctor? Context. Simply put John wrote his work, primarily, The Ascent of Mount Carmel for contemplative Discalced Carmelite nuns who had long experience in the ascetic life. Self annihilation meant surrendering oneself completely to God similar to what the Apostle Paul says, It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me. In context, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:21). Likely Molinos 17th century borrowed from already famed Saint John of the Cross 16th century. Although, if Fr Molinos extracted bits and pieces from the Mystical Doctor, as indicated by Ms Beutner he added his own misleading doctrine leading to Quietism. What then does the layman or priest do if wanting to deepen their spiritual life via prayer, specifically contemplation of God? Beginners start with meditation of the life of Christ particularly the Passion. Now all of us are called to contemplation. Everyone. What I’ve taught parishioners for decades with success. Any devout Christian does this in different forms, for Catholics notably after Communion in silent adoration [certainly for the beginner including images of Christ, Our Lady, vocals prayers]. During the pandemic and bereft of the Eucharist many did exactly the same at home somewhere alone and in silence. That’s how we start. What distinguishes real contemplation of Our Lord, this silent dialogue in which God speaks to the soul in language beyond our comprehension is, again as noted by Ms Beutner the increased desire to live charitably, and if I may add a fiery desire to beseech, sacrifice, and offer suffering for the salvation of others.

  3. Is it standard orthodox Catholic spirituality to transcend sexual temptations instead of using will power to suppress or repress them? Transcending temptations does NOT mean failure to fight temptations. Normally, even saints have stated that avoiding brute will power with reliance on grace should be the preferred method, especially in the case of sexual temptations. The standard practice even in Garrigou-Lagrange’s Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, moderator of Pope John Paul II’s doctoral thesis on the nature of faith at the then Angelicum of the Dominicans in Rome, is to use diversions, but this implies repression and neurosis in contemporary psychology as described in the standard psychology textbook used at Gregorian University by Hilgard et al of Stanford University, voted by 50% of US professors of psychology as the best in the United States. It does people great harm to repeat a standard critique which is internally logically contradictory. It is logically impossible for Almighty God to contradict Himself. If I am mistaken, let me know why and let me withdraw this fraternal correction.

    • Precisely. What is better: avoid the occasions of sin, or come close to the sin, fighting desperately to resist it? Obviously, it is the first. And then there’s a higher level of holiness where the conflict/avoidance paradigm is abandoned as unnecessary, because the desire to sin has completely left the soul. This is the glory of the Saints.

      The author has a problem with the word “mindfulness”. How about let’s use more familiar words, such as Prudence and Wisdom. A prudent person, a wise person, filled with anxieties and neuroses, in self-examination and knows their own condition, will sit down quietly and in silence each day for a few moments, clearing a space in their soul so that they may receive Christ fully, without distraction or reservation.

  4. Thank you – for the concise explanation of the wisdom in The Church with regard to Origen that also explains well the caution with regards to the writings of some other mystics as well .
    We also know that as The Light dawns brighter , some of the confusion can get lifted , as has been in the case of writings of St.Faustina .

    The time and care being taken with regard to some of the writings of the Divine Will revelations also thus easy to accept , while being grateful for the parts of same that has been approved – such as the 24 hour Passion meditations . Interestingly the latter can be helpful to have more appreciation for the writings in the Diary of St.Faustina .

    Sharing the above since much of what persons are seeking in our times is likely contained in such . July as month of Precious Blood and The Church has already been blessed to celebrate two great related Feasts – that of St.Thomas and of Maria Goretti , on The Truth of the sacred destiny of the body which is what the enemy has managed to damage to a great extent , esp. in pagan faiths with lies such as of reincarnation .
    Interesting too that the tombs of the two saints respectively in Ortona and Nettuno are like at two ends of a line across Italy as though to point more vividly to the mission of The Church , of the need of our times – to be in the run to bring The Precious Blood to help deliver nations and persons from what the enemy was about to unleash , esp. in thoughts of despair against the value in suffering in the body united to that of The Lord .
    Came across an interview of the superior of a congregation of discalced Carmelites who mentioned without embarrassment , on their practice of bodily penances ; the experience of those who visited the congregation also noteworthy – the sense of warmth , love and peace that pervaded there and good possibility that both aspects are well linked . The practice of doing such penance for the spiritual needs of others , for ‘the wards ‘ – girls who were cared by the Congregation is mentioned in the Diary of St.Faustina as well .

    The Passion meditations give a deeper insight as to how such get converted into occasions of loving The Lord and others as well .

    The mediations including yoga and other such related ones with its potential for harm and unholy soul ties as warned by exorcists – hope that the caution mentioned in the article would help many to look for good alternatives .
    Such could include the simpler adoption of the Passion meditations and good spiritual readings along with some penitential practices – for its rewards to be far greater in lasting blessings for many more , thus be a just and prudent use of time .

    https://www.ignatius.com/Eternity-in-the-Midst-of-Time-P3159.aspx – time as well as memories as precious blessings to be brought to The Lord again and again – to become occasions of gratitude in His Love and Holiness – may The Spirit bless us all in same !

  5. It should be FURTHER emphasized that the consensus among saints is that if the main fight against sexual temptations is with the use of will power instead of reliance on the grace of God, preferably in contemplation, the normal result is UNNECESSARY STRENGTHENING of such temptations. According to Fathers of the Church such as St. Thomas Aquinas, the thorn in St Paul’s flesh was temptations against the sixth and ninth commandments. Even St. Paul could not got rid of them by simply fighting with the will or just willing to do so. He needed to “fight” in a broader sense by relying on grace or strength from Jesus when he was weak. St. Augustine has transcended or “fought successfully” sexual temptations by becoming aware of God Who is closer to St. Augustine than St. Augustine is close to himself. In other words, in the deepest centre of the soul, as St. John of the Cross maintains, there can be a loving, general awareness of God, which makes the soul God by participation. It is like the Sun of Justice shining through the transparent glass of the soul – with the soul having a different nature from God and the soul passively letting through the Light of God with transcendence of a limited self experience. Passive contemplation, as St. John of the Cross also maintains, leads to a stronger union with God than active contemplation. What can be logically contradictory is to maintain the position that sexual temptations must always be fought mainly with will power while also maintaining that the actual consensus of the saints that transcending sexual temptations with stability implies the continual surrender of the soul in grace, especially in passive contemplation. The second option stresses that it is always the grace of God that gives the soul strength to surrender to God, the Absolute Goodness, in the “fight” to transcend temptations. The more we rely on will power, the weaker the transcendence of temptations through grace, the more we rely on the power of God, the stronger such transcendance. In line with St. Thomas Aquinas, such an insight or knowledge leads to the will to choose to surrender to grace. Without such knowledge or understanding, the use of will power is without sufficient reason and will fail.

    • Joe Tsang, a very excellent commentary. In correspondence another scholarly review, “Contemplation is an important aspect of our prayer and spiritual life. In this state, our prayer becomes more affective and more passive because God takes over the prayer. Here we will also be transformed into a new person and will be able to experience peace and love totally and completely. Therefore, without the grace of contemplation we will never make progress in virtue and the spiritual life, or we will never entirely escape from our weaknesses and imperfections. Considering the importance of contemplation, the purpose of this study is to examine the teaching of St. John of the Cross on contemplation. For John, contemplation means ‘infused contemplation.’ This description seems very abstract, but according to Kieran Kavanaugh, ‘What John means by infused contemplation is that the loving knowledge is communicated directly to the spirit, without particular images and ideas as means'” (St. John of the Cross’ teaching on Contemplation Tibur HELI).

      • Thanks, Fr. Morello. Correction: According to the Doctors of the Church such as St. Thomas Aquinas… (St. Thomas is not a Father of the Church). Apologies.

  6. With no printed material available at church, I have found during this whole pandemic junk that closing my eyes for the entire mass is very rewarding, you can listen to the music and clearly hear the liturgy, homily and consecration of the host, smell the incense and burning candles and even identify individuals by how they say “Amen”. This all without the distraction of looking for who is wearing their masks properly, socially distancing, coughing, etc. – or seeing who is looking at you for blowing your nose. Outward visual queues of fear over faith has changed us all.

  7. This is part 1 of a series. I look forward to more. This article, for me, is a Traditionalists must. I’m a Traditionalist, and this writing style is one of the major aspects of the Faith we need for guidance.

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