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Monday, May 13, 2013

Christian prayer is much more than Eastern meditation

by Connie Rossini

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Prayer (1865) (cropped).jpg
The Prayer by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

A few years ago at Mass in another diocese, the priest began a homily on the importance of daily prayer. I was elated. We hear this far too seldom from the pulpit. My elation soon turned to disappointment, however. He talked about being aware of the world around you, and your own thoughts and feelings. Shockingly, he didn’t mention God at all! I realized the priest (apparently without knowing it) was not really advocating prayer, but a Buddhist-inspired form of meditation.

Both Christians and Buddhists use the term “meditation,” so it’s no wonder sincere people confuse the practices of the separate religions. But they are quite different.

Christian meditation centers on Christ


In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II noted that Buddhists seek to free themselves from the world, while Christians seek freedom from sin, through God’s grace, in order to be united with Him. Eastern meditation might relieve stress, but it cannot save souls.
Doctor of Prayer St. Teresa of Avila gives us further insight, when she writes in the 1st chapter of Interior Castle :

“If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer.”

In other words, true prayer recognizes how small and sinful we are and how great God is, and addresses itself towards Him. Eastern forms of meditation are not addressed to anyone.  The question of God’s existence and character doesn’t come into play.

Prayer’s purpose is union with God


Front Cover

Christian prayer is communication with God. The conversation we have in prayer goes both ways. In fact, God’s action during prayer is more important than our words, thoughts, or feelings.  Prayer is a search for God, who promises, “You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13-14). As the Song of Songs envisions it, prayer is the Beloved seeking the One who loves her. This seeking (and finding!) is the purpose of our lives. You and I were made for intimate union with God. God is love, and He invites us to share in the very love that unites the Holy Trinity. The means to this union is prayer.

Union with God unfolds in stages. When we first start praying, we have to work hard to focus on God, to meditate on (that is, ponder) His goodness, and to worship Him. Faithfulness to prayer and to God’s will opens the door to the gift of contemplation, when God secretly transforms us and draws us closer to Himself. The early stages of prayer are concerned with seeking, the later stages with finding.

Non-Christian meditation aims too low. It cannot fulfill our longing for eternal love. Do not be afraid to lift your sights higher. Do not be afraid to seek the face of God in prayer!

Share with us: How have you or others around you misunderstood the purpose of Christian prayer? What insights from your own growth in prayer can you share?

This was originally posted at Contemplative Homeschool.


  1. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of what it means to pray. I love the Jeremiah quote. One of my favorite translations, from NABRE, says "Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me." It conjures up images of playing hide-and-seek with little children. If they try to find me, I try to place myself somewhere where they will find me. I think God wants that same relationship.

    1. Thanks for commenting. You're right, in relationship to God we're like little children--but I never thought of that verse in just they way you mentioned. Great image!

  2. Wonderful article, Connie and so You know what is hilarious?

    Protestants think that Catholics are open to the occult by praying to Mary and the Saints and wonder if we are even saved! I think that often FEAR of the devil and deception is stronger than trust in God's Mercy and Grace. Fear freezes us, often preventing the inner journey. If we are honestly seeking more of Him, He will bring us into the light, he WILL lead us into all truth.

    I once attended a retreat where a Maddona House priest, actually Archbishop Raya, the Archbishop of Lebanon, once said.

    "Don't be afraid of making mistakes because Jesus will wash you clean and then tell you to go play again. He does not say stand in the corner and don't you DARE get dirty again. Just like a mother, who bathes a dirty child and the tells him to go play once more."

    1. I agree that we need to be careful, but not worried. So much of the spiritual life is learning how to let go!

      Your last paragraph is a good paraphrase of what I told my boys D and M this morning in our study of forgiveness. God didn't tell the sinful woman, "This is the last time I'm forgiving you!" but he did tell her, "Go, and sin no more."

    2. Melanie, I love the Archbishop's words, especially the part about going out to play again. I often imagine the spiritual journey as one of surfing on the ocean of God's love. It's a playful image.

  3. Powerful words that your kids will never forget.I could weep as I relax into His love

  4. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I love your pointing out that non-Christian meditation aims too low. Amen! "It cannot fulfill our longing for eternal love." For eternal love is He.

    1. I know this is dear to your heart as well, Nancy. May all our deepest longings be fulfilled!

  5. This is a really good article on the difference between Eastern and Christian prayer. I think many people get into New Age and eastern meditation because they are searching for God and don't know it. How much of this is our fault? Do we speak about prayer, what it is, to Whom we pray, why we pray? Can it be that we are failing to witness, even in our own parishes? Our Catholic Catechism provides much good information we can meditate on and pass on to others.

    1. Whoops! In the last sentence I meant to say, "much good information on prayer."

  6. Thanks, Barb, And you're right: people are searching for God, for eternal love, and they're not finding it in the Church because they don't even know the Church offers it! They don't know the Church's mystic traditions, and they often confuse them with Zen, etc. We should be hearing about prayer regularly, as it is a major theme in the Bible and the Catechism.

  7. As a Buddhist, I think you have identified the central difference between the Christian and Buddhist approaches.

    As my Tibetan meditation teacher explained it to me, a Christian approach is like looking and then seeing. Christian meditation looks for god and then sees or experiences god. The Buddhist approach, on the other hand, is like seeing, then looking. It begins with less preconception about what will come of the practice. A Buddhist simply meditates to see what is -- and then, seeing what is, the Buddhist looks further to understand. For example, the Fourth Dalai Lama in explaining the Four Noble Truths said that the first noble truth (the truth of suffering) is like walking down the street and being hit with a bucket of cold water. That is seeing -- an immediate experience. The second noble truth (the cause of suffering) is like turning to where the water came from and identifying the source. That is looking.

    In a practical example, one might experience a painful emotion in meditation -- such as anger or jealousy. Then, by looking, the meditator comes to understand the nature of the emotion, what causes it, where it dwells, what it is made of, and where it goes. From that gradually comes some familiarity and then some insight or wisdom. One might see, for example, that the emotion is very intense -- but not solid. And, if one can be still enough and not react to the emotion and look deeply enough, one might find that beneath anger is a shakiness -- a sadness that is a basis for developing kindness toward yourself and compassion for others.

    If one were a Christian, practicing through prayer, one could certainly have a similar experience. But one might attribute the experience of love and compassion as a gift from god. Since we are all humans and both traditions seek truth, there are parallels. For example, the Buddhist concept of Trikaya (a process of awakeness manifesting from mind to speech to body) has parallels to the Christian trinity. This doesn't mean that the two are the same.

    I don't think it is very helpful to blend the two traditions. But there is room for dialog between the two. I do think that we can appreciate each other and, perhaps, even draw inspiration from each other.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am glad to hear that you think I got the difference between Buddhist and Christian meditation right. I agree completely with what you said about dialog. We can appreciate each other's traditions, but not blend them. So many Christians try to blend them without even understanding the differences--or they reject anything with the word "meditation," thinking it must be Buddhist. I have great respect for people of other religions who know and can explain their beliefs in a reasoned and non-combative manner.


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