Wednesday, 17 June 2015


The ever more frequent contact with other religions and with their different styles and methods of prayer has, in recent decades, led many of the faithful to ask themselves what value non-Christian forms of meditation might have for Christians. Above all, the question concerns eastern methods.1 Some people today turn to these methods for therapeutic reasons.
1. The expression "eastern methods" is used to refer to methods which are inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, such as "Zen," "Transcendental Meditation" or "Yoga." Thus it indicates methods of meditation of the non-Christian Far East.

- Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation
I’ve been intrigued by “eastern methods” for a while, myself; I was before I came into the Catholic Church. Way back, I decided it was best to err on the side of caution and leave it on the side. I haven’t really changed my mind since then, but I’ve been looking into such things again in light of the aforementioned therapeutic reasons, so I thought I might blog on it.

There’s a programme I’ve looked into put together by psychologists but based on eastern methods; mostly meditation, but a bit of yoga too. Here, the yoga is used not purely as physical exercise, but for meditation, to practise awareness of the body, especially discomfort. Yoga’s linked to Hinduism, but its precise origins aren’t so clear. Taken as it comes, with all of its philosophy and spirituality, it’s really obviously incompatible with Christianity, leaving the slightly knottier question of whether it’s ok to do the physical bit with a polite “No, thank you” to the rest. The programme doesn’t include the use of any mantras, so I wasn’t considering that.

The first thing to say is that you will search in vain for an outright condemnation of, or ban on, yoga at an official level (plenty of people confuse statements by Bishops with “the Church” though). Two of the most relevant documents from the Church are the above Aspects of Christian Meditation and Jesus Christ, the bearer of the Water of Life: a Christian reflection on the “New Age”. I haven’t read the second, but I have read the first, which I was pleased to discover was written by a certain Joseph Card. Ratzinger in 1989. It says:
The majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it. Just as "the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,"* neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured. 
* The citation from Nostra Aetate continues as follows: “She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”
Much of the letter deals with the Christian conception of prayer and way of prayer, and with potential errors and dangers. With yoga specifically, probably the most relevant part is ‘Psychological-Corporal Methods’. This warns against a symbolic awareness of the body that “can degenerate into a cult of the body and can lead surreptitiously to considering all bodily sensations as spiritual experiences” and taking mere feelings “for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit [as] a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life”. Here too, however, the conclusion is very open:
That does 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.
Previously, too, with regard to the method of prayer, attention to self and the creation is discussed, with balance:
The emptiness which God requires is that of the renunciation of personal selfishness, not necessarily that of the renunciation of those created things which he has given us and among which he has placed us. There is no doubt that in prayer one should concentrate entirely on God and as far as possible exclude the things of this world which bind us to our selfishness. 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. "I look for his substance in my soul and I do not find it; I have however meditated on the search for God and, reaching out to him, through created things, I have sought to know 'the invisible perfections of God' (Rom 1:20)." "To remain in oneself": this is the real danger.
In January, Pope Francis mentioned yoga merely in passing, in the same breath as catechesis, in fact. He didn’t seem to feel it needed condemning. A 1997 Lineamenta of the The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Oceania talks about yoga as a form of self-improvement and seems to say that it has “acceptable forms”. Blessed Mother Teresa apparently enthused over the work of a priest teaching yoga as a means to delay the onset of AIDS and offered him a building to expand his work; you couldn’t really call Mother Teresa the kind of person who would approve of yoga: she said “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand.” And besides, yoga predates Christianity by about 5 centuries: if the Church hasn’t condemned it en bloc by now, when the hell will it exactly?

So my problem with it is what, exactly? Same as it was before I became a Catholic, I guess. Call it spiritual wussiness or call it prudence: I’ve heard too many bad things about it to be comfortable with it. It’s easy to find bishops, exorcists and assorted spiritual leaders warning against it as well as the inevitable personal testimonies, with cautions ranging from “It’s an occasion for sin that you can do without” all the way to “Yoga poses bind your soul to demons!” (cunningly disguised as Hindu gods). As a helpful article puts it: “Some […] are tempted to find the devil lurking under every yoga mat.” Of course, a great deal of this stuff is at the same level as such articles which warn me that the IHS on suspiciously sun-shaped communion wafers really stands for Isis Horus and Set and consequently a surefire ticket to eternal hellfire.

What gave me a little more pause for thought is the public warning by Fr. Gabriele Amorth, ex-president of the International Association of Exorcists, which made the papers a few years back, probably due mostly to his warning against Harry Potter in the same breath, in reality. From a comment on the forum:
Why is the head exorcist of the Vatican, the head exorcist of the International association of exorcists Fr Gabriel Amorthe, and his successor Fr Fortea, they both have said in interviews and in the books they've written that yoga is demonic and catholics need to stay clear of it completely, and that they are experiencing people with demonic oppression from practicing yoga.
That sounds like quite a good question. Oddly though, despite many such references to the Vatican’s chief exorcist in the papers, neither his English or his Italian Wikipedia pages go beyond calling him “an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome”, which seemed like an oddly coy way of putting it. I was starting to suspect that the media had made up the title, but then I found a piece by famous canon lawyer (yeah, I know) Dr Edward Peters which calls him “the Chief Exorcist”. It’s safe to say that Dr Edwards knows his stuff, which is why it’s telling that the piece is a pretty thorough hatchet job on a book by Fr Amorthe: it makes you a bit hesitant to take him at his word, Chief Exorcist though he may be. So too does the fact that he seems to want to insist that Pope Francis performed an exorcism towards the end of a Pentecost mass in St Peter’s Square, despite the denial of the director of TV2000 and of the Vatican Press Office. Would the Pope really be cool with people just lying on his behalf like that? Hmm.

One especially arresting point in the article that I mentioned earlier was this reference to the Catechism, Life in Christ, “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me”:
2110 The first commandment forbids honoring gods other than the one Lord who has revealed himself to his people. It proscribes superstition and irreligion. Superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion.[...]
2111 Superstition [...] can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.41
I was expecting the reference chosen at footnote 41 to be the one about heaping up empty phrases in prayer (Mt 6:7); it’s not, it’s cf. Mt 23:16-22, among the Woes of Pharisees, about swearing by the gold of the temple and by the gift on the altar. Of course, the context is that of Christian prayer and sacramental signs – things like yoga would appear to be irrelevant here – but the consequences of such a limitation seem a little funny. We can’t worship God in a purely external manner, but other things yes? So who’s in charge, God or the things?

Good grief though. It sounds awfully like my nagging squeamishness about physical positions that may or may not (I’m not even sure I’m interested in finding out now) be connected to Hindu gods is actually a great indicator of my weak faith: giving a kind of perverse honour to them through excessive religiosity in lawful practices, when Jesus is Lord of all and the body was created through Him. Sigh.

I’m not going to join a yoga class any time soon, because I don’t in fact particularly want to, and it seems best not to expose myself pointlessly to alternative spiritualities when I have enough problems with my own. I also certainly don’t want to act as though I’m stronger in my faith than those people who have found their way out of the Church through adherence to other spiritual disciplines: they obviously exist. Still less do I want anyone to take the idea that “Mark is a Catholic, and he thinks yoga is ok” as a green light for adopting a spirituality in opposition to Christianity. But it seems that on balance I have been I have been Foolish and Deluded and a Bear of No Brain At All to worry about it so much from a purely formal perspective. Probably time to have another look at Romans 14.