“Jesus Optional” Spirituality

By The Venerable Dr. Christopher Brown

“Centering Prayer”
In the summer of 1983, I was living at General Seminary in New York City, when a Trappist monk named Thomas Keating offered a course on a type of Christian meditation called “Centering Prayer.” I could not attend, since I was daily commuting to St. Luke’s Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for a program called “Clinical Pastoral Education.” But I was intrigued by what I heard from those who took the course.

Before coming to faith in Christ, I spent years exploring Hindu and Buddhist forms of meditation. After becoming a Christian I often wondered how much of that experience was transferrable to a Christian context. “Centering Prayer” sounded like it was similar, while also grounded in the Christian tradition. So I read a couple of books on the subject.

I gave it a try. It came easily because of my prior experience with meditation. Every day on returning from the hospital I would sit quietly in the seminary oratory before the Blessed Sacrament; I would close my eyes and recite my prayer word.

“Is Jesus optional?”
Then one day a thought occurred to me. How was this effort to focus on the presence of God related to the Gospel—that is, to its story about very particular saving events in space and time? In what sense did it flow from the Incarnation of the eternal Son, and to the work that Christ accomplished on the Cross? To what extent was it determined by the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? How did it relate to the sacraments?

Thomas Keating has offered thoughtful answers to these questions. Fr. Keating is a committed Christian monk; he prays the Daily Office; he is schooled in theology, and immersed in the sacramental life of the Church. He intentionally seeks to integrate “Centering Prayer” into a biblical and sacramental framework. In his book, Intimacy with God, Fr. Keating writes,

Centering Prayer….is Trinitarian in its source. Its focus is Christological. It establishes us in a deepening relationship
with Christ. Begun in Lecto Divina (the prayerful reading of scripture) and other devotions and especially in the sacraments, our relationship with Christ moves to new depths and to new levels of intimacy as we grow in the practice of Centering Prayer.

But what if one were to strip away the biblical narrative, the creeds and the sacraments, what would be the effect on this non-discursive “being in the presence” sort of prayer? Does one need to believe in Jesus to pray this way? If one did not believe in Jesus Christ, would this form of prayer bring a person to a saving faith in Jesus? Is faith in Jesus an essential aspect of this sort of prayer -- or is it “optional”? And does that matter? After twenty five years I am still asking that question.

“Walking a Sacred Path”
In the late 1990s a friend of mine returned from San Francisco in a state of high excitement. He had “walked the Labyrinth” on the floor of Grace Cathedral. He was a artistically-inclined adult in his late thirties. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he no longer attended church, but he retained an authentic spiritual yearning. The Labyrinth offered a spiritual avenue that seemed to him to be a perfect fit.

This was the first I had heard of the Labyrinth and its use as a “spiritual tool.” In the past decade, “walking the Labyrinth” has become increasingly popular, both in mainline churches as well as in the rather diffuse world of “New Age Spirituality.”

A labyrinth is a geometric pattern that inscribes a single path leading circuitously to its center. Advocates of the Labyrinth stress its ancient and cross-cultural character. An ancient labyrinth has been found in Crete (where Theseus encountered the Minotaur in an underground labyrinth in Greek mythology). A number of medieval European churches and cathedrals have labyrinths laid into their stone floors, the most well-known of which is at Chartres Cathedral in France, and is the prototype for the popular labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

In recent years, the use of the Labyrinth has become a sort of walking meditation that is said to quiet the mind and integrate body and spirit. Advocates claim that to walk the Labyrinth is to “rediscover of a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.” Its winding path has been described as “a mirror for where we are in our lives,” and the “symbolic pilgrimage” towards its goal at the center as a way of “ascending toward salvation or enlightenment.”

But is it Christian?

One can certainly appreciate how the task of staying focused on the path of the Labyrinth might quiet the mind. One can understand how the renunciation of a direct route to the center in favor of the circuitous path might foster an attitude of patient openness. A person could certainly walk the Labyrinth while reciting a psalm or the Lord’s Prayer, praying extemporaneously, or simply walking in an attitude of silent receptivity to the triune God.

But again, what if one did not bring any explicit Christian intention to one’s pilgrimage though the Labyrinth? Some have said that this is precisely the beauty of the Labyrinth; it is cross-cultural and inter-religious – anyone can do it. Advocates speak of the Labyrinth as “an archetype, a divine imprint,” which points to its supposed universal character, rooted in what the psychologist, Carl Jung, called “the Collective Unconscious.” They speak of walking the Labyrinth as an opportunity to reconcile and transcend religious differences. But if this is the case, what is distinctly “Christian” about it?

Gnosticism Old and New
Much of the language used by enthusiasts of the Labyrinth is strikingly “Gnostic.” Gnosticism was a 2nd century movement on the periphery of the early Church that shifted the focus of salvation from the atoning death and resurrection of Christ to the attainment of spiritual self-knowledge, and the rediscovery of one’s own inner divinity. There were both Christian Gnostics and non-Christian Gnostics, but the telling fact is that they both believed the same things. They differed only in so far as Christian Gnostics had adapted Christian imagery to the Gnostic program. For Christian Gnostics, Jesus was a teacher of wisdom, similar to the Buddha, and the biblical narrative – including the crucifixion and resurrection – was merely a collection of metaphors pointing to the journey of inward self-discovery. In this emphasis on divine self-knowledge, Gnosticism was the original form of “Jesusoptional” religion.

The moment Jesus becomes optional to any religious practice or system of belief – the moment he becomes interchangeable with any number of other seminal religious figures, or simply is no longer essential to salvation – at that point one is no longer speaking about the Jesus of the New Testament. With Jesus Christ it is all or nothing; this is the inescapable conclusion of such passages as Acts 4:12 (“there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”), or John 14:6 (“No one comes to the Father except through me”). But exclusive claims about Jesus are not dependent on isolated proof texts; they are
grounded in the basic pattern and structure of the Gospel message. Christian salvation:

  • is not so much about our journey to God, as His coming to us,
  • not so much the discovering our true self, as acquiring a new identity in Christ,
  • not so much about spiritual knowledge, as about forgiveness and reconciliation,
  • not so much about what we do to attain enlightenment, but about what God has done in Jesus to
  • restore us to fellowship with Himself.

Christians should be wary of any form of prayer that is not rooted in the saving work of Jesus. A practice of spiritual inwardness and self-discovery to which the fact of the cross and resurrection of Christ is peripheral at best may bring with it certain psycho-spiritual benefits, but it is not Christian prayer. While a Christian may certainly “walk the Labyrinth” in prayerful manner, I am not convinced that at its core the Labyrinth has anything to do with the Gospel, while at the same time it has clearly been assimilated into the Gnostic tendency of much contemporary spirituality.

One should also be skeptical of claims that “walking the Labyrinth” is the recovery of an ancient Christian practice. It is not clear what the function of medieval labyrinths may have been, apart from ornamentation. Even the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, one of the leading advocates of the Labyrinth, admits that there are no historical records of anyone “walking the Labyrinth” in the medieval period, nor do any Christian writers of the time refer to it.

The Prayer of the Heart
I affirm the contemplative aspect of Christian prayer. We can be much too “chatty” with God, and if we fail to quiet ourselves from time to time and just listen, we end up talking to ourselves and, ironically, shutting God out. Over the years I have benefited by learning to be still and wait upon God. The key to this sort of “waiting” or “listening” prayer, is to recognize that it is not a “technique.” It is a way to relate ourselves in a personal manner to the Living God, on the basis of our baptismal incorporation into Christ.

Despite reservations about “Centering Prayer,” I am thus prepared to give it a pass, so long as its use is firmly grounded in a biblical and sacramental context. Apart from these things, the practice of Centering Prayer can drift into an unfocused spiritual inwardness in which Jesus is – again – optional.

In place of “Centering Prayer,” I prefer the Eastern Orthodox practice called the “Prayer of the Heart” which involves the repetition of the Jesus Prayer. The simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” may be repeated in its entirety or it can be simplified; but it always involves invocation of the name, “Jesus.” Bishop Kallistos Ware has said that this prayer lends itself both to “free use,” in which it is repeated in the course of the day, as well as “formal” use in a manner similar to “Centering Prayer,” when one sits still and repeats the prayer silently within the heart with the movement of one’s breath. The virtue of the Jesus Prayer is that it is fundamentally personal. It is the simple invocation of the name of Jesus. Yet it also retains explicit biblical content; its brief formula sums up the Gospel message of mercy and forgiveness through the cross. To pray the Jesus Prayer is always to speak directly to Jesus, and to deal what he has done for us. When you pray in this manner, Jesus is never “optional.”


Published in the Fall 2010 issue of The Albany Episopalian

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