VATICAN CITY: EASTERN prayer and meditation, while having positive elements, "is not free from dangers and errors" harmful to Catholic spirituality, said a Vatican document approved by Pope John Paul II.
Because of the growing interest in Eastern methods among Catholics, there is an "urgent need" to define the elements of prayer essential for Christianity in any fusion with techniques borrowed from Buddhism and Hinduism, said the document, a letter to the world's Catholic bishops.
Eastern methods were defined as Zen, transcendental meditation and yoga. Also criticized were some of the physical exercises associated with them.
The document said it also was a reference point "in a more general way, for the different forms of prayer practiced nowadays in ecclesial organisations, particularly in associations, movements and groups."
The document was issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, congregation head. The document is titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation."
Christian prayer is defined "as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God." "It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privausm which is incapable of free openness to the transcendental God," it said. Interest in Eastern meditation is a positive sign that people are looking for spiritual fulfillment, the letter said.
But "proposals to harmonize Christian meditations with Eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thoroughgoing examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism," it added.
Syncretism is the merging of different religious beliefs into a new belief.
Some Eastern meditation forms "do not hesitate to place the absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ," the document said.
"They make use of a 'negative theology' which transcends every affirmation seeking to express what God is and denies that the things of this world can offer traces of the infinity of God," it added.
"Thus they propose abandoning not only meditation on the salvific works accomplished in history by the God of the Old and New Covenant, but also the very idea of the one and triune God," it said.
Some physical exercises and body postures can aid prayer, but are not to be confused with spiritual experiences even if they produce the "phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being," it said.
Such a confusion can lead to "a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations," it said.
"It can degenerate into a cult of the body and can lead surreptitiously to considering all bodily sensations as spiritual experiences," it said.
The document praised the Jesus Prayer, in which a religious saying is repeated in synchronization with the natural rhythm of breathing.
The Jesus Prayer "can at least for a certain time, be of real help to many people" it said.
A Christian mystic's "method of getting closer to God is not based on any technique in the strict sense of the word," the document said.
"Genuine Christian mysticism has nothing to do with technique: it is always a gift of God," it said. Despite the shortcomings of Eastern methods, "neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian," said the document.
"One can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian concept of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured," it said.
The document did not mention any Catholic groups, individuals or practices that improperly fuse Eastern methods with Christian spirituality.
In a 1985 book-length interview called 'The Ratzinger Report," however, Cardinal Ratizinger complained of Eastern spiritual methods replacing Christian ones among Religious. "In many religious houses (of both men and women) the cross has at times given up its place to symbols of the Asiatic religious tradition. In some places the previous devotions have also dissappeared in order to make way for yoga or Zen techniques," he said in the book. (Universe)
The Catholic News, February 18, 1990, page 1