Friday, November 23, 2007

Centering Prayer, Fr. M. Basil Pennington, Tarot Cards, & East-West Religious Syncretism

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Fr. M. Basil Pennington (1931-2005) / Tarot Cards / Fr. Thomas Keating (b. 1923)

All of this inquiry came about as a result of part of my new duties at my new job with the Coming Home Network. I answer some of the "difficult" questions that come in. In this particular instance, someone asked about a show that featured Clare McGrath Merkle: a critic of centering prayer. See the audio files of her appearances on The Journey Home [link] and also The Abundant Life, with Johnnette Benkovic (one / two / three); see also many EWTN audio files on the topic of a Catholic view of the New Age (many by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.).

My correspondent asserted that the late Fr. Pennington's views on centering prayer were misrepresented by Merkle, as incorporating New Age techniques, whereas Fr. Thomas Keating's views were rightly the target of such criticisms. My correspondent also admitted that a lot of what passes for centering prayer (which, she says, is nothing more than a genuine manifestation of the Catholic contemplative prayer tradition) is indeed shot through with an excessive syncretism and mixing of disparate elements. She reiterated that Fr. Pennington (in contrast to these heterodox distortions) was an orthodox Catholic.

I set out to do my research (not knowing much about the topic, going in) so I could offer a substantial answer. My responses show a developing understanding of what I think I found today:

* * * * *

Thanks for your letter. It was forwarded to me, as part of my (recently obtained) job at CHNI is attempting to give answers to the relatively difficult or technical questions that come in. You obviously have a great deal of knowledge about this subject. I can't say that I knew much of anything, myself, about "centering prayer" before this letter (I had at least heard of it). So I had to look around the Internet to see what I could find from other trusted Catholic sources. I did run across an article in This Rock magazine (Nov. 1997 issue), called The Danger of Centering Prayer, by Fr. John D. Dreher. He does not distinguish Pennington from Keating, and is critical of the entire method. Dreher states:
Centering prayer differs from Christian prayer in that the intent of the technique is to bring the practitioner to the center of his own being. There he is, supposedly, to experience the presence of the God who indwells him. Christian prayer, on the contrary, centers upon God in a relational way, as someone apart from oneself. The Christian knows a God who is personal, yet who, as Creator, infinitely transcends his creature. God is wholly other than man. It is also crucial to Christian prayer that God engages man’s whole being in response, not just his interior life. In the view of centering prayer, the immanence of God somehow makes the transcendence of God available to human techniques and experience.

Centering prayer is essentially a form of self-hypnosis. It makes use of a "mantra," a word repeated over and over to focus the mind while striving by one’s will to go deep within oneself. The effects are a hypnotic-like state: concentration upon one thing, disengagement from other stimuli, a high degree of openness to suggestion, a psychological and physiological condition that externally resembles sleep but in which consciousness is interiorized and the mind subject to suggestion. After reading a published description of centering prayer, a psychology professor said, "Your question is, is this hypnosis? Sure it is." He said the state can be verified physiologically by the drop in blood pressure, respiratory rate, lactic acid level in the blood, and the galvanic conductivity of the skin. Abbot Keating relates that, when they began doing the centering prayer workshops in the guest house, some of the monks and guests " complained that it was spooky seeing people walking around the guest house like ‘zombies."’ They recognized the symptoms but could not diagnose the illness.
About Fr. Pennington in particular, he writes:
Centering prayer claims for itself the experience of God, while setting aside external realities and overcoming the "otherness" of God. It takes these characteristics not from Christian tradition but from Hinduism, through the medium of Transcendental Meditation. TM is Hinduism adapted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu guru, for use in a Western cultural setting. Fr. Pennington, one of the authors of centering prayer and an ardent supporter of TM, says, "Mahesh Yogi, employing the terminology of the ancient Vedic tradition, speaks of this [practice of TM] ‘to plunge into deep, deep rest for fifteen or twenty minutes twice a day’ as experiencing the Absolute. The Christian knows by faith that this Absolute is our God of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who dwells in us. When he goes to his deepest self, he finds in himself an image and participation of God, and he finds God himself."

Fr. Pennington approves a Christian’s participation in TM, despite the fact that the introductory ceremony to TM, the Puja, involves worship of a dead Hindu guru and that the mantras given those being initiated are in fact the names of Hindu gods. For a Christian knowingly to participate in TM is a violation of the Second Commandment against false worship.
In the February 1998 issue of the same magazine, letters to the editor about Fr. Dreher's article appear. Ironically, the first one defends Fr. Keating as perfectly orthodox, whereas you would (far as I can tell) disagree with that assessment. But Fr. Dreher's response and the documentation he provides, is, I think, compelling in showing that Fr. Pennington and Fr. Keating have both committed the errors of espousing false belief-systems to a very troubling degree. I cite his response in full:
Fr. John Dreher replies: In the spirit of dialogue, especially with those who have had some involvement with centering prayer, let me highlight the crucial issue: Is centering prayer traditional Catholic contemplative prayer or is it New Age in Christian dress ­or, at least, heavily influenced by the New Age? Some correspondents make reference to the "method" of centering prayer, so I will begin my response in that area. But first let me say that I believe in contemplative prayer. I practice it every day, and I am reasonably well read in Catholic mystical theology.

1. Method. The guidelines for centering prayer bear similarities to traditional contemplation, enough to package it as Catholic contemplation, but are essentially different.

Guideline 1: "Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within." The "sacred word" has an indispensable place within centering prayer (and in Transcendental Meditation, where it is called a "mantra") but is not the heart of the Catholic contemplative tradition. Centering prayer uses the "sacred word" as a focusing device for psychic energies. In Catholic contemplation, when I say or think "Jesus," I intend to relate in a personal way to Jesus. I do not say "love, peace, mercy, silence, stillness, calm, faith, trust," though centering prayer commends them as "sacred words," because these qualities or attributes are not persons. The rosary and the Jesus Prayer, though they undeniably have a calming effect, have a personal and relational content that is primary.

Guideline 2: "Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within." What is the nature of "God’s presence and action within"? I reiterate two points I made in the article about the indwelling of God: that it does not reduce his transcendence or make him accessible by any technique or method, and that we are not to go to God deep within but from deep within.

Guideline 3: "When you become aware of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word." Distractions are a problem not only in contemplative prayer but in daily life as well. A good spiritual director, in Catholic tradition, might offer one of, say, ten different ways to deal with it, depending on the situation. Guideline 3 is a means of deepening the focus of psychic energies and is a hypnotic technique.

What about centering prayer’s fruitfulness in dissipating stress and bringing peace? Many report this outcome. I do not dispute the effect, just the cause. The medieval Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck said there is a form of peace that is purely natural: "When a man is bare and imageless in his senses and empty and idle in his higher powers, he enters into a rest through mere nature . . . without the grace of God. These people err gravely. They immerse themselves in an absolute silence that is purely natural, and a false liberty of spirit is born from this. Having drawn the body in upon itself, they are mute, unmoving. . . . They mistake these types of simplicity for those which are reached through God. In reality they have lost God" (John Ruysbroeck, Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage).

Guideline 4: "At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes." I am not aware of such an instruction in the Catholic contemplative tradition. It is, however, a common place for emerging from a hypnotic state. The examples of St. Teresa, St. Bernadette, the children of Fatima, Padre Pio, and many others who have experienced states of "trance" are not the same, for these are not "acquired contemplation" (accomplished by human effort) but "infused contemplation" in which God has taken the full initiative.

2. New Age? The similarities between centering prayer and Transcendental Meditation are striking. "As an ex-TM mediator," says Fr. Finbarr Flanagan, O.F.M., "I find it hard to see any differences between centering prayer and Transcendental Meditation." Frs. Keating, Menninger, and Pennington authored centering prayer at a time when St. Joseph Abbey had received several retreats involving Eastern religions, including Transcendental Meditation. I cited Fr. Pennington’s praise for the Hindu guru and author of Transcendental Meditation. This involvement in eclecticism has continued. Fr. Pennington has not just attended an e.s.t (Erhard Sensitivity Training) session but has served on its board. Frs. Keating and Pennington gave endorsements, appearing on the dust jacket, for Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey in Christian Hermeticism. The tarot is a deck of cards used in fortune telling. Fr. Keating calls the book "the greatest contribution to date toward the rediscovery and renewal of the Christian contemplative tradition." Fr. Pennington says it is "without doubt the most extraordinary work I have ever read." Amity House, the publisher, is heavily New Age. The Library of Congress has classified the book under "occult sciences" and "cartomancy."
For more on the book about the Tarot, see the article, von Blathasar and the Tarot, by Carl Olson, writing in Ignatius Insight Scoop: the blog of Ignatius Press (an orthodox Catholic publisher). This issue is complicated by the fact that Hans Urs von Balthasar: a highly-regarded theologian (whose works have often been published by Ignatius Press) wrote a Foreword to the book (see excerpts from it). On this same page (discussion portion), Stratford Caldecott, a Catholic writer, who reviewed the book positively in The National Catholic Register, admits it is not totally orthodox, and that von Balthasar had also noted this:
Hi, I am Stratford Caldecott, editor of 'Second Spring' as mentioned above. Carl asked me to jump in. I have to say the intention of our journal is to be as open-minded as we can be from within a total commitment to Catholic truth and the authority of the Church. As background, I am a convert from a New Age sort of background (by which I don't mean the flakier kinds of occultism but simply an interest in mysticism and other religions, that kind of thing). My heroes are Newman, Chesterton, Tolkien, JPII, Ratzinger/Benedict, not to mention various saints - and I count Balthasar as a big influence, though do not regard him as infallible.

I don't have time now to dig out my original review of Tomberg, but will try to do that later if it might be helpful. It is a very rich and stimulating book, but as Balthasar said (in comments largely edited out of the 'Afterword' to the English paperback edition because they sounded too critical) there are certain flaws that need to be borne in mind. It does not appear to be totally orthodox, despite the author's intention. However, the book is not at all to do with 'Tarot' in the sense of divination, but uses the SYMBOLS on the cards as a way into a series of meditations on the Christian and the 'Hermetic' traditions that he is trying to weave together.

The book does raise some big questions. But they are questions worth asking. In my book 'The Seven Sacraments' I found some of Tomberg's insights helpful in relating the sacraments to the Signs and I am sayings in the Gospel of John, etc. - but this is an old medieval custom in any case.

Good luck with this discussion. I know the very word 'Tarot' raises hackles, and that is understandable. But for some people (not everyone) the book can be very helpful, I think.

(April 5, 2007; bolding emphases added)
Another web page offers extensive information on the book, including excerpts. The Foreword of the book would seem to indicate outright advocacy of the practice of Tarot:
On the other hand, there existed in France -- and it still persists -- a continuous tradition of Hermeticism, in which is united a spirit of free research with one of respect for the tradition. The purpose of these Letters therefore will be to 'incarnate' into this tradition, i.e. to become an organic part of it, and in this way to contribute support to it.

"As these Letters are intended only to serve, to sustain, and to support the Hermetic tradition -- from its first appearance in the era of Hermes Trismegistus, lost in the remoteness of antiquity and become legendary -- they are a definite manifestation of this millennial-old current of thought, effort, and revelation. Their aim is not only to revive the tradition in the twentieth century but also, and above all, to immerse the reader (or rather the Unknown Friend) in this current -- be it temporarily or forever. . . . For these are in essence twenty-two spiritual exercises, by means of which you, dear Unknown Friend, will immerse yourself in the current of the living tradition, and thus enter into the community of spirits who have served it and who are still serving it.
Translator Robert Powell writes in a review:
Here it must be said that the author's work does not just connect onto the Hermetic tradition, but rather revivifies it by establishing something new. He has brought into being a new and Christian form of Hermeticism: the birth of Christian Hermeticism is accomplished through these Letters. The reader of the twenty two Letters who works his way through them as meditations can experience that he is on a journey: a journey into Christian Hermeticism.
The excerpt from this book on "Death" (Letter 13) provided on this web page appears to teach the non-Christian belief in reincarnation:
The thirteenth Arcanum of the Tarot is therefore that of the principle of subtraction or death, and is the opposite of the principle of addition or life. It is necessary to subtract the Self from the astral body, the etheric body and the physical body in order to understand the mechanism of forgetting; it is necessary to subtract the Self and the astral body, from the etheric body and the physical body in order to obtain the state of sleep; and it is necessary to subtract the Self, the astral body and the etheric body from the physical body in order to obtain the corpse, i.e. the fact of death. These three degrees of subtraction in their totality constitute the process of excarnation, just as the corresponding three degrees of addition constitute the totality of the process of incarnation. For incarnation is the addition of an astral body to the Self, the addition of an etheric body to the astral body and the Self, and lastly the addition of a physical body to the etheric body, the astral body and the Self.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church flatly rejects reincarnation:
1013 Death is the end of man's earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When "the single course of our earthly life" is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: "It is appointed for men to die once." There is no "reincarnation" after death.
The meditation from the book, "The High Priestess" (Letter 2) strikes me as rather bizarre, from an orthodox Catholic standpoint:
The re-birth from Water and Spirit which the Master indicates to Nicodemus is the re-establishment of the state of consciousness prior to the Fall, where the Spirit was divine Breath and where this Breath was reflected by virginal Nature. This is Christian yoga. Its aim is not "radical deliverance" (mukti), i.e. the state of consciousness without breath and without reflection, but rather "baptism from Water and the Spirit", which is the complete and perfect response to divine action. These two kinds of baptism bring about the reintegration of the two constituent elements of consciousness as such ­ the active element and the passive element. There is no consciousness without these two elements, and the suppression of this duality by means of a practical method such as that inspired by the ideal of unity (advaita ­ non-duality) must necessarily lead to the extinction not of being but rather of consciousness. Then this would not be a new birth of consciousness, but instead would be its return to the pre-natal embryonic cosmic state.

. . . Christian yoga does not aspire directly to unity, but rather to the unity of two. This is very important for understanding the standpoint which one takes towards the infinitely serious problem of unity and duality. For this problem can open the door to truly divine mysteries and can also close them to us...for ever, perhaps, who knows? Everything depends on its comprehension. We can decide in favour of monism and say to ourselves that there can be only one sole essence, one sole being. Or we can decide ­ in view of considerable historical and personal experience ­ in favour of dualism and say to ourselves that there are two principles in the world; good and evil, spirit and matter, and that , entirely incomprehensible though this duality is at root, it must be admitted as an incontestable fact. WE can, moreover, decide in favour of a third point of view, namely that of love as the cosmic principle which presupposes duality and postulates its non-substantial but essential unity.

These three points of view are found at the basis of the Vedanta (advaita) and Spinozism (monism), Manichaeism and certain gnostic schools (dualism), and the Judaeo-Christian current (love).
The Vatican document: Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the "New Age" does indeed (as you allude to) provide a very helpful Christian treatment of the general subject. It includes sections on hermeticism and anthroposophy:
Hermeticism: philosophical and religious practices and speculations linked to the writings in the Corpus Hermeticum, and the Alexandrian texts attributed to the mythical Hermes Trismegistos. When they first became known during the Renaissance, they were thought to reveal pre-Christian doctrines, but later studies showed they dated from the first century of the christian era. Alexandrian hermeticism is a major resource for modern esotericism, and the two have much in common: eclecticism, a refutation of ontological dualism, an affirmation of the positive and symbolic character of the universe, the idea of the fall and later restoration of mankind. Hermetic speculation has strengthened belief in an ancient fundamental tradition or a so-called philosophia perennis falsely considered as common to all religious traditions. The high and ceremonial forms of magic developed from Renaissance Hermeticism.

Anthroposophy: a theosophical doctrine originally popularised by the Croat Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who left the Theosophical Society after being leader of its German branch from 1902 to 1913. It is an esoteric doctrine meant to initiate people into “objective knowledge” in the spiritual-divine sphere. Steiner believed it had helped him explore the laws of evolution of the cosmos and of humanity. Every physical being has a corresponding spiritual being, and earthly life is influenced by astral energies and spiritual essences. The Akasha Chronicle is said to be a “cosmic memory” available to initiates.
At this point (though I would like to study the issue further), I would be very wary of this book, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey in Christian Hermeticism, as it appears to cross the line between looking for elements in non-Christian and heterodox Christian religious belief-systems that are true (a fully Catholic practice, and one highly stressed at Vatican II) and outright advocacy of those practices, which involves contradiction to Catholic doctrine and metaphysical philosophy. Fr. Pennington's extreme praise of the book indicates to me that he has also (though not necessarily) blurred this distinction. Stratford Caldecott, editor of Second Spring: A Journal of Faith & Culture, positively reviewed the book, but also admitted that it was not "totally orthodox."

I'll let you make up your own mind as to the materials I have presented. It has made me very curious, myself. We want to avoid the two poles of conspiratorialism and "guilt by association" on one hand and laxity in doctrinal orthodoxy out of a desire for conciliation and ecumenism and a certain level of permissible syncretism, on the other.

* * *

Clare McGrath Merkle (or an unmentioned person; it's not clear) wrote an article entitled "Centering Prayer: Catholic Meditation or Occult Meditation?" This appeared in The Contemplative Prayer Online magazine. The writer provides a bit of documented argumentation in that piece.

Of related interest is an article by Margaret A. Feaster, that was published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review: "A Closer Look at Centering Prayer" (October 2004: pp. 26-31, 44-46). This article contains an abundance of information and critiques both Fr. Pennington and Fr. Keating. That means that two major, respected, orthodox Catholic magazines hold to the same view of the difficulties in Fr. Pennington's and Fr. Keating's opinions. EWTN also agrees, since it has on its site the critiques of Clare McGrath Merkle, on two of its shows (including The Journey Home). This is not insignificant.

Yet another article mentions a Vatican document spearheaded by then Cardinal Ratzinger (the present pope), Centering Prayer Meets the Vatican, by Dan DeCelles. This originally appeared in New Heaven / New Earth, April 1990, and is reprinted, like Feaster's article, on the Catholic Culture website. The author notes:
Although Some Aspects of Christian Meditation does not single out any persons or schools of thought by name, many of its warnings apply to the centering- prayer literature, including the writings of Abbot Keating and his spiritual disciple Father Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. Both have backgrounds in Eastern meditation methods and cite those experiences favorably as instructive for today's Christians.
That's not to say that I would necessarily think either man is a raving dissenter, deliberately out to subvert Catholic doctrine. That doesn't follow at all. But there are difficulties here of advocacy of questionable practices and beliefs and a thin line between Catholic doctrine and heterodox hermetic beliefs that cannot be squared with Catholic doctrine. This is why we have the magisterium: to guide us and show us if we are being led astray, whether inadvertently or not, and whether the ones erring may have the very best of intentions and not be aware that they are doing anything questionable, let alone wrong.

That said, I just found an interview in the What is Enlightenment? Magazine, where Fr. Pennington advocates a female priesthood:
WIE: In my talk with Father Panteleimon, he went on to assert that this seemingly discriminatory aspect of the Christian tradition ­the Twelve Apostles and the priests all being male ­is in fact inspired and sanctioned by God "Himself," and that allowing the tradition to be toyed with by misguided reformers who want to ordain women can only have disastrous consequences. But some liberal voices within the Catholic Church, such as yours, insist that traditional Christianity's attitude toward women is not sanctioned by God but has its roots in the patriarchal ambience of the Church's early history and now can be modified to suit our more socially enlightened times.

BP: You know, our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is a very sharp person, and I wonder if he wasn't sending that very message to the Church and his people when he spoke on this a couple of years ago. According to Catholic belief, you know, he has the power to speak infallibly, but very rarely has it ever been invoked. And when people have tried to push him to speak infallibly about this particular subject, as well as about other things, he's always refused ­so that's already a message. But it was even more significant to me that two weeks after his very sweet apology for the way his predecessors had treated Galileo, in which he said publicly that they had failed because they'd taken the scriptures too literally, he spoke out against this question of ordaining women, himself explicitly arguing, just as Father Panteleimon does ­from a very literal interpretation of scripture ­that this male-only priesthood is simply the way it's always been and always will be. Now, again, he's a sharp man and I don't think he was missing that. I think he was sending a message that said, in effect, "Just as they were too sure about Galileo back then, we're a little too sure about this thing now. Just wait around, boys, and you'll see." In other words, I think that by using the very same arguments he himself had said were wrong in the Galileo case, he was saying to us, "Hey, this could change, too!" And not only that it could change but that it will!
Shortly afterwards, he waffles on the question of homosexuality and claims that we are all (in some sense) bisexual:
WIE: Continuing in this vein, in our time there are also many people who view their own experience of gender or sexual preference as the very basis of their spiritual path. For example, there are women who worship the Goddess; there are men who champion a distinctly male spirituality; and there are many gays and lesbians who regard their sexual orientation as requiring unique forms of practice and worship. In fact, some advocates of a distinctly "gay spirituality" have even suggested that because the male and female polarities are theoretically more fully integrated and balanced in homosexuals, theirs is an inherently superior form of spiritual practice. For all of these individuals, gender and sexuality are seen as central to the path and as giving rise to fundamentally different paths for men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals. What do you see as the advantages and limitations of a view that focuses on gender identification or sexual orientation as a path in itself to spiritual freedom?

BP: I would say that the differences are not that fundamental. What's much more fundamental is that we are all in some way expressions of the Divine Being and Life. Of course it's a reality that we come out male or female, but once again, those are secondary. They're a part of reality, such that when you come into the fullness of who you are in God, and the expression of God that you are, they'll still be there. But sexual orientation is even farther down the road and also a little more problematic than gender, because even though we pride ourselves on having learned and understood so much about sex, I don't think there's anybody who can tell you what the basis of sexual orientation really is. And I think that ultimately we're all bisexual anyway, which makes me even more hesitant to speak about sexual orientation as being a fundamental part of one's spirituality. So while I have no doubt, as I said, that the male/female distinction is an essential though not a fundamental part of becoming fully, integrally divinized, I'd be much more hesitant to say that in order to be that full expression you're going to be gay or straight. And, as I said, ultimately I think that a person who's really free knows that they're bisexual ­that we all have the capacity to relate to our sexuality in these different ways.

WIE: What do you mean, exactly, when you say that "we're all bisexual"?

BP: It was established by the Kinsey Report, I think, that virtually nobody is right in the middle of that spectrum, or totally at one end or the other, but that it's a question of dominance. But most men are so afraid of their homosexual side that they totally ignore it or repress it if they can. And I think that many gay men and women have been so hurt by homophobia that they repress their heterosexual side ­though probably not as strongly as many heterosexuals tend to repress their homosexual side. All I'm really trying to say, though, is that both elements are there in everyone to varying degrees.

WIE: So in terms of a person who's liberated realizing that they're "bisexual," what that would mean is not necessarily that they would practice bisexuality, only that they would be fully aware of the potential within themselves to be both heterosexual and homosexual?

BP: Yes. I think that someone who's really free knows that they can relate with others in whatever way is appropriate and that they're not bound by a particular orientation that would make it impossible to relate with others in one way or the other.

WIE: And what about the notion, prevalent in some gay spiritual circles, that being homosexual makes one more predisposed to the Divine, or more open in some way to direct contact with the Divine?

BP: Well, if you're speaking about the human race as a whole, many people would probably accept the generalization that women are more disposed to spiritual or contemplative life and, based on that generalization, it could seem that those men who are more comfortable with their so-called "feminine side" would be more disposed to spiritual life than those who aren't. But again, I think that's all still kind of superficial because how much of that is sociological acculturation is difficult to say. To the extent that gay men tend to be more gentle and maternal and all those sorts of things, they might be more disposed to spirituality. But you see, we've labeled those characteristics as "feminine" without knowing whether, in their nature, they really are.
The interviewer, Simeon Alev, gushed:
We fully expected that a man of Father Pennington's renowned erudition and open-mindedness would have much to say about the relevance of gender and sexual orientation to the pursuit of true spiritual freedom, and we weren't disappointed.
I think the difficulties of this view from a perspective of orthodox Catholicism and its view of sexual morality, are rather obvious, and it doesn't make a spectacular impression on myself (to put it mildly) of where Fr. Pennington stood in the spectrum of things in the Church, according to her true teachings.

* * *

I located Stratford Caldecott's review of the book about Tarot cards (endorsed by both Fr. Pennington and Fr. Keating), reprinted at Ignatius Insight. Caldecott states:
Meditations on the Tarot has flaws: the influence of anthroposophy is still too evident, for example, in the discussion of reincarnation.

. . . More could be said about Balthasar's Foreword or Introduction to the French edition, which was reproduced in slightly truncated form as an Afterword to the English paperback edition. That Foreword originally began: "Having been asked to write an introduction to this book, which for most readers enters into unknown terrain, and yet is so richly rewarding to read, I must first of all acknowledge my lack of competence concerning the subject matter. I am not in a position to follow up and approve of each line of thought developed by the author, and still less to submit everything to a critical examination.

. . . Also omitted at the end of the piece from the English edition were the following comments of Balthasar's: "[The author] may from time to time make a step from the middle too far to the left (in presenting, for example, the teaching of reincarnation), . . .

By the latter criticisms I think Balthasar meant that there remained a certain imbalance in Tomberg's thought and method, which did not always rest in the calm centre of Catholic truth and flow from there, but struggled to reconcile and integrate the turbulent currents of Hermetic thought with the teachings of the Magisterium.
See also:

Q&A on Tarot Cards (EWTN)

History of Tarot Cards, Fr. William Saunders

Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 15 October 1989)

Section 12 reads:
12. With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, "to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian." Proposals in this direction are numerous and radical to a greater or lesser extent. Some use eastern methods solely as a psycho-physical preparation for a truly Christian contemplation; others go further and, using different techniques, try to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of certain Catholic mystics.Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality. To this end, 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. 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, who is Love, in favor of an immersion "in the indeterminate abyss of the divinity." These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism.
* * *

I didn't have any opinion of Fr. Pennington one way or the other before I sought to answer your letter. I didn't have any "ax to grind" or prior agenda. After reading (especially) what he wrote about sexuality and a possible female "priesthood" it seems to me that he (may God rest his soul; I have nothing against him personally) labored under some serious misconceptions as to the Catholic faith and what is orthodox and what is not. I'd love to see how any orthodox Catholic would react to what Fr. Pennington stated about sexuality and gender issues in the interview I found.

I'm as committed to ecumenism as I am to apologetics, and have often defended the Church against false charges; e.g., the Assisi meetings (one / two) and the Church's approach to Islam (a post on that is currently on the front page of my blog; see other related articles: one / two).

Centering prayer is, I suspect (and I am no expert; I'm simply thinking out loud), somewhat like the charismatic movement -- and I consider myself a charismatic --, in that there is a lot of truth in much of it, but there are also excesses easy to fall into. Hence, the letter from Cardinal Ratzinger in 1989 that dealt with these. There is a line that can be crossed from considering the truths of other religions, and applauding them, and adopting (consciously or not) aspects of those religions that contradict our own.

I have no problem with contemplation whatsoever. I do have a problem with an inordinate mixing of incompatible eastern and western religious concepts. The question is the true nature of orthodox contemplative prayer, and what crosses the line into questionable territory.
As a new staff member of CHNI, part of my job -- flowing from my overwhelming apologetic emphasis -- is to answer questions (in this instance, about one of the guests on The Journey Home and her expressed opinion). From the feedback I have received thus far, CHNI agrees with my assessment. If something changes in that regard in the future, I'll let you know!

The present pope appears to agree with a strong caution towards methods that mix foreign concepts into Christianity in a way that does the latter harm. At the very least, we know that Fr. Pennington advocated a book that had unorthodox elements in it, such as reincarnation. Even von Balthasar admitted that, and he wrote the Foreword!

I've made plenty of distinctions, just as you have yourself (between Fr. Pennington and Fr. Keating, when the articles I have cited do not make such a distinction). I have to call this as I see it. As an apologist, with a long history of studying various religious belief-systems, it looks rather suspicious to me, based on what I have been reading. For example, Homiletic & Pastoral Review is a pretty solid, dependable resource. It's been in existence over 100 years. And it printed the article critical of some of these practices.

I've come up with plenty of material. You, too, have to judge this matter objectively, and seriously consider and pray about this information you have now received, not simply based on your obvious personal admiration for Fr. Pennington.

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