Prayer is Infiltrating Christian Youth Groups

A group in Eureka, Montana, called Lighthouse Trails, recently warned people against me, Jim Wallis, and Sojourners because of our association with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and contemplative Christian spirituality.

The folks at Lighthouse Trails describes their mission thusly: “In the year 2000, we learned that a mantra-style meditation coupled with a mystical spirituality had been introduced to the evangelical, Christian church and was infiltrating youth groups, churches, seminaries, and Bible studies at an alarming rate.  Thus, in the spring of 2002, we began Lighthouse Trails Publishing with the hope of exposing this dangerous and pervasive mystical paradigm.”

At the same time I was reading the reports from Lighthouse Trails, I was also re-reading parts of Merton’s book Life and Holiness in which he lays out a few basic ideas in Christian spirituality.

Henri Nouwen writes in the book’s introduction, “It is not a book about doctrines or dogmas, but about the life of Christ. … In its great simplicity, this is a radical book. It calls for total dedication and a total commitment [to Christ].”

Here is an excerpt:

“Prayer is then the first and most important step. All through the life of faith one must resort constantly to prayer, because faith is not simply a gift which we receive once for all in our first act of belief. Every new development of faith, every new increment of supernatural light, even though we may earnestly working to acquire it, remains a pure gift of God.”–Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton (Image, 1963, p. 81)

I don’t have anything in particular to say about Lighthouse Trails, except they are located in what must be the most beautiful place in the world at the northwest tip of Glacier National Park.

I understand their concern about Christian mysticism. Christian mystics are those who have a direct spiritual experience of God through Jesus. (See John 10:30 on union with God.) It may be a one-time experience that informs one’s faith or it may be an ongoing experience that radically affects one’s faith journey. It is not about belief or catechisms or rational assent to dogma. It is about a total transformation in Christ — about being “born again.” And this is inherently uncontrollable by religious authorities or dogmatists.

Christian mystics have a long history of being a threat to institutional religions and dogmatic believers. Conversely, the danger to Christian mystics is that they may put too much authority in their personal experience of God, rather than submitting their experiences to the wider wisdom of the Christian community.

This is the paradox that Merton, Nouwen, and even I, know well. As a result, we try to live attentively and, as Merton wrote, “resort constantly to prayer,” asking always for Christ to have mercy upon us.

10 responses to “Prayer is Infiltrating Christian Youth Groups”

  1. I sit somewhere in the middle…I don’t count myself a mystic, but I think they have some very good points. As akaGaGa said, spiritual is not just good, and we would be a fool to believe that, however we are also fools to class and spiritual experience as wrong.

    I have had experiences from both sides, and my belief is if you experience something that goes against the teaching of the bible, it is not a positive experience (in mildest possible terms).

  2. What a find to read all these comments.
    I also have a real concern about where all this is leading.
    I believe we need to stay close to Jesus as we are in a time when even the elect could be wrongly directed. The bible speaks of a time when the truth will seem like lies and lies like the truth. sounds like today don,t you think.
    God help us and have mercy on us.

  3. As one who was born again, and has had many spiritual experiences since that day, I have to warn that “spiritual” is not necessarily from God. For a period of time, I, too, was deceived by spirits who were disguised as angels of light, but by the grace of God, who had imparted in my soul a deep desire for truth (2 Thes 2:10), I renounced these spirits at great cost, and returned to the author and perfecter of my soul.

    Beware of playing with spiritual matters.

  4. There you go…the mystics, gnostics, and other spiritualists think they have a duty and belief that they are more informed than others. Their mantra…”I have a direct channel to God, therefore I am a god.

    Please, please, please, enough with the deception, the mertons, warrens and nouwens and others of this persuasion have co-opted, and subverted the Word of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. The mind-melders are no more in tune to the Lord than I am. Just like the other religiosities, it is the cha-ching in their line filled pockets by their marketing of zen, buddha, uuummmmmm, sweet curdling goo that pours into the minds of the lost. They ARE of this world and will pay dearly when God our Father judges them, especially for leading their congregation’s souls astray. They have bitten off on the lie the adversary said to Eve that tragic day man fell from grace.

    Gen 3:1-5 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

    Puffed up on their own smack, no if’s, ands, or but’s about it! No sugar-coating it here to all the avatar-friendlies (slicked tongued devils). Think you little demi-gods are going to Heaven? Guess again!

  5. Rose, your comment that you will continue to agree to disagree is the same as saying “I’m right, you’re wrong”, without so much as a mention of the substance of the very thing you disagree with. Is mantra meditation equal to contemplative prayer and if so do you think it is good? Simple.

  6. hat’s pretty scary stuff especially when Rose says she will comtinue to disagree. Who will save them when everyone will be crying out for the mountains and rocks to fall on them, and hide them from the face of Jesus Christ.

  7. Hi have read this passage in the book, and can only agree with Deborah. No man can come to God except through Jesus Christ (Acts 4v11) and in true repentance of one’s sins and Faith in Jesus both as Lord and Saviour. No amount of ‘Prayer’ can take us to God unless first we become a Child, through Faith and the Gift of Grace that God gives us in the first place. There is but one mediator between God and ourselves and that is the great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. Other doors maybe available, but our not acceptable. Look unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our Faith. Prayer is the Christians vital communication in building a living relationship alongside studying the Scriptures to become mature in God.


  8. Thank you, Deborah, for your thoughtful response. We will continue to agree to disagree.

  9. From Lighthouse Trails perspective, the principle reason we are critical of people like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen is that their contemplative prayer practices led them to embrace a spiritual understanding known as interspirituality (all religions lead to God) and panentheism (God is in all things and people), which support each other. This runs counter to the basic mission of biblical Christianity, which is commonly referred to as the “great commission” that Jesus put forth in Scripture. (Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.) From Sojourners perspective, that gospel is known as the social gospel, which contrasts what we are saying – the preaching of the Cross. Although the great commission has social aspects to it, the primary element is the blood of Christ (the atonement), which justifies us before God. These other world religions lack this, and therefore we cannot embrace them as legitimate. I think these two quotes, one by Merton and one by Nouwen illustrate our concerns:

    “Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.”
    —From Sabbatical Journey, Henri Nouwen’s last book
    page 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition

    “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, … now I realize what we all are …. If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are …I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth … This little point …is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.” (from A Time of Departing, quoting Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander -1989 edition, 157-158)

    Finally, Ray Yungen, one of Lighthouse Trails, authors, documents correspondence Merton had with a Sufi master. The two were discussing fana (eastern mysticism). Merton asked the Sufi leader what the Muslim view of salvation was. The Sufi answered that Islam “does not subscribe to the doctrine of atonement or the theory of redemption.” Merton replied:

    “Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs [doctrines] differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas … in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution…. But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light, … It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.” (Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Editors, Merton and Sufism (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), p. 110.

    Those who study contemplative spirituality from a critical point of view come to understand this is pure contemplative spirituality – doctrine stands in the way of unity and oneness; mysticism eradicates that problem.

    That’s the heart of the matter.

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