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New Spiritual Disciplines From Ancient Roman Catholic Sources

Commentary by Roger Oakland

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Promoters of the emergent conversation say we are on the verge of an era that promises renewed spiritual awareness. “Spiritual disciplines” are being touted as the avenue to a “spiritual reformation” that will take Christianity to a new and higher level of spirituality drawing all participants closer to God.

Books published by major Christian publishers written by well known authors are plentiful on this topic. For example, J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler are both professors at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in southern California. Moreland is professor of philosophy. Issler is professor of Christian education and theology. In 2006, Navpress published a book they co-authored titled The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life. [1] On the back cover, the following statement is made:

Authors J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler illustrate how we are happy only when we pursue a transcendent purpose – something larger than ourselves. This involves a deeply meaningful relationship with God through a selfless preoccupation with the spiritual disciplines. The Lost Virtue of Happiness takes a fresh look at the spiritual disciplines, offering concrete examples of ways you can make them practical and life transforming. [2]

The title gives a good overview of what the book is about. Moreland and Issler believe they have rediscovered important spiritual principles that have been lost. If you follow these principles and they become part of your everyday Christian life, you can be transformed.

One of the spiritual disciplines the authors have recovered is outlined in a chapter titled “Gaining Happiness by Losing Your Life.”  Under the subheading “Two Friends: Solitude and Silence” the authors make the following statement:

The disciplines of solitude and silence are absolutely fundamental to the Christian life, are naturally practiced in tandem. In solitude we choose to be alone and to reflect on how we experience the facets of life (family, job, relationship with God, finances) and what they mean to us while in isolation. We unhook from companionship with others; we take ourselves physically and mentally out of our social, familial, and other human relationships. [3]

While it is true, getting away and alone somewhere is often the best way to concentrate and evaluate life’s most important decisions, the isolation and solitude that Moreland and Issler are promoting as a spiritual discipline in the name of Christianity has some eastern mystical overtones. Further the authors attempt to add credibility to this rediscovered “spiritual discipline” by quoting Roman Catholic mystic and priest, Henri Nouwen, who once said:

The man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center. [4]

This “quiet inner center” Nouwen wrote about is suspect, especially in light of spiritual disciplines practiced by those involved in the Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

Further, it seems that Nouwen’s Roman Catholic mystical beliefs and teachings have strongly influenced the authors. Continuing to develop their idea of the importance of rediscovering the lost art of finding the “quiet inner center,” they state: 

Go to a retreat center that has one of its purposes the provision of a place for individual sojourners. Try to find a center that has gardens, fountains, statues, and other forms of beautiful artwork. In our experience, Catholic retreat centers are usually ideal for solitude retreats… We also recommend that you bring photos of your loved ones and a picture of Jesus… Or gaze at a statue of Jesus. Or let some thought, feeling, or memory run through your mind over and over again. [5]

I have searched the scriptures. Gazing at a picture or statue of Jesus or concentrating on a thought or feeling in order to establish “a quiet inner center” just isn’t there!


God’s Word or Man’s word

It is apparent to me after reading countless books published by mainline publishers on the subject of the emerging church movement that there are two underlying common denominators.

First, it is apparent that the “new kind of Christian” that is being groomed by emergent teachings is being conditioned to accept, embrace and promote a “new mysticism” under the banner of spiritual formation. However, the so-called spiritual disciplines that are promoted as part of this spiritual formation are not new. They are the same methods and techniques that have seduced the masses since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.

Second, the teachings and beliefs of Roman Catholic mystics who embraced eastern mysticism in the past are being reintroduced, and for many, are taking precedence over the Word of God. The onslaught of ideas promoted by these Roman Catholic mystics is staggering. Why is this so? Is it possible many are being seduced and don’t realize what is happening? Why can people not see the Roman Catholic connection? Have they been blinded?

For example, in a section of The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering The Disciplines of The Good Life, Moreland and Issler provide tips for “developing ongoing prayer.” Here are some of the points they made:

  • We recommend that you begin by saying the Jesus Prayer about three hundred times a day. [6]
  • When you first awaken, say the Jesus Prayer twenty to thirty times. As you do, something will begin to happen to you. God will begin to slowly occupy the center of your attention. [7]
  • Repetitive use of the Jesus Prayer while doing more focused things allows God to be on the boundaries of your mind and forms the habit of being gently in contact with him all day long. [8]

You don’t have to be Bible scholar to understand that repetitive prayers designed to get one into a state of consciousness in order to bring one closer to God, is not in the Word of God.

Further, Moreland and Issler attempt to justify their case for the practice of repetitive prayer in their book, claiming that such a “spiritual discipline” is biblically and historically valid. Encouraging the unsuspecting reader to be at ease, they say:

Now, before you role your eyes in disbelief, hang in there with me. Derived from Luke 18:38, the Jesus Prayer has had a powerful impact on people at various times in church history. [9] And while it comes in different forms, the wording we prefer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” If you take up the challenge, I think you’ll see some remarkable results. [10]

Then, attempting to add more convincing biblical grounds to place a seal of approval on such antibiblical practice to get closer to God, Moreland and Issler stated:

You may be thinking that repeating a prayer over and over again violates Jesus’ warning, “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition [do not keep on babbling, NIV] as the gentiles do, for they suppose they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7, NASB). On the contrary, the use of repetitive prayer as a spiritual training exercise does not fall under this prohibition.  As New Testament scholar Don Carson said, Jesus is not forbidding all long prayers or all repetition. He himself prayed at length (Luke :12), repeated himself in prayer (Matt 26:14), and told a parable to show His disciples that “they should always pray and not give up” (Luke :12). His point is that His disciples should avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers offered under the misconception that mere length will make prayers efficacious. [11]

This apologetic, if it was written by J.P. Moreland who is a well known apologist, justifying mindless repetitive short word prayers verses long prayers is difficult for me to accept. This would mean that for centuries Christians who have spoken out against the very thing the authors are promoting were mindless fools. This is just too much to accept.

I have been to the country of Myanmar (formerly called Burma) twice. On both occasions I observed (and have video footage) of both Roman Catholics and Buddhists practicing the spiritual principle of repetitive prayer. By the way, in both cases they were chanting these prayers over and over again while they were counting beads. Yes, Roman Catholics and Buddhists both have a “rosary” technique to keep track of how many times they have chanted a prayer.

I have also taken the time to interview Roman Catholics and Buddhists in the country of Myanmar. I have asked them what they are doing and why they are doing this. Each time that I have asked this question I have been told the same thing. It is a way to concentrate and focus their thoughts and get in tune with the spirit world.

Chanting repetitive phrases to get closer to God is not biblical, it is Satanic.

If I am wrong in what I am saying, then please show me from the scriptures. In light of what the Bible warns about repetitive prayer and the fact that Satan has a significant plan to seduce believers in the Last Days, if you are headed down this path, I implore you to stop in your tracks. Repent and turn back to Jesus and His Word!



[1] J.P. Moreland, Klaus Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life, Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2006

[2]  Ibid. back page

[3] Ibid. p. 51

[4]  Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York, Doubleday, 1986), 25

[5]  Moreland and Issler, page 54-55

[6] J.P. Moreland, Klaus Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life, Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2006, p. 90

[7] Ibid. p. 92

[8]  Ibid. p. 93

[9]  See R.M. French, tans., The Way of the Pilgrim (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 156

[10]  J.P. Moreland, Issler. p. 90

[11] D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 166

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