Christian Mysticism from Pathways to Darkness

This chapter is taken from the book written by Kent and Katie Philpott titled, The Soul Journey: How Shamanism, Santeria, Wicca, and Charisma are Connected. It was published by Earthen Vessel Publishing in 2014. It is predominantly written from Kent’s personal point of view.

What is broadly known as Christian mysticism has existed for many centuries. The mystics’ quest was for “more” of God, to experience Him directly and personally. Within Christian mysticism is contemplative prayer, which is distinct from either vocal recitation of words, mental reflection, or mental meditation on God’s word and its meaning and application. 

Kat Kerr’s journeys into heaven to speak with the Father also fit into the classification of Christian mysticism. Within this chapter are other examples of mysticism, not all of which are or claim to be Christian in orientation: the work of Richard Foster, Mirabai Starr, Richard Rohr, and Sarah Young. 

A Connection with Christianity

Contemplative prayer shares a broad theology common to mainstream and historic Christianity. It may, however, involve certain techniques that result in a state of mind resembling or identical to an altered state of consciousness or ecstasy, which then moves it into a category similar to shamanism, Santería, Wicca, and charisma.

While a doctoral student at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, (Presbyterian), I learned about contemplative forms of Christianity. At first I was attracted to these and read somewhat extensively in the area, even attending retreats where contemplative prayer was practiced. For some reason it never worked with me; in fact, I would engage in rather heated debates with some of the “spiritual mentors” or “spiritual directors” enlisted there. In any case, I learned firsthand what was involved. 

I want to be clear that there is much in what is called contemplative prayer that I value and actually cherish. We are called to love God with all of our being, and the truth is, in our human weakness, we rarely experience a very deep love for God and what He has done for us in Christ. There are times when I long for nothing more than to simply be alone with my Bible, read favorite passages, settle back and think of Him, and pray and talk and reflect. This is normative and healthy. What I am addressing in this chapter is quite different, something that crosses the line, however faint, into an altered state of consciousness. It is that state, often called ecstasy, especially in shamanism, that exposes a person to invasion by entities that are indeed spiritual but not holy. 

Richard J. Foster 

Richard J. Foster is often associated with contemplative prayer. His book, Celebration of Discipline, published in 1978 by Harper & Row, dramatically impacted many in the years after its first appearance and is still widely used in Bible colleges and seminaries around the world. In the year following its publication, it was our primary text for a class called Spiritual Formation, which was part of my doctoral curriculum. Foster divides his twelve disciplines into three categories: Inward, Outward, and Corporate. In the first category, the Inward Disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study.1 

1 I was much taken by Foster’s work and attempted to explore it to the extent possible and to seriously engage myself in each of the twelve disciplines. I lived with the book for many months. Though I still deem much of the material in the book to fit within a broad Christian and biblical range, I consider that the very first of the Inward Disciplines, “Meditation,” crosses the aforementioned faint line. Let me explain. 

Foster indicates his awareness that Eastern forms of meditation involve the attempt to empty the mind. Then he says, “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it.”2 

2 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 15. It sounds good, but is emptying the mind normative for the Christian? In my opinion, it crosses the line and has neither biblical precedent nor warrant.3 

3 By “precedent and warrant” we mean that, for a Christian to engage in such processes, it should be clearly evident that Jesus engaged in such meditation with His disciples, that such is found in the life of the primitive Church and thus recorded in the Book of Acts, and that such practice is mentioned in apostolic New Testament letters. But there is no such evidence and therefore no biblical precedent or warrant for such a practice.Christians should indeed desire the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16b) but that does not suggest an emptying of the mind but a transforming “by the renewal of the mind” (Romans 12:2). 

Foster also speaks of the Eastern meditative process of detachment, especially as it relates to Buddhism. He acknowledges that detachment from the confusion of the world around us is not the goal for Christians but that Christians actually go beyond that. He implies that the Christian must go through detachment to reach attachment. Again the difficulty is that many would simply say amen to this without questioning the idea of the Christian need to detach. To me, this is the perfect set up for a significant deviation from healthy and scriptural prayer and meditation. 

Even more problematic is what he says later: “It is wonderful when a particular meditation leads to ecstasy. . . .”4 

4 Ibid., 17. When I first encountered this I was much impressed, but after some attempts at what I thought was “ecstasy,” I gave up and fortunately so. The desire for ecstasy might have led me deeper into an Eastern style of meditation, to the point of going into an altered state of consciousness and thus exposing myself to invasion by unwanted and unclean spirits. 

It is precisely for this reason that the influence of Foster finally aroused my critique. What might seem harmless and even appear to conform to some of the experiences of well-known Christian mystics like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and others, is in fact extremely dangerous and little different from where shamanism, Santería, and Wicca take their practitioners. 

It gets worse. Here are two sentences from Foster’s book that even more closely resemble the teachings of the religions named above: “All who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord are the universal priesthood of God and as such can enter the Holy of Holies and converse with the living God. It seems so difficult to bring people to believe that they can hear God’s voice.”5 

5 Ibid., 19.

On the one hand Foster expresses the biblical truth that in Christ we are seated with Him in the heavenly places, but he reaches too far in his declaration that we actually ought to hear the voice of God. Granted, there were those biblical incidents where it is reported that people heard the voice of God. These were the prophets and others, like Peter at Joppa in the run-up to the conversion of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, but it is not something found elsewhere in the Bible as a normal and regular spiritual practice. Conversations with various spirit entities are common, however, among shamans, Santerían priests and priestesses, and among witches of neo-pagan religions. This must give one pause. 

It gets even worse with Foster. Still in the chapter on meditation, he speaks of dreams. He teaches that a Christian can invite God to inform us through our dreams. “We should tell Him of our willingness to allow Him to speak to us in this way. . . . We simply ask God to surround us with the light of His protection as he ministers to our spirit.”6 

6 Ibid., 23. 

This is characteristic of Wiccan teaching, not biblical teaching. Nowhere in Scripture is there anything approaching this. It is mediumistic and spiritistic – the province of the occult. 

Foster goes on to say, “After awhile there is a deep yearning within to go into the upper regions beyond the clouds. In your imagination allow your spiritual body, shining with light, to rise out of your physical body. Go deeper and deeper into outer space until there is nothing except the warm presence of the eternal Creator. Rest in His presence. Listen quietly, anticipating the unanticipated. Note carefully any instruction given.”7 

7 Ibid., 27.Here Foster seems to promote, regardless of whether only “in the imagination,” out-of-body travel, also called astral projection, definitely belonging to the province of the shaman. 

These concepts are reminiscent of some of the errors found in charisma, in which more and more is asked, even demanded, of God. In charisma, people recently report to be conversing with angels and even Jesus. An acquaintance who is a proponent of having conversations with deity said, “You do not have to read the Scripture anymore, you can go direct.” This connects with shamanism generally, and especially with Santería and Wicca, in my view. 

Beyond Foster 

In the years from 1980 onward, I heard little of contemplative spirituality, and when I did it was from books by those who identified with the Emerging Church Movement, but not always. Though not a large emphasis among Christians, the quest for “more,” a deeper spirituality, was evident. 

Contemplative prayer is closely connected with meditation, but it is not the kind of meditation we find in the Bible, which is focused, alert, and thoughtful attention on God, who He is, and what He has done in His Son, Jesus Christ. In sharp contrast, contemplative prayer encourages an emptying of the mind in order to achieve a light, moderate, or deep altered state of consciousness. 

To do contemplative or centering prayer, one technique is to focus on a word and repeat that word over and over, much like a Buddhist mantra. The word chosen should have spiritual significance or meaning to the one praying. Perhaps one concentrates on a single lit candle or speaks a series of prayers, but the intent is to open one’s mind, soul, and heart to God. Contemplative prayer deliberately encourages the pursuit of a mystical experience with God, and the emphasis is on “experience.”

Mirabai Starr: A Connection with Contemporary Mysticism 

The autumn 2012 issue of Light of Consciousness: a Journal of Spiritual Awakening contains an article by Mirabai Starr entitled, “Contemplative Life.”8 

8 Mirabai Starr is one of the best known and respected teachers and authors of meditation and contemplation today. She has a deep interest in Hinduism, Sufism, Judaism, and mystical Christian practices. Starr points out that many of the world’s religions, including Christianity, have contemplative states. Contemplation, meditation, interior prayer, mental prayer, and centering prayer are essentially synonymous terms and describe means of meeting with the “Divine Presence” that Starr writes about. 

It is in such states of consciousness that a person will encounter “otherness,” the place she considers is where the Divine Presence reveals itself. However, that “otherness” is not what she thinks it is. 

Starr then describes a process whereby, in my view, a person becomes invaded by the “divine” presences (earlier, we called them by various terms, including spirit guides, etc.) that show up in the altered state. She outlines three stages of the process: Stage one is termed purgation or via purgativa. This is where a person surrenders and leaves behind whatever god conceptions he or she has. So, the door swings open to whatever is waiting to come in. 

Stage two is via illuminativa, where that which is divine, the divine light, is poured into the now purged, clean, and waiting empty vessel. During this stage the captivation of the one praying or meditating takes place. 

In my view, this is where possession by unclean spirits occurs. 

Stage three is union, or via unitiva. This is similar to the union sought for in Yoga and is the real and actual intent or purpose of Yoga.9 

9 Yoga means union, with the All, the Universe, the One Supreme Being, and so on. Yoga, as only exercise, is Yoga in name only and is usually practiced in the West as nothing more than exercise. Here the self, or what little is left of it, joins with or merges with the One. 10 

10 The “One” can be variously interpreted or understood depending on the religious concepts held by the one meditating.and actually disappears. Starr points out that this is precisely what the Christian mystics were aiming at in their contemplative practices – to be at one with God, to be in union with the Almighty. But, with what were John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila really in touch? 

What they were engaged in, and what Mirabai Starr recognizes in them and advocates, is nothing close to biblical or historic Christianity. 

We humans are basically repelled by holiness, and in a bizarre, even perverse way are attracted to the unholy. Prior to my conversion at age twenty-one, I shied away from Christians, because they seemed to be “holier than thou.” My friends and I embraced darker alternatives that seemed to be more fun. What Starr advocates looks and is spiritual but is not holy. For those who have not been touched by the grace of God in Christ, Starr’s pagan spirituality is oddly attractive. 

One of the chief points Starr makes is that the deep meditative state will change a person dramatically due to the profound spiritual insights thereby attained. 

I agree with her. As mentioned before, when one encounters genuine spirituality, actual and real spirit, one is transformed. That person will immediately abandon strict materialism and gravitate toward the spiritual and the mystical, almost regardless of what religion or spiritual practice is the attraction – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Santería, Wicca, Charisma, or other. 

This meets my own experience in four decades of work as a pastor of Christian churches. Once again, it is necessary to recognize that much that is spiritual is neither good nor God. 

Satan is the master of deceit; if he is thought of as only evil and demonic, then deception is all the more probable. The demonic kingdom with which we are faced, including “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (see Ephesians 6:12), will appear grand beyond description. In fact, Satan can have an appearance so attractive, he is referred to as Lucifer, the “angel of light” (see 2 Corinthians 11:14). With such power and confidence that he targeted Jesus Himself, would we not be targets? 

Richard Rohr and Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life 

For many people, the tragedies, traumas, failures, and disappointments common to the first half of life can be a catalyst for change, according to Richard Rohr. Once the idealistic views of life fall away, a person may recognize that there must be more, and this more involves the pursuit of God. His analogy is that rather than falling down when trouble descends, one may fall upward. 

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life11

11 Falling Upward was published in 2011 by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. I was given the book by a friend who had been given a copy of it by a pastor of a large seeker friendly church in Los Angeles. This pastor recommended the book for growth in, Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, speaks to the reality of living in a fallen world and being fallen people. It is the nature of the “path” for falling upward rather than downward that I want to address. 

Clues to the actual nature of the “path” are apparent in the blurbs on the back of the dust cover. They are as follows: Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self, writes, “Falling Upward calls forth the promise within us and frees us to follow it into wider dimensions of our spiritual authenticity.” 

Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christianity and Naked Spirituality writes, “Richard offers a simple but deeply helpful framework for seeing the whole spiritual life – one that will help both beginners on the path as they look ahead and long-term pilgrims as they look back over their journey so far.”12 

Christian maturity and spirituality. 

Jim Finley, Merton scholar and author of The Contemplative Heart, writes, “We begin to see that, as we grow older, we are being awakened to deep, simple, and mysterious things we simply could not see when we were younger.” 

Finally, from Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and author of The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Centering Prayer, Inner Awakening, and The Wisdom of Knowing comes, “This is Richard Rohr at his vintage best: prophetic, pastoral, practical. A book I will gratefully share with my children and grandchildren.” While each of these endorsements is vague, the implication here is mind expansion of the variety considered in this book. 

Rohr states that his favorite mystic is Lady Julian of Norwich, who lived from 1342 to 1416.13 

12 Brian McLaren is identified as an evangelical Christian and as a leader within the Emerging Church movement. After falling deathly ill, she received sixteen mystical revelations, usually entitled, “Revelations of Divine Love.” She is venerated in the Anglican and Lutheran churches but was not made a saint in the Catholic Church. In her visions she saw God as loving, not wrathful, that all people would experience His love and have salvation (she is referred to by some as a “proto-universalist”), and most importantly, that sin is necessary to enable people to begin to discover the higher way of love. It is easy to see why Richard Rohr would embrace her. 

The Christian mystics, Saints Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, and even Francis of Assisi, among many other less known Christians, focused on turning inward by means of deep prayer, meditation, and contemplation. 

Characteristic of their experiences in such mind states were visions, revelations, and words of prophecy. These were problematic, because they often contained theology that differed, and sometimes markedly so, with Scripture. 

13 From Rohr’s Introduction, xx. 

But the revelations were accepted by some as coming from divine and therefore holy sources and not to be easily dismissed. The appeal of the ancient mystics is currently undergoing yet another renaissance. 

Rohr’s concepts are an excellent example of importing concepts from mystical, even occult-oriented, religions into spiritual practices for Christians. The popularity of this process is partially due to the fact that there are spiritual or mystical experiences connected with such practices that are entirely convincing and captivating. 

In the back of Rohr’s book is a list of related resources and recordings that are published by the Center for Action and Contemplation. The following quote is revealing: 

In January 2008, James Finley and Fr. Richard Rohr gave a conference in Albuquerque, sharing The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, the distilled essence of Buddhist teaching. In these talks, each Truth was introduced and explored, with emphasis given to the presence of these truths at the heart of Jesus’ call to awaken to God’s presence in every detail of our lives. 

Sarah Young and Jesus Calling: Who is actually on the other end?14 

“Rest in My Presence, allowing Me to take charge of this day. Do not bolt into the day like a racehorse suddenly released. Instead, walk purposefully with Me, letting Me direct your course one step at a time.” “You are on the right path. Listen more to Me, and less to your doubts. I am leading you along the way designed just for you.” “As you focus your thoughts on Me, be aware that I am fully attentive to you.” “You must discipline yourself to live within the boundaries of today. It is in the present moment that I walk close to you, helping you carry your burdens.” “Come to Me with a teachable spirit, eager to be changed.” 

The above are but a few of the hundreds of affirming statements Sarah says Jesus spoke to her over the years. It is no wonder her books, principally Jesus Calling (published by Thomas Nelson), have become bestsellers. People who buy her books also read Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and others in the health, wealth, and prosperity genre. 

Young is referred to as a woman of listening prayer. She prays then waits for Jesus to answer. She strongly affirms that He does, yet she says she does not hear an audible voice. She listens then writes or journals what Jesus places on her heart. But at the same time, she claims that what she hears in her heart are the actual words of Jesus. Inexplicably, however, she depends on the Holy Spirit 

14 Sarah Young and Jesus Calling are discussed elsewhere in this book, but her work falls more into the realm of contemplative prayer than charisma. 

to determine if what she hears from Jesus is biblically correct! This is more than just slightly confused and confusing. 

Young wanted “more,” and she wanted it now, on this side of heaven. She knew the Bible was the word of God, but she yearned for more. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit was not enough; the Scripture alone did not satisfy; she wanted and needed more. I have noticed that when people want more they will get more, and if they want to hear from God directly they will, sooner or later, hear someone or something speaking. 

Most, if not all, of the “words of Jesus” spoken to Young are directed to her personally. She is instructed to do this and that – trust, know, believe, and so on, all expressed in the first person, “Me,” meaning Jesus. Her devotional books are purported to be a recitation of what Jesus said to her. 

It is difficult to determine if some sort of altered state of consciousness is involved in Young’s praying, but I suspect it is. I have known a number of parishioners who became so totally immersed in deep prayer they would lose track of time and place. I have experienced this myself. This was during a time when I was practicing the techniques taught by Richard Foster in his Celebration of Discipline. Being alone, quieting myself, breathing deeply, tuning out distractions, suppressing worldly concerns, sitting in a beautiful and peaceful place, perhaps with soothing music playing in the background – I could feel myself slipping into a light trance. And when I felt this happen I would become frightened to some degree and pull away. My personal experience informs me of how dangerous it is to put oneself in a spiritually exposed position, straining to listen in order to hear what God might say. 

Young’s Jesus is rather limited in what He says to her. There are continual streams of, “You are on the right path,” “Relax and trust in Me,” “I am with you,” and “Listen to Me.” These words of Jesus are rather imbalanced, however. His messages are encouraging and never otherwise; the pithy little sayings are decidedly skewed to the positive. But Jesus in Scripture is far different from this. A quick perusal in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will make it clear that Sarah’s Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible. 

There is no actual Gospel message in what Jesus supposedly says to Sarah Young. This ought to make one suspicious. Not that what Sarah hears is unbiblical, but the whole of it is sub-Christian at best. 

At worst (and there is a worst) is that Young is listening to something or someone who is not Jesus at all but is rather imitating and counterfeiting Jesus. Helen Schuchman listened to the voice of what she thought was Jesus and came up with the Course in Miracles, a clearly mediumistic deception. Is Young following in her footsteps? My view is, yes! 

But the concerns do not stop there. Beyond Young’s descriptions of what she has experienced is her suggestion that others may also hear Jesus calling.  

Sarah’s books have therefore become for some a school for mediums. Naiveté on the reader’s part coupled with intent to deceive on the part of whoever or whatever is speaking to Young is an extremely dangerous combination. 

Sarah Young’s listening prayer presents a slightly different scenario from much of Christian mysticism. She does not seem to obviously seek an altered state of consciousness. However, it is in the listening mode where a light trance state may be entered, even without attempting to do so. Christian, biblically-oriented praying does not involve listening for an audible reply, whether in the open or in the mind. In that restful, contemplative state, the listening for an actual “still small voice” is the locus of concern, especially for those who have practiced going into deep meditative states of mind. The most powerful shamans can move easily into and out of their ecstasy, so that, over time, an altered state may envelope the one praying without intentionality. Again, when one is in such a state and hears a voice, the question must be asked, who is the speaker? 

Summing up 

Contemplative prayer, shamanism, Santería, Wicca, and charisma all have a common denominator, a connection that is the passive or altered state of consciousness, regardless of the means of getting there. While in such states of mind, encountering spirits seldom seems horrific and demonic. Rather, these beings seem benign, majestic, angelic, powerful, awesome, even holy, and therein is their captivating nature. These religious spiritualities bring their practitioners into the realm of beings, entities, and spirits, but they are unclean and demonic deceivers. This, I realize, is virtually impossible to accept for one captivated by spiritual forces. 

The dots are once more connected: the practices encouraged in books like Rohr’s and Young’s lead to the trance state, whether light, moderate, or deep. These states of consciousness, common to forms of Buddhism (especially Tibetan), Hinduism, Islam’s Sufism, Judaism’s Kabbalah, shamanism, Santería, Wicca (and other neo-pagan religious expressions), and charisma open the door to spiritual beings that can be enlightening and powerful but not holy.

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