“There is nothing new under the sun.”
“Behold, I make all things new.”
I don’t typically take requests for articles. But recently one of my sisters asked me to write an article for which I’m making an exception, both because of her own unique power of persuasion and because the article she recommended is on a topic of great relevance for many Catholics today.
It is difficult to identify the topic with great precision, because it encompasses a number of attitudes and practices that don’t necessarily belong to just one group or conceptual category. It includes things like yoga, reiki, transcendental prayer, the use of crystals, references to karma and vibes, energy and auras, and other such practices.
Several of these practices, though not all of them, belong under the umbrella category of the “New Age,” which is a term that has gained currency since the cultural revolution of the late-1960s, but has much deeper historical roots. For those who are interested in a detailed Catholic treatment of the New Age, please read the 2003 document of the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue, Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life.
I can’t be nearly as thorough as a Vatican document in an article like this, but I would like to offer a few thoughts about why the practices and ideas I’ve named above are so popular, and about what Catholics ought to think about these things.
Why have these practices become so popular?
We live in a time of profound uncertainty and even fear. People today question whether anything is true, and there can be no more frightful uncertainty than to doubt truth itself! For many, doubts about the truth apply with the greatest force to questions about God and religion. This makes it easy for people to settle for simplistic approaches to the question of faith, such as the notion of being “spiritual but not religious” or wanting “Jesus but not the Church.”
In such a religious climate, people are searching for something to fill the void created by their lack of faith in Christ and His Church. Furthermore, the deep desire of the human heart for supernatural experience coexists with a longing for comfort and security. New Age practices often promise unconditional love, healing, self-fulfillment and transcendence, and contact with “the divine.”
People are searching for something to fill the void created by their lack of faith in Christ and His Church. Furthermore, the deep desire of the human heart for supernatural experience coexists with a longing for comfort and security. New Age practices often promise unconditional love, healing, self-fulfillment and transcendence, and contact with “the divine.”
Such promises are highly attractive for obvious reasons. New Age practices also require little to no commitment, so there is no cost to this modern form of “spirituality.” Christians sometimes say that there is no cheap grace, but New Age spirituality promises just that, supernatural fulfillment with little need for personal sacrifice.
Then there are practices such as yoga, which have a wide variety of forms, emphases and contexts. Many people use yoga for physical exercise and wellness, others to pursue psychological benefit, and still others perform yoga as a spiritual practice. This variety makes it difficult to evaluate. Its popularity is closely aligned with the desire for spirituality and the fitness movement, which is another strong cultural current today.
The bottom line is that humanity is inherently religious. God has made us to turn to Him in worship and praise, and to seek fulfillment and peace. At a time when many have turned away from the Catholic faith and other forms of traditional religion, they seek the satisfaction of these deep human needs elsewhere.
What should Catholics think about the New Age and other non-Christian spiritual practices?
Extreme caution should be exercised with regard to the New Age and other similar practices and ideas. That statement might sound excessively timid and reactionary, but there are several reasons why such caution is necessary:
• Spiritual power and influence is rightly sought only from God. And specifically, we turn to God as He has revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” St. Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15, and Christ is the one Mediator between God and humanity. And Jesus has given us His Church as the universal sacrament of salvation, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. There is room for everyone in the Church who believes in Christ and is willing to follow Him, but a person should not seek contact with “the divine” outside of Christ and His Church. Such caution applies to spiritual and quasi-spiritual contacts attempted in practices such as reiki or “aura combing.”
• There is some danger in tapping into spiritual powers other than God. Remember what St. Peter writes in his First Letter (5:8), “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” This doesn’t mean that every time someone uses a crystal for spiritual purposes, the devil will directly attack the person. But it does mean that in every spiritual practice outside of Christ and His Church, a person exposes himself to influences he doesn’t understand. And the devil is very clever and can be very subtle. Christ has revealed the path of salvation to us! We simply need to follow Him in His Church.
We know it is not safe for Catholics to practice non-Christian religions, so any such forms of yoga should be avoided. Beyond that, I think it is best to seek counsel from a priest or another trusted Catholic pastoral minister or counselor.
• Because yoga is so popular, it seems to merit its own treatment. And I wish I could provide an absolute answer to this question. But the practices called “yoga” are so varied — some closely aligned with yoga’s spiritual and religious tradition, and others purporting to be “just stretching” — that it’s very difficult to make sweeping statements. We know it is not safe for Catholics to practice non-Christian religions, so any such forms of yoga should be avoided. Beyond that, I think it is best to seek counsel from a priest or another trusted Catholic pastoral minister or counselor. There are some Catholic authors who believe that even the physical movements are too closely connected with non-Christian spiritualities to be safe, but there does not seem to be a consensus yet on the answer to this question. I know that some Catholics have developed alternatives to yoga in an attempt to reap its benefits without the connection to non-Christian spirituality, but those alternatives seem to be few and far between at this point.
• Grace, not karma, is the heart of our spiritual lives. To have God’s grace is to have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Any true “spirituality” is really about life in the Holy Spirit! And grace is God’s life at work within us, saving us and making us like God. Grace helps us during our earthly pilgrimage and prepares us for eternal life in heaven.
• Finally, Jesus wants to heal us! One of the most consoling titles the Church gives to Our Lord is “Divine Physician.” Jesus heals us. He makes us whole. He saves us from sin and death, and has the power to deliver us from all that afflicts us. Now, grace builds on nature, so medicine and science have vital roles to play in promoting our physical, emotional and psychological health. But we should not seek supernatural means of healing outside of Christ and His Church. All the healing power we need and more comes from our loving Savior, Lord, and Friend. Yes, He tells us to take up our crosses as we follow Him, but He loves us and knows all of our needs and what is most conducive to our salvation.
Jesus Christ makes all things new, as the Scripture quotations with which I began this article reveal to us. He is the Author of the only truly new age. Jesus brings newness of life and the promise of eternal life. In and through Him we are adopted as God’s beloved children. Christ makes us like Himself, which means that He makes us like God! There is no greater gift, no greater healing, no greater power, and no greater love than His.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.