Pervasiveness Of New Age Among Nuns May Loom As Scandal On Scale Rivaling Abuse Crisis Among Male Counterparts
The infiltration of New Age practices into convents and retreat houses operated by Catholic nuns appears to have reached the level of an epidemic, with so many reports that at times it appears difficult to find one that doesn't allow such spirituality, at least to some degree.
Such may be hyperbole but what is not hyperbole is that esoteric spirituality has spread -- in alarming measure -- through what is left of female American religious in a way that recalls the startling prevalence of sexual abuse among male religious counterparts.
That's not to say that most religious have gone occult. And it is certainly not to cast aspersions. The majority of nuns are in their seventies or eighties -- beyond active involvement in activities such as operating a retreat center. Moreover, those who are linked to these practices often appear to be good, well-meaning women who have simply followed the spirit of our time.
But the question is what that spirit is and the trend -- contravening Vatican teaching -- is as widespread as it is troublesome. One thing is clear: the call of Vatican Two for women to distinguish themselves spiritually has been answered in virtually every part of North America in a totally unexpected way: establishment of mysterious, Eastern-style meditation.
When we ran an article on this several weeks ago, we were deluged by instances -- many dozens -- in which Eastern contemplation, labyrinths, reiki, or other exotic non-Catholic methods of spiritual development were present at Catholic retreat centers -- almost surely unknown to the Vatican.
The examples seem daunting, and because of their serious nature, we are going to let this report proceed at length.
One example: the Portiuncula Center for Prayer, modeled after St. Francis and run by Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
Located less than an hour southwest of downtown Chicago, this Catholic center offers therapeutic massage, reiki, reflexology, holistic facials, and Zen Shiastsu (which taps into the "energy" points around the body). It also has a "labyrinth" which it describes as "an ancient circular diagram" consisting of a "single concentric circular path with no possibility of going astray. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives; it touches our sorrows and releases our joys. So walk it with an open mind and an open heart."
Labyrinths are a meditation, relaxation, and spiritual tool that invite a person to walk towards the center with a problem, prayer, or idea.
Once at that center, the person spends some time in quiet thought, then lets go and makes the journey back out of the labyrinth to reengage with the world with a "clearer" heart and mind. While they are even to be found in some churches, the way they are used evokes worry in many circles.
"Like Stonehenge, they are geographic forms that define sacred space," says website dedicated to the practice -- and referring the famous spot in England where monuments were erected by occult Druids for ancient solstice rituals, among other non-Christian mystical practices.
"The labyrinth is a large, complex spiral circle which is an ancient symbol for the divine mother, the God within, the goddess, the holy in all creation," quotes a website critical of its use.
When paganism is refined in modern terms, it becomes the "New Age," a modern amalgam of practices often preaching that each human is "god" and viewing the Creator as a less personal and universal "energy" that is not usually identified as the "Holy Spirit." It was of course paganism that Christ descended to battle.
Two other remarkably widespread practices are reiki, which taps into the "energy" around us, and the "enneagram" -- a controversial way of categorizing personalities. The energy of reiki is the "ki" of Eastern religions, which tends too rapidly toward psychic energies and earth spirits. The symbol of the enneagram was promoted by a famed occultist name Gurdjieff and bears certain resemblances to the way personality types are discerned through a zodiac (though in this case the discernment comes by way of "self evaluation").
At another Franciscan center in Scottsdale, Arizona, is not only the enneagram but "aqua yoga." Many Catholic convents, retreat houses, and parishes are embracing this technique of meditation and relaxation -- often as a mere physical tool but nonetheless in contradiction to a Vatican document on the New Age, "Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life", that prohibits it.
The argument for it: 16 million Americans now use yoga and find health benefits from what is simply an exercise in breathing. The concern: yoga is from Eastern pagan religions and like reiki can tend toward a deeper involvement in mysterious energies. In some cases, "mantras" (a word used over and over) are employed and such mantras can be the name of Hindu or other "gods." The Beatles brought a focus on yoga when they studied it with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Before that, it was popularized by deep occultists known as Theosophists.
In some cases, centers that hold seminars in reiki and enneagram are receiving funds through diocesan appeals. Defenders say there is a Christian type of reiki that is different than the New Age version, and others say that "healing touch" ministries are similar to the laying on of hands common to Christians. Neither, argue others, is there anything wrong with healing oils.
Such is confusing in that in its 2003 document the Vatican explicitly warned that "there is a remarkable variety of approaches for promoting holistic health, some derived from ancient cultural traditions, whether religious or esoteric," and covering "a wide range of practices" including "kinesiology, homeopathy, iridology, massage, and various kinds of 'bodywork' (such as orgonomy, Feldenkrais, reflexology, rolfing, polarity massage, therapeutic touch, etc), meditation, and visualization... The source of healing is said to be within ourselves, something we reach when we are in touch with our inner or cosmic energy." It also cited the enneagram -- along with more blatant New Age articles such as crystals, strongly warning the faithful away from them.
That document was written by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, which also named the enneagram as a subject of concern.
There are those who take issue with some of what the Vatican cited, especially chiropractic and acupuncture methods. But it is beyond dispute that exotic new spiritual ways have overtaken many nuns (and in some cases priests) -- apparently revealing a yearning for something more than the dry theology that has dominated Western seminaries for more than a half a century.
Dominican sisters in Houston offer tai chi (also involving "ki" energy) along with the labyrinth -- using the occult ying-yang symbol (right) in their literature. Benedictine Sisters of Mount Scholastica in Atchinson, Kansas, meanwhile, have named their retreat area the Sophia Center -- after the feminine form of God.
"Sophia is the name often given to the feminine image of God as portrayed in the wisdom books of the Bible," said a nun there, Sister Linda Herndon, in response to a query from us.
In Cleveland, a former mother house at a Catholic high school has been converted into a retreat center called "River's Edge," offering yoga, quigong, reiki, and other esoteric "wellness" programs (while ironically, across the way, is the monastery of the Poor Clares [below, left] -- a shining light in the darkness).
"My brotherís dear wife is in the last stages of ovarian cancer and near death," writes Ruth Stamps of Blue Ridge, Georgia. "She is not Catholic, but a devout Evangelical Christian. At one point, she considered going to Riverís Edge for their cancer support group, but found this placeís agenda too weird and New Age! The Cleveland area seems to be eaten up with this stuff, but it does not apparently reflect on the Cleveland Diocese itself." Enter the center.
"I left a job as a fifth grade teacher at a parochial school after three years because I could no longer tolerate or ignore the watering-down of the faith," wrote another woman named Coreen Herrick. "My most recent experience with New Age happened this summer at the St. Edmundís retreat center near Mystic, Connecticut. The 'nun' invited retreat members to join her after dinner in the 'touching of hands' massage. Of course, it was cloaked in therapeutic terms. But I knew better. This same nun also (even though this was a silent retreat) engaged us in a 'pagan' spirit 'blessing' before the meal."
There are sisters who are reiki "masters." You can find them in the Midwest. Or in Kentucky. There are monks. "Encountering Divine Goodness in Earth and Cosmos: New Ways of Being in the World," says an advertisement for a retreat at Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario.
In Ringwood, New Jersey -- where it is once more Franciscan nuns -- the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is a lonely place (with Host exposed, left), but presumably not so the lessons in reiki in the same complex. In many cases, questionable spiritual practices are part of the solemnity of Lent.
Nor is it confined to North America. "Another sad example comes from the UK," notes a viewer named Ken Simpson. "At the shrine of St Jude, Faversham, Kent, the Carmelite priest in his sermon asked people to put feet flat on ground, 'to feel the earth,' lay hands open, 'not to hold on to anything, then to breathe out the badness from inside, and then to breathe in God's goodness.'"
Is that really bad? How far do we go with this? Can we overstate the case? Might not some of it be okay -- just oddly expressed?
In some cases, perhaps. But in others, the psychic is clearly predominant.
There is dream exploration. There is guided imagery. There are non-Christian healing rituals. Once again -- time and again -- there are the enneagram and labyrinth. Or Yoga.
Ask those at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, or the Holy Spirit Center in Encino, California.
"Out of all of the New Age stuff, the labyrinth is the most pervasive," notes another viewer. "It seems to pop up everywhere -- we were at St. Anne's shrine in Sturbridge [Massachusetts] looking around -- thought the place very beautiful and appeared holy -- until we noticed the new meditation labyrinth had been created on the grounds. I think people read about these fads and are duped and they get no direction from priests and pastors."
In Santa Fe, a practicing shaman is involved in church fund-raising.
In Brooklyn, New York, according to another correspondent, a parish called St. Ephrem has advertised reiki in its weekly newsletter and "because of this I encouraged my wife to stop attending and to go to another Catholic church. I'm not sure if they still offer this," says a resident named Gerard. The cases go far beyond even those we reported previously.
No doubt, good people get wrapped up in this. Also no doubt: we should be careful not to condemn. When we are on the other side of the veil, there will be surprises. But we are called to obedience and especially to stay away from anything that leads to strange, universal "spirits" or that see God as a cosmic energy.
Examples? The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet have status at the U.N. Check them out. Daring to try new symbols? There are the Sisters of St. Martha of Prince Edward Island. A labyrinth can be found at another beautiful retreat center (in tony Malibu, alongside grottos devoted to the Blessed Mother). If you're in Wisconsin and want the enneagram, this is your spot.
One group of Dominican nuns in Grand Rapids calls itself "Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares."
Maya Abdominal massage or a drum-making workshops or Chinese Essence Qi Gong or "Feng Shui for the Soul"?
Go to the Sisters of Mercy in New Jersey.
Beginners in yoga can find Catholic resources in Arlington, Virginia. ("The priests and nuns there seem like good folks, but the labyrinth seems like a bad idea," notes a viewer). Integrated energy healing, reiki, angel healing? Go here.
"In every woman there is a queen, speak to the queen and she will answer!" says another Catholic group ("Called a Circle of Wisdom ").
This is what we really think it is.
Holistic health? Go here; you can "develop your spiritual muscles" and learn yoga by visiting these nuns. "Celebrate the arrival of winter and our turning toward the light during this season of peace, love and joy. Bring bells, drums, rattles to join in the songs and holiday)," they say; massages and labyrinth [as pictured left) here; for Danville, Pennsylvania, you can get a labyrinth retreat here; an especially beautiful labyrinth is available [pictured below, right] at Marie de la Roche Province in Allison Park, Pennsylvania. Reflexology? Our Lady of Grace Retreat Center on Long Island has what you want; get in the "Zen Spirit/Christian Spirit" here; head to Northport for reiki. And so on. While we have to rely on field reports -- and thus can't verify each one -- those we were able to check out have proven to have what was reported.
These are confusing times and while the Vatican document seemed aimed at society at large [a "pastoral" document to warn the faithful, it said], the New Age, it now is clear, had already infiltrated deeply into the Church itself -- to a degree much beyond that raised as a concern in the early Nineties. Such is the perplexity of our times that a Cardinal has said he was fascinated by a Hindu experience.
We are certainly to be open and ecumenical -- full of love, at every turn, finding common ground -- at the same time that we must guard against paganism.
"In St. Peter Hospital in Albany New York, they have a pamphlet for yoga and other connected exercises, with the picture of the Hindu elephant god Gamesh [in an] advertisement on the first page, in the lobby of the hospital," a medical doctor informs us.
It is one of many Christian hospitals with a New Age slant.
In Austin, Texas, the Seton Family of Hospitals run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul has a center called "Seton Cove" that like so many others offers touch massage, a labyrinth walk, and "chair massage" -- a seeming far cry from the prim conservative nature of St. Elizabeth Seton [left], its patron. It doesn't even help if a hospital is named St. Mary's.
Some of the links to the occult are direct and startling. Noted a writer from the Winnipeg, Canada, of a meeting that was focused on writing for the parish bulletin: "Somehow the conversation turned to ecumenism, and the stewardship coordinator mentioned an article in our local newspaper about 'the study of wicca and how it is "parallel" to Catholicism.' Of course I immediately disagreed, but she proceeded to defend the study as being 'in tune with mother earth.' I just sat there with my mouth open! Our priest said nothing!"
Wicca is the formal name for witchcraft. "Each year I have purchased a planning calendar from the Sisters of St. Joseph of LaGrange -- Ministry of the Arts. Some major feast days and saints' days are noted," writes Barbara Garfield of Ryegate, Montana. "However, as I paid closer attention to the entries this year, I see there are Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and other feasts listed. That did not bother me as I have tried to become familiar with other religions and their practices. What does bother me are the entries for Samhain (wicca) for October 31 and Samhain (Celtic) for November 1 (as well as All Saints)."
In Seaford, New York, writes another worried viewer, was a visiting woman evangelist who "would come out in a costume that looked just like a priest and pretty much ran the whole retreat while he sat on the side.
"Each night they did a ritual. The first night we all lit candles. We were told to bathe ourselves in the light. No mention of Jesus being the Light. Then they had us march around until we ended up in a big circle around the perimeter of the Church. It looked like a witches' coven."
Circling it like Joshua circled Jericho -- or something else?
Meanwhile, St. John's University in New York offers its downtown campus for advanced reiki courses. The list seems endless.
The Daughters of Wisdom, sponsors of Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center in Litchfield, Connecticut, originated in Poitiers, France in 1703. Founded by Saint Louis de Montfort and Blessed Marie Louise Trichet, the aim of the congregation is to seek Divine Wisdom.
Now such wisdom -- at a retreat center that has turned into an interfaith one -- includes the labyrinth.
We are sorry to prolong this. But the extent of such practices is almost certainly unknown by the Vatican.
"I am beginning to become so
disenchanted with my parish, St. Matthias in Somerset, New Jersey, that I have
chosen so far to split my Sunday giving between my parish and another church 45
minutes away in Newark," noted one more distressed website viewer. "I have
always had concerns about the permanent reiki section in the Sunday
bulletin, but when I also saw that brochures were also prominently displayed at
the exits right next to those for 'spiritual direction' (both ministries
provided by the 'reiki master'), I felt really sick. Last year I worked
up the nerve to ask a deacon, who directed me to the Pastor. I went to him and
he told me it was completely harmless: 'Trust me, I've had reiki therapy
and I would tell you if it were harmful.' He told me not
to pay attention to those 'conservatives.'"
And indeed, we do not want to go overboard with this. Our greatest calling is love for one another in circumstances that are often strenuous. But the occult can have long-term ramifications.
Tai chi is offered at St. Joseph Dwelling Place in Ludlow, Vermont -- tapping once again into that 'chi' or Ki. Is that always bad, especially when associated with martial arts? It is a question. In Ontario, the same. "I also went to a Capuchin Retreat House in Mt. Washington Michigan. They have since started 'massage therapy' and who knows what else," writes another viewer.
The Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, reportedly have a labyrinth on their property. "I just read the article today on the new age and Catholic retreat houses. I have discovered such practices in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Visitation Spirituality Center here in Monroe, Michigan," reported yet one more viewer.
"I wrote to you a little over a year age on a group of these nuns in Baltimore," reported another, part of the mail barrage we received. "I ran a retreat house, and one of the groups turned out to practice Zen Buddism, after telling me they weren't Buddhist. They had a statue of Buddha, incense, gong, candle, flower. This is idolatry."
Does this not matter to the bishops?
Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church in Alexandria, Louisiana. What is going on there?
"How glad I am to see a place to report rampant New Age practices in Catholic retreat centers," writes yet one more viewer. "Here are a couple of places I wish to report. The first is the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Click on the link, scroll down, and you will find retreats on the labyrinth, zen, christian yoga (whatever that is!), Meyers/Briggs personality inventory, reiki, and special retreat for gays and lesbians."
"My mother was New Age almost before the New Age got here, and ended up worshiping Satan," notes a viewer, who like many preferred anonymity. "My twin sister is New Age (deeply) and seemingly can't be talked or prayed out of it. Since my baptism into the Church 33 years ago, I've been warning many many people about the occult. Lots of them were nuns -- including a prioress at a convent outside of Boston. Only that prioress seemed to listen. No one else. My sister is a medium and channels spirits who sound so wise, profound, and compassionate that their writings fooled an abbot of a monastery into approval. (Her vocabulary, when she is channeling, is far above her own vocabulary.) I know that lately I've been hearing hints from her that she likes the idea of 'androgyne,' a combining of male and female in one person to make them 'complete.' To me that commits an error so severe that the person has crossed over into Satanism."
For your discernment.
"It seems to me that the devil made huge inroads into Catholicism by distorting the Vatican II teaching that Catholics should respect whatever of truth lies in other religions," frets an e-mailer named Trudi Lawrence. "Monks, nuns, and probably priests mistakenly and unguardedly went looking for truths there that they thought Catholicism didn't have."
Maybe all they had to do was look deeper.
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