Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun is a primer on contemplative mysticism, bursting with contemplative meditation instruction along with references and quotes by some of the movement’s most prolific mystics on the scene today. It’s a book one might expect to find on the shelves of a Catholic monastery, a New Age bookstore, or in an emerging church coffee house; while it probably is in those types of places, the book has become a common textbook in many spiritual formation classes and has found a growing audience with evangelical pastors, seminary professors, and Christian ministry leaders. In fact, many of those in ministry are eagerly flocking to this book, and in so doing pointing potentially millions of Christians to the book’s message. While we have made mention of this book in several articles over the past decade, we feel it is time to present a more focused critique of Calhoun’s book and her message.
Who is promoting Calhoun’s handbook? First of all, a major advocate of the book for a number of years is Rick Warren. You can find the book on his resource website, where Saddleback gives a hearty recommendation for the book. Willow Creek also recommends the book in their Establishing Life Giving Rhythms class. In a course at Reformed Theological Seminary, the book is being used as “required reading.” (2013 Update: *A professor contacted us from Reformed Theological Seminary to say that Calhoun’s book was “optional required” reading, not “mandated required” reading. Also he told us that the book is no longer being used in that course.) In Olivet Nazarene University’s Spiritual Formation and Personal Development course, the book is listed in the “Suggested Reading” section. In Biola’s online course, Introduction to Spiritual Formation, the book is “Recommended Reading.” Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’s course, Renewing the Spiritual Leader includes Calhoun’s book in a list for required reading. Moody Bible Institute’s Midday Connection radio program had Calhoun as a guest speaker in November 2011, and Midday Connection host Anita Lustrea talks about Calhoun in her own book, What Women Tell Me. Lustrea, tells how she met Calhoun during a course called Growing Your Soul and how Calhoun taught her some of the contemplative “spiritual disciplines” (p. 125). On the Wesleyan denomination’s website, in a Spiritual Formation course, Calhoun’s book is listed in a Bibliography on Spiritual Formation. MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) had Calhoun as one of the speakers at their 2011 MOPS International Convention (http://www1.mops.org/evt/events/registration/evt_details.php?eventid=25). On the book’s publisher’s website (InterVarsity Press), you will find an endorsement for the book by the popular pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian of NYC, who says of Calhoun’s handbook:
I have long profited from Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s gifts in the field of spiritual development, and I am delighted that she has compiled her experience with spiritual disciplines into book form. I highly recommend it and I look forward to using it as a resource at our church.
These are just a few instances of many more where evangelical Christians or organizations are turning to Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook for spiritual direction (see below this article for more who use the book). Now let us examine this book and see why it is so troubling to know it is being used in so many Christian venues.
As we stated above, Calhoun’s book is permeated with references of and quotes by some of the most prolific contemplative mystics today. But she doesn’t just quote and reference these mystics – in her book, she reveals that these teachers are her “spiritual tutors.” She states:
I would be remiss not to mention the spiritual tutors that I know only through books: Dorothy Bass, Eugene Peterson, Gerald May, M. Basil Pennington, Dallas Willard, Phyllis Tickle, Fredrick Buechner, Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Jonathan Edwards [not a contemplative], Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, St. Benedict, Julian of Norwich and many more. Their ideas, voices and examples have shaped my own words and experience of the disciplines. (Acknowledgment’s page)
For those who have spent time on the Lighthouse Trails website or read A Time of Departing and Faith Undone, most of these names above will be familiar to you. You will know that the late Gerald May was the co-founder of the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation in Washington DC., and as Ray Yungen points out, May adhered to “Eastern metaphysical views,” which can be seen in many of his writings, including his book The Awakened Heart where he discusses the “cosmic presence” “pervading ourselves and all creation” (ATOD, p. 67). Yungen points out that “there can be no mistaking [May’s] theological underpinnings” when May says:
It is revealed in the Hindu greetings jai bhagwan and namaste that reverence the divinity that both resides within and embraces us all. (The Awakened Heart, pp. 179-180)
Gerald May makes it very clear in that statement where he is coming from. This panentheistic, God-in-everybody view, which May embraced is the “fruit” of contemplative spirituality and is why we are so persistent in warning about this spiritual outlook that has entered the Christian church. Think about it, Adele Calhoun sees Gerald May as a spiritual tutor, and now she is presenting the beliefs of these tutors to untold numbers of Christians via her book. Let’s look at another tutor whom she turns to – Basil Pennington. In a book written by Pennington and Thomas Keating (who, by the way, Calhoun also recommends), the two Catholic monks write:
We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age-old wisdom of the East and “capture” it for Christ. Indeed, those of us who are in ministry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible.
Many Christians who take their prayer life seriously have been greatly helped by Yoga, Zen, TM and similar practices, especially where they have been initiated by reliable teachers and have a solidly developed Christian faith to find inner form and meaning to the resulting experiences. (Finding Grace at the Center, pp. 5-6)
Calhoun would agree with Pennington and Keating on their views of “Eastern techniques.” She talks about these kinds of practices in her book, such as in the chapter she titles “Centering Prayer” where she instructs readers to focus on a “sacred word,” or in the chapter she titles “Breath Prayer,” where she encourages “short repetitive prayer[s],” or in her chapter titled Devotional Reading, where she talks about lectio divina and picking out one word from a passage of Scripture, a word which becomes the focus for meditation, or in her chapter titled “The Labyrinth Prayer,” where one is taught how to walk through a labyrinth while doing contemplative meditation. She also tells readers to “Explore the practice of liturgical prayer through using the book The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, or The Daily Office of the Catholic church” (Kindle Edition, Locations 2861-2862). For those of you who may not know who Phyllis Tickle is, she has been the darling and a favorite mentor of emerging church leaders. It is Tickle who likened atonement-rejector Brian McLaren to another Luther, saying he could be instrumental in bringing about a “new reformation.”
One can also see how Calhoun resonates with Pennington and Keating when she favorably says that “three Cistercian monks, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and William Meninger, sought to revive this ancient form of meditative prayer.” (Kindle Edition, Locations 2460-2461). By the way, Calhoun recommends (Kindle Edition, Location 2498) Keating’s book, Open Mind, Open Heart, another “textbook” on contemplative and centering prayer. In that book, Keating says this:
Centering prayer is a discipline designed to reduce the obstacles … choose a sacred word [to repeat] … Twenty to thirty minutes is the minimum amount of time necessary for most people to establish interior silence. (pp. 18, 21, 23 as quoted from Faith Undone, p. 81)
The repeating of a word or phrase is how contemplative prayer is practiced. This in turn begins to make the practitioner feel a oneness with God, humanity, creation, and with everything. This oneness is the whole crux of the matter. After awhile, the contemplative meditator begins to take on a different spiritual outlook. It’s what caused Thomas Merton (another mystic you will find in Calhoun’s book) to say “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity . . . I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” (from David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969). Or what caused Henri Nouwen (another Calhoun “tutor”) to say at the end of his life after years of meditating:
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)
In addition to the tutors Adele Calhoun lists in her Acknowledgements page, she also includes other names in the book that are important to point out here: David Steindl-Rast, Marjorie Thompson (author of Soul Feast), Brian C. Taylor, Kathleen Norris (a Catholic contemplative nun), Karen Mains, Tilden Edwards, Ruth Haley Barton, and Esther De Waal. Between her “tutors” and these other names along with the practices and ideas Calhoun espouses in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, the heart of the contemplative prayer movement is clearly and no doubtedly manifested in her book.
The following quotes by some of the people in Calhoun’s book are the focal point of our concerns. These aren’t minor points we’re dealing with. The essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at risk to those who are being exposed to this. The spirituality that Calhoun and her tutors embrace leads to interspirituality (i.e., all paths lead to God). “Christian mysticism” resonates with Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim mysticism, which means it’s not Christian at all; but practitioners become blinded to that – this is how Henri Nouwen came to call these mystical spiritual practices “treasures for the spiritual life of the Christian.” See now for yourself if you come to the same conclusions we have when you read these quotes:
The God he [Merton] knew in prayer was the same experience that Buddhists describe in their enlightenment. – Brian C. Taylor (Setting the Gospel Free, p. 76 -What Taylor means by this book title is getting rid of the biblical Gospel).
These [Christian] contemplatives also recognize their soul mates in other traditions, as did Thomas Merton in his pilgrimage to Buddhist Asia. This is because they have passed beyond the confines of religion as a closed system to an open awareness of God-in-life. Brian C. Taylor, Setting the Gospel Free
The enlightenment you seek in our religions has been present in Christianity from the beginning – from the back cover of Richard Rohr’s book, The Naked Now
[New Ager] Ken Wilber is really the best teacher today . . . to give us an “integral spirituality.” Pick any book of his that fascinates you, and you will know why I, as a Christian, recommend him. – Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, p. 153 (Wilber’s “integral spirituality” include yoga, zen, TM, kabbalah, tantric sex, kundalini, and centering prayer.)
This mystical stream [contemplative prayer] is the Western bridge to Far Eastern spirituality. – Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Friend, p. 18
The practice of contemplative prayer might give a Christian ground for constructive dialogue with a meditating Buddhist. – Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, Prologue
Skeptics may say, well these quotes are not in Calhoun’s book. That’s true, but anyone can see that Calhoun is encouraging her readers to turn to these mystics by calling them her tutors, quoting from them extensively, and recommending their books.
If you want to know what the end result of practicing contemplative spirituality is, the following quote by David Steindl Rast (who is in Calhoun’s book) sums it up – drop the Cross of Christ! There’s no need for it once the world religions come together under the common denominator of mystical realms:
Unfortunately, over the course of the centuries, this [Christianity] has come to be presented in almost legal language, as if it were some sort of transaction, a deal with God; there was this gap between us and God, somebody had to make up for it—all that business. We can drop that. The legal metaphor seems to have helped other generations. Fine. Anything that helps is fine. But once it gets in the way, as it does today, we should drop it. – David Steindl-Rast, talking to a Buddhist (Robert Aitken & Steindl Rast, The Ground We Share, p. 45, emphasis added)
We must choose one, dear Christian – contemplative spirituality or the Cross of Jesus Christ – we cannot have them both.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)
Other Instances Where Spiritual Disciplines Handbook is Being Used:
Anaheim Vineyard – Pastoral Staff Recommends list
Eastern Mennonite University – “Highly recommended” list
Northpark Theological University – “Highly recommended” list
Nazarene Theological Seminary – Bibliography used
Trevecca Nazarene University – Formational Resources