close, but no cigar

I’ve intended this week to post about an experience we had last Friday night. Some friends of ours receive e-mail updates from some area groups who meet up to discuss spirituality, mysticism, and the like. They invited us to an event one of the spirituality groups was having last Friday &emdash; a showing of a film on the life of St. John of the Cross. We thought, “Cool! They’re using a Christian ascetic monk as a model for spirituality.” Wanting to learn more about St. John of the Cross and add a few Christian voices to the discussion (we weren’t sure what the religious makeup of the group would be), we attended the movie screening.

The movie was being shown at a monastery-like place by a group that claimed to be “Christian mystics.” We walked into the house (late) and were greeted warmly by a woman in a priestly get-up. The film had already started, so they paused it while we found our seats, after which they continued the movie. I could tell that there were about 4 other women in the room with the same clerical outfit on — black top and bottom, clerical collar, and a metal cross around their neck. There were maybe 12-15 others in the living room of varying ages, but none younger than the four of us.

We learned a lot about St. John of the Cross through the crudely produced, mid-1980s VHS. John of the Cross was a 14th century Catholic who, after his conversion, wanted to dedicate the rest of his life only to loving God. He became a Friar in the Carmelite order, where he immediately sought to reform the order from its comfortable state. He is imprisoned for being a “radical,” and remains in a small, dark upper room at the monastery for nearly a year, and he was beaten publicly for refusing to renounce his desire to see the Carmelites reform their lavish ways. During that time, he wrote many poems about his love for God and the test of faith his imprisonment was, and the most famous volume that emerged from this time was “Dark Night of the Soul.” Eventually, he escaped from his prison and returned to a “normal” life of establishing Carmelite orders with another eventual saint, Teresa of Avila.

When the film went off, we were led in a discussion by one of the women who greeted us initially. She began to ask about our reflections from the film. The first person to speak up noticed that to St. John, suffering was not something to be avoided. This sparked a discussion of why this might be, and some good things were said. Then the leader of the discussion began to talk about finding our “inner light,” that everything is made of light, that we originated from stars, and that love is the only way to live well on this earth. The “love” she spoke of seemed to be some enigmatic emotion/feeling, and could be achieved outside of a belief in or connection to Jesus. But then she began to tell the story of their little monastic order and more specifically her own story of spiritual enlightenment, which was by all accounts a Christian conversion. She said their group (which has branches in several other cities) exists to help other people find their “inner light,” and that adherence to traditional Christianity was not required for this to happen. In fact, she clearly stated that her conversion was her “experience only,” and she couldn’t possibly discount others’ experience of finding their light through another avenue.

The non-priests in the room were a hodge-podge of people from all over the city, all of whom were interested in spirituality and few of whom had met prior to Friday’s meeting.  Despite basically being strangers, they spoke very openly about their spiritual pursuits and fears … more openly than many Christians speak after years of “life together.”  The four of us who came together asked several questions to work toward a clear understanding of what this group was advocating, and my conclusion was that it wasn’t an honest pursuit of spiritual truth — but a sales pitch for the group’s syncretistic mix of Catholicism, Eastern mysticism, as well as New Age pursuits.  As more information surfaced about the national movement of this group, bells went off in my mind — they had two “Master Teachers” who traveled the country and could mandate doctrine, they put a heavy emphasis on one-on-one “training” and psychiatry as ways of finding one’s “light,” they believe in reincarnation, and several other tid-bits. Hearing the leader describe the narrative of the Christian story, we were nodding our heads in agreement (except for the part where Mary was in Heaven as part of the Trinity), but then a curveball of self-help psychobabble would be thrown in and off the apple cart we would fall.

After I had asked a few questions, the leader asked me directly, “You seem like you’ve had an experience with Jesus.  Would you mind telling us about that?”  So I had the opportunity to explain the way that my life had been flipped upside down by Jesus Christ, and the incredible journey I was on as a result.  Heads were nodding all over the room, as if to say, “yeah, that’s what I want.”  But the do-it-yourself religion won the day, of course, which was fine — we weren’t there to win any debates or even to get into one, but to dialogue honestly with fellow searchers.

I know this has been a long read, and for that I’m sorry.  I also know that it may come off like we were thumbing our noses (or still are) at the others in the room and their beliefs.  This was certainly not the case.  We were careful to listen a LOT and speak a LITTLE.  Most of the sentences that came from our mouths were actually questions, to be honest.  I tell this story to illustrate the danger in groups that throw in just enough familiar Christianity to a very different belief system.  The leader of the group was pitching her brand of spirituality as Christianity, and people all over the room were buying it, because some of it “they had heard before” and the rest of it made them feel good.  In reality, it’s nothing but an individualistic pursuit of one’s own elusive “light” through meditation and various other exercises, when our “light” is found only in Jesus Christ and dogged pursuit of his Mission.

Satan is using groups like this preaching partial truths to lead people to put their hope in themselves and not God.
*Note:  We did some research on the group when we got home, and it turns out that the group with whom we had visited showed up on several cult lists.  Apparently, some in the group (including the group’s “Master Teacher”) were using psychiatry as a front for pushing their religion on people, and a few people had claimed that they were brainwashed.  We may return to next month’s “saint” movie — about Francis of Asissi — simply to stay in these people’s lives and remain in the conversation.  But it’s quite a haul down to where the meetings are held, so I have my doubts.  I’ll keep ya posted.


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