In recent times, some Australian Catholic parishes have become involved in New Age activities with churches advertising 'Centering Prayer' sessions, a type of prayer related to Buddhist meditation, which originated in St Joseph's Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts.
In the mid-1970s, the director of the monastery, Trappist Abbott Father Thomas Keating, invited Buddhist and Hindu monks to give talks and retreats to the Trappist monks, just at a time when Eastern philosophies were wafting into the secular West on clouds of incense, mantras and marijuana.
Since then, books, courses and retreats using its techniques have proliferated. People who attend are no doubt well-intentioned but have no idea of the origins of this type of prayer, which aims to alter consciousness and unite one with more impersonal forces in the universe.
Christian idea of prayer
Talking about Jesus and Buddha as if they were similar 'good men' ignores the basic teachings of Buddhism and Christianity and shows no respect to adherents of either faith. It ignores the fact that at its core, centering prayer is fundamentally opposed to the Christian idea of prayer which is relational - involving communication with God as a person - and ignores the radically different under- standing of God, the distinction between creature and creator, the nature of being and man's ultimate end.
In the midst of such attempts to blend east and west, it is disturbing to see na•ve tolerance of New Age activities under the aegis of Catholic organisations.
Of note is a special project of PALMS, an organisation which has done fine work in training and sending missionaries to various overseas posts. On its current website, however, PALMS describes one of its new ventures called the Fair Trade Coffee Company, which is a café at 33 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, in Sydney, offering coffee and tea to its patrons guaranteed to have been grown and delivered 'free of exploitation'.
The Fair Trade Coffee Company also has a website which describes its laudable ideals of pursuing justice for workers in the Third World: 'When you visit the Fair Trade Coffee Company, you can be sure that every bean of our coffee is certified fair trade, meaning among other things, that every worker involved in producing your cup is paid a fair wage for their work'.
In addition, the site explains that the proceeds of this venture go towards funding volunteer placements in countries such as Timor- Leste, Papua New Guinea and Kenya in skill exchange programs.
One wonders why its best selling coffee is called 'Sacred Grounds'. But this is a minor concern in comparison with the fact that the café's venue is offered to various groups and communities as a meeting place and that these groups are advertised on the website.
Which groups? Certainly not Rosary or St Vincent de Paul groups. No, there are several advertisements for regular meetings of a 'Psychic and Healing Cafe' if one goes to the 'Events' icon. On one of these Psychic and Healing Café' session links, the description says, 'Elizabeth brings you the opportunity for spiritual and physical healing, every Wednesday and goes on to detail Tarot, Palm and Tea Leaf Readings, Astrology, Energy Healing, Relaxing Head, Neck and Shoulder Massage, and Bush Flower Readings.'
In addition, a 'Buddhist' conference dinner has been advertised as one of the events scheduled at this Centre. While PALMS has high ideals in evangelising and social justice, there would appear to be, to say the least, some cognitive dissonance in working under a Catholic organisation's name and offering a venue for tarot card readings at the same time.
There seems a blithe unawareness that anything to do with (to engage in or materially co-operate with) divination, sorcery and spiritism is absolutely forbidden by the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, is it inappropriate to ask why there are no activity sessions advertised on the website which might show a connection to the Catholic faith?
Are there any nights screening videos of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II or the great missionary Saint Francis Xavier? Or perhaps a book club offering a reading of Pope Benedict's latest book, Jesus of Nazareth? Or perhaps a 'Pro life issues in the Third World' night? Or, perhaps even an outreach to the Glebe community offering the basic truths of the Catholic faith?
World Youth Day
A letter from the executive director of PALMS, Roger O'Halloran, has been circulated to young people involved in World Youth Day, asking them to 'come along' and be part of it all at the Fair Trade Café.
While explaining the aims of the café the letter goes on to say 'come and visit us É You will see on our website the various activities in which you might join.'
Surely protection of the young is the responsibility of all? Just as PALMS laudably seeks to protect those in Third World countries from economic exploitation, don't the youth of Australia deserve to be protected from spiritual exploitation and psychic-babble from organic tea leaf readers and spirit channelers?
Surely it is not beyond the bounds of reason to suggest, politely, that psychic activities or ideas have no place on a website sponsored by a Catholic organisation? It is to be hoped that the links will be removed from the Fair Trade's website.
Catholics in Sydney have their missionary work cut out for them in warning young people to have nothing to do with psychics, spirit channelers and tarot cards whether in cafes or elsewhere.
Wanda Skowronska is a registered psychologist based in Sydney.