Blog Post

The Trouble with Soaking Prayer

Carol and John Arnott Carol and John Arnott

SL writes: "I have been in debate lately with a fellow christian friend of mine regarding "soaking". I have read mostly positive things, and some negative things. My friend who has participated in "soaking" before has asked me to join her again - but I declined. There's something about it, that just doesn't sit well in my spirit."

Assuming that you are talking about “soaking prayer”, red flags went up for me as soon as I discovered that it is associated with the infamous Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF), the same Protestant revival church that promoted the so-called “Toronto Blessing” aka “Holy Laughter.

Soaking prayer came about one evening when Carol Arnott, co-pastor of the TACF, felt tired and decided to lie down for a few minutes. Just as she was about to get up, she felt a tingling in her fingertips and prayed, “Lord, if this is you, please continue.” The tingling moved slowly up her hands. Carol remained still and felt what she believed was the Holy Spirit moving through her whole body. As a result, her tiredness was gone and she was “buzzing with the power of the God". Then she looked at her watch and saw that she’d been on the floor for three hours.

As this article explains, Carol then asked the Lord why He took three hours to do what He could have done in a matter of minutes. She thought Jesus said, “Carol it wasn’t the empowering, it wasn’t the feeling that I was after. I just wanted you to spend time with me. I was lonely for you.”

Arnott later explained that Jesus “wants just our presence, not our prayer lists, not our need to’s – that’s important to Him too, but He just wants us to come into a love affair with Him – what we call soaking in his presence.”

She and her husband John began to reflect on the phenomenon and said it became clear that the Holy Spirit was knocking people over (known as slain in the Spirit) because he wanted them to lie down “in an attitude of rest and stillness, so that He can bless and renew them inside.”

This is now being called "soaking prayer" and it is supposedly cooperating with this alleged desire of the Holy Spirit. The TACF wants Christians to set up “Soaking Prayer Centers” in their homes and churches to continue this trend.

As this article explains, “Make the room comfortable and inviting. Provide a variety of places for people to sit or lie. Play a CD of quiet worship music. Encourage yourself and others to focus on Jesus. Say ‘Come Holy Spirit.’ Then, as Carol Arnott teaches, ‘Wait in a receiving mode, not praying, not speaking in tongues, not helping in any way, just relaxing and waiting and receiving from Him’.”

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask? Being a Carmelite and someone who has been schooled for many years in the Catholic contemplative tradition, I can say that there are plenty of things wrong with soaking prayer that might not meet the eye at first glance.

First of all, Carol Arnott places far too much emphasis on bodily sensations. This is contrary to what is taught by all of the great mystical Doctors of the Church such as Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. In fact, spiritual maturity requires that we grow out of this clinging to sensations and other consolations. Why? Because feelings are notoriously unreliable and are the last thing we should rely upon when judging whether or not we have been touched by the Lord. They are much too fallible, far too subject to delusion, and easily manipulated by Satan.

“In the order of the supernatural operations of grace, the more perceptible things are to the senses, the less stable and perfect they are, while the more secret and spiritual are the nearer to perfection,” Father J. P. de Caussade, one of the Church's greatest spiritual directors, writes in Self Abandonment to Divine Providence.

Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen says that relying upon one’s senses to discern anything is like relying on a weathercock which is blown here and there by every wind.

Instead, we're encouraged to detach ourselves from these unreliable “feelings” and allow the Lord to wean us off of the “feel good religion” we needed at the beginning of our spiritual life. He usually does this by sending us periods of dry prayer and/or distractions. This is critical because if we’re to progress out of spiritual adolescence and begin to mature in the faith, we have to learn how to come to God for His sake, and not our own. As long as we’re coming to God because we get a “kick” out of it, we’re doing it for ourselves, not for Him.

Another troublesome aspect of this type of prayer was discussed by Arnott's husband, John. He admits that the main difference between soaking prayer and classic contemplative prayer is that the aim of the latter is “union with God”. Soaking prayer, on the other hand,  “is more than just waiting, it is receiving the presence of the Lord,” he says. The soaking pray-er comes to prayer expecting to receive something – be it healing, empowering, refreshment, etc.

The absence of the correct intention of union with God can’t be dismissed as a mere “difference” – this is like saying “I’m going to spend some time with my husband not because he deserves the attention but because I want something from him.” The intention is all wrong. It’s self-centered, not self-giving.

What these forms of prayer encourage is negative or at least non-growth, rather than progress, in the spiritual life. (Notice the link between prayer and the spiritual life. The two always go hand-in-hand. If one is not growing in their commitment to Jesus Christ, which requires us to “decrease while He increases”, then we are not advancing in prayer.)

The Catholic contemplative tradition is a school of love – for God and others – and teaches us how to be comfortable with the idea that our God has the power to communicate with us without any reliance on our sense faculties. He can communicate directly to our souls, and this is what He does as prayer advances. But this kind of prayer doesn’t come with “tingling fingertips” and other physical “highs”. It is “dry” to the senses, but incredibly powerful to the soul, filling us with an interior peace and joy that can last for days after our prayer has ended. It goes far beyond anything that can be felt by the senses. This is “what eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has ready for those who love Him . . . (1Cor 2:9)"

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with laying quietly and resting in the Lord, we must be ever mindful of our intentions. Are we seeking Him and His pleasure, or an “experience” for ourselves?

When it comes to prayer, this makes all the difference in the world, not so much to ourselves, but to the One who sees our hearts.