A Disturbing Substitute for Faith

by Anna Abbott


In this article Anna Abbott calls into question the increasingly popular practice of Reiki.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


38 – 39

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, July 2008

In a Napa Valley pharmacy, I came upon 10 people in a circle listening to a woman instruct them on Reiki, a therapy based upon "universal energy." She walked around them, resting her hands on their shoulders as they sat with their eyes closed. Afterwards, some said they felt warmth; others, "tingling."

The demonstration seemed in a way innocuous, yet I sensed something awry and opted out, retreating to the herbal tea samples section. A few years before, that same Reiki practitioner had offered me a free "sample" of her work; I declined then as well. Somehow Reiki didn't strike me as harmless meditation or healing.

Nevertheless, Reiki has gone from the fringes of the New Age to the cultural mainstream. Newsweek has highlighted it with acupuncture and other methods. It is offered at hotels and spas. In the Napa Valley Register in November 2005, a woman credited Reiki with curing her of pancreatic cancer, claiming she visualized God as golden energy flowing through her body. Reiki also enjoys the favor of celebrities such as Prince Charles.

Reiki now enjoys favor among some Catholics. Some dioceses offer classes on it; some religious orders practice it according to a "Christian attunement." At the website christianreiki.org, Sr. Mary Mebane says, "Laying on of hands is a gift of God and was used extensively by Jesus and his followers and still is!" St. Celestine Catholic Church in Elmwood Park, Illinois has a "Reiki Wellness Clinic" run by Sr. Terri Grasso. The Sisters of Mercy in Cincinnati and the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose also offer Reiki as "ministries."

What exactly is Reiki? It can resemble massage, except the client is fully clothed. Some practitioners place their hands on the client's body; others do not. The practitioners are "manipulating" the person's "energy flow." Most of the time, a sheet covers the client while the practitioner moves his hands in different positions around him.

There is also "long distance healing" where clients can e-mail or phone in their illnesses. Some Reiki practitioners claim to heal plants and, on one website, a woman is thanked for healing family pets.

Reiki is often advertised as a "rediscovery" of an ancient healing method. Some claim it originated in Tibet centuries ago. But it actually began in 20th century Japan. In 1922, Mikao Usui claimed to have a mystical experience after going on retreat to Mt. Kurama. He started the Usui Reiki Ryoho Gakkai (Usui Reiki Healing Society), saying his methods led to "spiritual and bodily evolution." Reiki practitioners interpret this "evolution" as healing not only the physical body, but the soul and the world as well. When Usui died in 1926 in Fukuyama at the age of 62 of a stroke, his students numbered in the thousands.

His successor, Chujiro Hayashi, started his own association. Hayashi's student, Hawayo Takata, is credited with bringing Reiki to the United States. She emphasized that Reiki wasn't for free, that people should pay for the teachings and healings. Takata said that she learned this lesson in Hawaii after she performed a free Reiki session for a neighbor, who remained ill. But when she charged for a session for another friend, that one recovered. The lesson Takata culled from this experience was that clients must perceive the "value" of the healing.

Not long before she died in 1979, Takata formed the American Reiki Association with Dr. Barbara Ray. Many current Reiki practitioners credit Ray as their mentor. The American Reiki Association is now called the Radiance Technique International Association.

Lori Furbush of Healing Touch Yoga in Santa Rosa is a convert to Reiki. Though she was raised Catholic in Dallas, she became interested in Eastern philosophy and practiced yoga. A female Reiki practitioner invited her to join with 10 other people in laying hands upon a woman suffering from terminal cancer. Later, a woman placed her hands upon her head.

Furbush says, "I felt a strange vibration down my spine, and the woman said she was a Reiki master." She explains Reiki's growing popularity by saying, "It's accessible because it's not part of any religion. It's about focusing love and compassion on your target . . . It's a very meditative practice; I serve as a conduit for life force energy. It feels soothing, like waves of energy."

Furbush says, "Some people aren't aware of the energy. Some feel clarity and are more peaceful. Some see images, past memories; some become agitated and cry. Reiki is bliss and relaxation."

Connee Pike, chaplain and spiritual care manager for Hospice of Napa Valley, discovered Reiki a dozen years ago in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She says, "I met a Reiki master from Germany who trained me . . . I first experienced Reiki during a tragic time in my personal life. I felt a spiritual presence, offering healing. There had been a death in my life. Reiki gave me a way to grieve and feel comforted." She uses Reiki with her "spiritual midwifery" for dying clients as well as those going through childbirth. Pike says that Reiki "gives us a sense of love, returns us to our natural state. It can feel like a waterfall, a sense of oneness, and it works well with other therapies. There are no side-effects."

But what are the spiritual side-effects? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2117) teaches,

All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others — even if this were for the sake of restoring their health — are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion . . . Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.

With its "life force energy," and practitioners presenting themselves as conduits of this "force," Reiki raises serious questions.

Reiki appears to be a form of Gnosticism. Its practitioners assert "secret" knowledge, despite the fact one can find the symbols of it on the Internet with a few clicks. A Reiki practitioner in Calistoga, California reported to me that when she looked at one of the "power symbols" — which bears an uncanny resemblance to the musical treble clef — she perceived it differently than I did because she's initiated.

Reiki practitioners charge for their healings or teachings. One practitioner based in Sebastopol, California charges $35 per "long distance" session; another, based in nearby Santa Rosa, has a "deal" of $75 for a series of five daily half-hour sessions.

Since Reiki dubiously invokes a nameless "life force," why is Reiki popular among Catholics? A look at the International Center for Reiki Training website suggests one reason: practitioners are taught how to make their practices palatable to Christian audiences. Jesus is called a "Reiki master." Some claim Jesus acquired his healing powers through secret initiations in Asia. The archangels and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are "spirit guides." The anonymous "life energy" is renamed the Holy Spirit.

This site also gives guidance on how to perform Reiki "healing services" in churches, offering such suggestions as having participants visualize the Reiki symbols rather than drawing them and using hymns to give the service a Christian aura. While some Reiki practitioners claim they heal "in the name of Jesus," others invoke the Buddha or Kuan Yin (the Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion) as "spirit guides." (I have seen an altar adorned with a laughing Buddha and the San Damiano crucifix in the "home office" of a Northern California practitioner.)

The Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose promote Reiki at their community retreats, according to an April article at the website California Catholic Daily. These sisters, in contrast to other modernized orders, are clad in their traditional habits. At a summer retreat on the Beatitudes, I learned that Sr. Cheryl Holyk, a second-level Reiki practitioner and nurse, would be giving her "healings."

Attempts to contact Holyk were unsuccessful, but I was directed to Sr. Joan Prohaska and informed that she practices Reiki. According to the order's website, Sr. Joan practices "energy healing" at St. Simon's Convent in Los Altos Hills, California. I asked her if she practices Reiki, but she said the California Catholic Daily article misrepresented her. Though the receptionist said that Sr. Joan practices Reiki, she would only admit to the practice of "energy healing."

Sr. Maureen Conroy, described as a massage therapist and Reiki master, practices at the Upper Room Spiritual Center in Neptune, New Jersey. She discovered Reiki back in 1992 and says that when she first received a Reiki treatment, she "fell in love with it. It's holistic healing for the body, mind, and spirit." She says her fellow Sisters of Mercy practice it as well. "Generally, sisters are open to Reiki; they are open to receive it," she says.

Conroy describes her practice as "Jesus-based." She teaches Reiki workshops at various Catholic retreat centers around the United States; the workshops range in cost from $150 to $270.

She believes that Reiki has a scientific basis. "Everything moves. Everything vibrates. The life force is the vibration of life. All life, all energy comes from God," she says. As a Reiki practitioner, she believes she is "connecting with Jesus' healing ministry."

Questionable practices passed off as a new spirituality flourish in an atmosphere that lacks faith, and Reiki is a vivid case in point. It has become one more substitute for faith. But the real healers of modern times — such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Padre Pio — illustrate that power lies not in magic; it lies in the simple words, "Thy will be done."

ANNA ABBOTT writes from Napa, California. She is a former "On Faith" columnist for the Napa Valley Register.

© Ignatius Press

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