What to Say to the Nay-Sayers: Talking About Contemplation With Its Critics

Often, remaining silent is better than getting into a pointless debate.

Often, remaining silent is better than getting into a pointless debate.

If you are active in a church or other faith community, and you are drawn to (or practicing) silent prayer, if you talk about it with others you will likely, sooner or later, hear somebody say something along these lines:

  • “Isn’t meditation Buddhist? Or Hindu? Christians don’t need to do that sort of thing.”
  • “Sitting in silence? It’s just a waste of time. We are called to be serving others, not avoiding them.”
  • “Contemplation and mysticism aren’t in the Bible. Therefore, they aren’t for me.”
  • “Centering prayer is a Catholic practice, not appropriate for Protestant/Reformed/Evangelical Christians.”

Objections like these can be disheartening. Readers of this blog and others I’ve met at conferences and retreats around the country have told me a lot of sad stories. Lots of folks have told me they couldn’t share their love for contemplation with members of their churches — or even their pastors — because of objections like the ones above. An Episcopal priest told me that the Senior Warden of her church refused to let her begin the Vestry meetings with five minutes of silence, because they had “too much to do” (i.e., it’s a waste of time). I myself once had a priest tell me he wasn’t a “spiritual” person, he was a “practical” person (he’s a bishop now).

If you’ve been discouraged by nay-sayers and contemplative critics, take heart. The church has had a non-contemplative status quo for centuries now. Those of us who are seeking to restore the contemplative heart of our faith will naturally meet with resistance from others who, consciously or subconsciously, want to defend the status quo. Our job is to respond to such persons with kindness and understanding, while not backing down.

To those who worry that contemplation seems too “Buddhist” or “Hindu” or “New Age,” remind them that Christianity has a long tradition of saints and mystics who advocated silent prayer as a way to grow closer to God. From Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth century, to Richard of St. Victor in the twelfth century, to The Cloud of Unknowing in the fourteenth century and The Way of a Pilgrim in the nineteenth, Christian history is replete with teachings and instructions for the practice of silent, contemplative prayer.

Granted, many Christian contemplatives do engage in interfaith dialogue or interspiritual practice. That is true. But you can be a Christian contemplative without being involved in interfaith dialogue, and vice versa.

To those who object that contemplation, or mysticism, are too “Catholic” for Protestant or Evangelical Christians to accept, remind them that Catholics and Protestants share the same books of the New Testament, the practice of Baptism and Communion, and the writings of all the great Christian teachers and leaders for fifteen of the last twenty centuries. We worship the same God, trust in the same savior, and are inspired by the same Holy Spirit. Yes, there are real differences between these branches of Christianity, but contemplation, with its emphasis on silence, is perfectly suited for anyone who seeks a closer walk with God.

When someone insists that contemplation isn’t in the Bible, you can agree that the word itself is not in scripture. But silent prayer is all over the Bible. “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Psalm 62:1); “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10); “In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15); “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Habakkuk 2:20); “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1); and my personal favorite, which only makes sense when the original Hebrew is translated literally: “To you, O God, silence is praise” (Psalm 65:1). When Elijah encounters God, he encounters “a still small voice,” or “a light silent sound” or “the sound of sheer silence” (take your pick, these are different translations of I Kings 19:12). Scripture affirms silence as a way to relate to God. There is no Biblical reason for a Christian to avoid silence in prayer.

Finally, the person who insists that silent prayer is a waste of time, or is an indulgence that Christians cannot afford, is using the same argument that Judas used when criticizing Mary’s anointing of Jesus (John 12:1-11). There is always the temptation to assume that spirituality and practicality are at odds. But Jesus didn’t see it that way. Taking time (and expensive ointment!) to care for him was, in his mind, a worthy pursuit. Likewise, as people of faith we need to take time to rest in the love of God, with no agendas, no to-do lists, nothing other than our desire to love and worship the God of Love.

Of course, no true contemplative would say that we should remain silent at all times and simply abandon the commandment to serve others. But the key here is balance. Too much “practicality” can lead to burn-out and bitterness or resentment at how things don’t always go the way we plan them. But when balanced with deep and meaningful contemplation, our efforts to put our faith into action emerge out of a deep place of profound trust in God.

I’ve written this post not to help you change peoples’ minds, or to win debates, or to score points. In fact, as a general rule I think it’s best not to get into arguments with those who see things differently. In fact, the main purpose behind this post is to remind us contemplatives that we have sound reasons for our prayer practice, even when others criticize it. Remember, there is a hidden reason why otherwise well-meaning Christians object to contemplation: usually, they are just too invested in maintaining the status quo. We don’t have to change their minds. But neither do we have to let their objections get in the way of our intentional silent prayer.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.