Do Contemplatives Need the Church?

And while we're at it: does the Church need contemplatives?

shutterstock_2917011A post on this blog received the following comment yesterday:

Having been with the Catholic Church and seminary trained for all my 71 years of life . I am naturally contemplative . But I do now believe practising formal meditation/contemplation is false . Aren’t we missing the point if we try and set time aside for contemplation?
Surely if we are made in Gods image we are already suffused with Gods holy grace and we are divinised, so if we are living in Christ what’s the point in pretending to get closer to God when He’s already there? The very air we breathe is holy .
A religionless Christianity is for me. There is now no need for a Church, priests, bible, sacraments, prayer.
My parish is the world wherever I am.

This has given me much food for thought. I promised the person who made this comment I would reply in a new blog post. So here goes. I’m writing this as a direct response to the author of the comment; hopefully it will be of interest to others as well.


Thank you for your comment. It’s wonderful that you have given your life to contemplative spirituality, to the point now where “the world is your parish” and you don’t even see a distinction between a prayer practice and living a prayerful life.

Indeed, the very air we breathe is holy!

So is the ground we walk on, the bodies we inhabit, the relationships that shape and form us every day. We are “all walking around shining like the sun,” as Merton put it. Most of us go through lives never realizing this, what a grace that you have a caught at least a glimpse of glory.

Saint Paul mandates that we “pray without ceasing” and I suspect that this means to do something similar to what Brother Lawrence calls “the practice of the presence of God” — which is to say, to reach a point of non-dual beholding where we find God in all things and all things in God.

“For the fullness of joy is to behold God in all,” as Julian of Norwich put it. Only you can say if you’ve actually reached this point, but your comment makes it sound as if you have.

I suspect that for many people, discovering the grace of “beholding God in all” includes a recognition that truly God is everywhere — not just in Church.

On a street corner in Louisville, one day Thomas Merton suddenly fell in love with everyone he saw. He realized there was greater dignity in being human than in being a monk. It was a major turning point in his life, with a rich lesson for us all.

Can We Dispense with Daily Practice (or the Church)?

When it comes to both the importance of a daily practice, or involvement in a faith community, I have a different perspective than you do.

I believe reaching the point of non-dual contemplation or “beholding God in all” renders Church and practice more necessary than ever. I’d like to share with you why I think so.

Let’s talk about daily practice first. You say:

I do now believe practising formal meditation/contemplation is false. Aren’t we missing the point if we try and set time aside for contemplation?

You give contemplative practice a label: “false.” Immediately I wonder if trying to put contemplative, or silent, prayer into words — calling it “true” or “false,” “meaningful” or “boring,” isn’t somehow missing the point.

That’s because the point of contemplative practice is silence. Not what we think or say about silence (or, for that matter, about the practice).

The point behind a contemplative practice (whether it’s liturgical prayer like the Daily Office, or a meditative exercise like centering prayer) is to dispose ourselves to silence: to a place beyond concepts like “meaningful” or “boring” or “joyful” or “false.”

We enter into intentional silence to remind ourselves to pay attention to the silence that is always, already there.

To me, the best analogy for a contemplative practice is physical exercise.

I personally don’t find a lot of joy in going to workout. I was never a jock and at age 55 I doubt if I’ll become one now! But I still try to faithfully show up at my fitness center several times a week to break a sweat.

Why? Because when I work out, I feel better the other 23 hours a day. And I know if I don’t work out, I start to lose energy, to lose muscle tone.

I believe that health is a gift from God. But if we don’t dispose ourselves to be healthy (through exercise, proper diet, enough sleep, and managing stress), then we are at risk of losing that gift.

The same goes with contemplative silence. It is a free gift from God, we can’t do anything to earn it.

In your words, “we are made in God’s image” and “we are already suffused with God’s holy grace… we are divinised.” Yes, absolutely! But are we mindful of this truth?

I believe the daily practice is essential for disposing myself to that mindfulness.

Perhaps you do not need a daily practice to maintain that level of mindfulness, of awareness, of practicing-the-presence. But I need it! For me, abandoning my daily contemplative practice would be like no longer exercising.

Maybe at first my health would stay strong. But if I stop working out, sooner or later, I’ll notice the loss.

If we are living in Christ what’s the point in pretending to get closer to God when He’s already there?

Well, yes, we are living in Christ. There’s no point in “pretending to get closer to God” — but if that’s your experience of contemplative practice, may I gently suggest that you might find it more satisfying if you think about it differently?

Contemplative practice is not about pretending anything. It’s about authenticity, about being who we truly are.

We need to let go of the internal commentary that says “this is a waste of time, this is just pretending, this is boring, you don’t need  this, yada yada yada.” That’s what Buddhists call “the monkey mind.” Don’t try to argue with it, just gently let it go.

The point behind contemplative practice is to rest in silence. Whenever we think about it, or try to interpret it, we’re not doing it.

We don’t do this “to get closer to God.” That’s impossible, for already in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We make a practice of resting in silence to remember — to cultivate mindfulness, to exercise the gift that has already been given.

Sure, no one needs to practice contemplative prayer. Just like no one needs to go to the fitness center. But people keep going because realize that the workout is worth the blessings that flow from it. The same principle is at work in contemplative practice.

The Church and the Contemplative

The final words of your comment:

A religionless Christianity is for me. There is now no need for a Church, priests, bible, sacraments, prayer.
My parish is the world wherever I am.

To push my metaphor further: if contemplative practice is like a workout, then the Church is like the fitness center.

Some people can stay physically fit without membership in a fitness center. But that requires tremendous willpower, commitment, and resolve. For most of us mere mortals, joining (and using) a fitness center is essential for staying physically fit.

I think the same can be said of Church participation and “spiritual fitness.”

No, it's not a Jedi temple! But Skellig Michael is evidence that even 1500 years ago in remote Ireland, hermit Christians formed community.

No, it’s not a Jedi temple! But Skellig Michael is evidence that even 1500 years ago in remote Ireland, hermit Christians formed community.

Now, I do believe that a small percentage of Christians are called to the vocation of hermit. If that is you, then of course I wish you well and much grace as you live into the calling you have received.

But even hermits need other people, just like a pilot needs a ground crew: the mechanic, the air traffic controller, the meteorologist, and so forth.

I think it’s important to remember that “Church” is just a fancy word for “community.” To say “I have no need for Church” is tantamount to saying “I have no need for other people.”

Now, I know that many people have had terrible experiences with their local church. People have been abused, exploited, oppressed by individuals and by the institution as a whole. The Church is made up of sinners, after all.

But when something is broken, you fix it. Human beings need community. If our communities are broken, the solution is to build better communities, not to give up on community altogether.

So I’m afraid I must disagree when you say “there is no need” for the Church, etc. That’s like saying “I’m physically fit. I no longer need the gym, or a trainer, or weights, or the treadmill.”

If you’re that good, then why don’t you help out some folks who aren’t as far along as you?

Which brings me to, what I suppose, is the main point of this long post. Maybe after years of contemplative living, you’ve decided you no longer need the Church (I disagree with you, but you’re entitled to your opinion).

But doesn’t the Church need you?

Again and again I get emails from Christians who struggle because their hearts have opened up to contemplative spirituality, and yet their Churches aren’t there yet. I feel their pain, because I’ve been there too.

I hear from clergy persons — priests and ministers — who feel this way. I also hear from laypeople in the same boat.

I believe the Christian Church (not just Catholicism, but all the denominations) is in the midst of a spiritual revolution, as the Holy Spirit calls more and more people to embrace contemplative prayer and practice.

But we’re at the cutting edge, friends. Many Christians still haven’t received the memo.

The Church needs contemplatives. The Church needs us to be contemplatives in the Church — even if all the other members of the Church don’t realize it yet.

I’m not saying we all need to go and start centering prayer groups, or teach a class on mysticism, or whatever. In many places, the last thing that is needed is another “program.”

In some places, though, that might be important. We all need to discern where we are called.

But I think in many Churches, we simply need to be present. We need to share with the clergy and other Church leaders that we are called to pray in silence. And then we need to do it. We need to be a contemplative presence in the Church.

Sometimes this might mean starting a program, or teaching a class. Or it might mean a ministry of spiritual companionship. Or it could just mean a daily ministry of intercessory silent prayer.

Every contemplative will have a unique calling. But I believe with all my heart that a central part of following Christ is washing one another’s feet.

And the Church is where we do that.

A Final Word

To my friend who left the comment: I do not mean to preach to you, and I have no interest in saying you are right or wrong. I trust you to follow God as best you can.

But I hope you can at least see, in this post, that there are some positive things to say about maintaining a committed daily prayer practice, and about being part of a faith community.

Commitment and community. They’re beautiful. Certainly not perfect. But necessary anyway.


Do you have a question about silent prayer, contemplative living, or Christian mysticism? If so, please leave it in a comment below — and I might choose it to feature in a future blog post. Thanks for reading!

 

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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.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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16 thoughts on “Do Contemplatives Need the Church?

  1. I really get that church is community and we need that as part of living a spiritual life. Yet, I struggle to find a church..every evangelical church I tried have so many fundamentalists..more progressive ones have been like political pulpits. So community. What kind of church community is a bigger question? I know communities wont be perfect, but finding one where Im experiencing frustration more than growing deeper in faith isnt the best community. Its like public school hasnt been good for my son, whereas alternative schools have been…but finding them hasn’t been easy. I’d love to find a church where I can belong.

    • Sometimes we need to think outside the proverbial box when it comes to finding our church. For some folks it might be house churches, or parachurch organizations like the Lay Cistercians or the Secular Franciscans, or even ad hoc communities built around particular ministries (Habitat for Humanity, for example). Any Protestant who wants a truly contemplative church needs to at least check out the Quakers, although once again you are likely to find a strong political message there. But at least it is leavened with silence.
      You are right, the perfect church simply isn’t out there. I think especially for intentional contemplatives, the right church might be the place where we are best able to serve. That still leaves the question “But how am I nurtured?” unanswered, and that’s an important question — sometimes the answer is found in nature, or at monasteries, or Zen centers. The key is being intentional and proactive about both our own spiritual nuture and finding that place where we can serve. All while continuing to drink deeply from the well of silence.

  2. Carl, unfortunately I find my experiences, both in Protestant and now Catholic churches to be the very same description that A. W. Tozer wrote about back in the 1950’s:

    “The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share his inner experiences he is forced to walk alone.

    The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.

    The man [or woman] who has passed on into the divine Presence in actual inner experience will not find many who understand him. He finds few who care to talk about that which is the supreme object of his interest, so he is often silent and preoccupied in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk. For this he earns the reputation of being dull and over-serious, so he is avoided and the gulf between him and society widens.

    He searches for friends upon whose garments he can detect the smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces, and finding few or none he, like Mary of old, keeps these things in his heart.

    It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. His inability to find human companionship drives him to seek in God what he can find nowhere else.” A. W. Tozer

    • What a perceptive quotation. Sixty years later and it seems like nothing has changed. At least in today’s world there are some opportunities for contemplative fellowship and practice (centering prayer groups, for example), and many people find nurture in at least some form online.

      Once again, I think the real issue about being a contemplative in relationship to the institutional church is this question, “Where may I be of service?”

  3. Interesting comments – sort of a different direction from the blog post. About finding a contemplative community that touches you deeply – I agree it’s very rare to find it in conventional churches. My sense is we may be going back to something that could be very close to what occurred in the early centuries of Christianity – a small group of people – 4, 5, 6, maybe no more than 8 – gather informally, in homes, or even in parks or other public settings – and worship in their own way. For those who are more contemplatively oriented, I suspect this may be one of the best solutions.

    Carl, about your post and the deeply sincere person you responded to – I kept thinking of an analogy – through from the Vedantic perspective (that’s the contemplative side of Indian spirituality, for those not familiar with the term) – right here in Asheville, North Carolina.

    There’s a very large movement called “non duality” (yes, I know Richard Rohr and other Christians use the term but it got started with the Vedantins – particularly dating back to the Indian sages Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi. Maharshi in particular said many things that some just like your correspondent – why meditate or pray, you don’t need a church or spiritual group. In fact, to Christians (people from all over the world and of all religious persuasions visited the Maharshi in South India in the first half of the 20th century) he would say, God is as present as He ever could be. You don’t have to do anything to make Him more present.

    So the contemporary non dualists have translated this into, “I don’t need to meditate, I don’t need anything, I am already in union with God (or whatever language they use – usually, they use Maharshi’s language – “I am the Self (the Infinite Being underlying and constituting the manifest universe).”

    A friend of mine went to a local non duality conference and told me a story of one young woman who was going around with one of those pseudo-ecstatic expressions that people often put on at conferences where it’s a badge of honor to show how “connected” to God you are.

    Several times, she went up to my friend and would say, “I am full of my Self. I am SO full of my Self.” My friend told me, “I don’t think she realized how much truth there was in what she was saying.”

    The Maharshi often met people like this young woman too. As another friend of mine put it quite elegantly, many people confuse the ontological truth (yes, we are all one with God – He in whom we live and move and have our being – how could we ever be apart from Him) and our actual psychological state – in which we sure as hell (sorry) don’t feel like we’re one with God or with anybody else. You might say the “Trump” part of our brains takes over a lot more than one might presume if one was actually and experientially in union with the Divine.

    Formal periods of meditation and contemplation calm that inner Trump/brain enough to allow for a more vivid psychological realization of the ontological reality of God’s omnipresence.

  4. Thank you for your response Carl to my comment. I need to retread it .
    But I found it useful and good dialogue .
    I do still practice as a Catholic , attending mass and receive holy communion etc , but for the past few years it hasn’t ‘felt’ the same as in previous times .i do feel quite distant from the parochial church setting I worship in . I have often thought perhaps the Church should have a last sacrament of thanksgiving for folks like me ! A time when you formally say ” thank you , I am now leaving the formal church , it has been a great pilgrimage journey , but now I must go out alone and walk the final mile with God ” a bit like the Hindu practice of the elder going off …
    And of course I could never be a total urban hermit , as I have good friends who I faith share with and children and grandchildren who I walk with . And patients in the hospital where I minister as an ecumenical interfaith chaplain .

    • You’re welcome, thanks for giving me some chewy food for thought.

      Everyone I know who gets serious about the contemplative path gets frustrated with institutional religion. But if we abandon the Church, we leave it in the hands of the functionaries.

      Like you, I would love to see some sort of framework where the Church acknowledges that its elders are more interested in silence and solitude than in running yet another stewardship campaign…

  5. Thank you Carl for this very clear thoughts of yours. I agree with everything you have mentioned. And I like particularly that you said “we need to be complative presence in the church”. In the last 4 years I have been out of “church” but not out of community. So I like that you have clarified what church is all about….that is is indeed a community. One can be going to church especially Big churches but not to be really in community. My question though is “must it be a typical Sunday worship gathering that is important to attend?

    • I find participating in regular community worship to be a really important part of my ongoing spiritual journey, but I also recognize that many churches have a “worship culture” that is at best uninspiring, if not actually painful because of issues such as toxic theology, unhealthy images of God, or anti-contemplative spirit. So I don’t think I can give a blanket answer to your question. Here’s what I will say: I think that an important part of contemplative spirituality is the act of worship, so I think it would make sense to seek and hopefully find a faith community where it is possible and inviting to engage in some form of regular worship. Even Carthusian monks, who live most of their lives in hermit-like solitude, still join with others on a regular basis for worship.
      If someone finds that they are unhappy with corporate worship, or want to stay away from communities that place priority on worship, I would encourage them to nonjudgmentally look very closely at their inner dynamics. Why are they unhappy with worship? What would a meaningful worship experience look like for them? At the very least, this could be a rich opportunity to pray more deeply, but hopefully it would also lead to an effort to seek (and hopefully find) a truly supportive and challenging community.

  6. Just reading these post in defense for a contemplative walk or spirituality already makes me feel like I have found companionship though it is through the “e-church” or e-community. I guess this is less lonelier…can you imagine those days when there was only the snail mail communications? So is I still thank God for providing companionship in many forms…yes even in nature!

  7. My feeling is as a contemplitive I can pray without other people but I an not a community unto myself. We all need others around us to bounce thoughts off of. I am a true believer of the old saying ” No man is an island”

  8. The Mass is about the covenant Christ made with His people. Anything else is based in one’s own ego. The point of contemplation is to get farther and farther away from our ego and closer to God’s will, His covenant. It’s not easy but it’s what true Christianity is about.