How do we reach the contemplatives?

Today I spoke with several people who mentioned how much they hunger for a deeper experience of Christian spirituality. This is something I run into on a regular basis: practicing Christians who want to take their faith to a new level; non-Christians (or Christians alienated from the contemporary church) who are genuinely interested in Christ and the mystics but don’t know how to cope with the crazy/limiting/judgmental qualities they see so abundantly in ordinary Christian communities.

I am convinced that there are plenty of people, both Christian and non-Christian, who would love to learn about the mystics and who would find in the mystics guidance to improve their own spirituality. But if this is so, then why is it so hard to get people to attend a class, or buy a book, on Christian mysticism?

Books on mysticism go in and out of print like the flash of a strobelight. Classes on mystical spirituality often are sparsely attended. Even an organization as long-lived and well organized as Contemplative Outreach seems to have only minimal impact within the larger Christian community.

Why is this? I believe the hunger is out there. So why aren’t people finding out about the riches of the contemplative tradition?

Here’s my theory: natural contemplatives probably only comprise about 1% of the population (thinking about the frequency of the INFP type in Keirsey’s and Bate’s study of Jungian personality types). Only 1% of the population — which would suggest that a normal Christian parish with 1000 members probably only has about 10 “natural” contemplatives (and of course, many churches are smaller than that, so do the math). Maybe another 10 to 20 folks who might be interested in the topic, but they probably would only attend one workshop or class, just long enough to figure out that it isn’t for them.

And of course, out of the ten natural contemplatives, some of them aren’t going to want to take a class or study a book, for whatever reason. Moral of the story: nearly all churches just don’t have enough contemplatives within their ranks to justify investing resources into teaching and training them. It’s a “critical mass” issue: you’ve got five folks who really want to go deeper, but nobody else really cares, simply because most people have a different personality type that means their interests lie elsewhere. It’s hard to put together a course or a book or whatever when only such a small percentage of folks are interested — so it just never gets any traction.

So what we need is a way for contemplatives to find one another, reaching out beyond denominational lines. Contemplative Outreach does a wonderful job with this very situation: as an interfaith group, they appeal equally to Catholics and Protestants.

But more work needs to be done.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, and now it’s my bedtime and I’m sleepy. But I hope whoever is reading this blog will take into consideration the need for Christian communities today to find ways to help the natural contemplatives in their midst find a deeper spirituality. Even if it means (gasp) reaching out to other nearby faith communities, of a different denomination and all.

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  • Mike Farley

    This is a really important post, Carl. I’ve wrestled with this problem for years, both in the Anglican church and during my years in the Vineyard. I haven’t any answers either – but my awareness of the problem is the reason why I built The Mercy Site ( to at least say to people, “No, you’re not mad, you’re not a heretic; people have been this way before, and they’re still at it!”

    Within our own church communities I think you’re right – it is simply down to “critical mass.” In some cases the best avenue is via the wider field of spiritual formation – for instance we have a Diocesan network for spiritual direction – and in others it may be through an affiliation with a religious community, whether as a Benedictine oblate, a Franciscan Tertiary, or some less formal association.

    In my own case, I sometimes wonder if I should ever have entered a church had it not been for the fact that very early on in my exploration of the Christian faith – I’d looked most places else for the truth by then – I encountered a wonderful contemplative monk, Fr Francis Horner SSM, who introduced my to the Jesus Prayer, and to the literature surrounding it, and suddenly I found myself in the company of people just like me!

  • Mike Farley

    PS I wonder whether people might not sometimes make contact with each other through Myers Briggs/Kiersey training? (I know little of the latter in practice – I don’t think it’s widely used in the UK.) Something like “INFPs of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your isolation?” It might then be possible for Myers Briggs folk within churches, dioceses, etc. to put those people in touch with – whom? – religious communities, spiritual directors? Or some role or association we haven’t thought of, or that doesn’t exist yet, maybe?

  • Carl McColman

    Here’s the funny thing about INFPs: most of us (yes, I’m one) tend to mistrust efforts to organize us. Even in monasteries, I believe INFPs are in the minority, both because they simply are only 1% of the population and because of their aversion to community. Think Thomas Merton: he joins a monastery and then spends the next however many years trying to convince his abbot to live as a hermit. There’s an INFP for you!

    Here’s a funny Myers-Brigg story. Before we got married, my wife and I attended a day-long pre-marital counseling workshop sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. There were ten couples there. We all took the MBTI in the morning, and after lunch the facilitator posted a chart showing the types of each of the couples. Of the 10 couples, 9 of the ten involved people with different types marrying one another (opposites attract). Only one couple consisted of two with the same type. There were only two INFPs in the room, and yes, we were marrying each other! The counselor singled Fran and me out, and said, “It’s unusual to see the same type marry. However with INFPs, it’s a good thing to see them marry each other. So I’m glad you two found each other!” Fourteen years later, our marriage is going strong, and it’s cemented by a half hour of shared prayer each morning. I shudder to think what my life would be like had I married a non-INFP…

  • Mike Farley

    Wonderful story!

    Don’t shudder too hard – I (an INFP too) did marry pretty nearly my diametrical opposite in MBTI terms, and it’s worked out just fine. We’ve had to discover how to let each other be different, and that’s been hard at times. But it’s been an adventure too!

    But you’re right about our “tend[ing] to mistrust efforts to organize us” – Brother Ramon SSF would be a good example to set alongside Thomas Merton – and I’d guess that there are more INFPs among contemplatives than anywhere else (for me the two are practically synonymous) so I suppose to some extent it’s a lost cause…

    Still, it’d be nice to feel one was doing something, especially for those people who are still desperately seeking but not knowing where to look. I know my life was one great hunger that nothing would fill until my encounter with Fr Francis. I wasn’t happy – and I didn’t help anyone else to be happy either, to put it politely! I’d love to help folks in that situation. How, I’ve no idea…

  • phil foster

    Carl -

    Just to emphasize the point. My congregation is about 150 for worship on Sun and there is a core of 5 of us in the Lectio/centering group that meets monthly. This even with support from the pulpit.

    In my guise as therapist I would say that as people take the “leap of faith” (pun intended)and devote themselves to their interior life and contemplation there are outward changes, not only in themselves but in those (individuals and systems) around them. Jung felt there was a fluidity of the types, especially as we age and experience some level of individuation. For example, my INFJ has come out ENFP on ocassion.

  • Carl McColman

    In my own life I’ve seen evidence of that fluidity; I’ve scored INFJ, ENFP, and even once as INTP. I’m always off the scale N, though! But of all the times I’ve taken the MBTI, I’m sure 50% or more have returned a result of INFP. So at least in my experience it seems there’s a “natural” type, even if the mature and individuated personality knows how to go hang out with the other types on occasion.

  • Mark Dohle

    I think using types, be it the Myers Briggs, or the Enneagram is too simplistic; people are just too complex to reduce them to being an INFP, INTJ, etc. These tests often tell us on what we need to develop, since God often will touch us through our weaknesses rather than our strengths. So the more “spiritual” types will be touched by God through the sensate function rather than intuition.

    I would think it would be hard to judge the depth of the relationship others have with God, we are all blinded by the way we interrupt the world. It leads to a great deal of misunderstanding of others, and unnecessary suffering. Living in community I understand that very much. The community I live in is diverse, yet all are men of God, each different in how they apporach the mystery.

    I am an INTJ, though I often feel like an INFJ when I read what being that entails. Yet when I test, I always come out the same….INTJ.


  • phil foster

    My experience is that the types are like maps of the psychic terrain. Like any map they are loaded with our perceptions, conscious and unconscious. A road map from Atl to NYC hardly shows you what you will encounter on such a journey (but it’s more helpful to get on I85 than I20 if you actually want to make the trip).

    I think the fluidity in the types is, at least, analogous to spiritual development. In embodying more than my fate/destiny/”part of the DNA river I’m afloatin’ in,” my perception shifts from self to Self, from I/me/mine to God. While we predominantly follow our natural predisposition and probably find our deepest ripening from going down that path, there is value in emphasizing the “opposite.”

    If we don’t encounter it in our own psyche we’ll probably, literally, marry it (I certainly did – re: the results in your premarital workshop with Fran, Carl). You two were attracted by a mutuality.

  • Hamza Darrell Grizzle, the Grateful Bear

    Mystics and contemplatives have historically been on the fringes of society, usually involved in many different good works, helping the less fortunate, holding prayer vigils, reading obscure books in coffee houses, counting their prayer beads, out walking labyrinths or communing with nature – with very little time to socialize with other mystics, and with a very high suspicion of anything remotely “organized.” Might as well try to herd cats! Of course it’s worth it to reach the few cats who do show up, but since the contemplative life is by definition a solitary endeavor, there’s never going to be a huge turnout for a class or workshop or prayer circle on contemplative prayer or mysticism.

    When I spend weeks preparing a contemplative workshop and only 7 or 8 people show up, I haven’t wasted my time; I trust that the Holy Spirit knows what She is doing and exactly the right people will show up – even if the only student who learns anything is myself.

  • Carl McColman

    Of course, you are describing mature, self-actualized contemplatives. There are also many individuals who have not yet blossomed into the contemplative life, but know that they “hunger for something more.” These people are often frustrated by the ineffectual tools handed to them by the church institutional, whether it be yet another novena, or bible study, or curriculum put together by religious bureaucrats in Rome (or wherever your denominational headquarters happens to be). These are the people I hope that my writing and teaching reaches. You are right – they typically show up only two or three at a time. Sheds new light on Christ’s comment about “wherever two or three are gathered”!

  • Carl McColman

    One other thought: I don’t entirely agree with your assessment that contemplatives by nature exhibit “a very high suspicion of anything remotely ‘organized.’” I think that reflects our cultural bias toward individualism. If contemplatives were by nature anti-organizational, monasticism would never have happened and the Rule of St. Benedict would have been simply a warning to stay away from groups.

  • Hamza Darrell Grizzle, the Grateful Bear

    You’re right, Carl, I should not have said contemplatives are anti-organizational; I meant they are (by and large) anti- “Organized Religion,” whatever that is perceived to be. Many of the contemplative organizations throughout history have been “reform movements” against the abuses of the Organized Religion of the day.

  • Yvonne

    I’m an ENFP (but the E is borderline I), so it’s interesting that this personality type corresponds with the contemplative type.

    Check out Stratford Caldecott’s website and his books The Seven Sacraments and Secret Fire: the spiritual vision of JRR Tolkien – I think his efforts in reviving contemplative practice are very similar to your own.

  • Madison

    Would you know of a contempletive group in New York City (preferably Manhattan)?