“People of Christlike Love”

In A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren ponders the question of what the church’s “one mission, message, and quest” should be. In other words, here in our fragmented, postmodern world, where the church has splintered into so many different theological, ecclesial and cultural forms, what can Christians rally around as a unifying message to inspire the community of faith as we move into the third millennium? McLaren goes on: “What one great danger do people need to be saved from, and, more positively, what one great purpose do they need to be saved for?” And then he provides his answer:

Of many possible answers, there is one to which I am continually drawn, embarrassingly obvious and simple to understand, but also embarrassingly challenging to do: the church exists to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls. (p. 164)

Really nothing radical here. McLaren is just pointing out that the heart of Christianity is the two great commandments:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

So simple. So obvious. And yet, so difficult. Those of us who are engaged in the contemplative practices: silent prayer, meditation, contemplation, the Daily Office, Lectio Divina, working with a spiritual director, making retreats and quiet days, participation in a third order or oblate community, engaging in the “higher consciousness” projects of thinkers like Ken Wilber or Jim Marion, studying the writings of the great mystics and contemplatives, and/or interfaith spiritual practices such as Shambhala Training, Christian yoga, Christian zen, or so forth — we need to keep asking ourselves, over and over again: is all this “stuff” that we are doing, A) helping us love God better; B) helping us to love our neighbors better, C) helping to love ourselves in healthy ways better; and D) helping us to become, more and more, people of Christlike love? If we cannot enthusiastically, honestly, and simply say “yes” in response to all four of these questions, then something is out of joint. You can do all the contemplation in the world, but if it isn’t making you a more loving person, it’s a waste of time.

Of course, I believe that the contemplative practices do slowly but inexorably form us into “people of Christlike love.” That’s the whole point: not gaining higher levels of consciousness, or attaining secret knowledge (gnosis), or experiencing mind-blowing union with God, or even feeling as if our sins have been washed away. Those are all worthy goals in themselves, and the dedicated contemplative will reap benefits in each of these ways. But all these “goals” are secondary, to a practice that ultimately has no “goals” at all: for contemplation is not meant to make us into something different, but rather to call us back to who we really are to begin with: children of God, ambassadors of love. By keeping that essential goal front and center, all the other benefits of contemplative practice will assume their proper perspective.

And I suppose it must be said that if a person is humbly working on growing in Christlike love without doing any of the contemplative exercises, than he or she is further along on the mystical path than someone who meditates flawlessly, practices lectio daily, etc. etc. but whose heart remains trapped in anger and fear.

Keep the mission alive: walk with wisdom — live in love.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
"They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" — And These Gifts Make It Possible
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
About Carl McColman

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

  • Phil Soucheray

    Thank you for articulating both the simplicity and the challenge of Christ’s call so well. I am currently blessed to be learning more about Salesian spirituality, and I am struck by your observation about the futility of contemplation if it does not make us better at fulfilling Christ’s call. Not only does it echo the wisdom of St. Francis de Sales, but it reminds us that ultimately, the call is one of invitation to be our best selves, as flawed as we are.

  • Al Jordan

    Amen and amen. Well said. This is true wisdom. I may have to frame this post as a constant reminder to simply give myself ever anew to the mystery, at the heart of which is love.

  • suzanne kurtz

    You’ve spoken well, Carl. Were somem of us to be honest, there is way too much driveness to embellish one’s ego, in many contemplative practioner practices, or in the activities of those who do, do, do, intending they say to serve, but what is served is the false self, or we could say ego (though that is to my mind a broader category than false self).

    I have observed though the years my own efforts at growing spiritually and have seen much clinging and attachment to goals, though not stated, ye twere there forming the foundations of my practices.

    I have found my prayer life and practices “purified” so to speak by going back to teachers such as E. Underhill, (de Sales and scads others), and I try to have my intention in prayer and practice to be a self-donation, a surrender to God, a self-giving, rather than a wanting this or that, or a plea for peace, etc. My prayer is easier now. It’s something like Fr. Keating mentions in Centering Prayer, it is a “consenting” to the action and presence of God in my life. This manifests in love of God and others—–the fruits don’t deceive!

  • noel a light bearer

    and also very eckhartian
    mary and martha
    contemplation versus action

    daniel berrigan comes to mind also

    but does anyone know when they have got it “right”

    no man i think there must be that cloud of unknowing

    all those practices,some of which i have been addicted to are total dung leading more and more into knowing which is limited
    the unknowing if you like the spiritual and religious savant in all of us will come from some of these practices in the way that we will laugh ourselves silly when we see ourselves “doing” the acts that we think will get us to the non doing
    ah life is a bummer anyway
    has any of you guys watched the movie “k-pax”

  • http://searchthequiet.wordpress.com/ George

    Thank you

  • Pam

    Plain and simple Truth. Well-said.

  • Ted

    Ain’t it the truth…Today’s gospel of Jesus in the desert – I came back repeatedly to the Tempter’s use of the phrase “If you are…” and was struck by how striving to prove myself to my own distorted imagining of what I “should” be (a wise friend once pointed out that it is rather unbecoming and unproductive to should on oneself ) or my limited perception of what others expect or would find value in me is often at the root of my motivations. Ego-driven thought and action takes my eyes off of the true focus of my being, the God who creates me, loves me, and calls me. When a practice helps recognize the stinking thinking and clear it away (or reveal its source that is in need of healing, growth, transformation), it is a useful tool, nothing more. There is no “soul force” in the technique, just something that works at this point on the journey. In the end, its about a love encounter, coming to some awareness of the profound love and mystery of God. The path is never clear, but growing in the trust that God will not lead me astray can sometimes give me confidence not to over-reach in my action or seek consolations in my contemplation. As Merton points out, whether we are pleasing to God in our actions and prayer is never known, but we trust that our desire to please God out of love is itself pleasing, that this impulse will lead us ultimately to who we are and what we are to do to make the Kingdom manifest in this world.

  • Gary Snead

    Or, saved also from destructive paths, not just from gaining the world & losing their souls, but from losing some, most, all of life. Saved by Christ alone, Christ is the head, we the church are the body and the bride, so we must be, with Christ within, co-actors in pointing others to their salvation, right?
    Ted, you triggered a picture for me of Jesus face to face with the devil in the desert. Jesus is the essence and epiphany of the ‘no-need-to-be-doing’ ego-empty contemplative, (see also the recent quote of the day), and poker-faced or perhaps with just a hint of a smile and twinkle in the eye, patiently listens to the devil spew his temptation. Jesus knows what to say as soon as the devil takes his posture to speak and the first words fall out, yet calmly waits so the full character of the devil is revealed, then smoothly and succinctly speaks his word and devastates the devil’s temptation. I sense Jesus had no angst, doubt, or worry, didn’t need to check his pocket Torah. He held to his faith that he is I AM.

  • Ioannis

    “It [the Church] exists to save them [people to be formed in Christ] from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be [like Christ], gaining the world but losing their souls [Mk. 8:36].” Brian McLaren in ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ [--parenthetical comments added for clarity in this reply--]

    The word “new,” as appears in the title to one of Brian’s many intriguing books, holds ironic definitions. On the one hand, new means fresh and never-before-seen. On the other hand, it means recently discovered and having entered into an unfamiliar state [of mind or character]. McLaren’s use resembles the latter meaning of new in the quote that I have excerpted from a lengthier quote in this blog entry. New, as McLaren employs it, pertains to something that once was hidden has become manifest or revealed.

    Calling us back to our true identities, as Carl phrased it, is the Church’s mission. However, unless I have missed Church in Carl’s beautiful remarks about contemplative practices, then it would seem that Brian and Carl may be discussing tandem but not identical ideas about recovering our identity in Christ.

    Whereas all human beings came to be through Christ, the Word, who the Father spoke in creation, a composite of contemplative practices could reawaken consciousness to the natural and very human state of mind. Without any integration in the Church [I will leave the word undefined], a contemplative might achieve Christ-like release from the passions and constant inner prayer, which manifest in selfless service to others.

    Selfless service appears in the paradox of the Markan narrative that Brian quotes. Lose your life for Christ, and you will find it. Otherwise gaining the world would do nothing for you, because your soul would have been lost [paraphrasing vs. 35-6]. Sounds like an individual’s job to do–that is to lose yourself. Indeed, there are those who say that no one requires the Church to lose his/her life.

    Assuming that I have established a point of demarcation, we might ask a question. What value does the Church present to disciplined practitioners of a contemplative path? In other words, why entertain a need for the Church?

    I have an answer to these questions, about which I would benefit from feedback. The Church provides a vessel to break illusions concerning salvation as a “Jesus-and-me” experience. The Church also has nothing to say that has not been said before. In addition, contemplatives within the Church should limit blending spiritual practices to allow the soul’s river to run deep instead of wide.

    Paraphrasing Mark’s Gospel again: What good is it that you have blended your contemplation with other children of God outside the Church, when you have confused your mind and possibly lost your soul?

    For these reasons, in my opinion, Carl has linked contemplation to the Church in the following quote:

    “…for contemplation is not meant to make us into something different, but rather to call us back to who we really are to begin with”

    There may well be benefits to reap from following contemplative practices outside full integration in the Church, but there are risks to be considered as well.

    Blending spiritual traditions can confuse the mind and reason, which have suffered enough in illusions already. A confused mind may impede the soul returning to Eden.

    The Church provides discipline for contemplative practitioners on the journey back to Paradise.