A Contemplative Curriculum?

I’ve written in this blog several times recently about what a contemplative practice group might look like, and hopefully I’ll be involved in setting up at least one such group in the near future. But in a conversation with a clergy friend last night, he asked me what it would look like to have a fully-formed curriculum of classes, workshops, retreats, etc., all designed to support individuals and communities in the quest to grow toward deeper intimacy and union with Christ?

Wow. What a sweet idea to ponder.

A few thoughts here. I really believe that such a curriculum needs to be embedded in some form of Christian community, which probably means a church. I know a lot of people are allergic to church, and for that reason alone I believe in a “generous ecclesiology” (with apologies to Brian McLaren). In other words, I don’t hold to any idea that we “must” be involved in a traditional parish, or a particular denomination, or that membership in a church requires Sunday worship plus committee meetings, etc. etc. For some people, a house church or a monastic oblate community or some other non-traditional community may be far more healthy and helpful than a conventional brick-and-mortar congregation.

Having said that, I do believe community in some form is essential for contemplative practice — even the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the Carthusians in our day, had/have some form of community support — and so I think contemplative training can only occur in a community setting.

Now, I suspect that most conventional churches probably do not have enough people in them to make a contemplative educational program fly. Why? First of all, because at least in the present, contemplation appeals to such a small percentage of Christians (most of whom don’t even know it exists), that most small to medium-sized churches simply don’t have the population base to support such a program. Meanwhile, because larger (“mega”) churches tend to be so extraverted in their character and make-up, introverts (who often are those most readily drawn to contemplation) tend to feel marginalized in large churches, and either drop out or just hang out on the edges. So even a big church might not have the base to get a contemplation program up and running.

So, a paradox: while teaching contemplation needs to be embedded in a Christian community, it will also need to be open/ecumenical/welcoming enough to include participants from other communities. So it will also have an ecumenical or “para-church” quality to it.

Okay, but what will such a program actually look like?

Just a few random thoughts:

  1. Classes. Most people would probably plug into a contemplative program through taking a class or two, so such offerings need to be ongoing. Obviously, classes on how to meditate, how to practice lectio divina, how to pray the Daily Office or other liturgical forms of prayer, as well as more creative stuff like chanting, body prayer/Christian yoga, art-as-prayer, would all be part of the program. For those so geekily inclined, classes on the writings of the great mystics would be fun. I also think Bible study could be part of the program, although that gets tricky, since Bible study can quickly get lost in left-brain analysis, making it subtly subversive of contemplation. But a form of “contemplative” Bible study that incorporates elements of lectio in its curriculum? That would be cool.
  2. Weekend or multiple-day events. Quiet days, retreats, workshops, especially featuring visiting speakers and teachers. We all need to interrupt our routine from time to time to create space for the playful guidance of the Holy Spirit to break in and through.
  3. Service and outreach. I think contemplation and social ministry are as naturally related as the first and second of the two great commandments. Contemplatives might find a particular “type” of social ministry that is particularly congenial to the prayerful life: perhaps environmental clean-up, or visiting a nursing home, or a letter writing campaign on behalf of important issues. And of course, there’s always Habitat for Humanity and working at the local food pantry.
  4. Spiritual direction. One on one guidance is not necessarily for everybody, but it is an important element in the contemplative tradition and deserves to be part of any kind of contemplative program. This implies that training experienced contemplatives to function as soul friends for others would be an important part of a contemplative curriculum.
  5. Ongoing group practice. Even if you’ve been meditating daily for twenty years, there is nothing so beneficial as sitting in silence with others who share your hunger for intimacy with God. Classes tend to be, well, wordy and heady, so providing an on-going, regular place where people just gather to be silent together, would be an essential element in an overall contemplative program.
  6. Intergenerational activities. It is really hard to be a contemplative with small children in the house! So, perhaps, if we can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em — resources exist for teaching meditative practices to children, and so providing programming where children “of all ages” can learn to relish the sweet taste of silence would be a blessing to the entire family.
  7. Pastoral counseling. I think it’s important to understanding the distinction between spiritual formation, which is geared toward fostering intimacy and union with God, and pastoral counseling, which is more directly therapeutic in nature. But the truth is, the line separating these two arenas of growth is blurry at best. So being able to connect those who need a more structured therapeutic form of support, with care providers who are either contemplatives themselves or at least familiar with the contemplative tradition, would also be an important resource, not needed by everyone, but truly a blessing for those who do require it.

Frankly, I think every major city needs at least one center that could provide this portfolio of services to the larger faith community. I’d love to be involved in setting this up in Atlanta… now all I need is a bit of grant money to get us started! (Anyone have any ideas?)

Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
  • http://odysseus.wordpress.com/ Odysseus

    I sure wished you lived in Norman! I would love to be part of something like that. I’m trying my best by leading the Morning Office with a couple of other people. But, I have to rush off to work. What I have been doing lately is texting the others when through out the day so we can do the offices together. But I would like to have a place to learn and practice with others.

  • Al Jordan

    I very much like the “Center” concept and the broad brush approach to offerings that such a ‘Center for Contemplative Practice’ would undertake. While there are a growing number of congregations in Atlanta that are experimenting with contemplative practice (i.e. Centering Prayer, lectio, Taize, Labyrinths, etc.), their number is still few and restricted principally to Episcopal, United Church of Christ and some Catholic parishes. But, I truly believe the interest and desire for deeper spirituality is widespread within the faith community in Atlanta. A center which could stand independently, yet be part of a community of faith and at the same time provide a resource and overlay to the larger Christian community in Atlanta is an idea whose time has come. I think such a work would have to evolve into the multi-scoped organism that you outline and it would require a great deal of dedication and commitment. But I, for one, would be willing to make such a commitment and offer whatever assistance I could in the way of participation, support, and experience as a licensed clinical social worker, contemplative, program manager and seeker. The outreach, teaching and service aspects, I think, would grow from a nucleous of committed individuals such as myself. I’ll give some more thought to the funding aspect but I think the concept would have broad appeal across the faith community in Atlanta, especially the ecumenically minded. I think you are on to something here.

  • http://urbansanctuary.ca Sam Drew

    I like what you had to say about community. I’ve been going through a program such as you describe at the Urban Sanctuary in Edmonton, Alberta for the past year and one of the most significant things I’m coming out with is that there is a lot of spiritual growth that needs to happen in community. The Urban Sanctuary is doing much of what you describe. They have a journal that we use for curriculum in our Spiritual Formation small groups. You can find a sample at http://urbansanctuary.ca/images/stories/centered/jan2010chap1.pdf. It might help as you work this out in your own context.

  • brazenbird

    Thumbs up. Way up!

  • Mary Leinhos (Harmony Isle)

    Carl, I love your ideas, which resonate with my desire for developmental interaction with other contemplatives, a strong and vibrant community– and with a similar vision that came to me last year for something permanent and perhaps more ecumenical/interfaith, along the lines of a contemplative institute or Center as you and Al describe. “Center” is a better word. :-) I was thinking more broadly to include all three Abrahamic faith traditions, but would support a more focused Christian-based approach if consensus wisdom suggests.

    An additional dimension I would encourage for your consideration is to engage black faith communities in this project, especially as we are in Atlanta: the roots and legacy of MLK, who soberly observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour. This was an aspect of the vision I had last year. I have very little clue about black churches and contemplatives in the greater Atlanta area, but I did pick up (and have not yet read) the book _Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices in the Black Church_ by Barbara Holmes, which might provide a starting point, and I may have a point person in Atlanta to begin with.

    In thinking about how to successfully launch and grow an enterprise as you propose, I wonder if it might be fruitful to start with a smallish pilot project, and grow it from there. Another approach maybe in parallel would be to rally support/ers from the larger faith community in Atlanta as Al suggests, which would likely provide some good brains and hands to build this thing and help garner possible financial support from a variety of sources, and/or provide a stronger foundation for a grant application.

    Here is a website with some ideas for funding sources:
    You might need to tweak/reframe your overall approach and goals in order to better fit it within the aims of available grant programs. I briefly looked at Pew Charitable Trusts and didn’t see anything too pertinent (unless you want to run with the trolls and cowards thread and focus on religion and politics).

    Some parishes have small grant programs (Epiphany Episcopal in Atlanta does), and some denomination organizations/dioceses may have larger programs, or interest in supporting something like this. Any idea how much money you would request to start? Depends on the scope of what you want to start with, of course.

    Like Al, I would be interested in working on this with you, providing whatever assistance, participation and support is helpful. I have experience with (scientific) grants as a writer, recipient, reviewer, and granting agency official, and can contribute writing, planning, and administration skills. I’m also willing to tap into and grow my network to promote the vision and seek supporters and opportunities. Have an idea for service/pastoral care as well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

      Mary, it sounds like we need to talk at some point; thanks for recommending “Joy Unspeakable” — I’m very concerned about how the contemplative spirituality movement as it currently manifests is too often just a “hobby spirituality” for affluent educated white folks. Nothing wrong with a.e.w.f. (being one myself), but it seems to me that God’s vision for the transforming community is bigger than that. The idea of an interreligious center is appealing, although that sounds even more daunting than just creating a truly inclusive Christian center! As for the smallish pilot project, I’m currently in conversation with the minister in charge of spiritual development at a Disciples of Christ Church here in Atlanta to do just that, so the small ball is rolling. I just know that, eventually, we’ll need some resources to make this more than just a parish-based ministry, which is where most of the contemplative ministries that I’m aware of seem to be stuck. Lots to think about!

  • Gary Snead

    Must contemplative learning bow to detailed, Western European didactic style , e.g. #1. classes? I think focusing on being while doing, intergenerationally, together, allows experiential, contextual learning, face time for spiritual direction and post-event review, pastoral time. The podcast idea, this blog, you tube or God tube or similar video postings allow many of us to ‘retreat’ with you.
    Press on with whatever you can, in & with God’s Spirit.
    I Lent you an idea I hope you don’t Passover. Resurrect your Joy, for today His Kingdom is at hand.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Okay, Gary, I’ll forgive you the puns. :-)

    The “Western European didactic style” is, unfortunately or not, the pedagogical style we have all inherited. The trick will be to offer classes etc. in that context and then use them as a springboard to get out of our heads and into God’s silence. Think of it as a sacred bait and switch…

  • http://www.weedragon.wordpress.com Wee Dragon

    I happened upon your blog while searching for connections/more resources for a contemplative/mystical approach to Christianity and Spirituality as a whole. I love this idea of community…and it is what I have been searching for without success for years. We have finally decided to stop searching outside of the home, and see what G-d can do from within our family, in a all-encompassing life-style/home-churchy…blah blah blah type of way. ;) Anyway, this post made me think of L’Abri. Are you familiar with it? They have a beautiful way of fellowship, community and contemplation and learning. The only downfall is that they aren’t really open to having entire families there with litte children. I love that you have recognized the need for making this community around family. As a homeschooler and stay-at-home mom, the chances of me traipsing off without my children to indulge myself in personal “growth and study” are pretty slim to say the least!
    Anyway, so glad to have found you! I hope to discover more!