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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?)