Concerning the Heart and the Skeleton of the Body of Christ

Following last week’s post Bhakti Jesus, I’ve been pondering the relationship between devotionalism and contemplation. In Centering Prayer, Narcissism and Relativism I considered the dangers of a contemplative practice cut off from a devotional framework. For example, engaging in a centering prayer practice without relying on discursive practices like the Daily Office, or even lectio divina, places the seeker at risk of getting lost in a kind of spiritual funhouse where one’s own “experiences” are all that matter.

Today I want to consider the opposite danger: of a devotional spirituality that lacks a contemplative heart. Consider this comment from one of this blog’s regular readers:

I get the impression the danger your monk friend senses is that practitioners of purely cataphatic forms of devotion (as opposed to spirituality) are in danger of what’s popularly referred to as “taking the map for the territory,” which is to say, becoming so accustomed to images of the Divine, they become entrapped in them rather than “seeing” through them to the essence of what lies beyond.

Indeed. The silence in which we nakedly approach the Divine Mystery is like a beating heart, whereas discursive and devotional practices (participation in the sacraments, lectio divina, the Daily Office or other formal prayers, even charismatic prayer and listening to contemporary Christian music) function as a sort of skeleton. Now, a body needs both a beating heart and a skeleton to survive. Without a skeleton, the heart becomes crushed under a mass of undefined protoplasm (eww). But take away the heart, and soon the skeleton is just dry bones.

The “dry bones” of a devotional spirituality without a contemplative heart can take many forms: fundamentalism, obsessive/compulsive religious observance, a spirituality trapped in legalistic fear. It can collapse into a sort of tribalistic chauvinism, in which only those who practice the same kinds of rituals and prayers that I do are truly accepted by God (everyone else is going to hell). As my reader points out, it is a spirituality so enamored of the map that it ignores the territory. Catholics who confuse the magisterium with God, or Protestants who confuse the Bible with God, are caught in the thrall of such a desiccated practice.

As someone who engaged in charismatic/pentecostal spirituality early in life (while I was a teenager) but then quickly became disillusioned by the legalism and fundamentalism I found among the charismatics I knew, I have long pondered why a deep devotionalism and strict fundamentalism often go hand in hand. I think it is because a real experience of the Presence of God can be a terrifying experience. We are so small and God is so vast. In response to the kind of existential awe (“fear of the Lord”) that such an encounter can engender, many take refuge in a highly authoritarian form of religion. This is unfortunate, I believe, for I think that authoritarianism is not conducive to creative spiritual growth. But it is conducive to creating a sense of identity, belonging, or tribal safety, and I think many folks in our society trade in the possibility of profound engagement with the Divine Mystery for such a tribalistic reward.

But what bothers me just as much is how other Christians have distanced themselves from a sense of deep intimacy with God in order to maintain an intellectually vibrant faith. This is the trap of liberal Protestantism, where struggling with such questions as the relationship between religion and science and the continued relevance of the Biblical story in the postmodern world can lead to a cerebral and mentally stimulating sort of faith — but one where, alas, it seems that spiritual experience too easily gets explained away as only so much psychological insight. This kind of reductionistic approach is symptomatic of what Ken Wilber calls “flatland,” the tendency in our modern/postmodern age to reduce all human knowledge to what can be mapped by empirical science. If it can’t be mapped, it isn’t real.

What I have long been in search for is a spirituality that combines the intellectual rigor and honesty of the liberal Protestants with the heartfelt experience of God’s presence found among the Pentecostals. Eventually my search took me away from Protestantism altogether — first into Neopaganism, but then (and more satisfyingly) into Catholicism, particularly contemplative/monastic Catholicism. Ironically, my relationship with Protestant spirituality has also improved as a result, but that may also be because of the rise of the emergent movement, which I see as a parallel effort to embrace both scholarly honesty and genuine spirituality.

Back to contemplation. I see the silent embrace of the Divine Mystery as the sort of spiritual “superglue” that can hold the mind and heart and skeleton of the Body of Christ together. If we cultivate each of these dimensions: true devotion, fidelity to truth, and attention to the Divine Mystery found in the whisper of silence, then I believe it doesn’t much matter if we are Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, Evangelical, Emergent, Charismatic, or whatever. For these are skeletons. Skeletons may take different shapes or sizes, but what matters is whether or not they house a beating heart. For it is the heart, and not the elegance of their structure, that gives them life.

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  • Mary

    Elegantly said.

  • oakabbey

    Yes…a resounding YES!
    Thank you Carl, for taking the time to express, so that others may consider, things that go bumping about in my head, but that I haven’t the time nor inclination (nor talent) to put into written words.
    Deep Peace and Every Blessing!

  • jodiq

    Insightful. I appreciate the big picture you paint and your explanation of how the different traditions feed or don’t feed a well-rounded, Christian life…

    I wonder how you view Orthodox Christianity… Was it ever a place you considered landing?

    • Carl McColman

      Jodi, I really only know Orthodoxy through books — I’ve only been to an Orthodox liturgy a couple of times, and an Eastern Catholic liturgy once. My decision to enter the Catholic Church certainly was not in opposition to becoming Orthodox — that choice was driven more by practical considerations (the nearest Orthodox monastery is 85 miles away from where I live, compared to the Trappists who are less than 22 miles away). I do have some concerns that many Orthodox congregations, at least as it is manifest in the United States, suffer from too much ethnic identification, so if you’re not Greek or Russian or Albanian or whatever, integration into parish life may be rather difficult. That’s probably not true with OCA communities, but again, I don’t know any OCA folks, so I’m speaking in ignorance here, which is always a dangerous thing! Finally, I am not sure that someone as, er, theologically progressive as I am would feel quite at home in Orthodoxy — the Orthodox didn’t have a Vatican II council, and while Catholicism is hardly a hotbed of liberalism, it’s a “big enough tent” that I have been able to find priests (especially a confessor and spiritual director) who have been willing to wrestle with my not-always-untroubled relationship with the church institutional.

  • lightbearer

    thanks carl
    can you please comment on chapter17 and 18 of the cloud of unknowing as i think very relevant to this discussion.
    it is certainly an ungoing struggle with myself as within my own mind there is ongoing dialogue between active and contemplative life
    the author of the cloud seems to reject the idea that the two forms can exist in one s life and i would definately agree………after one receives spiritual direction to authenticate the yearning of the spirit

  • brazenbird

    You speak to my experiences in almost every post! It’s such a gift and then a second gift follows when you share insight about how to move past it. In paragraph 5 for example, this was my experience. There was an added layer for me: the experience had to be labeled and when I went to my tribe and asked for comaraderie and spiritual insight, I was instead told that it was the devil trying to ensnare my soul. My point is that not only is it scary personally, but because of the tribal mindset, it is flat out rejected and misconstrued as evil when it does happen. And so I gradually left (the fear ensnared me and it took many years to free myself) and I thought I found my people in liberal Protestantism. And I experienced what you describe in paragraph 6. My spirituality flat lined. I had a deeper love of God and Christ and was more sure of their existence and my purpose than ever before but over-thinking it all made me weary and depressed.

    There is definitely a need to strike a balance. Thank you for putting this all into words.

  • Jodi

    Thanks for the response. I’m not Orthodox either, just appreciate their rich mystical bent…relationship and prayer seems to hold sway over dogma, hierarchy and institutionalism. I think they’re a bit more right brained than Catholics and certainly more so than most Protestant traditions (esp. mainline ones).

    I agree that ethnicity may be a significant, almost prohibitive component in the Orthodox church. Like your neck of the woods, their churches are also scarce up here in MN–which makes them inaccessible for purposes of worship and community for many.

    Now and again, I’m intrigued with their perspective on certain cultural hot topics as well as practical living, so I visit their radio website at Their perspectives often go deep and challenge…

    The Philokalia (one of their main texts) is chalk full of mystical theology. Does it get billing in your new book?

    • Carl McColman

      The Philokalia does get mentioned a few times in the book, and it is one of my “recommended” books to read (along with The Way of a Pilgrim, among others).