A Chat with a Methodist Minister

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The other day at the Abbey Store I struck up a conversation with a Methodist minister who was making a short retreat at the Monastery. We chatted up books and authors and it became apparent that we had a similar interest in contemplative spirituality.

“So tell me,” I asked him, “What is it like to advocate for contemplative spirituality in your congregation?”

He smiled ruefully. “It’s not easy,” he said.

“Are people afraid of it?” I wondered, mindful of the small but vocal presence of bloggers and other folks on line who are actually hostile to Christian mysticism and contemplation, usually because they mistakenly believe that Christian mysticism isn’t really Christian.

“No, that’s not it. It’s more that people are just too busy.”

I nodded sympathetically. “Gotta get to the soccer game, no time for meditation, or lectio divina, or a disciplined daily prayer life.”

“And it’s not that people are opposed to putting energy and effort into their faith. They just find silence too difficult — too threatening, it feels too much like doing nothing, wasting time, being impractical.”

“Which, of course, it is. Contemplation is wasting time with God.”

“And it totally goes against the grain of our culture.”

“Indeed — the monastery is the original counterculture.”

And so it went. It was a nice conversation, we clucked and commiserated with one another but didn’t really solve anything. I’ve known a number of people over the years express their frustration because they find their local church to be uncongenial to contemplation and mysticism. But it’s interesting to see that same frustration from the other side of the altar.

What’s the takeaway here: perhaps this: if you are interested in silent prayer, and mysticism, and contemplation, and meditation, take the time to share that interest with your pastor, minister, or priest.

What’s the worst that can happen: okay, maybe he or she is downright hostile to the idea and you’ll get a lecture warning you that you are treading on dangerous ground. Yes, I know such people exist (several of them are the bloggers I mentioned above). If you do get such a chilly response, that could be a signal to find a different church (!), or if family responsibilities mean staying at that church, you’ll know you need to be discreet — but at least you will have tried.

But in reality, that kind of unfriendly response is, for most of us, not likely to happen. What is more likely is that either a) your pastor will admit that this kind of thing is not something he or she is very interested in, but will wish you well on your own spiritual journey, or b) your pastor will thank you for sharing, and will offer some insight into his or her own efforts to find contemplative silence in the mist of the external busy-ness that characterizes much of institutional Christianity as it exists today. It could be the beginning of a very nice spiritual friendship, and at the very least, the two of you could pray for one another.

And who knows? Maybe you and  your pastor could work together to set up a small contemplative prayer meeting one night each week in your church. Nothing supports a spiritual practice like getting support from others.

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  • Ted Todd

    We currently have a Taize service at our church on Tuesdays for over 12 years. It is conducted by all lay people (clergy never come), we are lucky if we have more than 9 people and we frequently have 4 or 5.
    We have had many individuals from other churches visit (one or two times), maybe in 12 years a couple of hundred, however within our own Congregation we have had fewer than 30 that have ever attended in the 12 years. When people leave the service they always comment to the Spiritual value they find in it and they would like to come back and or come more often, however they don’t. For the summer we are replacing it with a Centering Prayer 30 minute gathering, because our guitar player wanted a well desired break after all those years and commitment. The first week we had 5 people, last week we had 2, me and my wife. So, I am thinking about canceling it for the summer.. I posted this because Silence, Prayer, Intuitive Awareness of The Seeds of Wisdom all around us is important in my life, however within my church community I sometimes feel like a freak. Even though I am well accepted and serve on several committees. I still feel very separate from the whole of that community. Sometimes I think I am speaking a whole different language. I offer no solution to the lack of desire for a deeper connection.. Business is one thing, but a total lack of Passion for inner Silence makes me question my own value in it. The church seems to be consumed in growth, the threat of lost membership, and Outreach activity. It seems to me they go about this backwards? Then what do I know?
    tt

  • http://gravatar.com/2breathe2 2breathe2

    Carl

    Even if the step towards dialogue with minister, priest , etc can be daunting.
    “What do I know about this God connection?” creeps into my mind. I sought out in a similar conversation a woman sitting next to me at a conference and at the end of the conference a group of 4 Contemplatives with baby steps was formed. Now I believe that with the buoyant nature of the group we are all more able to bring the subject up to others including our spiritual directors, ministers, priests, etc. It is getting past the ” Only One Thinking Like This ” Syndrome and thinking more like Terese of Lisieux.. In my smallness there is greatness or in this case at least a start at building a greater community of faith and growth. Thank you Carl, for planting more and more seeds with your writings. It encourages us all. Susan W Reynolds

  • http://gmail Mary

    you

  • http://gmail Mary

    you have a great post Carl. But sometimes it is too long for me to read. I really enjoyed your words, Contemplation is wasting time with God.

  • Mark Nielsen

    Good material here, Carl.

    It also occurs to me — having crossed back and forth between Catholic and Protestant contexts for years — that it can sometimes be a problem of language and cultural bias. For intance, Protestants in many circles will understand the concept of a daily “quiet time” quite comfortably. One might read scripture, but only with a mental focus, not a mystical transformation/encounter with God sort of experiential focus.

    Prayer, similarly, can become about me talking rather than listening. It may be about offering God the “present” of worship, or *presenting* Him with my problems as a child does to its Abba, but it is seldom about Presence (the deep, tectonic shifts of one’s soul when we shut up and finally experience the Holy Spirit’s presence, and Her restorative work, as She silently sweeps up in the basement of our hearts).

    It is hard to trust God enough that we know in our bones that silence is not the same as absence. It takes unlearning some old Western biases, before we realize that repetition of a single sacred word really CAN produce a different result on the 57th try, as God sneaks through the crack that prayer created in the doorway (our brains), and then flows down toward our heart like Living Water.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gratefulbear Darrell Grizzle

    I’m grateful that the new church I recently joined, Holy Family Episcopal in the North Georgia Mountains, already has a weekly Centering Prayer group, as well as an outdoor labyrinth and nature trails specifically designed for contemplation. It would be difficult for me to be part of church where I had to be “discreet” about my life of prayer.

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

      I agree, Darrell; that would be difficult. Alas, not all Christians, whether clergy or lay, are comfortable with contemplative or mystical spirituality (I remember the Episcopal priest who once told me, years ago, that he was a “practical” rather than a “spiritual” person — he now is a bishop!), and so in some situations, that kind of discretion may actually be a form of Christian charity. When I first studied with the Shalem Institute years ago, they requested that their students use discretion when speaking with others about their experience in prayer and meditation. I think that is very wise. Discretion, after all, is not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Jay Byrd

    One can only draw from the depths of ones own experience and unfortunately it is steeped in the wreckage of contingency of a bad infinity not that Truth changes but it has, like water, become mixed with the pollution of the lie and even revelation no matter how pure is subject to the decaying affect of our reduced state that’s why “religion” becomes deluded without the Spirit. The word without the Spirit is dead. One should not struggle against the objective but struggle to keep in step with the Spirit. Our death is required death to the objective but not one another. this is the school we find ourselves in, the school of awareness found in the growing skill of contemplation and this requires our continual participation in the presence. It is work, the work of death into life, the words change because there are no words that can lead one into the depth of spiritual intimacy, it takes ones whole existential being. One that unfolds in reciprocal love.

  • http://gravatar.com/jackisbetter jacksarebetter

    Outstaning and thank you!

  • John Barton

    I also like your description of contemplation as “wasting time with God,” although I prefer the term the monk who taught my introductory centering prayer class used: “hanging out with God.” I can’t imagine that any time spent with God is wasted! Thanks for the wonderful blog.


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