“Eleven years of Catholic education had told me nothing about Christian meditation.”

Here’s an interesting article published the other day in the Utah Statesman by a fellow named Michael Sowder: Finding Home in India. The author tells the story of his spiritual journey, and it’s a story I’ve heard again and again. Basically, it runs like this: born into a Christian family, Sowder (and countless others like him) finds himself befuddled by the sterile Christian education he received as a child. Eventually he  goes on to find meaning and insight in contemplative spirituality outside of the church. And then, only then, does he finally realize that Christianity has a splendid heritage of mystical spirituality all its own. Sowder writes about discovering a copy of Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation on his parents’ bookshelf, and being shocked to discover that a Christian writer understood about meditation and contemplation!

Just a thought for any Christian educators who might be reading this: a few generations ago, Christianity could afford to ignore its own mystical heritage, because in most places it was the only game in town (even as recently as 1950 or 1960, many American communities only had two significant faith presences: Christianity and Judaism, and since Judaism is as much about ethnicity as about faith, for most people it is not generally a faith to convert into). But this simple past is gone. Between the ongoing flow of immigration on the one hand and the growing number of Christians who abandon their faith for Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or some other faith on the other, not to mention the emergence of “new age” and “spiritual but not religious” sensibilities which create the existential possibility of cultivating spirituality outside of traditional religious structures, Christianity is now a religion that has to compete (sorry to use such a crass term, but there it is) with other faiths for the hearts and minds of its children.

When Karl Rahner said “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist” perhaps he was speaking prophetically about Christianity’s need to articulate its own message as an alternative to other mystical traditions like Vedanta or Tibetan Buddhism. If Christianity can be honest, and serious, about its own contemplative heart, then I believe many young people who abandon Christianity for other faiths (or to be s.b.n.r.) might stick around. Of course, they’ll probably be like me, dedicated to interfaith dialogue and eager to appreciate the many points of similarity among the world’s spiritual lineages. But that is a good thing. If Christianity chases away its young people who embrace inter-religious dialogue, it will gradually shrink into a shrill, almost-exclusively-fundamentalist religion, bitter and spiteful toward the rest of the world (and, therefore, utterly unfaithful to its own message of compassion, forgiveness and love).

It’s interesting that Sowder describes his childhood experience of Catholicism as “bored by what seemed its excessive ritualism and over-preoccupation with moralizing.” If the church loses her mystical heart, that’s all that’s left: empty ceremonies and shrill invectives against what it deems immoral. What amazes me is not how many people leave such a desiccated religion — I’m amazed that many people choose to stay. Talk to the young people in your church (and not just the ones who always volunteer as acolytes or lay readers). Chances are, the honest ones will tell you that going to mass (or to services) is supremely boring, even if the church has “contemporary” music. Furthermore, if they’re really honest they’ll point out that Christianity, in their eyes, seems to be little more than a highly-funded, complexly-organized campaign against abortion, homosexuality, and extra-marital sex. My dear readers, please do not get hung up on how conservative (or how liberal) our moral theology should be: my point is that if we are only talking about moral theology, we may as well start selling the real estate now, because the church will sooner or later drive itself out of business.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I think Karl Rahner (and Michael Sowder) can help us explore at least one important strategy for communicating Christianity to our children: we need to share with them the splendors of contemplation. I’m not saying we should expect a classroom full of 10-year-olds to be meditating like Zen monks. But I do believe we can introduce inner exploration to children. Combining that with education about the beauty and splendor of the contemplative tradition (where, to quote Trappist author Michael Casey who writes in Fully Human, Fully Divine, “According to the teaching of many Church Fathers, particularly those of the East, Christian life consists not so much in being good as in becoming God”) and maybe there will be hope that Christianity will survive into the future — only not a ritualistic/moralistic Christianity, but a truly mystical, contemplative, joyful and serene Christianity, dedicated to loving and serving its neighbors as itself.

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  1. Such a good post Carl, and such an important topic.

  2. Well said. I couldn’t agree more. I’m often saddened about how little Christians know of their own spiritual (and mystical) heritage.

  3. Michael Kennedy says:

    I am a 68 year old parent, catholic by birth and now by conviction.
    But that conviction has not come through moralising; it has come through meditation and the awareness of Christ within that that facilitates the joy within to well up in me. The constant teachings of St Paul when he speaks of the mind of Christ come alive to me in mediation facilatated by the teachings of Echart Tolle.

  4. Fantastic piece. I recently took up Lectio Divina on recommendation from a friend and I’ve been finding it very beneficial. It’s not necessarily a matter of learning morals or how to live, but one of coming closer to scripture and ruminating upon it. I’ve come away each time with a gradually better understanding of the words before me and feeling refreshed having devoted a small portion of my day to silence and contemplation. It’s a great way to feel scripture and make it come alive through an active rather than passive involvement.

    Anyway, this was a great piece and I look forward to reading more from you.

  5. Wayne Mackenzie says:

    I do believe that Christian meditation is slowly being rediscovered. Father Keating, Father Freeman, Thomas Merton Father Richard Rohr and others are bringing it back to the laity. In the Edmonton (Canada) meditation is being promoted in our local Catholic papers. I belong to the Eastern Catholic Church where in local newsletters the Jesus Prayer is promoted. When the contemplative aspect is added the Liturgy takes on a new meaning. At Christmas our bishop said God became man so we can become like God. The seeds are there. I would like to add the eastern liturgy has not changed like the western mass and the whole focus of the Divine Liturgy is to become divinized. There is need for ritual if put in the proper context. We must remember in Asian countries only for the monks and basically the laity came to make offerings only. Other religions like Judaism also is lost its tradition is being rediscovered.

  6. For me it was an opposite process. I was already involved in meditation/contemplation from an eastern perspective. I ended up abandoning it for the living person of Jesus with me and the resultant gift of the Holy Spirit and closeness to the Father. For me the contemplative/meditaive approach to spirituality stifles that reality and takes me away from the living God.

  7. I definitely agree that Christians need to reconnect with their mystic roots, and that by doing so they’ll not only rediscover some of their most valuable heritage, but will prevent the ‘loss’ of some believers to other religions such as Buddhism.

    But on the whole, I don’t think I agree with the implication that if Christians fail to do this en masse then young people will leave the religion in droves, leaving its future in jeopardy.

    I’m no mystic or regular meditation practitioner, but I’ve been to a handful of meditation workshops (Christian, secular, and inter-faith), and they all had one thing in common: lots of grey hair; only in my early thirties, I was usually the youngest person in the room. Judging from my (admittedly limited) experience, meditation and contemplation is something that attracts older people much more frequently than younger people, with most people in the worskhops I’ve attended being 40+ (and many 60+).

    On the other hand, younger people flock to megachurches by the thousands, to partake in worship services that centre around slick multimedia presentations and upbeat pop music, and absorb theologies that are often based around prosperity, theological certainty, consumerism, and promises of hastily-answered prayers. That kind of hype and instant gratification could barely be further from the silence, contemplation and unknowing of the mystical traditions.

    Here in Australia, while most Catholic and more traditional Protestant churches are crumbling into dust from disuse, the megachurches are positively booming. As I understand it, the same is true of many other areas of the world. So, it seems to me that if the Christian church did suddenly have a large revival of its mystical roots, most young Christians would barely even notice.

    Could the majority of contemporary young Christians get more spiritual value from the contemplative traditions than they do from modern Christianity’s peculiar marriage of conservative moralistic guilt and pop-culture self-gratification? Probably. But would they choose the former if it was readily offered? I have my doubts.

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