Contemplation and the Mind of Christ

6th Century icon of Christ, from St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

Some folks — especially those who are familiar with my interfaith work, or my books from before 2005 about neopagan and non-Christian Celtic spirituality — might wonder why I am so committed to the path of Christ. Couldn’t I explore mysticism and meditation and contemplation in a non-sectarian or exclusively interspiritual way?

Well, yes, of course I could, and I hold no judgment for those who seek their spiritual maturity in such a transreligious way. But I would fear that, for me at least, trying to cobble together my own spiritual practice from the teachings and exercises of multiple traditions would leave me “jack of all faiths, master of none.” I would rather dig one deep well than many shallow ones. And so I need to be grounded in one wisdom tradition, even while I treasure the good friendships and wisdom I’ve received from those who by birth or choice walk other paths.

If I am committed to the one deep well, then, why Christ?

On the simplest level, Christianity is my “home faith,” the faith of my birth. But beyond that, I find in Christ the incarnation of the love of God. Since I find religious debate rather boring, please note that I say this not to challenge other peoples’ faith, but simply to share the discovery of my own journey. I find the love of God in Christ, and in at least some of Christ’s followers (and yes, there’s plenty of woundedness and sin and brokenness among Christ’s followers, too! But in all honesty, that would be true of the followers of all wisdom traditions).

Christianity holds that to be a Christian is to be a partaker of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4), to be part of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27), and to have the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16). These are bold statements indeed, for Christ said “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30). So Christianity is a wisdom tradition that promises union with God through Christ. And contemplation is the dimension of prayer that seeks to recognize, to experience, this profound Union with Love.

What is contemplation? Simply put, it is resting in God. It is casting the noise and turmoil of our hearts and minds into the vast serene silence of the hidden God (Isaiah 45:15). Many people find contemplative prayer extraordinarily difficult, because even sitting in silence for five or ten or twenty minutes means coming face to face with the chaos and turmoil that characterizes our ordinary waking consciousness. We are “distracted from distraction by distraction” as T. S. Eliot put it. The Desert Fathers and Mothers wrote about this, and so did the early Celtic Christians. The turmoil within us has always been part of us. Contemplation does not seek to shut down the mind, any more than it seeks to still the heartbeat. Rather, it merely invites us to be present to the chaos within, but even more so, to seek the loving silence of God that constitutes the ground of our being. When we learn to “peek over the shoulders” of our mental chaos, we learn to recognize the profound and vast, limitless love and forgiveness and Divine presence that is always, already, within us. We know this is true, for God is everywhere (Psalm 139:7-12). We contemplate because we are seeking to learn to love ourselves the way Christ loves us, as training for a lifetime of learning how to love others the way Christ loves them (and us). Contemplation, in short, is a spiritual practice designed to slowly, practically, teach us to love like Christ, to live like Christ, to respond to the chaos (both within us and in the world at large) as Christ would respond.

Clearly, this is not something that we can master in a weekend, or perhaps even in a lifetime. But by the grace of God, it is not the mastery of the Christian life that we are required to achieve! All that is required of us is that we simply receive the grace that is given to us, and by that grace, to continue on the journey.

So… that’s why I am a Christian. In Christ I recognize, I encounter, the incarnation of the Love of God. And in my own contemplative practice I seek to live into the  gift that I have been given: the gift of becoming a “little Christ” (which is what “Christian” means) so that I, too, may bring Love into our world which is so hungry for it.

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  • Al Jordan

    Reading this post this morning was a blessing to me and personally very clarifying and helpful. I am grateful to you for sharing so intimately.

    I am one who has a sort of cobbled together inter-spirituality that draws from Buddhism, Vedanta and Sufism. But, like you, Christianity is my “home faith,” the tradition in which I was nurtured and to which I turn and return.

    Sometimes I get so frustrated and put off by institutional Christianity, but the reality of the Christ Presence always remains my center and the doorway to union with the Divine. Sticking with one tradition and going deeper is something I needed to hear.

  • Sr.Sheila Patenaude, FMM

    Thanks so much for this!

  • http://www.nurturingspace.ca ev

    Thank you Carl. Sometimes I’m conflicted with why I stay in Christianity.

    • Carl McColman

      I once had a very wise Episcopal seminarian tell me that one sign of a mature faith is acknowledging that one sometimes feels like leaving the church. After over twenty years, those words continue to reassure me when I find myself struggling with the foibles and failings of the institution (and of me!).

  • Jeff

    “So Christianity is a wisdom tradition that promises union with God through Christ.”

    Beautiful sentence. I think Jesus isn’t good for much, but what he is good for – meeting God – he is very good for indeed! ! ! When I first prayed and trusted in Jesus, my eyes flew open at the shock of the unexpected sudden closeness of the Father.

  • Julie

    Thank you for this. The core understanding of Jesus as Love is the same reason that I finally ended up at “Christian mysticism” myself. (What can I say? He’s the ideal divine partner for a *bhakti.* Cough.)

  • Cissy

    It’s good to discuss it. “Who doesn’t love you doesn’t know you.” Once you are in love with Him, you will know you are madly in love with Him.

  • Ed

    I too spent years exploring other paths. SInce I was at the time (and am now) a parish pastor I had to be a bit subversive about it, especially when I was reading about Buddhism and practicing mindfulness meditation (minds were not as open 30+ years ago as they are now, nor was I as confident). I worked for years in hospice and traveled many paths in my quest to understand life after death. I never did any continuing education within my denomination, often not within Christianity by choice. Along the way I read remarks — if memory serves by Gandhi (a great devotee of the Sermon on the Mount) — who, when asked why he did not become a Christian, gave a twofold response. He said he would not become a Christian, first, because he had yet to meet a Christian who lived like a Christian. Second, he would not become a Christian, because he was a Hindu and his job (vocation) was not to become a good Christian, but to become the best Hindu that he could. His words stuck with me a long time, and were, at last, influential in my returning to a sharper focus on the path of my heritage.I am sorry, I cannot currently offer documentation for where I read Gandhi’s thoughts. Maybe I cooked them up, but they sure proved helpful.

    Ed

  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    I like how the Dalai Lama said (controversially for some) that it doesn’t matter which spiritual path you follow, as long as you follow one in a strenuous enough manner that I guess you wear ruts in the path, so that you grow tired, and want to turn back, because it’s in the going on when you don’t want to where lots of interesting things begin happening :)

    I am trying to work out how I can keep Christ, if not Jesus. There’s some intellectual discombobulation going on with me these days about who Jesus was and whether he was … but the Christ is something different again, is it not? I do think when people talk about Christ it’s about God made human. I can still relate to that.

    I miss Jesus, though, and I sort of envy you your certainty, Carl.

    And it’s weird, too, because though I don’t feel like I can hold to what I held to, say, three years ago about Jesus, he is still just as compelling to me as he ever was. Which is … really very interesting!! :)

    • Carl McColman

      I’m not sure I have that much certainty. I subscribe to the old Zen saying that three qualities are required for the spiritual life: “Great faith, great doubt, and great perseverance.” So I think I’m more persevering (read: stubborn) than certain!

      • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

        That’s a great quote, and a real comfort.

        As is your perseverence … or stubbornness … or whatever you want to call it :)


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