How to be a Contemplative in a “Toxic” Community (Part One)

A reader wrote the following message to me recently:

Hi Carl. I’m a contemplative in a Roman Catholic Community. It’s rather toxic and cold. I don’t go to dinners or other community building events. I go to Sunday Mass regularly. Does this fulfill my community efforts at not being a “Lone Ranger” and individualist mystic?

Regular readers of this blog will understand where the writer of this message is coming from. In posts like Is it possible to be a “Do It Yourself” Christian Mystic? or Do Contemplatives Need the Church?, I regularly make the case that Christian mysticism and contemplation needs to be fostered in a community.

Put more bluntly: if you want to be a Christian mystic, go to church.


But the message above raises some very important questions. It’s easy, in the abstract, to say “mystics and contemplatives need to be involved in a faith community.” But let’s try to unpack that a bit, looking both at unstated and perhaps unstated questions that the above message raises.

  1. What do you do when your church is toxic, cold, unhealthy?
  2. What if it’s a reasonably healthy church, but unfriendly to contemplation and/or mysticism?
  3. What does it mean to be “active” in a church? Is Sunday morning worship attendance enough?
  4. What’s wrong with being a “Lone Ranger” mystic anyway?

So today I want to briefly respond to these questions. But first, let’s acknowledge that every individual is unique, every church is unique, and every spiritual life is unique. I’ll never be able to address every possible situation or scenario in a blog post (or a hundred blog posts). So I would encourage anyone trying to sort out a deeper spiritual life and its implications for faith community to seek the wise counsel of a friendly and safe spiritual companion or spiritual director. So with that in mind, I’ll add a fifth question, looking at how to find a spiritual director. I’m answering the first two questions today, and will tackle the others tomorrow.

What do you do when your church is toxic, cold, unhealthy? 

Words like “toxic” and “cold” can mean many different things. But I know that many churches can foster a way of thinking about God that is overly legalistic, hyper-partisan (during election season, every car in the parking lot has the same candidate’s bumper stickers on it), overly focused on either personal piety or social action (while ignoring the other), and at their very worst, churches can truly be abusive, psychologically, verbally, or physically.

If your church is a place where you are experiencing abuse, you need to leave. Get professional help, ideally a mental-health caregiver who is not affiliated with your parish or  congregation. It may be important for you to report the abuse to church authorities at the diocesan or regional level, and/or report to secular authorities. I’m not qualified to provide legal or mental health advice, so these are simply general observations — consult with your healthcare provider and/or legal counsel to determine what is safest and best for you and for all parties concerned.

Assuming your church is not abusive, but simply unfriendly, or theologically biased, I think you need to discern two important questions: 1) am I being fed here? 2) can I make a difference here? St. Bernard of Clairvaux once counseled a nun who was thinking about leaving her convent. “You are either a wise or foolish virgin,” he observed. “If you are foolish, you need the convent. If you are wise, the convent needs you!” The truth is, we are all combinations of wisdom and foolery, so whenever we look at a faith community, we have to see how it helps us to be less foolish, and/or how we can use our wisdom to help others.

If, after honest reflection (and counsel with a trusted spiritual director or companion), your answer is “no” to both questions, then I believe you may need to consider finding a more congenial church home.

If you live in a remote or rural area where that is not possible, then you may need to set strict boundaries so that your involvement in the church is minimal — but as long as a church is not abusive, I believe minimal involvement in a cold church is better than no involvement at all. And that’s because churches are like living organisms — they always are evolving. In a few months’ time your church may have a new pastor, and/or the most toxic layperson may die or move away.

In other words, there’s hope that the situation could improve. By being marginally involved, you make yourself available to make a difference when you can. Also — keep praying. Pray (both silently and with words) that the community might open up, the coldness thaw out, the toxicity subside. Pray for the conversion of hearts of those who contribute most to the coldness and the toxicity. Pray also that you will be led to make a positive difference where and when you can. Pray to be able to love your neighbors the way Jesus loves them.

What if it’s a reasonably healthy church, but unfriendly to contemplation and/or mysticism?

I think a lot of people have this experience of church: it’s a reasonably safe or healthy community, but no one there is interested in the mystics or the interior life.

In circumstances like this, I believe it’s best to remain involved in the church, and to look for other ways you can make a contribution. Maybe no one wants a centering prayer group, but you can still volunteer to help build a habitat house. Usually in churches that are indifferent to the interior life, you may not be fed there, but you will find opportunities to serve. So be one of the “wise” and look for ways that you can be a blessing to others, even if contemplation and mysticism remain unexplored topics.

There are two reasons why I suggest this. First, people who are drawn to contemplation and mysticism need to find down-t0-earth ways to embody our faith, usually through very nuts and bolts ways of serving others. So get involved in chopping potatoes for the soup you’ll be serving homeless people.

The second reason is more long-term: your church may not be a contemplative-friendly environment today, but what about tomorrow? If you are patient with participating in the community as a regular member today, perhaps in a year or so (or whenever), there will be an opportunity for you to teach a class, or write an article for the parish website or newsletter, or otherwise share your love of the spiritual life with others. We have to earn the right to be leaders in our parish communities, and we earn this through humble service. So once again: as long as your community is not abusive, try to stick it out. Practice your silent prayer in solitude, and look for humble ways to serve. You will grow spiritually, and you might be surprised at how quickly opportunities emerge for you to contribute to others.

Hope this is helpful! Click here to read the second part of this post.

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