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

How to be a Contemplative in a “Toxic” Community (Part Two) April 19, 2017


This is a continuation of a post I began yesterday — click here to read part one.

I’m responding to a reader who wanted some guidance about how to be a contemplative Christian while participating in a church that is “toxic” and “cold.” Yesterday I addressed that particular question head on. Today I want to address a few additional questions that arise in response to this same issue. Here goes…

What does it mean to be “active” in a church? Is Sunday morning worship attendance enough? 

The answer to this question is really “It depends.”

I once heard an Episcopal priest say to a congregation, “You get to choose how involved you will be with this church, and any level of involvement is okay.” I think that was a very wise thing for him to say.

Some people are what can only be called “church nerds.” They love to be involved in several ministries; they’re always there, setting up chairs or washing dishes or serving coffee or whatever else needs to be done. They are the “Marthas” of the congregation, committed to hospitality and working hard to keep things going. It takes a certain personality type to be a Martha; if that’s you, all I have to say is don’t overcommit yourself: even church membership can lead to burnout.

Others only want to show up for Sunday morning worship. Often these folks might have demanding jobs and/or young children at home, that keep them from truly being engaged in their local parish or congregation at anything more than the most superficial of levels.

Most folks are somewhere in between. After attending the church for a while they begin to make friends, find some kindred spirits and maybe get involved in one or two ministries, whether education, or service, or maintenance, or fundraising, whatever it might be. The church is important to them, but in proportion to other commitments, including family, career, and other elements of a satisfying life.

So… how do you decide what is the right level of involvement for you? I think it goes back to the two questions I posed yesterday:

  • How am I being spiritually fed at this church?
  • How can I be of service at this church?

I think the appropriate level of involvement at a church is the level where we know we are being spiritually fed, and we know we are making a difference for others.

Hopefully, simply participating in Sunday worship at your church provides at least some spiritual nurture. Perhaps  you can supplement that by taking classes or attending weeknight programs on occasion (If you don’t feel the church is feeding you at all, go back and re-read what I wrote yesterday. It could be time to find a new church).

The question of “how can I serve” might mean being a lay minister on Sunday mornings: an usher, a greeter, a lay reader, an extraordinary Eucharistic minister, a member of the choir. But it could also mean something beyond Sunday mornings: teaching a class, volunteering for buildings and grounds upkeep, or giving time and talent to an outreach ministry like Habitat for Humanity or the local soup kitchen.

I think it’s important for you to feel good about the level of involvement at your church. Again, all this is assuming that your church is not abusive, and even if it seems cold or indifferent, at least you have found a way to make peace with being there. If not, well, again, consider your options. It might be worth driving three extra miles to join a church in the next town over where you can thrive — and make a difference — spiritually. But don’t change churches on a whim. Only do so after much prayer, discernment, and counsel from a trusted spiritual director or companion.

What’s wrong with being a “Lone Ranger” mystic anyway? 

It’s almost impossible to grow a single corn plant. Maybe it is impossible (I’m not a farmer!). Corn needs to be planted with other corn, for cross-pollination purposes and for safety from hungry animals that might stop by for a snack.

Likewise, human beings need each other. The absolute hermit is rare, if he exists at all. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were the closest thing to hermits in the Christian mystical tradition, still relied on people from the cities to bring them food, or buy their handmade items, or otherwise interact to support their solitary life. And as Basil the Great famously asked, “If I am a Christian alone, whose feet shall I wash?”

One of the dangers of mystical or contemplative spirituality is that we can get lost in our heads, grooving on interior silence or trying to foster with prayer and meditation a sense of inner peace and a practice of the presence of God. But Christian spirituality is an embodied spirituality, where Jesus instructs us that loving our neighbors matters just as much as loving God. Whether we like it or not, the church is a clinic where we learn to love our neighbors.

It’s not always easy: it can be boring, or feel challenging or threatening especially when others in the church look or talk or think differently than we do. But that’s where we grow. If you go to the gym and only lift weights that are easy to lift, your muscles will never develop, and eventually they’ll decline. But by working out with heavier weights — challenging yourself to grow by doing the hard work of resistance training — your health improves. In a similar way, participation in a faith community keeps your “spiritual muscles” growing by giving you ample opportunities to practice kindness, compassion, forgiveness, listening, and other key spiritual virtues.

How do I find a spiritual companion or spiritual director?

A recurring theme in both yesterday’s and today’s blog posts is the need for a safe and mature spiritual director or companion who can help you to sort out what your relationship with a faith community looks like. Any question involving discernment: is it time to change churches, how involved should I be, should I be nagging the pastor to let me teach a class on centering prayer, etc. etc. — any question involving discernment can benefit from working with a prayerful and kind spiritual companion.

Sometimes, we naturally have a spiritual companion, readily present in our life. A friend, a neighbor, someone we know from church, with whom it is easy to talk and with whom we have a trusting relationship. If someone already plays that kind of a role in your life, ask them if they would be willing to meet with you in a more regular and intentional way (a beneficial spiritual companionship/direction relationship probably entails meeting once a month or so).

But if such a person doesn’t exist in your life, or if he/she is unavailable to meet with you regularly, then the next step would be to look for someone who has undergone formation as a spiritual director. But where do you find such a person? I would begin by checking with your local monastery, Jesuit retreat center, or other place where people make spiritual retreats.

Usually the staff of such establishments will know of local spiritual directors who would be able to meet with you. If that doesn’t work out, visit — the website of Spiritual Directors’ International, a professional organization for spiritual companions/guides/directors. They maintain a worldwide database of spiritual companions.

While I  think it is preferable to work with a spiritual director with whom you can meet face to face, if such a person is unavailable it is possible to find directors who are willing to work with you via Skype, FaceTime, or even phone or email.

What to look for in a spiritual director? First and foremost, is this a person of prayer? Does he or she take care to nurture their own faith? And pay attention to whether you feel comfortable or safe talking to this person. Is their response to you laced with criticism, or full of compassion? When they disagree with you or push back at something you say, do you feel judged, or inspired? Does meeting with this person encourage you to grow in your relationship with God, your commitment to meditation and contemplation, and your hunger for silence and the mystery?

Reflecting on questions like this can help in choosing the best spiritual companion. Especially since some spiritual directors ask for a fee or donation in exchange for  their service, it’s important to find a director who you feel is right for you (that being said, if you find yourself wanting to change directors every three months or so, you might want to consider if perhaps you are being unrealistic in your expectations, or if you are trying to avoid something!)

I hope this post (and yesterday’s) can help anyone who seeks to be more intentional about pursuing a contemplative expression of faith in God and Christ, while grounding your spiritual longing in the context of a community of faith — whether that’s a church, a small prayer group, or a one-on-one relationship with a spiritual companion. Please let me know if you found these posts helpful, or if you have any questions about your contemplative journey: leave a comment below, or connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.

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