In my recent book, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages, I made a comment that inspired a reader to reach out to me. It involves the question of evangelization, or proclaiming the Gospel. In reading this person’s email, I realized that it points to a larger question: how do contemplatives share the Gospel of Christ with others? Is there a “contemplative” style of evangelization?
I believe there is. But first, here’s the letter from my reader.
I’m enjoying your book, Christian Mystics — a delightful read, thank you very much. I am taken aback by this, however: “He certainly was no saint: he owned slaves and campaigned actively for the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity” (p. 94). Owning slaves is horrific, agreed. But the sentence also implies that campaigning “actively for the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity” is somehow sinful. But St. Paul campaigned actively for the conversion of Jews and Greeks to Christianity. Where would the church be without its missionaries? If you have time, please let me know why you expressed yourself in this way. I am one who actively campaigns, through prayer, and preaching and service, to win lost people to faith in Jesus Christ. Blessings to you and yours!
Here’s how I replied:
K., thanks for your very thoughtful question. You and I may have a theological disagreement here, and if so, then let us at least charitably pray for one another.
First, and perhaps most important, what I wrote is not in any way meant to be a denial of Christ’s commission for us to spread the Gospel. For my “day job” I do adult faith formation at my local parish, which means that I am regularly sponsoring non-Christians who seek Baptism (and this past Easter we had a woman convert from Islam). So I am not anti-conversion or even anti-evangelism.
But I believe that before we can have any authority to evangelize, we must spread the Gospel primarily by living it, which is something very few Christians do, sad to say.
I know I myself am a very poor Christian. I do not forgive very well, I am not very merciful, and I am very poor at loving my neighbors — let alone my enemies. I am a failure at caring for the homeless, for refugees, and for prisoners.
But of course, it is possible for Christians, solely by God’s grace, to truly live the Gospel. When Christians truly yield to the Holy Spirit and embody the kind of Godly mercy, forgiveness, and love that Christ called us to, then we become powerful agents of evangelization by the action of the Holy Spirit. In fact, I would argue that such truly God-directed Christians are evangelists whether they set out to be or not!
I believe that too many Christians, both in our time and certainly in the past, are/were aggressive about spreading the faith but not about living the faith.
I think Ramon Llul, as a slave-owner who tried to convert Jews and Muslims, is a salient example of this. When people who are not even trying to live the Gospel aggressively seek to convert others, that actually undermines the Gospel rather than propagating it. Even if people do make an outward profession of faith, my hunch is that such conversions often may lack depth and understanding, unless of course the God’s grace the Holy Spirit intervenes.
I would also argue that, especially in our time, many non-Christians (such as Jews and Muslims) have experienced many Christians trying to “convert” them but very few Christians actually taking the time to love them — be in a relationship with them that doesn’t have conversion as a hidden agenda. No wonder such people have a very low opinion of Christianity. I believe it is the Father’s job to judge, Christ’s job to save, the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, and my job to love. So I try to do my job and let the persons of the Trinity do theirs.
None of this is meant to be a criticism of your ministry, and I trust that you are putting at least as much effort into living the faith with lavish love, abundant mercy and radical forgiveness and concrete care for “the least of these”, as you are to winning lost souls. I trust that by doing so, you are truly spreading the Gospel in ways that you cannot even imagine.
Thanks again for writing, and for reading Christian Mystics. I hope the book continues to be a delight for you.
Yours in Christ,
As a contemplative, I believe the heart of the Gospel is God’s lavish and radical love, mercy and forgiveness. Of course I want to share that with as many people as I can. But I also believe that what passes for “evangelism” or “evangelization” is often a kind of religious aggression: seeking not transfiguration or conversion of life, but simply submission to a particular theology or expression of Christianity. Like I said to K., I’m afraid that such efforts of “evangelization” often do more to thwart the Gospel than to actually share it.
St. Francis of Assisi is famous for saying something like this: “Preach the Gospel at all times, but only use words when absolutely necessary.” That, it seems to me, is the essence of a contemplative approach to evangelization.