In response to my recent article Why Are Mystics So… Weird?!?, one reader posted this comment/question:
One thing I’d like to see some work on is reintegration. By this, I mean how to integrate with “polite Christian society” when you clearly don’t fit. … It’s one thing to be a Christian mystic in a monastery or nunnery, another to be a mystic in the local Baptist church. Living like this often gets one “invited to seek fellowship elsewhere.” … What about when no one wants to assemble with you because your very life makes them uncomfortable? It’s an area that bears further exploration and representation.
I don’t know if this reader is speaking from personal experience or not, but I certainly am sorry to hear of mystically-inclined Christians being asked to “seek fellowship elsewhere.” I don’t know the full story, of course, but my initial response is to think that any community that asks its mystics to leave is probably a community worth leaving!
But I know it’s rarely that simple.
Margery Kempe, a lesser-known mystic who received spiritual direction from Julian of Norwich, had an annoying habit of sobbing — loudly — every time she attended Mass. She cried, she wailed, she boohooed. In short, she was disruptive, and it annoyed the priests and fellow churchgoers to no end. Could Margery have toned it down a bit? I’m inclined to think she probably could have. But Margery herself insisted that her love for Christ demanded nothing less than her full-throated crying.
The takeaway: when mystics and churches don’t get along, sometimes it’s the church’s fault, and sometimes it might be the mystic’s problem.
Honesty… and Discretion
If I were providing spiritual direction to a contemplative Christian who had been asked to leave a community, I would invite my directee to be honest and fair-minded in considering if he or she could have done something differently, in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. Jesus did instruct his followers to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves. In other words: sometimes there is a place for being discreet, which includes not telling everyone about my moments of ecstasy in prayer, or my sense that God has instructed me to spend three hours a day in silence, or whatever.
Some things are best discussed only with a sympathetic (and mature, and discerning) spiritual director.
Once a person is confident that he or she is being spiritually mature, discreet, and trying reasonably to be healthily integrated into a faith community, then I think it’s important to simply acknowledge that church memberships really are like marriages, and sometimes despite the best of intentions all the way around, the relationship breaks down, or becomes toxic, and sometimes separating is the most loving, if unhappy, choice.
Being asked to leave is painful, and I would suspect it would lead to real grief that needed to be worked through — at least with a spiritual director, if not with a therapist.
But there are other options for faith communities. Sometimes when one church environment proves to be toxic (or just a bad fit), the best solution is to prayerfully and with discernment seek a new community. It may involve stepping out from one’s previous denominational affiliation.
Without meaning to impugn the Baptists, I think it’s fair to suspect that many (not all, but many) Baptist pastors lack the training or resources to provide spiritual care for true contemplatives/mystics. Such people might need to explore other church traditions.
If you don’t require liturgy, the Quakers are perhaps the most contemplative ecclesial community of all. And of course, I do know many Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, DoC, Mennonite, and yes even Baptist clergy who are themselves contemplatives or at least are contemplative friendly. So sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right congregation, regardless of its denominational affiliation.
So it’s worth doing a little bit of shopping around.
Taking Contemplation Outside the Church
Finally, I think what many contemplatives do is learn to balance the garden-variety responsibilities of membership in their local church with participation in a small group or gathering that is explicitly geared toward contemplative or mystical spirituality.
Many monasteries and retreat centers have lay groups, ecumenical in nature, that allow contemplative-minded Christians to gather usually one day a month for fellowship and instruction.
Likewise, many local churches sponsor contemplative small groups affiliated with organizations like Contemplative Outreach, the Julian Meetings, or World Community for Christian Meditation. Joining a group like that, which will give you space to enter into a serious practice of silent prayer with friendly people who will support your prayer life, is often the secret sauce that we need to survive in what is otherwise a very run-of-the-mill church environment.
I still recommend being part of your neighborhood congregation, even if you find your contemplative nurture through a small group or lay monastic affiliation. Think of your participation in the local congregation as an opportunity to serve others. You get nurtured in your contemplative group, and then you can nurture others — not necessarily by teaching them about contemplation, but by simply being a contemplative presence in their lives.
Steps to Take
To summarize: if you are finding conflict between your interest in contemplation and mysticism and the culture of your local church, take these steps:
- Find and begin working with a sympathetic spiritual director or companion;
- Review (with your spiritual director) to make sure you are not causing the problem yourself;
- If you still feel you must leave the church, take the time to grieve the loss;
- Explore other churches looking for a place you can fit in, even if “discreetly,” and
- Consider joining a Centering Prayer, contemplative prayer, or monastic associate group to provide you with your contemplative sustenance, allowing your church membership therefore to be primarily a way to be of service.
I hope this is helpful.