Remaining at the Cross: On Being a Contemplative Christian in a Church That Has Forgotten Its Mystical Heritage

Remaining at the Cross: On Being a Contemplative Christian in a Church That Has Forgotten Its Mystical Heritage October 12, 2018

This is turning out to be “James Ishmael Ford” week at my blog. Earlier this week I posted a review of his new book, Introduction to Zen KoansCheck it out if you haven’t done so already.

One of the reasons I like his writing so much is that he is a Zen roshi who warmly supports Christians who embrace zazen. We need more folks like him.

Yesterday, Ford Roshi wrote a blog post called “Living in the Great Buzz: Some Near Random Thoughts on Zen, Buddhism, Nondual Christianity, Decentering one’s Ego, And Finding a Life.” When he gets around to talking about Christianity, he has this to say:

It is that lovely nondual Christianity… that is popping up here and there that I find resonates. And. All I have to do is go to any Christian church for a Sunday service to recall this is an aberrant form of that tradition.[1]

His first point — that nondual (mystical/contemplative) Christianity resonates with his experience as a Zen Buddhist — is something I experience as well, only the other way around. But his second point — that nondual Christianity is “aberrant” — I must take issue with.

Granted, very few Christians have any sense of the mystical or contemplative heart of our spirituality. But that doesn’t make it aberrant. That just is evidence of how broken the body of Christ is.

So it’s no surprise that Ford never or rarely finds a whiff of authentic mysticism in a Sunday morning church service — and my hunch is, that’s true whether he was attending a Catholic, mainline Protestant or evangelical service.

(Generally speaking, Eastern Orthodox Christians have done the best job at preserving the mystical heart of Sunday worship, but most Orthodox churches in America have such strong cultural identities — Greek, Russian, etc. — that it’s hard for outsiders to find a place there.)

And, to be honest, I can’t blame him for saying “No, thank you, I’d rather be a Unitarian Buddhist.” That’s quite a reasonable choice to make.

So the interesting question is: why, given how impoverished contemporary Christianity is in relation to its own mystical treasury, do some of us choose to stay? In other words, why haven’t I — and numerous other Christian contemplative students and practitioners — why haven’t we abandoned the church, in search of a community where contemplation isn’t so absent from the mainstream?

It’s really the same question that many of us Catholics are wrestling with right now, in the wake of the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report about clergy sex abuse — the latest sobering reminder that the Catholic hierarchy has, for decades now, put the reputation of the institution ahead of caring for its most vulnerable members. Why stay in such a profoundly broken institution?

The Truth of Christianity (a Postmodern Digression)

I suppose I could talk about truth — Ford suggests that, at the end of the day, Buddhism simply strikes him as more “true” than Christianity. I could say the same thing about my experience of Christianity. The problem that I run into with that approach is that, the deeper I get into my contemplative practice, the more I see all religious and wisdom traditions as essentially complex mythical narratives, designed to create meaning and cultural identity and to give adherents a sense of their place in the cosmos and their responsibilities both to one another and to the cosmos (or to the mystery that Christians call “God”).

In other words: contemplation takes us to the same place where postmodern philosophy goes: a place where “truth claims” begin to ring hollow, because they all are embedded in specific cultural or historical biases. Not that there is no such thing as truth, mind you. But humbly recognizing that all human efforts to proclaim truth are limited, contingent, and provisional.

Here’s my point: language can never reveal ultimate truth. Language by its nature is dualistic, and if we believe truth both precedes and transcends all dualities, then language just gets in the way.

So for me to say that Christianity feels more “true” to me than Buddhism is simply to acknowledge that I am personally deeply immersed in the Christian story, I find beauty and meaning in the Christian story, and that I love the Christian story, all of which is true — but none of which goes very far in anchoring me (or anyone else) in “truth,” particularly in any kind of objective or universal/modernist sense.

There are voices in the Jewish tradition that do a very good job of pointing out that what you believe about God is far less important than how you put your faith into action. Frankly, I’d like to see that perspective more widely embraced within Christianity. Is Christianity true? I think the answer to that question is found in the lives of the saints, far more so than in any kind of dogmatic declaration or theological treatise.

But I digress.

Why Stay in an Imperfect Church?

Back to the central question: why do I stay? Why should anyone stay?

I said above that I love the Christian story, but let me clarify that. I love Jesus. I fell in love with him when I took a New Testament course my senior year in college, and I’ve been in love with him ever since. I have no idea how much of his story is historical and how much is mythical, but at this point I don’t think it really matters, at least not to me. What matters is how the experience of loving Christ (which begins with the experience of being loved by Christ) makes a difference in my life.

I should hasten to add that I think the Buddha is pretty awesome too. But Jesus got to my heart first, which is probably the single biggest reason why I’m a Christian-interested-in-Buddhism rather than the other way around.

Part of loving Christ means wanting to be in relationship with him. Which means — at least in a spiritual sense — wanting to follow him, to listen to him, to wrestle with his teachings, and then to accompany him over the difficult parts of his story — including waiting with him at the foot of the cross.

In the story of the crucifixion, most of Jesus’s friends did not hang around at the foot of the cross. Most of them couldn’t handle seeing his broken, crucified body, and hearing him gasp for breath as he slowly died. Most just simply disappeared.

John stayed. Mary and several other women stayed. But the rest skipped out.

Now, it might be tempting to laud John and the women, and to get all judgmental toward Peter and Matthew and James and all the others. But that would be to royally miss the point.

Because Peter and James and all the other disciples who abandoned Jesus on the cross still became saints.

It seems that when it came to the crucifixion, some people had to leave. Others had to stay. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just that each person did what he or she had to do.

Waiting with the Crucified Body

Photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash

Now, back to Christianity today. Christians call the church “the body of Christ.” So whenever you attend a local Sunday morning worship service, you are checking in with the body of Christ.

And guess what? The body is still being crucified — by its own mistakes, its own sin, its own instititutionalism, its own amnesia regarding its mystical and contemplative heart.

It is, frankly, painful how broken the body is. It’s painful to see, and painful to be present to it.

Some of us choose to stay with the crucified body. Many others need to leave. That’s okay. If Peter and James could become saints after abandoning Christ, then so can anyone living today. No judgement.

But it’s a mistake to say that the contemplative or nondual heart of Christian spirituality is aberrant. That’s just not true. What is aberrant is the broken body that unfortunately is all many people ever experience of the church.

Why do we stay? Like the women, we want to anoint the body before it gets placed in the tomb. And then we will wait, trusting in the Spirit who always brings new life.

After all, contemplation is, on one level, just a fancy word for “waiting.”

N.B. The image of waiting at (or leaving) the foot of the cross as a metaphor for staying in or leaving the church today was inspired by a talk given by Fr. Gerald McGlone, SJ, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, GA on September 30, 2018, called “Separating Fact from Fiction in the Sexual Abuse Crisis.” It’s well worth listening to. You can find an audio recording of the talk by clicking here.

[1]Update 10/14/18: After reading this post, Ford edited the paragraph that I quoted above, changing the last sentence to read: “All I have to do is go to any Christian church for a Sunday service to recall this nondual approach, while perhaps the true heart of the tradition, is also not normative.”


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