My Stepping Stones from Evangelical to Contemplative
I am not a natural contemplative and I was not born into contemplation.
The church of my childhood was evangelical. The Bible meant what it said. I learned the books of the Bible in order and memorized plenty of King James’ English.
The spirituality in which I grew up was direct, uncomplicated, and reassuring. The more I studied the more I knew, and I knew truths other people needed to know.
My one constant was reading. Each book I read gave me insights and ways of understanding what I was reading. I enjoyed the intellectual, analytical aspects of spirituality.
In addition to reading and thinking, my evangelical spirituality allowed me to use my imagination. Spiritual life was about big ideas and big thoughts. Many of my questions were about how those thoughts and ideas fit together.
I believed God loved me, but spiritual life was not primarily about my emotions. My spirituality was about understanding and sorting things out. When I was able to figure things out I knew I would find joy.
If I could understand spiritual life then I could explain it to other people.
All my thinking and intellectual effort took a lot of my energy. It was hard work to sort things out and find answers, and then explain those answers.
One of the challenges of spiritual life for me was new ideas I learned from reading. The more I read the more new ideas I encountered. Each one was a stepping stone which helped me see my spiritual life from a new perspective.
When I looked back I could recognize how my steps had led me to where I was. I had not taken any giant leaps along the way.
The stepping stones felt like an easy, clear path to follow.
Stepping Stones Between Evangelical and Contemplative
I met people on my path who helped me appreciate my evangelical roots in new ways.
One of my most significant questions was how my evangelical spirituality fit with my social conscience. At the same time I was exploring the ideas of evangelical spirituality I was studying political science, history, and law in school.
People helped me explore the rich history of evangelical spirituality and social action to strengthen society.
Social action motivated by evangelical spirituality was not restricted to only conservative politics. I explored evangelical responses to a variety of social issues including criminal justice and capital punishment.
The people I met and the words I read gave me stepping stones to visit and explore new spirituality. As I read and explored, my understanding of my own spirituality began to grow.
The spirituality in which I lived was no longer as direct or uncomplicated as it had been.
I became curious about evangelical spirituality. It had attracted me because evangelical life was the result of a process. People experienced a conversion and decided to become evangelicals.
It was as if being an evangelical were arriving at the conclusion of a conversion experience. I wondered what happened next, where was the next stepping stone?
An visit to an Episcopal church introduced me to a different way of understanding. I read about Episcopalians, visited churches, and asked a lot of questions.It felt almost like the flip side of my evangelical days. People joined the church as the beginning of a conversion process, not the conclusion.
Becoming an Episcopalian gave me new sets of stepping stones to follow. I helped teach the class I took to become a member of the Episcopal Church.
The stepping stones led me to a new understanding of what it meant to be contemplative.
Exploring the Stepping Stones of Contemplative Life
In an Episcopal church I was introduced to contemplative practices. I had seen myself as an activist, focused on ways to change the world. Contemplative practices were not replacements to social action, but helped deepen my spirituality.
I believe we are particularly full of spiritual life when we are doing justice. Contemplative practices are more than merely sitting still and allowing injustice to prevail.
Each step takes me into a deeper, more intimate relationship to spiritual life. My contemplative practices are not about learning and repeating answers I have memorized.
The time we spend practicing allows us to experience our connection to spiritual life in new ways.
In my evangelical days I was taught there was nothing more we needed to do to earn God’s love. Contemplative life is the closest thing I have found to that understanding.
Each time we sit still with our eyes closed, listening to sacred stillness or reading, is a stepping stone. Our path is toward closer connection and more intimate relationship to spiritual life.
I sit in church with my eyes closed and allow the service to happen around me. My prayers wind through and around the prayers of the service.
Stepping into Contemplative Life
Stepping stones can be motivating and exciting. They can lead us in a particular direction. We often take a half step to assess them. If they are balanced and do not wobble we complete our step. We do not want to fall.
The stepping stones of spiritual life work the same way. We may begin exploring them before we realize what all the risks can be. It is more of a challenge to follow the stepping stones we do not trust to hold us up and carry us forward.
My path from evangelical to contemplative is a pathway marked with stepping stones. Some of them are books, some are ideas, and some are people. Each stone has led me from where I was to where I am now.
The stepping stones are still spread out in front of us. It is up to us to choose whether we will take the next step.
Even the easiest step takes effort.
Our stepping stones mark our path toward becoming who we have the potential to be.
How will we step into contemplative life today?
Where will the stepping stones of our contemplative practice lead us this week?
[Image by emrank]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.