Elements of a Contemplative Reformation: Essay #1

A Call to a Contemplative Reformation:

The Church as a Community of Practice, Transformation,

and Compassion

 

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

 

When the New Contemplatives Exchange gathered at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, at the invitation of Thomas Keating, Tilden Edwards, Laurence Freeman, Richard Rohr, and Margaret Benefiel, I found myself sharing in four days of life-changing conversations.  Each of the twenty of us had been invited by one of the four Founders, key theologians, teachers, and guides in the Christian contemplative tradition for the past four decades.  We each had experience with one of four lineages of the contemplative tradition: The Center for Action and Contemplation, the World Community for Christian Meditation, Contemplative Outreach, and the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  Many of us had shared with other schools of theology and practice as well, and we sought to weave those insights into our conversations.  In addition, we were very grateful for the presence of our colleague from the Trust for the Meditation Process, which funded the entire experience through a generous grant.[1]

For the months preceding the Exchange, we each had time to reflect on the hope of the guiding intent of the four Founders, namely that we would be

an exchange of evolving experience, understanding, practice, and probing questions related to Christian contemplation among a group of young contemplative thought and practice leaders drawn from different backgrounds, with the hope that their mutual stimulus can bring fresh, Spirit-inspired imagination to the ways contemplation can be understood, practiced and spread in our time, in ecclesial, educational and other institutional and communal contexts.[2]

 While each of us came from different contexts, we all shared the same vision as outlined in the statement:

Awakening a larger embrace and expansion of Christian contemplative understanding and practice as the vital grounding of Christian life, with openness to collaboration with all streams of contemplative wisdom, in response to the urgent social and spiritual needs of our time.[3]

It was our common grounding in the contemplative lineage that united us in a desire to discern how to embody the Christian contemplative tradition in our practice of faith within the myriad struggles of the world around us.

          Some have criticized the representation of the Exchange—none, more so, I might offer, than we who attended.  Not really knowing who all was coming ahead of time, when we all sat in the same room, we immediately named out loud our desire to expand the conversation not merely to include persons from other ethnic groups, socio-economic populations, and minorities, but to honor the universal presence of the Spirit of Christ that we believe infuses all of creation and invites a transformation among us all.  Our criticism was not aimed only at the need to expand the conversation circle, but also at our need to examine our own lives and see where our “blind spots” were regarding our various vocations and ministries in the world.  How have we been blind to how God is at work around us and in us?  How can we re-center ourselves in gratitude and continue our work in the world to foster this awareness and embrace of contemplative understanding and practice as “the grounding for the Christian life?”  How can we support and learn from one another in this endeavor?

          Even as we named the desire to expand the conversation, we still recognized and celebrated the rich diversity that was among us: persons from seven countries around the world; persons who brought the perspectives of Latin American, Brazilian, European, Australian, and Asian-American contexts; persons whose lives held the struggle of the LGBTQ community; and persons from bi-racial families with particular experiences of alienation and frustration.  As well, there was rich diversity in our professional and vocational contexts: seminary professors, university faculty, authors, social activists, parents, psychologists, retreat leaders, denominational staff, international coordinators, interspiritual scholars, monastics, and parish clergy.

          I name this dynamic to claim how vital it was to us to simultaneously yearn for greater diversity while celebrating the richness of the charisms that had been gathered in that space.  Throughout our time together, we made repeated reference to the ways we sought to bring this renewal and fresh insight back into our particular contexts; indeed, fostering networks of contemplatives around the world was one of our primary focus points.

          Personally, I was surprised that there were only four parish clergy present at the gathering.  I don’t know why I thought there would have been more.  Perhaps that speaks to one of my own blind spots as to how I understand God’s action in the world: of course God is present and at work in the lives of traditional church communities, but God is most definitely not limited to that locale.

          Indeed, there were conversations among some as to whether or not there was any hope for the traditional church community—the typical parish structure—when it came to the desire to nurture an understanding and practice of the Christian contemplative ethos and practice.  Is it even possible to engage contemplation within an established community if its institutional structure and intent cannot support its foundational significance, requiring us then to focus our attention elsewhere as we yearn for a fuller embodiment of the contemplative orientation within Christian understanding and practice?  Can the reorientation only come from the outside?  These were serious questions that we raised, and I was profoundly grateful for the opportunity to reflect with my colleagues.

          This essay comes out of my own reflection on how to embody these ongoing conversations within my particular vocational context: I am an Episcopal priest serving as the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia, a parish of a thousand souls nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Northeast Georgia.  The city and county within which I live are bastions of socially conservative political positions and also enormous generosity expressed in over 400 non-profits.  My parish has about as wide a spectrum of social and political perspectives of any I have known.  The souls entrusted to my care include everyone from tea partiers to Libertarians to Republican Party appointees to the former chair of the LGBTQ caucus for the Democratic Party of Georgia.  We are an eclectic community of single parents, business leaders, community pioneers, artists, families—extraordinary people.  Put another way, I am particularly interested in exploring how we can nurture an awareness of God’s presence through the contemplative understanding and practice within a traditional parish community filled with a diverse community of phenomenal, complex, and often contradictory parishioners.  Indeed, I believe exploring such a contemplative embodiment and engagement within a traditional parish lies at the heart of my vocation as a priest.   I can’t seem to escape it.

The remainder of this essay seeks to explore this question, then: how do we approach this contemplative embodiment within such a parish context?  What questions must we ask?  What risks are we called to take?  What language and images can we employ?  What tensions must we engage in order to invite the gathered community to delve more deeply into the presence of God through contemplative prayer and study so that, through this transformative experience, we more robustly embody the compassionate and culturally transcendent wisdom of Christ in the world around us?

          One of the questions we asked ourselves as an Exchange group was this: can we claim that the development and nurture of the contemplative lineage or tradition is key—indeed, is central—to the practice of the Christian faith?  It behooved us to ask the question early on as we shared in our conversations.  Do we dare to claim that the contemplative tradition is central to the mature Christian life?  I very much believe it is, especially within local congregations.

We must first ask ourselves what is the purpose of the church community.  In The Episcopal Church, our Catechism lays out what the mission of the church is.  It is quite bold:

          Q: What is the mission of the Church?

          A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other                in Christ.[4]

Thus the Book of Common Prayer makes it explicit that the mission of the Church is grounded in the dynamic of reconciliation.  There is the recognition of estrangement and distance in our existence as well as the yearning for a fuller conscious union with God in Christ, within community.  If, therefore, we are speaking of reorientation, conversion, and metanoia, we are speaking of transformation.  It is transformation, which is a lifetime process, not a single experience, therefore, that lies at the heart of what it means not only to be a Christian but also a human being created by God and thus a beloved creature.  Ongoing transformation is the goal or purpose of our existence, and this opens the door to a deeper reflection on the role of contemplation—on the cultivation of an awareness of God’s presence in our lives, through practice, that leads to such an embodied transformation.  As we discussed in Snowmass, the contributions of the Carmelite nun Constance FitzGerald are powerful in this regard: how can we recognize the call to move from impasse to an imaginative and prophetic embodiment, meditating on St. John of the Cross’s understanding of the Dark Night of the Soul?[5]

          The next line in the Catechism spells out how the Church seeks to embody its mission:

          Q: How does the Church pursue its mission?

          A: The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel,               and promotes justice, peace, and love.[6]

It is telling to me that the pursuit of our mission begins with a posture of prayer.  While the Catechism doesn’t lay out a specific formula—that would be too rational and constrictive—can we argue that only through practices of prayer can we move from spaces of impasse to imaginative, prophetic embodiment and transformation?

          In my own experience as a parish priest, I often find myself pressured to somehow convince my congregation that they should be interested in a particular call of justice or community life.  Time after time we have given sermons on the radical texts that show Christ calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to lay down our lives for our friends, to care for the orphan, widow, poor, and alien in our midst.  Over and over, with each yearly rotation of the lectionary season, we encounter revolutionary texts of justice, grace, compassion, and peace whose light catches our eye, heart, and conscience for a period of time but fades as the days go on.  It is easy to become frustrated when one doesn’t seem to see the evocative call of our shared mission saturating the lives of everyone in the congregation.  Further, throughout the broader church, we feel the pressure and anxiety from declining attendance and participation in the institutional church—hence the questions from some in the Exchange whether such a contemplative endeavor is even possible in a serious way such a parish environment, unless it was a new mission start-up with that intent as its core from the beginning.[7]

          It is easy to begin feeling frustrated with the perceived complacency of the institutional church in the face of so much injustice and oppression in the world.  What is not connecting?  Why this perceived apathy so many times?  Why are the momentary heights of engagement so quickly followed by the lull into the typical pattern of doing things?  Why do so many seem fixated on laying out restrictive doctrinal statements like the so-called “Nashville Statement” in the midst of social, economic, and environmental catastrophe?  What is that timing about?  Might it have something to do with our resistance to vulnerability, yielding, not-knowing, and disciplined attentiveness to the Spirit’s reforming presence—foundational aspects of a contemplative posture?

          In my doctoral thesis for the School of Theology at the University of the South, I argued that the root of the issue is a challenge to take a risk to boldly seek a new orientation within religious leadership and community life.  My thesis title was “The Practice of Christian Mindfulness as an Imaginative Challenge in Parish Ministry.”  I spent four years delving more deeply into my experience of the pressures of congregational development and ministry and how we so easily yield our intentionality to a corporate business model rather than lean into spaces of watchfulness—nepsis as articulated in The Philokalia and other crucial Patristic texts—and the Spirit-led experience of transformation that feeds our yearning for wholeness to weave with God’s yearning for us.[8]  Such a contemplative posture facilitates our awareness of what the Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore calls “the wanting-to-be of God in our lives.”[9]

          After ten years of serving as a parish priest, I have come to focus my frustration not on the perceived complacency of the congregation but on the failure of the church community to delve into spaces of spiritual formation and contemplative practice.  If we are repeatedly frustrated at the ambivalence of those in our congregations and the broader world to embody compassion in the face of injustice and oppression, might it be that we ourselves are not heeding the call to nurture an awareness of God’s presence in our lives through practices of prayer—an awareness that would, I promise, lead to a fuller embodiment of compassion and peace in the world?  Might it be that a more intentional focus on contemplation could fill the hearts of those who are yearning to experience God’s presence in their lives so that we share that peace and joy with all we meet?  To put it more bluntly, as has been said by others, how can one give what one has not received?

          For too long our parish communities have bought into a particular organizational schema that finds its roots in the corporate business model.  So much of our energy goes toward the maintenance of programs within the community, giving energy and attention toward filling spaces for leadership in order that existing ministry structures may continue and the wheels of parish life keep turning.  As the rector of a parish with a thousand souls, I will be the first to say that we must have adequate administrative structures to ensure that we are effectively and faithfully organized as a community, yet administration itself cannot be void of an attunement with the Spirit’s living presence and guidance.  Julia Gatta, my pastoral theology professor at Sewanee and thesis advisor, drew on Thomas Oden in our pastoral theology classes to remind us that within the very word administration we can find ministry.[10]  As Oden dramatically describes

Having borrowed heavily from programmatic management procedures while forgetting much of their traditional rootage, church administration has become an orphan discipline vaguely wondering about its true parentage.[11]

           My own experience has been that there is a particular gravity within parish leadership systems that will pull one back into orbit around the corporate business model if prayerful attention is not paid to our deeper Trinitarian identity with God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps we have forgotten our biggest responsibility: remembering our call to reconciliation, to foster a deeper awareness of God’s transforming presence in our lives.  When we engage in this deeper dimension of our vocation, as Jim Goodmann described after a recent conference call, “the very space that makes for impasse, culturally and religiously, is the space that may also become an opening.”[12]

          When I returned from Snowmass, I went into my own library to search for glimpses and images of sages and saints who would help me process the conviction I felt around contemplation being at the heart of what we are called to explore together in the Church.  I returned to Howard Thurman almost immediately, and I was again struck by his clarity.  I found a reflection in the book Deep is the Hunger that deeply spoke to my heart.  Thurman speaks about the deepest resonances of the Church’s vocation.  It is not enough that we offer spaces where people can reflect on their own lives—focus on themselves.  Our culture is already saturated with a self-preoccupation.  His words are prophetic:

In a world of tremendous upheaval such as ours, where almost all the old moorings are uprooted and it is simply maddening to try to secure and maintain one’s bearing and sense of direction, the Church must primarily be a place of instruction, must include at least two important areas.  In the first place, men must be taught the content of the Christian faith.  Such questions as: Who was Jesus?  What precisely did he teach?  What are the historic Jewish-Christian insights with reference to God and the meaning of life and the interpretation of human experience?  What is man and what is the nature of his responsibility?  How must one interpret the true significance of the various political, economic and social arrangements under which men live?  These and similar questions must be dealt with, carefully, honestly and intelligently.  The second area has to do with the interior life.  What is the significance of spiritual exercises?  Precisely what is prayer and how does one pray?  What techniques and methods are available for deepening one’s sense of the presence of God and how may one work in the world courageously and intelligently on behalf of a decent world, without despair and complete fatigue?  What are the resources for personal rehabilitation and renewal?  That men may be able to look out on life, with all of its cruel vicissitudes and transcendent joys, with quiet eyes and tranquil spirit, is one of the end results of the attention that the Church gives to this important responsibility to the individual.[13]

Thurman knew that authentic contemplation is never grounded in self-focus, an ego-centered orientation; rather, it is a posture that opens one’s heart to the presence of God in the world, always alive and always moving, always reconciling and always transforming.  The practices we engage with ground us in the development of this awareness, offering us spaces of renewal that, in turn, nurture our embodiment of Christ’s love in the world.  It is the nurture of the immediate presence of God in our lives, the definition Bernard McGinn gives for “mysticism,” that calls to the deepest parts of our hearts.[14] 

          Given these pressures, I contend that the Church is being called to a season of reformation—out of the old paradigm of program-maintenance and into a space of contemplative awareness and compassionate embodiment.  The Church must become a community of practice, transformation, and compassion.  The challenge lies in our willingness to set aside our urge to accomplish and control, to dictate and overly structure—to relinquish our over-reliance on our thinking-mind and our pursuits of schemes of growth that cycle through every few years.  As Tilden Edwards demonstrates, we have another capacity—a deeper capacity—that the Spirit invites us to cultivate.

Within us there is a capacity for touching reality more directly than the thinking mind.  It is activated when we’re willing to let go of the thoughts that come through our mind and to sit in the spacious openness that appears between and behind them.[15]

         We must realize that only by sitting in this spaciousness, by grounding ourselves in this awareness of the Spirit of Christ, can we find ourselves transformed and oriented toward a sustainable compassionate embodiment.  Put another way, if we don’t minister and serve out of this contemplative posture, any endeavors of social justice—however noble and true—will remain on the level of yet another program or activity for our parish to be involved in.  Clergy and parish leadership will continue to pour their energy into trying to convince their congregations to take part in Christ’s call on our lives, and the cycle will repeat itself.  The embodiment Christ calls us to share will remain disconnected from our awareness of our deepest identity in Christ.  I, for one, am fatigued by this approach.

          There is another way out of which we can live and serve in the world, a posture that nurtures an awareness of God’s presence through practice and mutual encouragement and accountability that opens our hearts to an infusion of the Spirit’s presence so that we are truly free to open our hands in love.  There is a space that fosters a relaxation of our over-dependence on our egos and rests more in a mutual vulnerability that encourages a heart-orientation within our religious communities.  In such an environment, the Church is a community that recognizes the fluid unity of Matthew 6:6, “to go into your room and pray in secret, in silence” and the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.  We feel the intimate connection between the kenotic call of Philippians 2, to empty ourselves of our fixation on ourselves—what I see as our addiction to our little selves as opposed to our true selves in God—and the call of Matthew 22, Mark 12, and Luke 10 to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  The truths of these texts can be embodied within us as we celebrate the incarnational reality of our faith.

          In the contemplative lineage, silence is the grounding as we seek a regular discipline that attunes our heart with the heart of God.  By committing to hold regular times of silence, we claim our desire to yield to God’s out-pouring loving wisdom for us.  Contemplative prayer anchors us in a posture of openness to the Spirit’s guidance rather than the continuation of our own insulated ambitions.  The contemplative lineage has always been present in the institution of the Church, offering a space for disciplined engagement—an ascetical ethos—through which we can surrender to God’s love which also is a surrender to our true selves shaped by that love.[16] 

          So, the question before us is this: What if we embarked on a new Reformation, a Contemplative Reformation, that challenged the Church to be a community of practice, transformation, and compassion that sought to embody the love of Christ throughout the world?  What if we intently focused on our life of prayer, anchoring our lives in those spaces of silence that open our hearts to God’s reconciling presence that holds us by the hand and guides us into the world to seek the healing of all?   This is what the Spirit is telling my heart to explore as a parish priest in my context, what about you?

         

[1] For a wonderful reflection on the Exchange gathering in Snowmass and a full list of the participants, I commend to you an article by Phileena Heuertz, from Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism, one of the participants. https://gravitycenter.com/learn/reflect/.

[2] Taken from the guiding document for the gathering, offered by the Founders.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 855.

[5] Constance Fitzgerald, “Impasse and Dark Night,” in Living with Apocalypse: Spiritual Resources for Social Compassion, edited by Tilden Edwards (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984), 93-116.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For a remarkable example of a new church development with contemplative understanding and practice at its core, I commend to you the Rev. Sarah Bachelard’s ongoing work with the community of Benedictus, a contemplatively grounded community in Cook, Australia.  Sarah is a national coordinator for the World Community for Christian Meditation. http://benedictus.com.au/index.html.

[8] Stuart Higginbotham, “The Practice of Christian Mindfulness as an Imaginative Challenge in Parish Ministry.”  You can currently find a link to explore this on the Mindful Church blog: www.contemplativereformation.wordpress.com.

[9] Sebastian Moore, OSB, brilliantly describes the “wanting-to-be” of God in our lives.  His image underscores God’s desire for us and our reciprocal desire for God that leads to a deeper participation in God’s mission and work in our lives.  See The Wound of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1990), 130.

[10] See Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1983), 153.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] I am eternally grateful for the ongoing conversations with Courtney Cowart, with the Society for the Increase of Ministry, and Jim Goodmann, with the Beecken Center at the School of Theology, the University of the South.

[13] Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger (Richmond, Virginia: Harper & Row, 1951), 32-33.

[14] See the 2017 John Main Seminar lectures with Bernard McGinn, “Praying with the Masters Today,” held in August 2017 at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.  The World Community for Christian Meditation, www.wccm.org.

[15] Tilden Edwards, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), 6.

[16] I commend to you the phenomenal resources in contemplative practices as outlined in The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s “Tree of Contemplative Practices.” http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices. While the Center’s description of these varied practices is most helpful, I also encourage you to explore the particular practices fostered by the World Community for Christian Meditation, the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, The Center for Action and Contemplation, Contemplative Outreach, the Wisdom Schools that Cynthia Bourgeault helps facilitate.

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