Can Contemplative Prayer Help Address Racism, White Supremacy, and Hate?

What good is sitting in silence for 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day going to do when there are racist groups in our communities?

It’s a fair question that I have pondered very often. I have a few responses:

Contemplation changes us into compassionate people.

Contemplation can help those in the grip of hate face their false selves—the false selves that drive so much of their hatred.

Contemplation re-centers us in God’s generative love for us and for other people.

Mind you, I’m saying that contemplation can “help” as one part of a larger action plan. I don’t want to oversell this here. Meditation and prayer have long been viewed as integral parts of Christian social justice work. Some groups make them essential aspects that members agree to incorporate into their daily lives.

When I have encountered hate speech or hateful events in the news, they can fuel a rage that goes beyond a productive righteous anger. As this burning rage takes hold, contemplative prayer provides a place to release my thoughts to God. Action is needed, but I won’t act from a productive perspective without a chance to disconnect from my anger and rage.

From a scientific perspective, mindfulness practices, which resemble contemplative prayer in many ways, help decrease our tendency to pursue conflict:

“Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our wellbeing or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds.”

Speaking in terms of what we hope for in the longer term, my pastor challenged us to think about conversion—we need members of these racist groups to be freed from their hateful ideology. It’s often true that the leaders of these hate groups are too far gone in many cases. However, a former hate group member turned advocate believes those who join these hate groups as the rank and file “foot soldiers” are often joining for reasons that are more complex than adopting a hateful ideology.

Christian Picciolini shared in an NPR interview:

“I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose… because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black and white answers.”

Contemplation can’t answer all of that, but it can become a tool to escape the endless loop of anger and resentment that helps fuel the hatred of others.

Contemplation can provide a new identity as God’s beloved child.

Contemplation can provide a new mission to tell others about the love of God.

Keep in mind that Paul was a violent extremist who was killing and imprisoning Christians. After his conversion, he penned letters where he wished that his readers could experience the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love.

Those who are nurturing their anger and fabricated resentment of immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to need a new community to offer them hope and a path forward. It would be tragic if white supremacists and racists only redirected their anger into a bitter and defensive fundamentalism. Many evangelical churches can provide activity to redirect them, but they tend to lack the spiritual resources and direction for those who need to directly encounter God’s loving presence. Contemplative prayer within a church community setting can offer the inner spiritual experience of transformation that is often so badly needed.

We need churches that speak of God as a loving father/parent and emphasize the loving relationship of the trinity in their belief statements. I participated in prison ministry off and on before we moved and had kids, and I was always struck by how the men were impacted by an encounter with God as a loving father.

I will always defer to experts like Christian Picciolini to offer a path forward amid white supremacy. Contemplation is no substitute for direct action, holding racists accountable, legal advocacy, and other measures that will stop their agenda. It wouldn’t hurt if police departments like the one in Charlottesville, VA were a little more proactive when racist groups start beating people up.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that contemplation is but one part of a larger action plan. I also haven’t addressed the vital work of learning about our history of racism and white supremacy in America or amplifying and joining the activists who are doing the hard work on the ground each day.

Those targeted by racism and working to eradicate it need our prayers and support now more than ever. However, as a white man, I am also very aware that I have a role to play in offering racists an off ramp away from radicalization. I hope and pray that contemplation can offer them a path away from the fear and hatred that drives their movements.

Resting Takes a Lot of Work?

Blue-Sky-finding center

A month ago I set off on an 11-hour drive to speak at a Writing Retreat that my friend Andi hosts each year. The prior three weeks had been an all-out sprint to keep up with client projects while my wife was on a research trip, release a book, prepare for the retreat, and catch up on client work a little more.

This was the final stretch of a month-long sprint, and my mind and body were BUZZING.

Energy, stress, anxiety, and who knows what else left me feeling desperate, sad, and a bit unhinged. How in the world could I speak about writing without crushing your soul at this retreat in a state like this?

I needed silence: a lot of it.

I breathed deeply. I centered on a prayer word. I let go of any thought that wasn’t related to avoiding trucks and finding Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Starting north of Nashville, I sat in silence for long stretches all the way across I-40.

When I reached Knoxville, I had listened to a few short podcasts (thanks to Anne Bogel’s “What Should I Read Next”!), but the unsettled buzzing in my mind continued.

Over the rolling hills and mountains of Virginia I continued to breathe deeply for the entire stretch of I-81.

Finally, turning toward Charlottesville, I sensed something settle.

Since I was arriving about an hour later than I had intended, I passed up a scenic overlook along the highway. I immediately regretted this. The mountains were spectacular at this pass. Why was I so determined to pass up beauty for the sake of a clock?

I just about jumped out of my seat when another scenic overlook showed up five miles later. I pulled into the lonely rest area and just about fell over with the silent majesty of these mountains.

The words of Jacob came to mind: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”

This thin moment before the mountains was its own gate of heaven, delighting in creation. Nothing particularly spectacular or spiritual happened. I had found my center, a place of rest in God that wasn’t at the mercy of my circumstances so that I could enjoy what was before me.

How many times in the past have I been running on empty or burned out, but I’ve pushed on, believing that I just needed to get through it?

How many times have I passed up beauty, rest, and restoration because I didn’t understand the value of silence or finding my center?

How often have I missed the silent beauty of God because I didn’t know how much work it is to be still and know that he is God?

Contemplative prayer has taught me about the paradox of resting in God. I don’t naturally choose rest, and I honestly need to work at resting. I have to fight for my rest by choosing silence when everything in my body craved distraction and noise.  Resting in God takes practice and intention.

I Used to Pray to a Passive-Aggressive God

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The Psalms tell us to wait patiently on the Lord. I used to read that as a kind of passive-aggressive move on God’s part. Here I was, desperate for God, waiting and praying with all of my heart. Would it kill him to show up when I pray?

After learning about and practicing contemplative prayer, I realized I had everything completely backwards. God has been waiting for us all along, but we are often too distracted, impatient, or fearful to be present for him. In addition, a “present God” may not bring about the emotions and experiences we expect.

God’s love is here and constant, and there is nothing I can do or feel to change that reality. I can ignore it or obstruct it, but I can’t stop it.

Learning to pray isn’t about turning on the tap of God’s love. Rather, learning to pray is about training ourselves to be present for the love of God that is already at work in our lives.

Evangelical anxiety tells us that prayer isn’t working because there must be something wrong with us.

Evangelical anxiety focuses on results and progress, but God is more concerned about loving presence.

Contemplative prayer has taught me that God’s love is present and that I need only seek God in order to pray. I may have an epiphany, but I most likely will not. God’s love is steady and constant, and many days I have to settle for taking that on faith.

Focusing on my feelings and experiences have been my greatest barriers to contemplative prayer. I have had to completely shut down my anxious evangelical tendency toward measuring and proving my spiritual vitality and worth.

François Fénelon wrote, “How will you go on to maturity if you are always seeking the consolation of feeling the presence of God with you? To seek pleasure and to ignore the cross will not get you very far. You will soon be trapped in the pursuit of spiritual pleasures” (100 Days in the Secret Place, 11).

The journey into contemplative prayer calls on us to think differently of God and of ourselves. Very little depends on us. The spiritual “work” we do in contemplative prayer is very different from the spirituality of many evangelicals who are bogged down with lists of beliefs, practices, and activities that we must do to pursue holiness or the presence of God.

We’re never doing enough to win God’s love or to achieve any kind of lasting life transformation. How could we? God’s love is already ours, and until we learn how to simply receive it, we’ll get stuck in an anxious rut of performance, failure, and struggle.

The first step in many spiritual practices such as the Examen and centering prayer is a simple acknowledgement that God is present. That is so very different from my assumptions as an evangelical Christian who used phrases like, “I’m waiting for God to show up.” Theologically I could explain divine omnipotence, but practically, I struggled to believe that God was truly present with me and, most importantly, loving me right in that moment without preconditions.

This is the true prayer of a little child in the Kingdom. If you can only call out, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” in faith and reliance, then you can pray. My own pride and hopes for spiritual advancement kept me from seeing how badly I needed to become like a little child in prayer.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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What Would God Shout at You from a Cloud?

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are two instances where a cloud appears over Jesus and God shouts two brief, identical messages. I have often wondered what God would shout at me in a similar situation.

Honestly, I tend to think God would shout negative things at me. I imagine God telling me to stop doing something or to do more of something. In either case, the message would focus on the ways I’m falling short and have been inadequate.

I have struggled to imagine a loving and merciful God. It’s much easier to imagine a God who is either disappointed or really, really angry.

Bringing up this disappointed/angry image of God with people tends to strike a nerve.

What would God shout at you?  

volunteer more!

spend less money!

stop obsessing about your body image!

share the Gospel more!

stop lusting!

help more people in need!

read the Bible more!

pray more!

go to a different church!

spend less time on social media!

We can’t imagine that God the Father is for us and loves us. We can only imagine God showing up in a cloud and telling us to get our acts together, to start doing something different.

God the Father isn’t typically imagined as being on our side. God the Father is somehow joined with Jesus in the Trinity but remains disappointed in us and in need of a blood sacrifice to make us acceptable in his sight, working out a loophole in his infinite holiness and justice.

Before Jesus launched his ministry and before Jesus ventured to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then rise from the dead, God the Father spoke the same message over Jesus:

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Matthew 17:5

On both occasions, God the Father affirmed the Son. On the first occasion Jesus had not even started his ministry.

I have tended to write off the significance of these moments between the Father and the Son. However, I now think that this was a big mistake on my part.

Jesus came to unite us with God, adopting us in God’s family. Paul writes that our identity is hidden away in Christ. In the midst of this union with Christ, we dare not overlook the love of God for us that goes beyond our comprehension:

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

Through the ministry of Jesus and our union with him, we have a new way of thinking about God. If God is our Father through our union with the Son, then it isn’t far-fetched to say that God’s first thought of us is love and a desire for deeper union with us. God desires to heal, redeem, and restore his children.

Failing to believe that I am a child of God is the most important obstacle for prayer. Once I believe that God loves and accepts me like Jesus is loved and accepted, prayer becomes a moment to rest in God’s love rather than a game of hide and go seek with God or a proving ground for my spirituality.

For years, I doubted God’s love for me, and my struggles with prayer served as validation for those doubts.

Beginning with the foundational teaching of God’s love and acceptance for his children made it possible to rest in God’s presence and to trust in his love for me. I was finally able to participate in the silence of contemplative prayer that seeks to lovingly gaze at and adore God the Father.

Contemplative prayer relies on resting in this love as the first step in prayer, letting all other distractions fall away in order to be still in God’s presence.

Imagining a God who calls down to us with loving messages before we’ve done a single thing can revolutionize how we pray. This was the God that Jesus wanted to reveal to us, and this is the God that we can pray to when we turn to him in silent adoration.

 

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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Is There Hope for Anxious, Doubting, and Burned Out Christians?

If you’re a Christian who is burned out, falling flat, discouraged, struggling, or doubtful, I have a suggestion based on my own experiences. This suggestion may or may not help, but just consider it for a moment.

What if Christianity is bound to fail you no matter how often you say sincere prayers, no matter how hard you study the Bible, no matter what theology you adopt, no matter how often you attend church, and no matter how sincerely you commit to follow Jesus?

What if your faith can only survive if you approach God in a different way?

I don’t necessarily want to undermine practices such as Bible study, attending church, or praying sincerely. These are all good things in their place. However, one can lean too heavily on these practices, expecting them to provide what they cannot, and then burning out as you continue to come up empty.

That’s where I found myself when I first attended a church service during my seminary days that introduced contemplative prayer, sitting in silent adoration of God. I struggled to sit in silence, I recited the prayers, nothing seemed to happen, and so I gave in to despair for a season.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to see the rich contemplative tradition of the church that teaches the practice of daily silence in order to rest in God, trusting God to work in us. The contemplative tradition of the church teaches that we cannot earn God’s favor or make God love us more. God has already sent Jesus to us out of his deep love for us, and in Jesus we become his sons and daughters.

The foundation of Christianity is God’s love for us. If we miss that, everything else will be a chore, struggle, or burden.

Contemplative prayer doesn’t seek to prove anything or to produce a particular emotion or experience. By sitting in silence and reciting a simple word like “mercy” or “beloved,” we step away from any other thought or conception of ourselves so that we may be present for God.

Over time, contemplative prayer can shift our understandings of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are as God’s beloved children. We can also develop a greater capacity of love for other people as we learn to see them as God sees them.

There is an effort to remove distractions in contemplative prayer, but it’s not up to me to produce a spiritual transformation. I can’t save my soul or make myself more loving. I can only rest in God and enter God’s presence with faith that he is faithful in caring for his children.

When the love of God comes first, I no longer have to prove myself or work to find God’s love. God’s love is something to rest in and to gradually experience over time, rather than something I have to frantically or anxiously work for.

Out of a foundation of God’s love, the Christian faith becomes restorative and regenerative. We all come to God with our struggles, baggage, and religious backgrounds that can complicate matters.

There aren’t simple formulas and I never want to suggest that contemplative prayer is a quick fix. Rather, this is a lifelong practice that is challenging to learn and requires a significant commitment. Monks would devote their entire lives to this practice of contemplation, so one can hardly jump into it after a kind of short term boot camp.

I can’t speak for every person or situation, but I do know that the people who have passed through similar seasons as my own share similar experiences of God’s love and presence. Contemplative prayer isn’t the only way to make ourselves aware of God’s love, but it has a strong tradition that is rooted in the history of the church. This is hardly a gimmick or a “culturally relevant trend.”

If everything else in Christianity has left you uncertain, anxious, or struggling to believe in God, you may not have anything to lose.

What if God loved you deeply and completely as a beloved child?

What if you only need to take that love on faith and rest in it?

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? Evangelicals and the Fear of Contemplation

I first learned about contemplative prayer from Christian radio shows, particularly, the dangers of contemplative practices such as centering prayer. Mind you, Christian radio shows told me that lots of things were dangerous and wrong, such as Catholics, liberals, and Harry Potter.

The Bible study expert on this call-in show railed against contemplative prayer because it made two grave mistakes:

  1. Contemplative prayer borrows from Eastern Religion.
  2. Contemplative prayer empties the mind and leaves it vulnerable to demonic influences.

Ten years after hearing these warnings, I finally practiced contemplative prayer and found both assessments to be inaccurate.

My book Flee, Be Silent, Pray shares my journey out of anxious evangelicalism and the many barriers to this ancient Christian prayer practice. I still consider myself an evangelical today, at least in its historic sense, but I have come to rely on this interior prayer tradition that relies on God’s indwelling Spirit as the bedrock of my spirituality. Far from emptying one’s mind in a pointless manner, contemplation aims to remove distracting thoughts in order to adore God and to surrender to God’s presence. Some have said that the “prayer” of contemplation is God’s work in us.

Arriving at a point where I was willing to try contemplative prayer required a season of spiritual despair and a major rethinking of Christian spiritual practices. It wasn’t easy to overcome my fears of contemplative prayer and the significant misinformation available, and I wanted to offer a few explanations for evangelicals who may be fearful of contemplative prayer or uncertain about the benefits of this spiritual practice.

Few Christian Contemplative Prayer Mentors and Models

I don’t blame church leaders for passing along anxious evangelicalism, and it’s hard to get too angry at the radio personalities who misrepresented it. They all lacked mentors and models to guide them in contemplative prayer.

I became more open to contemplative prayer after a pastor from my seminary introduced me to several contemplative practices. If I had access to contemplative prayer training like I had access to Bible study training, I would have certainly embraced it and benefitted from it sooner. It remains challenging to find spiritual directors for many seeking to practice contemplative prayer.

Unnecessary Animosity Toward Catholics

While contemplative prayer has a robust presence outside of Catholicism in the Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal traditions, many of the leading contemplative authors are Catholics. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating are all Catholics who are widely read and sought-after, and Keating’s Contemplative Outreach network has made significant strides in spreading contemplative practices such as centering prayer.

Evangelicals who are already jumpy or wary about Catholics will have a hard time trusting what they say about contemplative prayer. In some cases, evangelicals may treat Catholicism as a completely different religion altogether. When I compare a visit to a cathedral vs. a suburban megachurch, I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. While I remain a committed evangelical, Catholic writers have provided some of the most constructive spiritual direction in my life.

Misinformation about Contemplation Prayer

Despite all of the misinformation about contemplative prayer, the truth is that the Christian contemplative tradition dates back well into the 300’s, making it as old or older than the final New Testament canon. The practitioners of contemplative prayer also saw their practices as deeply dependent on scripture.

The tax collector’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” formed the foundation of prayer used by many contemplatives in the desert who meditated on this prayer while going about their work. Contemplative prayer, which is entered into through a practice such as centering prayer, uses a simple word to teach the mind and body to be still before God. Just as Jesus told his followers to enter a private room to pray, centering prayer helps practitioners enter the secret place of prayer.

Contemplative Prayer Defies Explanation

The authors of contemplative prayer books are generally hesitant to describe what goes on during contemplative prayer. It’s a private, intimate moment of communion with God. Most importantly, descriptions of this type of prayer tend to fall short because it isn’t an intellectual or analytical practice.

That may be an instant turn off for evangelicals, but it’s also an essential point of caution about dismissing contemplative prayer. Can you dismiss something as dangerous based on the hearsay of people who aren’t even engaged in practicing it in the first place?

Leaders Cannot Control Contemplative Prayer

Christian leaders have attacked contemplatives on and off for centuries, banning their books and threatening contemplatives with prison, exile, or death. The more concentrated church power became, the more it opposed contemplation. This type of prayer is beyond the scope of leadership’s control because it is interior and personal, even if it is cultivated and supported in community or through spiritual direction.

Throughout church history the mystical expressions have either come under attack or been conveniently forgotten in place of the easier controlled dogmas and doctrines.

It’s Impossible to Measure the Results of Contemplative Prayer

I can tell when I have missed time practicing contemplative prayer, but I can’t exactly tell you what the “results” of contemplative prayer are. They are difficult to quantify, such as a greater awareness of myself and of God. These aren’t the typical measuring sticks that evangelicals are used to in their talks about spiritual growth and holiness.

It’s true that those who practice contemplative prayer will enjoy a greater awareness of God’s love and will, therefore turn away from sin. In fact, this growth in holiness is an essential aspect of contemplative prayer, but it defies the simple formulas that evangelicals use in testimonies. Since contemplative prayer relies on God’s indwelling Spirit to guide us into prayer, the transforming that happens is also a fully miraculous work of God’s Spirit that we cannot define on our own.

Contemplative Prayer Relies on Tradition, Not Chapter and Verse

It’s true that contemplative prayer relies on the indwelling Spirit and has roots in scripture, but practices, such as centering prayer, are passed down through traditions, not chapter and verse. That not only means many evangelicals lack access to contemplative teachings, but they are naturally suspicious of them.

While there are many Bible experts saying that contemplative prayer is dangerous, there have been few mentors in evangelical circles who can counter that narrative. In addition, contemplative prayer isn’t the kind of spiritual practice you can sample or test to get quantifiable results of any kind. Rather, contemplative prayer is a long-term practice where it’s impact will be gradually noticed over time. It may take a while to reach that point as well!

Beginning Contemplative Prayer Takes Practice

My early days of contemplative practice were agonizing as I confronted all of my negative thoughts and learned how to practice silence before God. It ran counter to everything I’d learned about prayer as an evangelical. In contemplative prayer I had to let go of control, completely surrendering to God’s loving presence rather than pleading with a supposedly disinterested deity.

I didn’t have incredible spiritual experiences, and the actual “rest” or peace with God didn’t come until I had a better grasp of how to approach silence before God. I felt the void of not having a spiritual mentor at the beginning who could guide me into this spiritual practice. Websites such as Contemplative Outreach became a lifeline over the years, as well as other spirituality apps that guided me into the practice of daily silence and surrender before God.

 

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

monday-merton-blog-header

Thomas Merton writes that Democracy relies on the education of the population, getting a large majority of people more or less on the same page. If the people are able to see the issues of the time with clarity, political discourse about solutions becomes possible.

However, as propaganda and alternative partisan versions of reality take hold on certain news channels and in the American White House, Democracy may face one of its greatest challenges according to Merton’s criteria:

“Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic ‘reactions’–mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with the dictates of those in power.

 

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion of them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96

 

 

 

The Monday Merton: Unless We See, We Cannot Think

monday-merton-blog-header

At this moment in America, many of us are seeing the true benefits of committed journalism in the face of political corruption and the abuse of power. That protection of democracy doesn’t eliminate the negative impacts of mass media, politics, and entertainment on our mental and emotional health.

Merton lived at a time when the mass media was only a fraction of what it has become today. News serves as entertainment in many respects, prompting the rise of hyper-partisan networks that cater to the whims of their viewers for the sake of ratings. Merton’s words about the need to escape from noise and distractions for the sake of thinking clearly are all the more urgent, even if our need for dedicated journalism remains:

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see cannot think.”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72

The Monday Merton: Relieving Spiritual Baggage

monday-merton-blog-header

In a moment of reflection on the joyful eagerness of the novices of his abbey, Thomas Merton made the following observation:

“We get so much in our own way and try to carry so much useless baggage in the spiritual life. And how difficult it is to help them without unconsciously adding much more useless badge to the load they already carry, instead of relieving them of it (which is what I try to do).”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

What if the adding or relieving of spiritual baggage serves as the mark of authentic spiritual wisdom and guidance?

 

merton-jan-30-2017

We Need Something Better Than “No”

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While looking for a spirituality that is authentic and real, something that is actually a union with God and not just a formal organization around the idea of God, I have realized that far too often I have chosen the easy way out. When my conservative construction of God that rested on propositions, study, and proofs, crumbled under the weight of putting my flimsy beliefs into practice each day, I saw two ways forward.

On the one hand, I could just drop it all. It was all too fragile, controlling, and unknowingly arbitrary. Who could remain healthy within such a system without eventually seeing its fragility, acknowledging it, and then being cast away as a heretic who “lost the faith”?

The other option was a salvage mission. I could cut away the parts that were untenable and arbitrary. I could work toward a kind of center where the essentials could be preserved while letting go of the most contradictory or unlikely elements. At the end of the day, I felt like I was defining myself by what I was not. In addition, when you work at the salvage mission long enough, new groups begin to form with their own boundaries, and over time, you end up within the same kind of fragile structure that you left in the first place.

From another perspective, these were two sides of the same coin. Both the dropping and the salvaging were just ways of stripping away unhealthy elements from the Christian faith in the hope that something worthwhile will remain standing. They thrived on defining “what they are not” with few solid or constructive elements to call people toward.

From the defensive conservative, to the salvaging liberal, to the exasperated atheist/agnostic, the majority of our religious energy can be channeled in a negative direction. So much of our time can invested in defending ourselves from each other. I’ve been blogging since 2005, and for many years these fights were very important to me. Over the past five years, I’ve been asking myself where do we go now?

We don’t need new movements, new logos, new leaders, new events, and new resources. We probably won’t find the way forward from those with the most to lose from the existing order since the existing order often thrives by overlooking our most grievous sins, while turning a critical eye to an extremely limited subset of vices.

My sense for Christians who want to keep the faith today is that we have never needed the mystical tradition of the church more than ever. Only in this tradition can we hold the tensions of Christianity together and somehow arrive at something resembling the kinds of things that could resemble abundant life, renewal, and actually being born again,.

In the mystical tradition we can find a place for the conservative, the atheist, and the liberal. The orthodox essentials of the faith remain in place for mystics because they are the means by which we are united with God, but we prove them by living into their reality rather than devising scientific proofs according to the standards of our culture. We let God determine the validity of faith’s essentials.

The atheists find the emptiness, the void, and silence that they have suspected all along about God. They have their dark nights and their moments of alienation and despair. However, that empty space isn’t the last word by any means. If they hold on to the silence and darkness, waiting for what may come next, there is a deeper encounter with God awaiting them that transcends the frantic worship that often left them feeling dejected and empty.

The liberals can rest from their salvage work. There is nothing to fight against and nothing to strip away. If they can enter into the rest of contemplative prayer and let an encounter with God’s presence to transform them, they may discover renewed energy, mercy, and compassion for the work of justice that beats close to their hearts.

The Christian contemplative tradition is God’s affirming yes of love and mercy. It is union with Christ. It is the Spirit of God no longer hovering over the waters but resting in us. It is the loving voice of the Father no longer calling down from a cloud but whispering from deep in our souls. There is only a divine yes of God being truly with us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

In the midst of that transformation, I have found freedom to stop fighting because I have been consumed with what I am in the loving presence of God. There is so much to pursue that I have nothing left to consider leaving behind. Everything that isn’t essential melts away in the loving gaze of God.

Those who reject the mystical tradition of the Christian faith, that predates the compilation of the New Testament canon, are often those who have not given it a chance. It’s a leap of faith into the darkness of the cloud of God’s presence. It’s terribly frightening to leave your old religious constructs behind, and this is why so many fight against the mystical tradition. The more you fear you’ll lose, the harder you’ll fight.

In our times that bear the fruit of years of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, deception, and unbridled greed, we need a grounded, time-tested way to move forward into the love and truth of God. I do not see hope in many quarters of the Christian faith, especially in America, but I do see striking clarity, hope, and even unity in the contemplative practices of the Christian mystical tradition.

Contemplation begins with our intention to pray and then proceeds as we surrender ourselves to God. It gives us the space we need to shut down our negative loops of thinking, to hear God speak, and to move forward with greater compassion toward others. It doesn’t need an enemy in order to thrive—unless the enemy is our own unrelenting wills.

I have been looking for sources of hope for this year, and I continue to return to this simple passage about what God requires of us: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” I suspect that many of us need God’s loving transformation in order to walk humbly first, and with that transformation in place, we’ll have the capacity to love mercy and to act justly in their turns.

There surely will be a time to shout, but before I open my mouth, I hope to spend time in silence before God. When I speak, my prayer is that I’ll have something better than “No” to share.