500 Years Is Long Enough!
Why is there a need for a new, contemplative inter-spiritual renewal in 2021? For millions the isolation of a global pandemic has created a fresh thirst for intimacy, meaningful relationships and unconditional love.
What might the spiritual message of the pandemic be? Could it be that, for a season, we must seek new means of maintaining our family, friendships and spiritual community connections alive via technology?
Or, could it be that spiritual folks could use a Sabbatical from weekly gatherings in church buildings to instead focus on a more inward journey?
Long before the pandemic much of the American church was stagnating. The latest “State of the Church” survey by Barna Research documents declines in church membership, community relevancy and consistent prayer.
The reports states; “The pandemic has shifted our thinking so that the space where we get together doesn’t have to be between 9-11 AM on a Sunday morning; we can gather together in small groups in people’s homes — anytime during the week — and access content digitally.”
The early church began as a living room-centered movement, full of joyful interaction and participation, as well as sharing both needs and resources. Could it be the people of God are coming full circle back home?
One thing is clear. The pandemic has accelerated existing trends affecting every area of our life — and the church stands at a spiritual crossroads in 2021.
During the previous spiritual renewals throughout history, it seems something that had been missing needed to be restored. A careful exploration of church history reveals a scarlet thread that has run from the early church until today.
During the first sixteen centuries of Christianity, “contemplative” prayer served as a means of facilitating intimacy with God and an unconditional love toward all mankind.
In contemplative (or centering) prayer, participants seek the presence of God in silence, directly and explicitly rejecting distracting thoughts.
Contemplative prayer differs from individual or group prayers of petition, which are usually focused on requests for something from God.
“Contemplative prayer moves beyond thoughts, images, words and emotions, whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, thinking, feeling and choosing; even closer than consciousness itself,” writes Father Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the modern contemplative prayer movement.
The goal is to be present to the Lord, to consent to God’s presence as a regular meditative practice 10–30 minutes once or twice a day, which then serves to help maintain a contemplative heart-set and mindset throughout the day.
In her excellent book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault explains how contemplative prayer helps believers to move away from dualistic thinking (dividing matter and spirit) and toward a more “unitive” spirituality (seeing all matter as spirit-infused).
“Putting the mind in the heart is the essence of centering prayer,” writes Cynthia, ”rather than perception through differentiation, Christian contemplation is the capacity to sense the whole pattern as a single field… to see from wholeness,”
“The real work of contemplative prayer is to lay the inner foundation for an entirely different kind of spiritual attentiveness…putting on the mind of Christ,” she writes. “It’s a bit like learning to see in the dark…there is a core sense of ‘not my will but Thine be done.’”
“People are desperate for silence,” says Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit. “Silence is mounting a comeback, as scientists, meditation advocates and even car makers begin to see it as a way to promote physical and mental health,” reports WSJ.
“Silence teaches us who we are,” writes Rich Lewis in his highly acclaimed book, Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self Through Centering Prayer.
After the Reformation, this living contemplative tradition of silent centering prayer was virtually lost, according to Father Keating’s Contemplative Outreach.
The mystical roots of Christianity, which enabled believers to embrace the paradox of God’s mystery, was overshadowed by both the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment until the mid-20th century.
In the 16th century Martin Luther and the reformers focused upon “Solo Scriptura” — the centrality of returning the Scriptures into the hands of the people — with virtually no focus upon the inner journey needed to experience the life-changing presence of God.
In short, Christianity became head-centered rather than heart-centered.
Thankfully, today cross-cultural and inter-spiritual dialogue are increasing along with historical research and the recovery of the Christian contemplative tradition is well underway.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, Thomas Merton brought renewed interest to the contemplative tradition in the West,” writes Richard Rohr’s Center for Contemplation and Action. “He became a Trappist monk and ‘left the world’ for the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he learned the lessons of contemplation and action.”
The earliest Christian writings that clearly speak of contemplative prayer come from the 4th-century monk St. John Cassian, who wrote of a practice he learned from the Desert Fathers. 12th century saints, such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, also wrote and taught about contemplative Christian prayer practices.
At the heart of the contemplative worldview is an understanding and revelation of God’s love for all of creation, as exemplified in Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis viewed the earth, all creatures, and all of creation as his brothers and sisters and very interdependent.
This expansive and inclusive Christian worldview is today reaching across all spiritual, political and ideological divides to create a unified spiritual movement, which as St. Augustine said long ago seeks, “Unity on the essentials, diversity in the non-essentials, and love in all things.”
Twenty years ago I had the amazing opportunity to interview scores of spiritual leaders to discuss what the future might bring in a resource entitled “The Big Picture: The Shape of Things to Come.”
Here are three short, but very wise quotes from the men who launched a Christian renewal back in the 1970s known as the discipleship movement — Ern Baxter, Charles Simpson and Bob Mumford.
Together these three men of God impacted the direction of Christianity by calling for a renewal of intimacy with God, dedication to a holistic gospel and a restoration of a love-based spiritual community.
“The divine emphasis on truth never comes through a spigot. It always comes by way of rain.“ -Ern Baxter, author, minister (1914–1993)
“Every cell in our body carries two codes; the code of the cell and the code of the organism, the whole.” -Charles Simpson, author, minister
“Allow your life to be governed by one word: agape — God’s love in you for your neighbor…Follow agape wherever it takes you for a new life of purpose and adventure.” -Bob Mumford, author, minister
A fresh contemplative renewal in the 21st century is something all people of faith could benefit from. Asking God for the humility to honor and learn from the other wisdom traditions — from competing to completing.
Isn’t 500 years of spiritual division and exclusion long enough? Jesus prayer in John 17 was that we would desire communion with God — and this union within would help the world grasp His unconditional love for all of creation.
Imagine the joy and peace of finding your place of intimacy with God and service to mankind in the next great move of God! That’s high adventure!
For a further introduction to several important contemplative authors and reviews of their important books I invite your to visit www.blissfull.org