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Still Talking: Contemplative Spirituality

Read Ken Curtis' first two articles in this series, A Fictitious Conversation: Listening for God in the Other and Continuing a Fictitious Conversation: Lectio Divina.

While waiting for Jerry to join him for their weekly breakfast conversation, Bob uses the time to watch the people around him. A young professional rushes through his breakfast as he scans the news feeds on his tablet. An older lady sits alone, sipping a hot drink as she stares vacantly out the window. Outside, people pass by at a crisp pace on their way to their morning destinations, many of them multitasking as they go. A few moments later, looking a bit rushed himself, Jerry arrives and plops down on the seat across from Bob at his table.

Jerry    Sorry I’m late! It’s just been one of those mornings. Didn’t hear the alarm go off, which put me behind before I ever got started, and then about the time I was finally ready to walk out the door, the phone rings, and I find out that there are issues at work that I am going to have to sort out today. . . .

Bob     What a way to start your day! You sure you have time to meet this morning?

Jerry    Yeah . . . I made a few phone calls on the way over here, and the bases are covered for now. I can deal with things when I get there.

Bob     Well, maybe you can at least have a few moments to catch your breath then . . . and maybe some breakfast.

Jerry    Sounds good to me!

(The waitress comes by and they both order before their conversation continues.)

Bob     I hope your other mornings this week have been a little less intense.

Jerry    Well, it’s not always quite this bad, but the truth is, my agenda has seemed really packed and rushed lately.

Bob     Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s just you. Having had a little extra time to watch a lot of the people around here this morning, I’d say you’re probably in pretty good company. 

Jerry    Which is one of the reasons I look forward to this time when I can actually set everything aside for a little while and just sort of be me for a few moments.

Bob     Yeah, I heard someone say that we sometimes go about our lives as if we were “human doings” rather than “human beings.”

Jerry    That’s for sure. It’s kind of nice to get to practice just “being” for a while.

Bob     Maybe not such a bad way to start the day!

Jerry    I agree . . . and besides, it gives me a chance to pick your brain a bit more about what we talked about last time.

Bob     Still questions from the things you’ve been reading about the dangers of spiritual formation, huh?

Jerry    Yeah, quite a few actually—probably more than we can get to this morning.

Bob     So what seems to be working its way to the top of this list this morning?

Jerry    What’s been troubling me the most is the idea that anything that has to do with contemplation, silence, or most anything that is associated with that, is somehow suspect and should be avoided.

Bob     Contemplative spirituality, or contemplative prayer, or taking quiet, silent time with God, and stuff like that?

Jerry    Yes, exactly!

Bob     Yeah . . . these writers really don’t give it a rest, do they! I’ve read some of what you’re talking about.

Jerry    So what is it about this that they think is so dangerous?

Bob     Well, if I understand them correctly, one of the fears they have is that if you quiet all the noise in your head and become still as you pray or interact with God, that you run the risk of entering into some sort of mystical or even hypnotic state that might somehow leave you open or susceptible to demonic influences. Sometimes they also see connections here with some forms of Eastern religious practices.

Jerry    Yes . . . which does sound kind of serious, doesn’t it?

Bob     Yeah, I would say it sounds that way. 

Jerry    So this stuff really is kind of dangerous then, huh?

Bob     Well, if you are trying to encounter some sort of spirit guide or entity, or trying to lose your individuality and merge into the “cosmic oneness” like some forms of Eastern religious practices imply, or worse yet, are seeking some sort of demonic encounter, then yes, I would think it would be very risky! Any kind of religious practice that is directed toward those kinds of things is not something I would want to mess with.

Jerry    So we really should stay away from practices that involve silence or quiet or anything “contemplative”?

Bob     Well, not unless you are also going to avoid reading the scriptures and prayer in general or anything else that is a part of your spiritual life. In a lot of ways it is very much like what we talked about last week in regard to lectio divina. Any kind of a religious practice if it is distorted or pursued in an unhealthy way can become a problem. Scripture can be misquoted and prayer can practiced in unhealthy ways. But I wouldn’t say we should abandon them because of that. The same is true of what you might call a more “contemplative approach” to life.

Jerry    Yes, we did talk about that didn’t we . . . . But, what exactly then is this whole “contemplative” thing anyway that has these writers so worked up?

Bob     Actually, how you answer that question depends a lot on who and when you ask. Contemplation has been understood by different people in somewhat different ways at various times throughout the history of the church—which of course means if you look long enough, you can find a quote about it somewhere that will say almost anything you want it to say. Today, in regular conversation, the word gets used pretty much as a synonym for being thoughtful or reflective about something. But what it generally means when it used by theologians who are writing about spiritual life is simply the idea of resting in, or enjoying the sense of knowing that we are in God’s presence—that God is with us.

Jerry    Yes, we also talked about that as being one of the dimensions of lectio divina last week didn’t we?

Bob     Right. It is just being intentional about enjoying the sense of being a child of God and knowing God is with us, and allowing that to be what is at the center of what defines and motivates us.

Jerry    So . . . I guess that’s kind of like breakfast here, huh?

Bob     How’s that?

Jerry    Even though we talk about many things when we’re together, what means the most to me is knowing that I can simply come and “be” here. It’s sort of like a quiet space in my life where I can set other agendas aside for a while and just enjoy being here for its own sake.

Bob     Yeah, I guess so. Actually, that does kind of capture a lot of what the idea of contemplation is about. Finding that quiet space in which to just be with God, and then allowing that awareness to be what shapes how we go about the rest of our day.

Jerry    And you know, when I actually do that, it makes such a huge difference! But so much of the time, there is so much noise going on in my head—things I have to get done or that I’m worried about—that it’s really hard to just slow down enough to set it all aside and take a moment to just “be” one of God’s kids. 

Bob     Yes. And in its simplest terms, that’s what a “contemplative life” and the practice of “contemplative spirituality” is all about. It’s simply a life that is lived out of that awareness. And contemplative practices are simply things we do to help keep us aware of that.

Jerry    Sounds a lot like one’s devotional life to me. Doesn’t Ellen White talk about this somewhere—the importance of taking quiet time to be alone with God, or something like that?

Bob     Yeah, in several places actually. I have one of them here in my journal that I like to read every now and then. (Bob reaches for his coat lying next to him on the seat and takes his journal out of the inside pocket. Opening it he says,) . . . here it is! It’s from Ministry of Healing, page 58,

“All who are under the training of God need the quiet hour for communion with their own hearts, with nature, and with God . . . . We must individually hear Him speaking to the heart. When every other voice is hushed, and in the quietness we wait before Him, the silence of the soul makes more distinct the voice of God. He bids us, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ This is the effectual preparation for all labor for God. Amidst the hurrying throng and the strain of life’s intense activities, he who is thus refreshed will be surrounded with an atmosphere of light and peace. He will receive a new endowment of both physical and mental strength. His life will breathe out a fragrance and will reveal a divine power that will reach men’s hearts.”

There are lots of other places where she talks about this as well, but that is one of my favorites

Jerry    Wow. That really says it, doesn’t it?

Bob     In essence that is what contemplative spirituality is all about. And it is essentially that kind of experience, intentionally pausing to take a long loving look at God, that people are writing about when they talk about the contemplative life or contemplative spirituality. 

Jerry    So being quiet and still, and even intentionally letting go of and setting aside all the distracting stuff . . . and enjoying that sense of inner quiet that allows us to better pay attention to what God might want to say to us is not something we should fear . . . but something we should be intentional about?

Bob     And why wouldn’t we?

Jerry    But the books say that it is dangerous to “empty” our minds, because if we do that, then other forces may come in and take over in some way.

Bob     Yes, I know. But they miss the point here. Contemplative spirituality, at least in a Christian context, is not about “emptying the mind” so you can lose your individuality or sense of personal identity and merge with the “cosmic oneness.” And even though Christian writers sometimes might use terms like “emptying your mind,” that is generally not what they mean by it. What they are talking about is emptying it of the noise of distractions—all the background conversations, agendas and other “noise” that sometimes makes it hard for us to give our full attention to the people we are with.

Jerry    Kind of like when my kids try to talk to me at the same time I am typing or texting or have something else I am trying to do . . .

Bob     Right, and how does that work for you?

Jerry    Well . . . to be honest . . . it doesn’t usually go so well . . . or at least it didn’t used to.

Bob     Oh, so what changed?

Jerry    Well, I began to realize what I was doing, which frankly was not paying much attention to my kids . . . and so I decided to make some intentional changes in posture.

Bob     Like what?

Jerry    Well, now when my kids come in to talk to me, instead of continuing what I am doing and trying to listen at the same time, I intentionally put the keyboard aside, turn my chair to face them, put my pen down on the desk, look them in the eye, and giving them my full intention say, “Hey, tell me what’s happening with you.”

Bob     So how has that worked for you?

Jerry    It’s been amazing. I didn’t realize how much I had been missing, or how much it meant to both of us, to actually be “present” with each other when we talked. And though it was not my intention to seek an emotionally moving encounter with my kids, when I do this, we actually have had a few, just because we are fully present to each other and paying attention.

Bob     Sounds like a “contemplative” kind of practice to me—putting other agendas aside, emptying your mind of distractions, avoiding multitasking activities, and giving your full attention to the person who wants to talk with you.

Jerry    Yeah . . . I see what you mean. It’s not that I’ve emptied my mind of my ability to think, it’s just that I am clearing away the clutter so I can give someone my full attention.

Bob     Exactly. No merging with the cosmic oneness here—just giving someone your full attention. Now imagine doing that intentionally with God.

Jerry    Wow . . .

Bob     And even more, imagine how our lives change when we allow those kinds of “postures” to be the ones we assume both before and as we prepare to interact with the world around us.

Jerry    And this is what I am supposed to fear?

Bob     Well, like anything else, good things can be distorted and misused I suppose, but it would be sad to run from that simply because someone might twist or distort it, wouldn’t it?

Jerry    I suspect then that much of the other angst about things like centering prayer, and other terms and ideas that have to do with spiritual life that these books are so keen on attacking, have also been similarly misunderstood or misrepresented?

Bob     Like I said, any good thing can be distorted if used wrongly or taken out of context. But how sad it is when we throw out babies with the bath water and then encourage others to do so out of anxiety and fear, rather than approaching things with careful reflection and discernment.

Jerry    Yes, I think I am beginning to see that more and more. It’s been good to just have some time to “be” here this morning and talk. I have so many more questions, some from these books, and some new ones that are surfacing now as we talk about this, but I’m afraid I do have to get to some of the other items on my agenda today that are calling . . . but I’ll tell you this . . . this kind of time together sure does change the way I will approach them now!

Bob     So, I guess we get to continue to have these conversations then?

Jerry    I can’t imagine not doing this! Our talks make too much of a difference for me to even think about not doing it!

Bob     That too is how “contemplative” spirituality tends to be experienced. Why would you not want to continue to have time to just be with God and allow paying attention to all that that means to continue to shape who you are and how we go about doing what we do?

Jerry    I get it! And . . . I do need to get going . . . but I’m going differently now than when I came in.

Bob     Me too! 

After once again praying for each other, each other’s families, and for the situations that Jerry would be shortly encountering that day at work, they rose to leave. As they exited, Bob paused briefly to notice the others who gathered there for breakfast, and wondered how their days were beginning and how they were experiencing their agendas. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out into the morning air.

Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.

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