Sarah Bachelard, theologian, retreat leader and priest explores how it can feel to be involved in Church these days and the strains meditators may experience in the old ways of participating in the Christian tradition.
In this closing talk , part of the John Main Seminar 2019 (Vancouver, Canada), Sarah explores the question of a contemplative church. What might a church look and feel like and offer?
This talk is part of A Contemplative Christianity for our Time course which you can learn more and register for here.
Listen to the full podcast talk here or read part of the podcast transcripts below.
Welcome back again for a final session of this series. And as you know, tomorrow morning, there’ll be a time when there’s a question and answer session but I’m also hoping that if you have energy and would like an opportunity after the talk today for some questions.
So I’m aware that this morning’s talk had a lot in it and many different strands and it might be you might have had difficulties in a way digesting it. But I hope there were bits and pieces that you could connect with and we are hoping to make the transcripts or the talks ultimately available in print. So that might also help. So with this final talk, the heading is a Church Come of Age.
“The churches are almost empty or sold, as if they’ve reached their tipping point, and from the pulpits, god slid out.”
These are lines from Australian poet Lisa Jacobson in a poem entitled: There Are Stones that sing and she goes on…
“And all that fanciful gold leaf on heaven’s floor was incinerated by our telescopes…And bits of tattered god fell down.”
Well, this is how it can feel to be involved in church these days. And it’s not only the pervasive secularism of Western culture that’s at issue. It’s also, as I said in the first talk, that many of us who meditate find our old ways of participating in the Christian tradition coming under strain. As we grow in contemplative consciousness and leave behind dualistic forms of religion, we can struggle with how to believe and belong.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been articulating an understanding of the possibilities of being human that is trying to navigate between self sufficing humanism on the one hand and idolatrous religiosity on the other. This is a possibility for human being that I believe Christ opens up for us and invites us to share. On this vision, there is a reality beyond us – another other in James Alison’s language – the source of all life and in connection with whose self giving love we are enabled to become most fully alive and ourselves.
Being truly human on this account means being drawn into the divine life, participating in such a way as to be transformed ourselves and so bear God’s life in the world.
At the same time, this divine reality is never at our disposal, never exhausted by our understanding, our systems of meaning and representation. To be authentically responsive to its truth means returning again and again to the space of undefended receptivity: listening and dependency.
The poet Lisa Jacobson continues:
“I’ve heard that some soul in French is the name of a wooden chip, very exposed and vulnerable that violin makers insert into the bodies of their instruments to further enhance the sound. So maybe that’s where God lives now.”
In fact, I would say that’s where God has always lived. God exposed and vulnerable to what we make of God. God able to be encountered only as we ourselves enter into that same state of exposure and vulnerability. That tender in between space of listening, longing, resonating in response. Like the arm, the soul in the violin.
This is the space are contemplative prayer opens into and teaches us to inhabit, and it’s the heart of Christian discipleship. It’s what renders us humbly and faithfully available for the work of love for a world in need.
But what might all this mean for the church itself ?
We’ve been exploring the shape and vocation of a contemplative Christianity. In this final talk, I want to consider the question of a contemplative church. What might a church that dwells in this vulnerable open space, that forms and encourages members of its body to dwell here too? What might this look and feel like and offer?
Well, it’s a vast and for me, unfolding inquiry, but in what follows, I want to offer a few reflections that I hope will stimulate our shared engagement with this question.
A Contemplative Church
I think it’s important to emphasize at the outset, that talk of a contemplative church isn’t primarily about a certain style of worship: Christianity for introverts.
It it doesn’t have to mean continuously hushed tones, flickering candles and Gregorian chant. At Benedictus, which is the contemplative Church that Neil and I founded eight years ago, we have a band drawn from the congregation that plays at our services from time to time, not every week, but time to time complete with drummer. They’re called deafening silence.
Contemplative Church isn’t fundamentally about style.
Rather, it’s the deep recognition expressed in every aspect of its life, that the church exists in response to something given, prior. It’s not our idea: “you did not choose me, but I chose you” says the Jesus of John’s gospel. The whole journey of discipleship is about being drawn from and beyond ourselves and christian life is first and foremost about receiving gifts, the gift of our own creation, the gift of being loved. The gift of realizing we have a part to play.
Contemplation is our self forgetting beholding, our undefended openness to that prior reality. Without this radical openness, christians can talk about God. We can learn the doctrinal formulae of our faith and sincerely seek to live its values and cultivate its virtues. But we will not have made real contact. We will not, as John Main expressed it, be becoming able to verify the truth of our faith in our own experience because our projections destractedness and self securing impulses will keep us at some level separated and withheld.
It’s a school of the Lord’s service to borrow ST Benedict’s phrase at one level. Of course, this is what all churches seek or say they seek to be about. But many of us I’m sure have experienced a kind of missing link. Someone I spoke to recently said Christianity promises so much and is so attractive. All that lovely talk of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, love. But she said, it doesn’t show you how to get there with the result that many christians spend their lives trying hard to be good, policing their thoughts, feeling guilty or inadequate and ultimately often resentful or resigned. The missing link, of course, is the kind of disciplined practice that stills are busy minds, draws us deep into silence and awakens our capacity for God such that we’re able to receive all the fullness, all the love that is being poured out to transform us meditation, the prayer of attention, the prayer of the heart is the center of this disciplined practice and to the extent that is at the center of a church’s life.
It begins to transform and deepen other practices such that they too become increasingly means of beholding and receiving the divine life. The whole liturgy, for example, tends to become more transparent to divine action. It becomes itself contemplative, not just in the sense that there are more pauses and fewer words, but in the sense that it it more fully communicates and enables responsiveness to that prior reality. We’re not making it up or making something happen, but becoming more aware of what is already happening God with us.
God among us to reconcile and free. Maggie Ross writes beautifully of how good liturgy provides a context in which are subtle senses dulled by daily toil can reawaken, and the right words in the right place at the right time can be crucial here. Good liturgy reminds us that life is a gift and that we belong to the whole.
It allows us to be present. To honestly to name the difficult circumstances of our lives and the truth of ourselves and then bring them into a self forgetful offering that is somehow she says mysteriously returned, made whole in the divine life. When it does its work, the liturgy returns us to our ordinary tasks. And while our lives may not seem altered from day to day over time, we become obliquely aware that something has shifted slightly, that something has been justified in the sense that all are fragments have become slightly better aligned, integrated, infused with the ineffable welcome, we call grace. What’s essential. Of course, if liturgies to perform this kind of function, if it’s to open our lives to this possibility of integrating and ineffable welcome is that it be sourced in and tend to silence, and those who lead liturgy need themselves to be comfortable with silence, always pointing to the reality beyond themselves and to which all are answerable.
If this essential dialogue with silence is refused then our words and our liturgical action become increasingly shallow and cliches. The dialogue with God becomes Maggie Ross says a noisy monologue, and worship a caricature of itself. A contemplative church is one that is unafraid of the kind of silence and truthfulness that enables real presence, trance, figuring, encounter. It’s kind of undefended openness to the prior reality of God, affects also the possibilities of common life in a contemplative community as we know. Contemplative practice deepens our awareness of self, of our habitual patterns and reactive tendencies, our hurts and fears at the same time. And somewhat counter intuitively, it enables a more radical hospitality to self humility and self acceptance beyond the need, the compulsion to justify and defend, I like. well, here I am and this growing awareness and self knowledge can be deepened by reflection and dialogue with others.
And at Benedictus, for example, are contemplative church. There are various contexts in which people gather to reflect on their experience and share their lives. Yet what’s distinctive about these gatherings, I think is not only the honesty and humility of the sharing but the spaciousness of the listening that is emerging instead of having to pretend as happens in some church contexts that we’ve got it more or less together. Well that some of us know what everyone else should be doing and believing there is real non patronising acceptance of the mess and ambiguity of our lives as the theater of God’s transforming work, Rowan Williams writes, responding in a life giving way to what the gospel requires of us means a transforming of our whole self, our feelings and thoughts and imaginings to be converted to the faith does not mean simply acquiring a new set of beliefs, but becoming a new person, a new person in community with God and others through Jesus Christ.
But to undertake this work of holistic transformation in the context of a community. Presupposes a certain level of maturity and trustworthiness in the community itself, and this is in turn reliant on the growing capacity of its members to be still to listen beyond their initial reactivity, to be unthreatened by what looks unresolved and painful, all fruits of contemplative practice. So what I’m trying to sketch is a sense of what a contemplative church more fully is. It’s a church where the disciplined and regular practice of silence and stillness responds to the prior reality of God and informs the whole life of the community, the ways it gathers the hospitality of listening, its openness to transformation and adventure. Of course, it isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be perfect that indeed is part of the point. But this maturing of persons and of the community as a whole is what constitutes an authentically countercultural church in this sense, it is not of the world.
Yeah, but it is still worldly in the good sense, bahnhof for intends in that it is deeply engaged with and connected to the commitments and solidarity’s the ambiguities and crises that comprise our lives. It’s not seeking to draw people out of the world so as to prop up an ecclesial institution, but to release them to participate in the work of reconciliation and love in every sphere of life. But this brings us to an important question for a contemplative church. It’s the question of how other than through its prayer and the transformation of individual members how such a community is properly related, properly engaged with a world come of age, what if any, is its contribution as church to the public square and the life of the world? In previous talks, I’ve said that christian faith is responsive to the God, who is in no sense competing for space in the world or in rivalry with it.
The direct corollary is that the church called to witness to this God must be similarly self dispossessing. The church is not an end in itself and does not exist to secure itself in being. This may come as a surprise. Yeah, this is a key theme in bonn Hofer’s prison letters, and he considers the unfaithfulness of his church in this regard to be a primary source of its loss of authority. He writes Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease well in our time. The revelation of churches covering up accusations of child sexual abuse so as to preserve their power and reputation, has had a similarly devastating effect.
And more generally, the self obsession of a church, desperate about its own survival means that it looks a little different from many purely human institutions, anxious, Izzy, competitive and controlling nothing to inspiring about that. Of course, the Church is a visible social unit. It occupies real space in the world and jostles up against other forms, but just as Jesus gives himself to the world, not to displace or conquer it, but to love and reconnected to the source of its fullest life. So, the Church must be not to displace or conquer the world, but to reconnect it to the source of its fullest life. It exists only for the sake of deepening the world’s integrity. By enabling its connection to and transformation by the life of God, summarizing this line of thought. Williams has said that the Church is fundamental challenge, is to occupy space in the world solely for the sake of the world’s s scatological solidarity.
That is for the sake of the world’s final reconciliation and fullness in the Book of Revelation. There is no temple at the end of all things, There isn’t the Church, it’s dissolved because all things are reconciled. That’s that’s this idea of scatological solidarity. What does this look like? It’s all very well to talk of a self dispossessing church, But what’s the difference between a church that refuses to compete for space power and relevance and one that is unworldly in Bahnhof is bad sense. That is as a privatised spiritualist enclave, pushed out of the world’s affairs altogether A church that simply given up on its vocation to show up or to offer something for the whole. Well, let me start with the question of the contribution we think we might be in reflections written for the day of his God’s son’s baptism.
Bahnhof for expressed the view that it would be a long time before the church could once again play a role in world affairs because of the church’s failings there was no listening for what christians might have to say. And in any case, these same failings indicated that the church had nothing to say. It had lost real and vital contact with the truth. It professed Raymond Gator, an Australian philosopher, once said that we say of some people that they have something to say on moral or spiritual matters, but we do not mean they have information to impart or a theory or a doctrine to propound. We mean, among other things that we judge them to have attained wisdom to have attained a depth in their life and thought and because of that, we judge their words on such matters to have authority. Mhm. As gator remarks, we would not seek moral advice from someone we judged or new to be jaded corrupt, shallow or self preoccupied, since in bahnhof is judgment, his church had to a significant extent become corrupt and shallow.
A long process of conversion and purification would be required before it would know again its own truth, let alone become capable of uttering the word of God. Such that the world will be changed and renewed by it. Until that time he said, the christian calls will be a silent and hidden affair And are being Christians today will be limited to two things prayer and righteous action. Well, the sense that a condition of the church’s engagement with the life of the world requires having something vital and real to offer is clearly part of john main’s understanding too. Hence his sense of the significance of a contemplative Christianity, capable of reconnecting those who practice meditation with the deep truth of God in creation and in human experience. It’s not enough In fact, it’s meaningless just to mouth the old forms of words and exhort belief or even values or bible based behavior.
What’s needed, he said, are those capable of breaking the spell of materialism and restoring the spirit of wisdom to the institutions of society and for this a much more radical conversion is required prayer then, as it was for Bahnhof, for is understood to be at the heart of the church’s vocation. John Mayne wrote only and he wrote a monastics is, but I’m saying only a contemplative church, vitalized by a return to its essential task of seeking God in pure prayer, can re establish a useful relationship with the modern world. This relationship is a release and transmission of spiritual energy. But what then are we returned to the view that the primary contribution of a contemplative church is the transformation of individuals who may then contribute to their various spheres in a certain spirit out of a certain death Is there any sense in which such a church might as church speak to the world’s crises and confusions?
Well, of course, there’s no single answer to this question It all depends on context, an opportunity gifting and coal, as I think about this. For myself though, a couple of points seem worth drawing out first in a world whose public conversation seems increasingly slogan driven, ideological and banal. There is something different about contemplative lee grounded truth, telling a wonderful illustration of this. I’m going to quote Robin Williams again. People at Benedicta Snow. I cannot preach a sermon more or less without quoting Rohan You’ve had a lot of Rohan, but here he is. Again, a wonderful illustration of this was the easter sermon he preached in 2000 and three, which treated in part the debate that was then surrounding the war in Iraq which hadn’t yet begun in these remarks, Williams did not explore directly the case for or against the war.
Rather, he pointed to something in the public discourse that was inimical to mature moral thinking and shared accountability He invited the transformation of the debate itself and so of its participants and potential outcome. He began by naming what was evident in the public conversation pointing out the mutual mishearing the distortions that follow the determination of all involved to occupy the high moral ground, Easy accusations of warmongering and greed from one side of appeasement and indifference to tyranny on the other. Might remember that he brought to the surface something in the very tone of the conversation that was affecting people’s thinking, but that not that had not been generally recognized or admitted He said that both sides are afraid of acknowledging that they have something in common with what they are resisting. And that acknowledgement ought to lead to some kind of adult admission that even in pursuing good ends are flawed, humanity creates new difficulties.
This determination. We all want to be the ones who are right that’s what we have in common, and that’s what we’re resisting in each other. Well, it’s not clear that any other critic or commentator could have made this kind of contribution. His authority was not just to do with intellectual or positional power, but spiritual depth. And what made this an instance of contemplative truth telling was, I think its emergence from and it’s invitation to humility, Williams was publicly inviting all to a kind of repentance and into the possibility of shared responsibility and vulnerability in the face of a complex moral reality. He spoke of the necessity of turning our eyes away from the seductive image of a righteous settled soul with nothing more to learn or repent. This was speech that was prophetically critical, and yet in solidarity, it opened up a vision for a new way of being and talking together.
And it’s an example for me of how a contemplative church might seek to be of service for the life of the world a second and related kind of contribution concerns the enabling of spaces for authentic engagement on issues that divide groups or societies.
A key question for our world today concerns how we work for justice without making polarization worse without contributing to the very divisions we yearn to see reconciled part of the risk in activism is that your identity gets wrapped up in your cause, your righteousness becomes if not an end in itself. Then at some level, an impediment to deep, generous and transformative listening. How do I learn really to engage with climate deniers for example, or with those I consider racist, irresponsibly populist homophobic and so on. How my context for truthful and potentially reconciling kinds of conversation be offered many today. No, the necessity of a revitalized and authentically public culture where difference can be engaged without hostility and pre hardened arteries I think of those promoting town hall and kitchen table conversations and of practices such as listening or talking circles, circles of trust, open space technology restorative justice processes and the art of hosting some of which you may be familiar with and all of which are approach is seeking to foster more generous listening the possibility of people hearing one another into deeper speech and so discovering more of a common or shared good.
A contemplative church may also, I think have a part to play in enlivening and making possible this kind of public culture enabling its conversation As Thomas Merton wrestled with the question of how to respond well to the race crisis in the US. in the 1960s, as well as later the peace movement, he developed a notion of the contemplative community as a true Pulis or civic space. Its grounding in divine action enables a certain detachment from the frenetic and polarized anxieties of the world detachment not in the sense of uncaring or uninvolved distance, but in the sense of knowing its own identity to be sourced elsewhere. And it’s this that enables it to hold open a space for collaboration and discourse, a generous and hospitable freedom and for otherness. And in this context, I think RW CCM’s meditate SEO program is a significant expression of this kind of contemplative lee grounded, unthreatened dia logical space in this kind of engagement.
The questions and issues facing the world can be brought into contact with and illuminated by contemplative consciousness, while at the same time, the christian perspective remains open and accountable to the wisdom and experience of the world. So contemplative communities, a contemplative church does have something to offer the whole. Yet having said all this, I think the question of participating in and engaging the public realm, the secular consciousness of our time remains difficult in the clamorous, distracted twittersphere. It’s hard for anything really to cut through. And thanks to the noisy and poisonous public interventions of certain expressions of Christianity, the church especially finds itself still in the kind of situation identified by Bahnhof, for it’s considered by many to be self righteous and self serving, such that Christianity at least the Christianity I’m talking about finds itself largely silenced. This doesn’t mean we give up and go away, prayer and righteous action remain.
Our call, acts of service, acts of solidarity, joining with others who seek the good of the city again and again. However, contemplative communities must put to one side the question of our own survival success or visibility, listening, availability, suffering with these are the only basis for our contribution to the public square and the shared life of the world. Which brings me to one final theme. How is what some have called the contemporary contemplative reformation related to the church as we currently know it? Well? This is a kind of non question, of course, since the church as we know, it is infinitely varied. It ranges from struggling local churches in mainstream denominations, two churches of the wildly successful Hillsong Variety and various megachurch expressions two churches whose primary identities are variously evangelical and conservative, progressive and liberal But since I began this talk, asserting rather baldly that many of us who meditate find our old ways of participating in the christian tradition coming under strain.
I want briefly to comment and what I think are two key elements of a contemplative ecclesiolology. The first is, it’s acumen is meditation is a practice of letting go of ourselves and being open to the gift of continuous conversion The more we enter this process, the more we realize that following christ isn’t about grabbing hold of any fixed identity quite the opposite. It involves the constant willingness to leave all such fixed identities behind and be drawn beyond into the unknown, into the unfathomable mystery of the one Jesus called father. The effect of this process is that it lessens the importance of the labels we use to describe ourselves and classify others. Saint Paul understood this very well, telling the christians at currents that as long as they were squabbling among themselves, I belong to Paul, I belong to a policy. They were missing the main point of the gospel.
They were behaving as infants in christ and according to their untranslated formed human inclinations I planted, Paul says Anna polish watered that these labors were only ever in service of drawing you to the God beyond us all. Who is the only one who can give the growth. If you get stuck at the level of identifying as a member of Paul’s group versus a policies group then you haven’t really got very far analogous lee. It seems to me that maturing in the Gospel means that denominational ism becomes something we take much less seriously, at least insofar as it’s used to divide ourselves from and judge those of different affiliations. And this subversion of denominational identity in any tribal sense is very obviously an early fruit of contemplative practice. Think of the way our own wc cm community has been ecumenical from the start, as has the centering prayer movement founded by Thomas Keating and others The contemplative habit strips away an unthinking superiority towards other baptist believers and the assumption that I have nothing to learn from them, the fundamental orientation of a contemplative church will be ecumenical.
This doesn’t mean that theological, liturgical and structural differences are unimportant. Some expressions of our faith are more helpful and more true to christ’s way than others. We must discern how we rightly practice faithfulness and obedience. And it doesn’t mean everyone has to be exactly the same. But this work of discernment can’t be short circuited by simple appeal to team membership, Catholics, good and Protestants, bad or vice versa, Evangelicals, good and liberals, bad or vice versa, and even christians right and Muslims, wrong or vice versa. From a christian point of view, the real test of any expression of faith is that it draws us into the dynamic of continuing conversion whose fruit is ever deepening compassion and mercy. So one profound implication of the contemplative practice of christian faith is that it subverts the significance of tribal identities within the church as well as between Christianity and other faiths, it calls us to a much deeper discernment of spirits and gifts us with much greater freedom to befriend one another across party lines.
A second and related feature of a contemplative Christianity is that it challenges unthinking clerical is authoritarianism and patriarchal ism in the church. Spiritual authority is, as Jesus taught, distinct from positional power and even from one and even from what looks on the surface, at least like orthodox profession This means that rather than seeking to ensure necessary accountability and spiritual leadership by purely structural and hierarchical means or by simple appeal, simplistic appeal to tradition or bible teaching, a contemplative church will take much more seriously the work of spiritual formation and the development of trustworthy processes for communal discernment where this challenges the history and established practice of particular church cultures. The process of ecclesia change and reform needs itself to be undertaken community communally and contemplative lee. But if the church itself is to come of age, to be of service for a world come of age, if it’s to be a school for spiritual maturation rather than an oppressive controlling and infantilizing system, then this is the kind of reform that contemplative practice will both call forth and enable right and yet here’s a question, How are some of us going to survive the church in the meantime?
Yeah. When reform seems painfully slow or willfully thwarted, when merely going to church leaves you furious or disempowered on account of the way it patronizes women, excludes LGBTQ people and those who are divorced or preachers world denigrating dualism and self satisfied righteousness. Well, how indeed I have a friend, also an anglican priest and meditator who is the rector of a traditional parish in an increasingly conservative diocese. She says she is always leaving and yet always staying. Mhm. For her, at least for now, the call seems to be to remain within the current structures connecting with the local community, offering contemplative space and letting the spirit work from within others of us find ourselves squeezed to the margins cast out of traditional church and so liberated to explore new forms. Benedictus emerged from this experience Others will be in context where reform and revitalization are joyfully and generously embraced and so become beacons for the wider church, while others will be forced into a kind of exile, longing for community but simply unable to find anywhere to be with integrity We’re in a time of major ecclesia upheaval and there is no program for the contemplative reformation.
An example is the significance of names in human life. Our names Diamond pointed out that if we were asked to justify our practice of naming, to give reasons why human beings were such as to deserve or merit names, there would be no general answer or proof. Rather the value, the truthfulness of this practice can only be recognized by the way it shows up in life by what it enables for and between people and by the impact of its refusal. As for example, in context like Auschwitz, where people are denied their names, naming only has the significance. It does as we realize its value in our own life. But it does seem as though it would be a great human loss if our kind of attachment to names, our kind of life with names were to be eroded away. I find myself wanting to say something analogous about the value of Christianity in our secular age.
We cannot give a general argument, argumentative justification for its truth. It’s right naming of the deep structures of reality and of the possibilities for being human on this earth, but we can come to recognize some of what it enables in and through us and as we allow our imaginations to be shaped by its story and our hearts connected to the energies it communicates we may find ourselves changed being differently to begin to be touched and awakened by these energies is to sense that this story tells truth about the kind of being we are, and maybe it’s the sense that it would be a great human loss if this revelation of God with and for us were to be eroded away, lost as a possibility to the human family. Of course, this is not an argument that will convince a committed secularist, but it is, I hope and encouragement to our world community to keep faith, that there are particular gifts that a contemplative Christianity is invited to receive and to offer and that through us, God willing, they may indeed be released for the life of all Thanks.
Listen to Sarah Bachelard’s full podcast on podcast.wccm.org