What ever happened to contemplative prayer?

March 20th, 2019

Then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in a 2012 address to the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops, boldly said, “The humanity we are growing into in the Spirit, the humanity that we seek to share with the world as the first fruits of Christ’s redeeming work, is a contemplative humanity.”* 

When one begins to let this innocuous and typically Christian-sounding locution sink in, one notices how sweeping and radical a claim this is. The way in which persons are transformed by a long-term practice of contemplative prayer is the difference Jesus Christ’s redeeming work makes in persons. Its what the first fruits of redemption looks like. 

It should be a matter of no small concern, then, that vast swathes of American and European Christians have, due to the vicissitudes of history and grace, landed in denominations and churches in parts of the Christian stream where the practice of contemplative prayer has disappeared rather entirely. If it has ever been heard of, it seems foreign and conspicuously Catholic — a supplement for the spiritual-minded, at best, and far from the essence of the gospel. I know of only one Protestant congregation where contemplative prayer is taught to children or youth with any real intentionality — and this congregation calls itself a “contemplative Christian community.” Not the norm, to be sure. 

Yet Williams is unsparing. To hear him sermonize the Catholic bishops, one would think that contemplative prayer is the key to everything the church does. “Contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom — freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.” 

Contemplation is the key to liturgy! to ethics! to other kinds of prayer! to art, for flock’s sake! 

I must say that I hope some of my readers are strongly disagreeing with all this. 

I mean, I agree with it myself. But if more pastors and Christians agreed with it, then contemplative prayer instruction would be common in, say, the United Methodist Church. But it’s not. You can find it… if you go looking. The resilient contemplative-seeker might find a pastor here or there who is serious about it, might find a church member of this or that congregation who leads classes or seminars in it every so often. But it’s not likely to jump out at you on Sunday morning, or at youth group, or at confirmation class... or anywhere else, for that matter. 

“But, but” — I hear the objections beginning — “not all people are into the silent contemplation thing. Lots of adults don’t have the attention span for it. You have to keep the service moving, keep the jolts coming like on TV, so people don’t change channels because the band sure is great at Bigger’s Better Bible Church.” 

The church is anxiously prattling this kind of thing, while my daughter’s public elementary school occasionally teaches the students breathing exercises, mindfulness and basic yoga. Thank goodness kids can get a foundation for health and sanity somewhere in America’s crazed consumerist (church) culture. 

*** 

What’s at stake here, it seems to me, is whether a kind of Christianity that is holistically conducive to human flourishing can take root more widely in the affluent spiritual desert of the USA. 

The point isn’t to get rid of other useful things the church does and is — a place to connect with other people in the community, a place to receive or serve free meals and find leads to other social services, a place to learn some doctrine and become biblically literate, a place to learn to and practice praying with words, a place to participate in praise and sacraments, a place to communally take part in evangelism and social justice efforts — all of this is good. 

The point is that one can do all of that, can do it all serious-mindedly and wholeheartedly, even zealously, and leave obscured and relatively untouched the highest or most interior dimension of the human person. This is called the highest point of the soul or the apex of the mind, or it might be called the spirit in contrast to the soul and the body. It travels under various names in the Christian tradition, but a surprising number of the theological anthropologies converge in recognizing it or pointing to it in some way. What is being referred to is the hidden fountain of the conscious self, that which has thoughts and experiences but cannot be a direct object of consciousness or item of experience, the seat of the soul somehow beyond the discursively reasoning level of the soul. This is the center of the soul which, for a writer like Martin Laird, is the self as already ascended in Christ and “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). 

With all these meandering, halting, equivocal approaches, one might well wonder if such a thing even exists. To which one can only answer: if one spends enough time in contemplative prayer, one will start to notice that it does in fact exist … and that the way in which Rowan Williams talks makes eminent sense. 


*Rowan Williams quotes in this article are quoted in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (Oxford, 2019), 11-12.

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