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contemplative community

TaizeI think I know in my heart what I want to say in this and a future related post – but I also have an intuition that what I write may be misheard. But hey! Like that’s never happened before 😉 so here goes:

Many of us will have been to a service with so many announcements and instructions it is indistinguishable from a rehearsal. Then there are services with wonderfully slick pageantry, those up front are intent on complex cues and out the back there are sometimes intensely debated negotiations before a group comes out and does its set of actions. There are services that work their way through reciting religious poetic material at each other and the experience is that this is done pretty much solely because it is a signed-to agreement. You will be able to think of other services: I don’t want to encourage a judgemental, holier-than-thou attitude, but is the service God-focused?

Contrast these with a service in a monastery. At the core of the service is a group of people who dedicate their life to the journey into God. The service is God-focused. Any “pageantry” or instructions are simply means to assist the journey into God, the focus on God. Where anything helps this journey, this focus, it is used. If it detracts or distracts, it is discarded. There is a clear distinction between means and end.

The photo is from Taizé. Services here, again, have, at the core, a group of people who dedicate their life to the journey into God. It is attractive. About 150,000 young people make their way there every year. Young people. Don’t tell me young people don’t have the same yearning for God as all humans throughout history. Don’t tell me that God is creating a new generation which doesn’t need God. Maybe there are new ways to cover our yearning or to distract us from it – but pause a moment with a young person and mostly they know it is a cover, a distraction.

Yes individual Christians and specific Christian communities may be known for being nice to people, extra nice to people, extremely, sacrificially nice to people. That is good and noble, important and necessary. And I don’t want to contrast this with a contemplative spirit, because I see it as all of a piece (told you it’s not an easy blog post to get right). But (and?) IMO people are hungering for a place where they encounter God contemplatively, where they know they are with fellow journeyers searching for and journeying into God. When a person searches for meaning, when they are seeking authentic spirituality – do they naturally turn to the church? IMO the growing group who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” generally mean “spiritual but not Christian“! As if the general population doesn’t think of seeing Christianity and spirituality as being in any way synonymous.

Well, I’ve tried. And in a future post I have some ideas with which I will try again. Meanwhile please consider adding your thoughts…

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21 thoughts on “contemplative community”

  1. Thank you for this article. I agree. Noisy services can be full of distractions and loud music. I don’t like them at all. It’s important to have quieter, more meditative services, even if it’s only occasional.

    I don’t think that I would like a Quaker service, however. That might be too quiet!

  2. I get exactly what you mean (I think!).

    Having had a pretty scattered upbringing spiritually – baptised Anglican, confirmed Anglican, attendance at Elim Pentecostal church and baptism by immersion at a Baptist church, not forgetting all schooling at Roman Catholic schools including a convent – I’ve had the opportunity to see how worship is “done” by various arms of the Christian faith.

    I believe the evangelicals have had a tendancy to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to contemplative worship. I would love to go to a service in Taize. I think it’s the idea of being able to be quiet, thoughtful and no need for handclapping, bouncing up and down (which even that has its place and time) that mostly goes on in churches.

    I also like the idea of journeying with others which, sometimes in an Evangelical setting, you can have the impression of having already made it – not the case I know but just how I have sometimes felt. I used to love the familiarity of liturgy during the Catholic and Anglican services – the Act of Contrition, the benediction. Sometimes its easy to think the worship is about how cool the guitars are sounding and the riff the bass player pulled off in the third verse!

  3. I am heartsick to agree with you. We Christians have largely ceded OUR ancient preactices of meditation, contemplation and “appropriate mysticism” to Buddhists, Taoist, Zoroastrians, and just about anybody else! IMHO when AA decided that they had to strip the Christianity out of the 12 Steps in order for it to ba palatable to people who were desperate for God (i.e. Higher Power), it was probably a belwether for what we were losing.

    I am grateful for Richard Foster’s attempts to reclaim these practices in his “Celebration of Discipline” and “Life with God” books. But it is so hard to change institutions! Easier for people to just leave than to try to reform and reclaim.

    I am thinking that I may attempt a guerilla attack on my church and try to offer a Lenten series aroung Foster’s book. Kind of a Christian Practices sampler. Go try it this week, then let’s meet as a group and talk about it – or do it as a group.

    What are you thoughts?

  4. This is something I have been longing for. I come from a congregational tradition which lacks common worship. Therefor at gatherings involving the many different congregations, such as Association and Conference meetings, there are copious instructions required or multi-page worship programs. I attended our fall meeting last Sunday, and you hit the nail on the head: it felt like a rehearsal.

    I wish we weren’t so reliant on printed words for our worship. I wish we could take a cue from Taize and compose more intuitive and simple worship. Or perhaps hold an actual rehearsal/instruction time prior to worship.

    I wonder that what you are getting at is aimed more at a local and consistent community which covenants to meet together regularly and for an extended period of time.

    1. Thanks again for these comments. I think you make good points, Joel – I might add for Anglicans the local community, in some ways, is the diocese. Here in NZ we have so many different responses for the same cue! I think we suffer from worshipping the idol of variety and creativity (that’s worth another post). Thanks for the Brett Walker quote, Brian. Vincent, not wanting to distract from this thread, but in relation to the notices I hope, for a laugh, you’ve seen this.

  5. Amen!! I want to echo what I think you’ve said though: This isn’t about style, it’s about orientation. I’ve been to plenty of quiet, meditative services where the focus has been on what’s inside me or Gaia or whatever, but not God. As Brett Walker write, our task as liturgists is not to give people what they want, but rather to help them discover what they truly need.

  6. vincent karl schwahn

    Thanks again for a provocative thought…as a Rector in a parish…we struggle to find those perfect moments of reflection..we move the announcements to the end of the Liturgy…and we observe silence. But we musn’t forget that Monks and Mystics are deliberate about what they do and have the space, time, and patience for the same. The ordinary Joe or Sally on the street…who is a member of our spiritual family…doesn’t have the same patience nor patent to get them to that point….Authentic Worship…is not subjective anyways…it is objective…Towards God…not ourselves!

  7. Great post, Bosco, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think you have hit the nail on the head with your comment that those who say they are “spiritual but not religious” actually mean “spiritual but not Christian.” This is very insightful. Most of the people I know who use the spiritual but not religious descriptor for themselves practice some sort of meditation or other contemplative practice, often drawing from buddhism or the yoga tradition.

    I take exception to Brian’s comment that quiet, meditative services where the focus on “what’s inside me” is, therefore, not a focus on God. Here is where the Christian tradition has made a huge mistake, in teaching people to be afraid of looking inward in their quest for God. When the church gets between me and my God, who I find inside of myself, then the church has to go – and I believe this is the choice that a lot of those young people you are not seeing in church have made.

    So, my question is: why do we despair if people are finding God outside the church, with its emphasis on pagentry and rehearsed precision? Shouldn’t we rejoice that there are experiences like Taize, even though some are not necessarily Christian in orientation, that lead people to God? As a long-time church choir member who often felt bludgeoned by the requirement to stick to the music instead of singing from the heart, or sit in my chair straight as a ramrod instead of letting God dance inside my body, I celebrate the fact that our young people are finding God somewhere, even if it’s in a buddhist meditation hall or a yoga studio. I personally do not feel that a person needs to be sitting in a church pew to experience God. Those who think otherwise, have a very small view of the power of God to move in a person’s life, wherever she or he may find themselves.

    1. Raima, thank you for your thoughtful, challenging points. Firstly, to clarify in case some are not aware of it, and there’s some ambiguity in your sentence, Taizé is Christian and inside the church. My own concern is not so much those people who are blessed in finding God and authentic spirituality – my concern is for the inoculation that can happen within our institutions where religious activity can be part of the covering and distracting from God rather than enhancing our journey into God. But, as I keep repeating, all this is an intuition I’m struggling to express – but from the comments, I think many of you “get it” 🙂

  8. This is why we have the Liturgy, it keeps the focus where it belongs and away from the “music group” or whatever.

    Indeed in our tradition we don’t use musical accompaniment, just the human voice which can be exquisite.

    Perhaps my point can be illustrated with the words of the Cherubic Hymn

    “We, who mystically represent the Cherubim,
    And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity,
    Let us set aside the cares of life
    That we may receive the King of all,
    Who comes invisibly escorted by the Divine Hosts.

  9. Hi, Bosco. You’re certainly on to something here. I’ve been part of worshipping communities as “high” and as “low”, and as “amateur” and as “pro”, as you like, but I’ve always been drawn closest to God when I was sure that we were all of us together worshipping God (not giving or receiving a rehearsal or a performance of worship). Your post reminded me right away of a passage from Harry Williams’s autobiography, Some Day I’ll Find You, in which he describes life in the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield:

    “I believe that the signs of genuine nearness to God are the relaxation and laughter which give out an atmosphere of human warmth. So (to take a trivial example) when a service in church goes wrong and mistakes are made, those near to God are amused, not upset. Two or three years ago a group of Brethren, after much serious discussion and consultation, drew up a new form of ritual for the weekday celebrations of the Holy Communion in which seven or eight Brethren trailed up to the altar in long white robes. On seeing this for the first time a Brother from another house in the Community said to me: ‘I so much enjoyed the new ritual. It is exactly like the old film of Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals.'” (p. 336)

    I’ve often been the one to be upset rather than amused, but not by mistakes or slip-ups. What irritates me is when worship is inauthentic, i.e. an exercise in play-acting, over-reaching, banality, or, worst, emotional manipulation. This is one of the reasons I’ve been drawn of late to 8:00 a.m. Holy Communions where a handful of grey heads are bent over BCPs that are held out of habit rather than necessity. That service and that congregation are at least not pretending to be anything but what they are!

  10. Love your blog and this post. A few random thoughts. For me the Anglican liturgy is the skeleton. It is a guide, there are no surprises, (another hymn is not going to be ‘snuck’ in when I least expect it). Because of that my spirit is free to listen to ‘the still small voice of God, and through this, flesh can be added to the bones. Hope that makes sense. It seems today that there is a ‘pick and mix’ approach to spirituality that has much to do with consumerism, ‘what can I get out of it’. True spirituality is surely concerned about a relationship with God, wherever that may lead! I also agree with the other post about worshipping God rather than the music group. Why do some churches elevate the drummer and place him/her centre stage? (note stage, not sanctuary)

    I can relate a similar story in line with the Harry Williams thought. While celebrating communion at our church the guy who was in charge of the incense got a fit of the giggles as he was ‘smoking’ the congregation. By the time he had finished the whole congregation was smiling and sharing the amusement with each other. Surely that is the great preparation for gathering together at the Lord’s Table!

    1. Caro, your comment made me smile – the image of the elevated drummer reminds me so much of the high reverence and ritual that is associated with the collection plate in churches that would never dream of associating such reverence and ritual with the consecrated bread and wine 🙂

  11. So is it an attitude of congregation or leadership that’s missing the focus?

    Carrie B: easy to think the worship is about how cool the guitars are sounding

    Very true. I have the advantage of a classic-guitar upbringing and am not impressed when I see two berks, sorry “worship leaders”, gazing off into outer space, noodling inanely in Dmin while everyone else stands around wondering when they’re going to have another flash of inspiration and move on. And I don’t think that makes me elitist: the nature of “best practices” is that not everyone understands why-everything in minute degree, but that most people appreciate the resultant increase in quality which glorifies God more (whether a product or a performance or an experience).

    andrei: Liturgy, precisely. We’ve recently had a few sermons on the purpose of liturgies, from the Greek liturgos meaning “work”, so, “the work of the church”. My experiences of liturgy are that, done right, they can be uplifting, they can be a framework with space to think around the words, they bring people together to the same stream of thought (the purpose of a collect prayer), and at the end when you look back over the structure you get a feeling of achievement of all the things you’ve done. (I don’t go a bundle on the idea of “comfortable words”.)

    This is why I ask whether it’s a congregational attitude problem or not, though: it’s quite possible, especially at times of transition, for the congregation not to toe the line – when you get some obstinate sod behind you loudly saying “*I* believe” (despite the written “we” in this version of the Nicene creed), it destroys the atmosphere and sense of collective commonality in worship.

  12. Excellent post. I agree with and have seen much of it. However there is a growing and active group of the “spiritual but not religious” that does not fit in your description. They are longing to be led by the Holy Spirit and are tired of being manipulated by “the church” (small c). They desire to see the Church (big C) be the Church, the body of believers that is the bride of Christ. So I would say there is a large group that is “spiritual but not institutional” as well.

    One author of this ilk is Frank Viola. Some of my “institution” friends have told me they think he is of the devil because he questions the church structure. However he has had a very positive impact on many. Helping them realize that Christianity is a relationship with the living God, not a bunch of things we do just because our “spiritual leaders” told us too.

    I left the traditional church for a bit (I have a strong “evangelical” background – probably a USA thing 😉 because I too was tired of being manipulated. Then, after a prompting of the Holy Spirit, I believe, I attended a local Episcopal Church and my relationship with God has gone to a whole new level. The Rector is a humble and honest man who simply seeks to let God be God. I find the simple yet informed structure of the liturgy to be amazing and overwhelming at times. When friends learn that I attend the Episcopal Church they are perplexed. I wonder at times why and I think it is because many only see the “tradition” and they see it as binding. Instead due to my personal journey I am able to appreciate the richness of the “tradition” and the freedom it provides to dig deeper.

    Sorry for a bit of a rant. I always appreciate your thoughtful posts and appreciate your honestly. I continue to recommend your blog to others who are serious about pursuing God.

    Grace & Peace

  13. Bosco, I suspect there is something in your ‘spiritual but not Christian’, to which I offer a couple tangential ideas.
    First, the idea of being ‘spiritual’ may have gained some traction from cultural trends in the West of the last 40 years, including the popularity of some vaguely ‘eastern’ or esoteric religious ideas among the entertainment elite (Beatles, Madonna, Travolta, Cruise etc; cf. Kabbalah, Scientology, the Da Vinci nonsense) – the opinions of actors and pop stars do hold some status in the minds of under-30s. In few cases does the modern sanitized version bear much relation to the historic beliefs nad practices – and that goes for Maoritanga as well.
    Second, I suspect rather more females than males would want to own the ‘spiritual but not religious’ label, just as rather more men than women will say outright that they are atheists. The musical/acting entertainment culture is probably more female-orientated than male. I doubt that real Buddhism (as opposed to pop versions) has made much of an impact among white Westerners – it’s altogether too demanding! Islam is more likely the religion of choice (or heritage) among young Western males of African or South Asian origin (and their convert wives), and it has little to do with contemplation or, barring a few suspect Sufi mystics, traditional Christian ideas of prayer as encounter with the Divine Lover. There is a great post by ‘Spengler’ (David Goldman) on the Asian Times website on this, contrasting Muslim prayer as ritual with Christian prayer as encounter.
    Third, Taize’s appeal has increasingly been to Eastern Europeans since the Berlin Wall came down. Many Polish Catholics have now been there, as well as young Bulgarians and Romanians.
    Fourth, music is two-edged sword. It has rightly been part of Christian worship from the beginning, but in every age it runs the danger of forgetting that it is the ancilla Domini. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
    Finally, people’s experience or expectation of Sunday or congregational worship may have a lot to do with the strength (or absence) of their own private prayer life. I have more than a hunch that a lot of churchgoers pray very little during the week and expect Sunday morning to do more than it’s capable of. Where the disciplines of daily private prayer, opening up to the Lord, and Bible reading are actively fostered, a different experience of Sunday worship can be expected. All our attempts at worship are marred by sin; but some attempts are more God-focused than others. Knowing by heart a few classic Christian prayers, and ‘golden’ passages from the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible can be the biggest single aid in helping us to switch our minds and hearts on to God, and this is where I have concentrated my private devotions in the past few years.

  14. A splendid post. I keep working on this sort of idea but find one of the great difficulties is that people are so afraid of silence because they don’t know what to do with it. I have encountered some who claim to need silence for their private prayers at home but still find it challenging when it is communal. How do you introduce people to silence without destroying it for those who already welcome it?

    1. That’s a really good question, Jennifer. I think you can put one or two silent periods into a service and slowly extend them in length. I think it may be better to develop significant silence, rather than lots of little ones that, in some contexts, can appear as if the leader has forgotten what to do next. One could have some teachings on what to do in silence. Or, as in Taize, one could just do it – a core of people in silence leads the others. And also: let’s leave some room for God 🙂

  15. Jennifer

    Your are right, this is a very hard subject to write on. I feel you are on the right track but God must come first in any service. To much of man can quince the spirit of God and move us right past what He may have for us. Thanks for making people think.

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