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By Chuck DeGroat
In the busyness, exhaustion, and the perfectionism I see in pastors (and experienced myself as a pastor), one resource is becoming exceptionally important—contemplative prayer.
I learned of contemplative prayer in the late 90’s in a course on Christian spirituality with Alistair McGrath at Oxford University. Amidst my own anxiety, it became a vital corrective to my head-centered spirituality.
More importantly, however, I left the lawcourt to enjoy intimacy with God. Let me explain.
In my Reformed tradition, we live in and love the lawcourt. The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith in my tradition is obvious. The shorthand for this has become “The Gospel.” Because of Christ, God vindicates sinners, becoming sin himself, absorbing the death that we deserved. This is good news! This is Gospel. But here’s what I find.
We never leave the lawcourt.
With the continuing burden of our guilt, we keep proclaiming, “God, remind me that I’m justified!” We adopt Gospel mantras of various kinds to remind us that we can’t perform our way to God. I understand, but this cognitive self-talk doesn’t get us to freedom. Often, we remain in guilt and shame. At least, this is what I’ve experienced counseling and mentoring many, many pastors over the past 15+ years.
What might it mean to leave the lawcourt and to experience the freedom that is ours already in Christ?
Enter contemplation. Contemplation’s etymology is important. It is con templum—connected to the temple. What temple? The temple is within (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19). It is the place where Christ dwells by the Spirit. Cyril of Alexandria wrote, we “are called ‘temples of God’ and indeed ‘gods’, and so we are.” St. Augustine declared, “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.” And the 15th century Augustinian mystic Catherine of Genoa mused, “My deepest Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.”
Contemplation is a way of seeing, not a way of knowing. We have too many ways of knowing. This does not mean that contemplation is irrational or anti-rational. Rather, contemplation is supra-rational. Contemplation invites us out of the lawcourt and into our inner temple, where the Spirit communes with us.
Eugene Peterson is a hero to many, many pastors, including me. Visiting Western Theological Seminary recently, he shared his appreciation of contemplative prayer. He went even further saying, “Sitting with people (throughout my pastoral ministry) has led me into the apophatic way.” The apophatic is a particular slice of contemplative spirituality which values silence and solitude, prayer beyond words. In a ministry filled with noise and many, many words, Peterson learned to descend into his deepest being, into the silence of intimacy with God, where true rest is found. Perhaps, he’d read St. Augustine, who wrote, “I searched for you outside myself, while all along you were within me. You were in me, but I was not in You.”
This is the beautiful subjectivity of the Christian faith, the sacred experience of God. Historian Philip Sheldrake notes the importance of real experience in our late (post) modern world, where the therapeutic has triumphed. I understand my theologian-friends who fear the experiential, who lament the sappy felt-needs religiosity so common in churches today. But with Sheldrake I cannot dismiss the experiential. I need it. It helps to know that my deepest me is God. It helps to know that the Spirit is praying within me when I don’t have words. It helps me to acknowledge the deep longings of skeptics-of-faith who I encounter, who yearn for connection to the transcendent.
Originally McGrath offered me St. Teresa of Avila alongside the Reformed giant Samuel Rutherford (whose Letters are an unending resource for budding bridal mystics). There was John of the Cross’s Dark Night, Calvin’s under-appreciated mystical doctrine of union, and Lady Julian’s extraordinary visions. For my skeptical Reformed friends, I’d send you back to Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Teellinck, Theodorus and Wilhelmus à Brakel, Saldenus and Witsius. These theological greats model a much needed interiority, a contemplative way which can provide rest for weary pastors and parishioners alike.
Eventually, you’ll need to put down the books. In the quiet of your heart, you’ll need to descend, as Augustine did, into silence. Breathing in and out, perhaps with a word like Jesus or Love to help you center, you will need to discover your deepest you, your true self, where Christ dwells by the Spirit. You will discover that you are held and loved, not merely acquitted. And perhaps, you and I will experience the rest we so desperately need, a rest that will allow us to become pastors and parishioners who minister out of our deepest waters, with compassion, grace, and wholeheartedness, as men and women who don’t merely know Jesus but see Jesus, in ourselves and in the hearts of all.
Chuck DeGroat has served as pastor, professor, and therapist in 15+ years of ministry. He is currently an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan. He recently authored Toughest People to Love (Eerdmans).