Recently I stood with a group of pastors from interstate, some of whom I had studied theology with in another age. As you do, we talked of absent colleagues, catching up on their comings and goings. We talked briefly of one who had moved aside from church leadership to a related role in a centre for spirituality, a person for whom I have great respect.
This pastor is commonly referred to as a ‘contemplative’. By that, some mean to affirm and others dismiss. The feel of this gathering was the latter. ‘He just doesn’t live in the real world,’ one said; ‘he’s off with the ecclesial fairies.’ There was an awkward chuckle of agreement from those present. ‘That’s not been my experience of him,’ I ventured, feeling the need to defend. A raised eyebrow or two was followed by a deft change of subject.
In my experience, the contemplative types are easily dismissed. Their preferred approach to spirituality can seem disconnected from the pragmatics of life and ministry. The more activist types become impatient with their apparent other-worldliness or frustrated with their bent to spiritual navel gazing. And sometimes, I suspect, it’s ‘guilty as charged’. But that’s not true of my friend, nor is it the case for contemplation more generally.
Thomas Merton once wrote, ‘The true contemplative is not less interested than others in normal life, not less concerned with what goes in on in the world, but more interested, more concerned. The fact that he is a contemplative makes him capable of a greater interest and a deeper concern.’
At their best, the contemplatives of this world have what I think of as an alternative intelligence, a way of knowing that is different, slightly left of the spiritual centre. Rather than being other-worldly, they have the ability to discern this world’s holiness, and indeed its profanity, in ways others cannot.
The Presbyterian pastor, author and theologian Fredrick Buechner is one of the more notable contemplatives of today’s church. In his memoir The Sacred Journey, he says this of his vocation as a writer/pastor:
‘More as a novelist than as a theologian, more concretely than abstractly, I determined to try to describe my own life as evocatively and candidly as I could in hope that such glimmers of theological truth as I believe I had glimpsed in it would shine through my description more or less on their own. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me still, that if God speaks to us in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we all have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all–just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.’
In part, this is the gift of the contemplatives to the church. We may not always get them nor appreciate them. Regardless, if we allow them to, they can help us to discern truth and hear God speak in ways we would otherwise miss. And that’s gotta be good!