Friday, March 7, 2014

The lament of a failed contemplative

Despite my earnest desire to enter into the contemplative experience—to lose myself in the presence of God—I just can’t seem to get it right. I suspect that I am spiritually ADHD (attention deficiency mixed with hyperactivity), although to many people I appear calm and even wise on the outside.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been trying for years, doing the breathing exercises, choosing and saying a “prayer word” (which is never “om”), arranging the atmosphere, lighting the candle, etc. And sometimes it does, indeed, work. Sometimes, many times actually, I sense the sweet presence of Jesus, to the point of tears and shivers. But it only lasts for a short time, and I’m talking seconds, not even minutes.
Recently I had a conversation with three good friends about Quaker mysticism, and I claimed to be one. A Quaker mystic. My friends wisely observed that I probably wasn’t, at least not yet. The more I think back on that conversation, the more I think they’re possibly right. Although I still wrestle with the question of just what, exactly, is a Quaker mystic. So much hinges on definitions.
At any rate I’ve recently read two more books on how to do it. The authors encouraged me to keep on keeping on, as the cliché goes, and I recommend them to whoever else out there desires to be a contemplative, Quaker or otherwise. The first book is God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling. What I appreciate about this book is that it integrates, as the title suggests, the desire for contemplative prayer, the longing to lead other people to Jesus, and the passion to be active in social justice issues. Too often in our churches people gravitate to one of the three emphases, to the neglect of the others. We Quakers do that well. The authors give practical suggestions as well as examples to flesh out their wonderfully holistic vision of the Christian life.
The second book, by my friend (also Friend) Richard Foster, certainly encourages me and gives me hope that if I continue to show up, God will meet me. I intend to re-read Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer. In fact, I intend to re-read both books, for while I found them both helpful and encouraging, I still haven’t got it right.
The other morning, I was lamenting my failure and nibbling on sunflower seeds, when I saw a connection. (That’s one thing I am good at—seeing connections, sometimes to the point of the ridiculous.) So I wrote this little poem. And felt better. Humor always helps.

Confession of a Failed Contemplative
Contemplative prayer is a lot like
snacking on sunflower seeds.
You just know something good
is waiting for you. That tangy taste
that teases the tongue tells you
a treat is in store if you only
keep probing. So you bite it in half,
suck the salt from the shells,
nibble the seed, small but savory,
then wonder if that’s
all there is.


  1. Contemplative has become dangerously self-centered in my circles. Receptivity, dependence, obedience, submission, adoration--all confess that God is God. Much that claims to be contemplative spirituality is merely looking inward. Alas! I'm forever grateful you're integrative, that you make connections. I'm glad you failed the Quaker mystic test. Please!

  2. Your point is well taken. That's why I try to balance any focus on contemplative prayer with intercessory prayer. That's the kind of prayer Jesus taught. Unfortunately, it's also hard to consistently practice.

  3. I love this quote from Pierre Lacout, whom I quoted on my blog not long ago--unfortunately, retranslated from Russian since I don't have any other version of his booklet handy. "The fully-developed religious life becomes the life of a mystic. For some, 'mystical' is synonymous with 'not normal,' bringing to mind visions, trances, levitation... This kind of approach focuses on secondary aspects instead of the main point. For Paul, the mystic is an individual who has come into the fullness of Christ, whose life is filled by the Holy Spirit: 'I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.' [Galatians 2:20.] And 'For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.' [Romans 8:14.] Pierre Lacout is not writing about mysticism (or silence) as a self-centered lifestyle enhancement, but as a form of Godward attentiveness which we might never attain to our perfect satisfaction, but to which we can always return and return and return.

  4. ...and return and return and return. Yes. That's full of hope.

  5. Does Paul use the word mystic at any point to explain a Spirit-filled life? What other word could capture what you're both getting at?

  6. I don't think that word is in the Bible, anywhere. Paul talks about being continually filled with the Holy Spirit, but there are many expressions of that "experience." I guess for me the biblical concept that comes the closest to describing what a "mystic" might be is the metaphor of abiding in Jesus, like the branches cling to the vine. Am I getting close?

  7. What is the connection between abiding in Jesus and meditating on Scripture? And what is the connection between being filled with the Holy Spirit and meditating on Scripture? By meditation I include playing with the metaphors, inviting the genres to do their work, imagining the function of the words in their original context etc. etc.