SIM News

Contemplation And Community

Contemplation And Community


Jessica M. Smith & Stuart Higgenbotham, Editors
Introduction By Tilden Edwards
Afterward By Margaret Benefiel
©2019, Crossroad Publishers, New York, NY, 230 Pp.
Reviewed By Mark Grayson


“These are the fresh insights of a group of unsuspecting revolutionaries to whom the Spirit has granted a discernment that could quite possibly change our world.”


These are confounding times. On the one hand, organized religious bodies of all faiths and affiliations report a decline in membership, causing much consternation among clergy and lay leaders who point to societal and technological shifts that have disrupted traditional practice. 

At the same time, there is ample evidence that we remain a nation of spiritual seekers, a country whose religious freedoms our Founders went to great lengths to protect. the wellness travel industry is growing at twice the general tourism rate. An increasing number of corporations and schools offer mindfulness programs that research indicates improve organizational climate, as well as worker and student outcomes. The number of adults who meditate has tripled. The number of people practicing yoga has increased by 55% over the past seven years (NCHS October 2018). 

Nine out of ten Americans believe in a higher power (Pew Research Center, 4/25/18). The list of celebrities catering to our deep yearning for meaning and purpose grows daily. 

What the hell is going on? If Americans are devoting so much time and money to these spiritual quests, enthralled by the multi-media entertainments that mega-churches and charismatic gurus offer (who inevitably prove to be false prophets), why is the Church in such a state of decline? 

Shining a light into these dark, cultural conundrums is Contemplation and Community, a brilliant diamond of a book that may just have a few answers. It offers a collection of essays by a group of young contemplatives that is a visionary, timely, some might even say providential, contribution to the national conversation about how to reinvent traditional practices of faith so that they are central to the spiritual growth of our beings. It’s possible that their collective theses might inspire a micro-reformation that could put us more deeply in touch with Christ’s original spiritual vision for the Church. 

The backstory is important here. Over forty years ago, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Laurence Freeman, and Tilden Edwards, began their work to advance Christian contemplative lineages as an essential component of the spiritual formation of laypeople. This was during a time when Westerners were increasingly looking to Eastern traditions for meditation practices that they might incorporate (since long ago contemplative prayer had become the esoteric and almost exclusive domain of monastics). 

Flash forward to Snowmass, CO, August 2016, where the four contemplative leaders met to explore the commonalities among their individual practices and organizations. Although thousands of Christians were by then actively engaged in some form of meditation, the question before the four men was how best to support this unfolding movement of the Spirit in future generations. They decided that they would each invite five young contemplatives from around the world, already deeply embedded in a Christian centering practice, to join them the following summer, as a first step. 

Their invitees gathered for four days, facilitated by Margaret Benefiel of Shalem Institute. The outcome of their “exchange” is, among other things, this extraordinary book. I would assert that the brothers have gotten even more than they bargained for, as what is on the page is not just a fine, vibrant, inspiring precís of contemporary, contemplative practice as conducted by the younger set, it is perhaps nothing less than a manifesto for how we might reimagine the Church. 

In a series of carefully written essays, these modern day apostles put forward a compelling argument for the reintegration of Christian contemplative practice into the very core of our worship experience, without actually expressing that objective as their goal. 

Thomas Bushlack provides a primer on what contemplation actually is and the way in which spiritual formation advances through its practice. Sarah Bachelard argues the need to develop a contemplative life within a community setting, contrary to the self-help, ego-centered, advancement of the individual that popular mindfulness programs sometimes promote. Sicco Claus insists on discipline. Christian mindfulness is not a feel-good, stress relief program. Jessica M. Smith then renders a heartfelt and deeply moving, reflection of the restorative power of symbols, even during the dark night of the soul. 

With this better understanding of a meditation practice as experienced by Christians living in the world, the discussion then shifts to what a contemplative lay community might look like. Stuart Higginbotham provides an inspirational illustration of how his parish reframed its operations so that contemplation is central to its programs and administration. Net takeaway: it can be done. Kirsten Oates delivers a thought-provoking discussion of the differences between for-profit, non-profit, and contemplative strategy development. She is deeply experienced in all three. Bo Karen Lee paints a vivid picture of Ignatian spirituality and lectio divina, delivering a dramatic affirmation of its ability to set aflame the minds of individuals with rich narrative experiences that accelerate spiritual growth. 

The focus of the essays then shifts to contemplation in action. You may be surprised by what you read. This is not a group of renunciants who experience contemplative life as a step back from real-world into a state of transcendence. This is a group who leans in. 

Mark Longhurst adopts the tone of a political insurrectionist, articulating a radical interpretation of the role of the mystic in the Age of Empire. To paraphrase his call to action: “Contemplation is for everyone, is possible everywhere, and in endless ways.” Phileena Heuertz makes the case that contemplative prayer is the essential point of embarkation in any journey advocating for social justice. She asserts that contemplation is essential to “cultivating a New World from the inside out.” Leonardo Correa shares his experience advancing the Christian tradition of meditation around the globe, working with the World Community for Christian Meditation, in places that we might never imagine contemplation is possible, much less having any impact. Mark Kutolowski then plugs a hole in Christian centering practice, suggesting that a key, missing component is the role that the human body plays. His framework for developing a body-based contemplative discipline, leveraging ancient Eastern orthodox practices, is a timely, brilliant contribution towards holistic, 21st century, body-mind-heart solution. 

Matthew Wright then sums it all up, showcasing the work of Beatrice Bruteau, a woman, thank heavens, whose vision is based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s work. Decoding her insights in easy to understand prose, he paints a picture of a new, emerging era of convergence and integration (the Second Axial Age, to be precise) where contemplation and its ability to forge higher, unitive consciousness is core. This is the real New Age, not some pop culture, self-referential construct. 

The reader is left in an altered state upon reading these essays. Although these young contemplatives speak with the authority that only intimate knowledge based on years of practice and direct experience affords, there is a palpable energy in the text. These are not the studied statements of wise elders; they are the fresh insights of a group of unsuspecting revolutionaries to whom the Spirit has granted a discernment that could quite possibly change our world. They show us a new path away from the self-satisfactions of self-improvement schemes, and other get-rich-quick, material and spiritual success stories that so dominate our world view. 

With the penetrating force of the universe’s whisper, they encourage us to adopt a bold new way to think and move and express our being. They insist that we must reclaim the mystical experience, the direct encounter with the divine, as our innate state and the prime mover of our Christian faith. Over time, deus vult, they will challenge us to reimagine the Episcopal Church, putting us back in touch with the very essence of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ, as we put our faith into practice. 

And in the end, may we hope, that they will enable us to join their company as Everyday Mystics.

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