A reader named Connie wrote to me and asked the following question:
Is there a mystic/al church? What would it look like? Does such a thing exist in your experience?
It’s a great question. I imagine anyone who truly learns about the spirituality of Christian mysticism can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be part of a neighborhood church that took contemplation and mystical prayer seriously.
I wish I could say all Christian churches are mystical. I personally believe all Christian churches should be mystical, and that they would be, if they took the Bible’s teachings on prayer, silence, and union with God seriously. But we live in an imperfect world. So as we all know, many Christian congregations have very little (or no) knowledge of contemplation at all, it is never mentioned in sermons are in classes, and sometimes churches are even hostile to this topic.
I remember an evangelical friend telling me, when I was a youth, to stay away from mysticism. “It begins in mist, ends in schism, and has “I” rather than ‘God’ at the center!” That was the warning.
Unfair? Of course. But it shows how many Christians are uncomfortable with the spirituality that is actually a part of our heritage.
What Would a Contemplative Church Look Like?
If you join or visit a Buddhist sangha (community), you will find that the heart of their community is practice — they don’t just talk about Buddhism, they live it. And the heart of their practice is meditation.
In a similar way, I believe a truly mystical or contemplative church will emphasize practice as well — and the heart of Christian practice is prayer. Prayer in many forms: from “saying prayers” to chanting the psalms to fixed-hour prayer at different times during the day, to the kinds of practices typically associated with mysticism: meditation and contemplation.
So, a truly contemplative church will emphasize prayer, meditation and contemplation. Depending on the church’s denominational affiliation, it might also emphasize other practices traditionally associated with contemplation, such as Centering Prayer, lectio divina (meditative scripture reading), working with a spiritual director, making retreats, studying the wisdom of the mystics, and putting the contemplative life “to work” by engaging in a social ministry such as feeding the homeless or supporting refugees.
A truly contemplative, mystical church will still have plenty in common with other churches: including Sunday morning worship, study of scripture, small prayer groups, opportunities for fellowship and service, and making a commitment to stewardship as a spiritual practice. And because Christian spirituality at its best is inclusive rather than exclusive by nature, a truly mystical church would still be the kind of place where people who do not feel personally called to study or practice contemplative forms of prayer would still feel welcome and at home.
Some Churches Are More Mystical Than Others
There are certainly individual churches here and there where the clergy and/or the church leadership, are very open to contemplation and mysticism. I know of several off the top of my head: Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, GA; St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, NY; Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Gainesville, FL; Haw Creek Commons in Asheville, NC; The Portico in Tampa, FL; and the Church of Conscious Harmony in Austin, TX. Certainly there are others. But what is true of all these communities is that they serve a variety of people, so not every member of all these churches thinks of themselves as “mystics” or even as contemplatives.
Contemplatives, it seems have to learn how to live in a world where only a few people seem to be called (or accept the call) to live a truly contemplative life.
But if truly contemplative-friendly churches are still in the minority, how can you find a church that is open to nurturing the mystical life? Here are a few thoughts.
- Check out the Quakers. Quakerism has given us a long lineage of Christian contemplatives, from George Fox to John Woolman to Rufus Jones to, in our time, Parker J. Palmer and Richard Foster. Because Quakerism stresses silent prayer, meditation, and learning to listen to the leading of the Spirit within, it is perhaps the most “mystical-friendly” of all the Christian denominations.
- Look for churches that host Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation Groups. Sometimes even if the congregation as a whole is oblivious to mysticism, you can find people committed to the contemplative life by joining a local group dedicated to a practice like Centering Prayer of the World Community of Christian Meditation (WCCM) method of Christian Meditation. Visit the Contemplative Outreach or WCCM websites to see if there is contact information for a group near you.
- In the Catholic world, parishes that are served by Jesuit priests, Franciscans, Carmelites or some of the other religious orders can sometimes be very contemplative-friendly. Not always! It really varies from church to church. But it’s worth looking into.
Finally, I think what many people who are drawn to contemplation and mysticism do: find a Centering Prayer or similar group, and/or become affiliated with a monastery or retreat center where you can meet like-minded people, who are interested in contemplative practice and learning the wisdom of the mystics. On a more personal level, many people cultivate their desire for contemplative support by working with a spiritual director or guide. In fact, I would argue that anyone who is serious about daily prayer ought to have a spiritual guide anyways! If you are interested in learning more about one-on-one spiritual guidance, visit the website for Spiritual Director’s International.
You Can Make a Difference
But what if you just don’t have any luck finding a contemplative church, you don’t live anywhere near a monastery or retreat center, and even finding a spiritual director or centering prayer group seems to be impossible?
In this scenario, I would encourage you to pray about whether or not you could start your own group, either at your neighborhood church or even in your own home.
There are some interesting resources for people who want to start or develop a contemplative church. I wrote a blog post called Nine Ways to Foster a Contemplative Church — perhaps you could share that with your pastor or other elders in your congregation, or invite a group of like-minded persons to read this with you and pray over it to see how God might be leading your church to become more contemplative. For a more in-depth resource, consider reading Contemplative Church: How Meditative Prayer and Monastic Practices Help Congregations Flourish by Peter Traben Haas. It’s a book that makes the case for why it is a good idea for the neighborhood church to become more contemplative. Once again, consider sharing it with your pastor and/or starting a group to read it together. And then see where the Spirit leads you.
You could also contact WCCM or Contemplative Outreach to see about starting a contemplative prayer group in your church.
Good luck! I hope everyone who would love to be part of a contemplative or mystical church will have the opportunity to do so: either by joining an existing congregation that is mystical-friendly or else helping to start such a community in your neighborhood.