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What is the Best Church for Christian Mysticism and Contemplation?

It seems to me that Christian meditation / contemplation traces its roots to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th and 5th centuries in the East. Even Cassian had to go from West to East to get it from Evagrius and bring it to the West. For me, this seems to imply that Christian contemplation / meditation grew best in the soil of the East. Could this possibly mean that a serious consideration of joining the Eastern Orthodox church is in order? I find myself having moved from being a conservative evangelical to becoming a contemplative ecumenical. And yet, on the one hand, I want to ensconce myself in the ‘right’ “Christian” tradition, while at the same time wanting to be “free” and hover between all the traditions (and even possibly between all the religions – in the mystical space between them). Both desires seem to me to be wrong thinking. Perhaps there’s a third way. What are your thoughts?

Two questions here. To summarize:

  1. Is Eastern Orthodoxy the best Christian tradition for contemplative practice, especially given the Orthodox tradition of spirituality that began in the east?
  2. Is it better to be anchored in one tradition, or to resist affiliation with any one tradition, in the interest of maintaining an openness to God’s wisdom and guidance wherever it may arise?

Let’s take these one at a time.

Is Eastern Orthodoxy the “Best” Contemplative Tradition Within Christianity?

I suppose, since I am a Catholic Christian, you can guess my answer which is “Not necessarily.”

There is much that is beautiful about the Orthodox tradition: a rich sacramental theology, a robust monastic culture, the long-standing practice of the prayer of the heart (the Jesus Prayer), a more robust theology of theosis (deification, divinization) than is typically found in the western churches. In my circle of friends I only count two Orthodox priests, but they are both deeply spiritual and so if they are any indication, many Orthodox communities might be quite congenial to the cultivation of a deep interior spirituality.

But (you knew that “but” was coming!), Orthodoxy has its own problems. Many (not all) Orthodox Churches have strong national identities (Russian, Greek, etc.) that can make it harder for an outsider to be integrated into the community. Orthodox Christianity is still very much a minority church in America, so it’s harder to find parishes — and if the one near you has problems, you may not have much choice to locate a more healthy alternative. And finally, in my admittedly limited dealings with Orthodox Christians, I have seen pretty much the same kinds of problems that I see among Catholics and Protestants, ranging from legalism to chauvinism (“we’re the only true Christians”).

So for this reason, I believe that if you’re looking for a church that is congenial to meditation and mysticism, it’s better to find a church that has a contemplative culture — regardless of its denomination — rather than picking a denomination because of its history.

You could say the same thing about Catholicism: Rome is the church of Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila and Meister Eckhart, so wouldn’t that make Catholicism the most “mystical” of churches? Eh, not really.

The sad reality is, most churches across all denominations have a limited to non-existent appreciation for meditation, contemplation, and mysticism. This is due to historical problems that are, at least for western churches, centuries in the making.

Often the best arrangement is to find a church that overall feels like a good spiritual home, but then pursuing a specific community (like a local Centering Prayer group or WCCM chapter), which meets at your church or another nearby church, where you can more fully expl0re the interior life.

Alternatively, pursuing a lay contemplative community like the Third Order Franciscans, Lay Dominicans, Lay Cistercians, or Lay Carmelites might be your best bet. But once again, it would depend on the local group. Just because the Carmelites are the order of Teresa and John does not guarantee that every local chapter will be “mystical.”

Finally, there is the possibility of working with a sympathetic spiritual director/companion.

To summarize, I won’t rule out Orthodox Christianity as possibly a wonderful home for the Christian who seeks a more contemplative expression of their faith. But keep your eyes open, and remember that every church has a shadow side. Perhaps it’s better to choose a church based on the character of the parish near you, rather than thinking in abstract terms about what the denomination as a whole “should” be like.

To Join, or Not to Join (or a Third Option)?

On to your second question. Is it better to do your due diligence, make a choice as to what you deem the “best” church, and join it? Or is it better to resist joining any one church, seeing yourself as a kind of free agent who can go wherever the spirit leads? Or is there a third option?

I’d like to begin by commenting on this idea of the “right” Christian tradition.

I suppose pretty much every church, every denomination has its apologists and defenders, who will gladly explain to you why their theology/liturgy/etc. is the “best” or “most faithful” or what have you.

And of course, they all disagree with one another. There’s the old joke about when you go to heaven you’ll have to be quiet on the hallway between the Catholics and the Baptists, because each of those groups are convinced they’re the only ones there!

I’m not an anything-goes kind of person, myself. I have pretty strong ideas about theology and spirituality. But even with my own rather opinionated perspective, I’ve come to realize that no one can ever fully discern which church is the “best.”

The most any of us can do is argue for the rightness of our own position. And frankly that gets old really quickly.

We are called to love our neighbors — and our enemies. Jesus didn’t say “Love your neighbors as long as they are members with you of the one true church.” For that matter he never suggested that “enemies” meant people who are in different churches than your own!

So here’s how I see it. I know many people will disagree with me, but this is my blog — if you don’t like my perspective, go start your own blog. ?

First, there’s no such thing as a perfect church. Just like there’s no perfect marriage (even though some might come close!). Part of choosing a church is discerning if the church’s gifts truly speak to you, and if its failings are something you can live with.

I’ve already spoken about the problems of churches that are not very contemplative. Most of those churches might really be blessed by having some contemplative members, especially in leadership positions. So if that’s something you feel called to pursue, you could make a big different.

If a person is reasonably happy with the church they grew up in, I don’t see any reason why they would need to change. But if a person feels the need to find a new church, I recommend getting to know everything about that church: its theology, its worship style, its culture, its politics (yes, every church is political, although that usually only bugs us when we don’t like the mainstream political views of the clergy or congregation).

But you asked: is it better to pick a church and join, or should a person remain a “free agent”? My answer is more akin to the “third way” you asked about.

I think unless you have a strong reason not to, it’s good to join a church. It’s a commitment — not just to God, but to your sisters and brothers in Christ. A church is a place where we can be of service, where we can learn, and grow, and pray, and help others.

The marriage analogy still applies. Refusing to join a church because you want to be free to go somewhere else when you feel the spirit leads you sounds a lot like cohabitation: we can live together, but no commitment, just stay in the moment.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe it’s healthier for both parties (the spouses, or the church and the member) if there’s a more meaningful commitment than that.

But does that mean you can’t learn from other churches? Take classes? Worship with them? Of course not! But it’s like being friends with someone you’re not married to. You can have a deep, intimate friendship, but there are some boundaries in place that help everyone to understand the rules of the different kinds of relationships.

And yes, this applies not only to ecumenical exploration (different Christian churches), but also interfaith/interspiritual exploration (across religious traditions). I know a Benedictine nun who was very active in inter-religious dialogue, who strong advocated for learning about, and from, other traditions. But she recommends that you don’t actually join other traditions (like taking refuge as a Buddhist, for example). Don’t be initiated into that tradition, because you’re already initiated into your own (through baptism). Don’t muddy the waters.

Full disclosure: there are others who disagree with her perspective, but I think it’s a good starting point. Anchor yourself in the tradition that is home for you. Make a commitment there. But then be willing to learn from others. That could mean nothing more than reading books by authors from other paths (I know lots of Christians who love to read books by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh). Or taking the occasional class. Each person needs to see what level of ecumenical or interfaith activity is right for them.

I think there’s a paradox at play here: when you are truly committed to your home community, it frees you to learn from other churches or faiths, but the learning is always about growing into the maturity of the person you are called to be in your home context.

Now, what if you join a church, and five years later you wake up one morning and realize you want to become a Buddhist? Or, to keep it within Christianity, you join a Presbyterian Church only to find you are yearning to become an Episcopalian?

It happens. I imagine that many people, at least in places like North America or Western Europe, do not stay put in the one faith community they were born into. So my advice would be, if you have a persistent yearning to change communities, hold in prayer for a while. Try to understand what’s really going on. Do you have a deep-seated ethical or theological disagreement with your current community? Or is there a problem that might be solved/alleviated without changing communities? It might be helpful to speak with a spiritual director or even a therapist if you find it challenging to sort out what all is going on. This is not to talk you out of making a change, but to do the kind of discernment that will help you to act with wisdom and care.

I think someone who hops churches every couple of years might be like someone who keeps getting married and divorced. Sometimes we just have bad luck (!) but sometimes it might be worth it to explore carefully what’s going on in your own heart, so that you are clear about your own gifts/challenges and how that has impacted your history. Awareness is often a key first step to making better choices in the future.

One final word. I recommend joining a church “unless you have a strong reason not to.” Such strong reasons might include having been abused in a church setting, or strong family pressure to join or not join a church, that sort of thing. We all need to be good stewards of our own health and safety, and so I respect the fact that for some people, joining a church might actually be deeply problematic. My hope for such people is that they will find a faith community in some other way that is nevertheless meaningful and nurturing.

I hope this is helpful. You are asking questions that in many ways are deeply personal and cannot just be summarily answered in a general way. I do think in general it’s good to join a church, and denomination is less important than the personality of the local community you are actually affiliating with. But there are many different dimensions to this question and each of us must find our own way.

 

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