It was the view of Antisthenes the Cynic, a companion of Plato’s, that hard work is what is good.1 This view dominates our world. Everywhere I look, the active life is the life that is promoted. Even at church we often seem to evaluate our Christianity by tabulating the amount of money and hours of work we’ve plowed into various active ministries—how we are helping here and there, and how much we are supporting this and that. Thomas Aquinas, in answer to people like Antisthenes, said “the highest moral good is characterized by effortlessness—because it springs from love.”2 The effortlessness of love, the nonaction of loving, the life of contemplation—all are concepts that seem to come from a different world, a different time from the one of constant action, obligation, and experience that we live in today. Are we losing the ability to love God through contemplation? Are we losing the ability to live a contemplative life and thereby losing the ability to seek a mystical union with God?
My own desire to begin a journey toward mystical union with God began in a Princeton Theological Seminary class on spiritual theology taught by Dr. Diogenes Allen, who introduced this Presbyterian to Catherine of Genoa, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich. I was amazed by these Christian mystics. I come from a tradition of active Christianity. My grandparents were tent revival Baptists and my parents are social justice Presbyterians. Growing up, I never heard about the contemplative life. Christianity always meant doing something. I still have that background (it’ll never go away), but at seminary I discovered the beauty of the contemplative life, a life of intimate thoughts and reflections on one all-encompassing goal: seeking mystical union with God. I wanted to learn all I could about how to seek union with God on earth. It was startling to learn that the Christian life could have such a goal and to know that there were those who sought that goal so personally and passionately.
This desire led me to the Taizé community in France, where I spent three weeks immersed in the richness of contemplative worship in community immediately after graduating from seminary. A week in silence at Taizé turned out to be a week of fruitful dialogue with God about ministry. Renewed by my European pilgrimage I began a ministry that was fueled by the desire to seek union with God through contemplative Christian practices at a Presbyterian Church.
Now nine years into that ministry I still seek ways to be united with God. My mystical teachers constantly remind me that the movement toward God is lifelong and requires practice. We all need to practice, so I have introduced members of my church to silence in worship, classes on prayer and Christian spiritual practices, services of healing and wholeness, and Taizé worship.
The first Sunday of the month we worship in the style of the Taizé community, gathering for a 45-minute evening worship service of prayer, singing, and silence. Some Sunday evenings we have 40 or more worshipers. On others there are as few as eight. No matter, I would lead this worship if only the musician and I showed up. The simple melodies, the candles, the darkness, the silence of that monthly service feed my soul in ways that no other nourishment offers. The Taizé worship helps keep me focused on the goal of union.
My companions on this journey to seeking union with God include not only the congregation that I help to shepherd but also my two young children, four-year-
old Beverly and her younger brother JohnPaul. I have whittled away at St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises until they are at a four-year-old level and have arrived at two questions for our evening examination: “What was the best thing that happened to you today?” and “What was the worst thing that happened?” These two questions are now as much a part of our bedtime ritual as brushing teeth and bedtime prayer. Beverly’s responses usually include a Bambi reference. If we have watched the movie Bambi, then that was the best thing that happened to her that day, and if we haven’t watched Bambi, then not watching it was often the worst thing that happened.
Our evening examination is one small way I can help myself and my children lead a contemplative life that seeks union with God. Yes, it is a baby step, but my children are babies, and I think we who live in the 21st century are all babies when it comes to living this kind of life. And I am convinced we have no choice but to pursue the goal of mystical union in the midst of our daily lives.
One theologian, Monsignor Ignazio Sanna, vice rector of the Lateran University in Rome, recently wrote that “the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not be a Christian . . . By this we don’t mean to say that all should have mystical experiences to be Christians, but that, in a plural and secularized world, it will no longer be enough to be born Christians; one will have to be so with the force of reason and the courage of faith.”3
It seems likely that our world will become increasingly more devoted to the cult of work and will demand that we Christians be similarly devoted. I believe we must resist this demand. Previously, our culture understood the importance of the contemplative life and provided Christians with pilgrimages in support of the journey. There were festivals and stories, physical places like piazzas and parks and grottos, and time in which to pursue that life. No more. We live in an age of constant activity. Even our vacations are active, designed to recharge our batteries for more work. We Christians can not go along with this fully; we’ll have to, at some point, make a decision to opt out of this life of work. I think that’s what Sanna means by becoming mystics.
Christian mystics have a lot to teach us about faith and reason, about the active versus the contemplative life. They had a clear goal: seeking mystical union with God while here on earth. We need to relearn the contemplative life to rediscover the beauty of that mystical goal. To do that we need to take baby steps, at home and at church, as parents and as pastors. Simple habits, like a daily examination, periods of silence during worship, and offering something like a Taizé service are all good baby steps to take on this Christian journey of mystical union with God. It is, I believe, a journey that will increasingly come to define the Christian community in a modern world.
1. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952), 38.
2. Pieper, 40.
3. Quotation from Zenit.org on October 26, 2004.