Neglect of prayer disconnects us from life source
Attention to contemplative practice is vital if we are to form, nurture and participate in Christian community so as to be a transforming presence in the world. But in reality, writes theologian Sarah Bachelard, we can too often see contemplation as a “dispensable luxury” in the life of Christian communities.
By Sarah Bachelard
Benedictine monk and founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation John Main offered a vivid image of the church when it is in an unreceptive, disconnected state. He said it was “as if a city without electricity was lighting its streets with candles while a great power source lay untapped in its midst which would be able to light up not only the whole city but the whole of the surrounding countryside”. He believed that the reason for the church’s disconnection from the real source of its life was its neglect of prayer – particularly silent contemplative prayer, meditation.
Main is not counselling neglect of other forms of prayer and worship. The sacraments, the reading of Scripture, the worship and fellowship of the gathered community are all ways in which God comes to us and we’re helped to receive. But what contemplative practice forms us in deeply is self-forgetful attention and non-grasping expectancy. In contemplation, we don’t make God happen. And we don’t assume we’ve got God taped. The call is always to be more deeply, vulnerably, simply available. “Here I am” – “henini”.
Responding to this call matters profoundly for the character of Christian life. If we’re not constantly returning to a practice of radical receptivity, willing to let go what we think we know or believe, then faith tends always in the direction of ideology, worship tends to become formulaic and community tends to settle into fixed identity and self-generated purpose. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said that without contemplative practice and the transformation that flows from it, “the church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling”.
There are various implications of this for the life of the church. Let me highlight two. First, we need to acknowledge how difficult it is to entrust ourselves deeply to the contemplative way of radical receptivity, how difficult in practice to “take our hands off the wheel”. Let me illustrate this with a story of my own experience.
A couple of years ago, I had a strong sense of my ministry beginning to draw on accumulated “capital” and of my need to deepen receptivity, return to the ground. I decided to institute what I called my Wednesday retreat – a half-day on Wednesday mornings on which I’d do nothing but be simply present, listening, attentive to the life of the world around me. There’d be no improving reading, no list of things to think through – just intentional silence and availability.
It sounded like bliss, and at one level it was. But every single week, every Wednesday morning for the first 18 months or so, I experienced an enormous inward counter-movement. “You don’t have time for this … other people don’t have this luxury … think of all the people working hard to make a difference while you’re lolling around … how can you rest when there’s so much need in the world?”. I’d feel guilty, self-indulgent, lazy. Quite often the pressure of work did consume my Wednesday mornings, and when I did let myself have them it was only because I told myself this was about obedience – since I believed I had been called to them.
My vocation is particularly to contemplation. Not everyone will be drawn to the same extent to this way of prayer, this kind of retreat practice. But that’s part of the point – I’m someone who is deeply convinced of the necessity in my ministry of stillness, silence, deep listening. I’ve been meditating for years. And yet, my compulsion to be continuously useful and keep busy, my sense of it not being OK to stop, was shockingly powerful.
Of course, action matters. Of course, there’s work to be done to care for people, advocate for reform and so on. I do not propose any kind of a dualism between contemplation and action. But I’m pointing out how difficult it is for us truly to live as if faithful action is contemplative action, truly to believe that our action can and must participate in God’s, and so to dedicate the time (as Jesus regularly did) to nights or days of prayer, Sabbath, resting unto and receiving life from the Lord. Even if there are those whose life or ministry situations mean that whole days or nights of prayer are an impossibility (parents of young children come to mind, as well as those unable to pray for reasons such as disability, illness and so on), why do we so readily assume that contemplation is the dispensable luxury in the life of Christian communities as a whole? What difference might it make if the working life of those in ministry, the expectations of church communities and organisations was so constituted, that time for radical prayer was the last thing to go?
This brings me to the second issue I want to highlight if we’re serious about deepening the church’s receptivity to the life of God, and that’s the spiritual formation of Christian leaders. John Main said: “the church can communicate only what it is – what it is in the process of experiencing.” Our contribution to the life of the world isn’t just to talk about God or God’s justice but to experience and embody it, to be a transforming presence. But this requires that teachers and leaders of Christian communities know what this means. Only “transformed people, transform people”, says Richard Rohr; only those who are on the journey of transformation themselves are capable of leading others into and through it.
Being formed for this work of spiritual leadership is not the same thing as acquiring skills in ministry, learning strategies for evangelism or developing theological and biblical knowledge. It requires the willingness to embark on the difficult journey of death and resurrection in your own life, to undergo the pain of one’s shadow and woundedness, confronting the ways we and our communities seek ego-ic security and control. Some leaders in the church’s ministry, both lay and ordained, are making this journey. In my experience, however, there are many who are not and who, in fact, resist it with all their might.
If we’re serious about forming, nurturing and participating in Christian community so as to be a transforming presence in the world then this suggests the need for significantly more attention to spiritual formation and the discernment of spiritual maturity among us.
The Revd Dr Sarah Bachelard is a theologian, retreat leader and Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. She is the founder of Benedictus Church in Canberra.
This is a lightly edited extract of a presentation Dr Bachelard gave as part of the Abundant Justice and Prophetic Imagination conference held at the University of Queensland last year.
For information about Christian meditation see https://wccmaustralia.org.au/
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