Over the years I have discovered that there are three types of people interested in Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality:
- Some are practicing Christians, active in their parish or local church, but frustrated by what they see as the lack of spiritual education that occurs in such settings;
- Others are people who may have been raised in the church, but really have no connection to institutional Christianity; they are interested in spirituality but not religion, and although they may regard Christianity as the faith of their ancestors, they are no more loyal to it than to any other lineage or spiritual tradition;
- And finally, there is a small percentage of people who want to understand Christian spirituality, but they are practitioners of other religious traditions; they have no desire to convert, they just want to learn.
The third group is, in my experience, the smallest. I am always honored when a Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist person approaches me with a desire to learn Christian spirituality just for their personal growth and development. But since these people are not really interested in practicing Christian mysticism or contemplation, this blog post is not for them.
Today I want to write for the first two groups: people who are truly interested in taking the wisdom of Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality to heart, and who want it to make a difference in their lives. Some of them are devout and practicing Christians, some are not.
It’s pretty obvious to me that cultivators and “spiritually independent” people have this in common: they both recognize that the church often does a poor job of promoting deep spirituality.
I wish I could say, “It’s not really that bad.” But I’m afraid it is.
So if you feel your local Christian church is not supporting you spiritually, you are not alone.
For evidence to show that it’s not just our imagination – that churches really have a bias against spirituality education – you don’t need to go any further than the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although this is a Catholic source, I would bet that the problem I see there would be just as true for most Protestant or Evangelical churches.
the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a large book that brings together the material that the bishops and authorities of Rome consider essential for the teaching of the faith. It’s the ultimate program on how a church should teach the faith – not just to children, but to adults who are newcomers.
The Catholic Catechism is divided into four sections, based on the Apostles’ Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer). In other words, the four sections cover what the church believes (doctrine and dogma), how the church worship (liturgy), the church ethical teachings (morality), and the church spirituality (pray).
All of these sections seem important, right? Shouldn’t the Catechism be divided more or less equally between these four sections?
Alas, this is not the case.
Here is how it is divided:
- The first section (doctrine and dogma) occupies about 39% of the Catechism;
- The next section (worship) is about 22%;
- The section on morality occupies about 28%;
- And so spirituality gets the leftovers – about 11% of the Catechism.
Looking at the catechism’s table of contents and seeing how little attention is given to prayer and spirituality, it almost feels like an afterthought.
The Catechism is a official document of the Catholic Church. This therefore represents the dominant reality of the culture of the church. Attend a Catholic church and you can expect the clergy and other church leaders to pay the most attention to doctrine (learning to believe “the right things”), followed by morality (how good Christians should behave), emphasizing the rituals and customs of public worship — but as for spirituality, that is the less accentuated aspect of faith.
And like I said: I don’t think Protestant or Evangelical churches get a free pass here. After all, they are rooted in the same religious tradition. They don’t have official teaching materials like the Catholic Catechism, but I’m willing to bet most of them have the same hierarchy of emphasis: believing that “good” things matter most, followed by behave in the “right” way, followed by worship in the “right” way. But what about having an intimate and living relationship with God? Well, it doesn’t seem that important, at least for the institution.
My friends, I’m sure you’ll agree with me — that no one has already rejected Christianity saying:
- “I am dogmatic, but not religious.”
- “I am moral, but not religious.”
- “I am a worshipper, but not religious.”
People are leaving churches because they are not fed spiritually. And those who cling to the church find this lack of spirituality a constant source of frustration.
Young people, in particular, are leaving Christianity because it does not meet their spiritual needs – and yet the institutional church continues to focus on dogma and morality at the expense of spirituality. No wonder church attendance continues to drop.
So what do we do about it?
The purpose of this blog – and indeed, of all the books I write and my public speaking work as well – is to make my own modest layman’s contribution to solving this problem.
I have been very fortunate in my life to have friends, mentors and community resources to help me discover the rich spiritual depth of Christianity. Yes, it really exists! But most people, because of the church’s obsession with doctrine and morality, never find these springs of living water. Is it any wonder that many people go elsewhere to quench their thirst?
I don’t judge people who leave, but as someone who has chosen to follow Christ and who finds joy in Christian spirituality, I want to make sure everyone at least knows that Christian spirituality exists, that it is real, that it is mystical, that it promises heightened and transfigured consciousness, it leads to happiness and joy (bliss and bliss), and it is as deep and beautiful as any other path mystical.
If someone raised as a Christian decides to identify as “spiritual but not religious” – again, no judgment – I just want to make sure they understand that they don’t have to give up the Christianity to find the treasure he seeks.
If you are practicing, try advocating for more or better spiritual programming in your neighborhood parish or congregation. If there isn’t one, try starting a prayer centered group, or a reading group that reads the writings of people like Cynthia Bourgeault or Richard Rohr, or a prayer ministry that works together to pray for the needs of the church and the world.
Try connecting with a local monastery or retreat center where you can do a retreat once or twice a year. If you are ready to deepen your spiritual life, consider meeting regularly with a spiritual director who can help you start or maintain a daily practice of prayer and meditation.
As for those who do not go to church but remain interested in Christian spirituality, First, I want to thank you for not abandoning the mystical heart of Christianity, even though you needed to separate yourself from the institution. I hope you will pray for the institution and for those who remain there. I hope you will take responsibility for continuing to grow your spirituality, which includes being challenged in very real and profound ways. Consider connecting to a monastery or retreat center where you can do retreats or take classes to nurture yourself spiritually. Consider working with a spiritual director. And if that wouldn’t be too painful for you, consider participating in a centering prayer or other spiritually-focused group at your local church, even if you don’t otherwise participate. Your presence there will be a blessing to the other members of the group, and I hope you will teach and support each other on your shared spiritual journey.
Ten years ago when I was writing The Great Book of Christian Mysticism, I argued for membership in an ecclesial community as an essential mystical practice. A decade later, I’m less willing to insist on being part of the institution – I know too many people who have been hurt by it. i still believe community matters, though: so if you’re serious about spiritual growth, find your tribe. It doesn’t have to be in a church building. But it must be a place where you are both nurtured and challenged to grow.
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