January 2017: Love is attentive to God

Love is a VerbThe following is an excerpt from Love is a Verb: A one-year spiritual practice resource, written by Leo Hartshorn. The resource explores the 2017 convention theme Love is a Verb through the lens of Richard Foster’s six spiritual streams. Download the entire booklet from the Mennonite Church USA resource center.

The contemplative stream

Introduction

The next six months of this resource are based on Richard Foster’s work on the six great spiritual traditions of Christian faith.[1] Readers reflect on each of the six spiritual streams through a biblical text, a summary of the stream, its relationship to the Anabaptist tradition, and its connection to the Love is a verb theme. Each week offers various spiritual practices related to the stream for that month.

These six streams of spirituality reflect the diversity within Mennonite Church USA. By understanding, reflecting upon and practicing these six spiritual traditions, we, as individuals, might better understand the place of these diverse streams in our spiritual lives. Rather than viewing these streams as being in conflict or competition with one another, we, as the church, can come to better respect all of them as practiced within our faith community and in other settings.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be dis-tressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

—Mark 14:32-36 (NRSV)

 

Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

—Luke 5:16 (NIV)

 

Even with his busy life, Jesus often took time to be alone and pray. Both action and contemplation played important roles in his life and ministry. In seminary I attended a congregation that used the church model of Gordon Crosby, who had pastored the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. He designed his congregation around the call to discipleship. Discipleship was understood as both an inward journey and an outward journey. Those who wanted to join the church were required to be on both a journey inward (prayer, contemplation, study) and a journey outward (small group community ministry).

Besides his outward ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and resisting the powers, Jesus was on a journey inward. His relationship with God centered his life.

Prayer nurtured his relationship with God and energized him spiritually for the work God called him to do. Mark mentions three times Jesus went alone to pray: at the beginning (1:35), in the middle (6:46) and at the end (14:32-36) of his ministry.

Our text finds Jesus near the conclusion of his life in prayer. Jesus and his disciples have come to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus has his disciples wait for him while he takes Peter, James and John aside. Jesus is deeply grieved. “Wait here and keep awake,” he tells them. Jesus goes aside and throws himself on the ground, and in inner turmoil he prays that “this cup will pass” from him. Jesus knows it is time for him to drink the dregs of death. This is not a moment of contemplative detachment, but anguished prayer within the heart of darkness. He faces the terror of martyrdom, confronting the dark power of the empire with only the empty hands of nonviolence. It is possible that Jesus’ inner struggle involves the temptation (see next month’s text) to violently fight back against those who will come to arrest him. But he avoids forming an armed rebellion and takes the hard road of nonviolence that leads to his death.

The contemplative stream

Bubbling up from the pool of Jesus’ life, the contemplative stream flows throughout church history. It emerges in Antony of Egypt, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the monastic movement and the Benedictines. It has continued to refresh the church through the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and currently the New Monasticism.

In imitation of Christ, the contemplative stream seeks to nourish our relationship with God. Traditionally this has been practiced through the inward journey of prayer, praise, contemplation, confession, meditation, silence, self-emptying, fasting, devotional reading, praying the Scriptures, practicing Sabbath, retreating and journaling.

The focus is never on the methodology but always on the goal of communion with God.

Strengths of the contemplative stream include:

1) It can stir up our love for and intimacy with God.

2) It frees us from a faith in the mind alone.

3) It moves us beyond simple petitionary prayer to contemplation, silent and unceasing prayer.

4) It nurtures solitude before God.

5) It can provide greater inner peace.

 

Pitfalls of the contemplative stream are:

1) It can separate us from our busy, everyday world and pressing social issues.

2) It can become obsessive for some, like spiritual gluttony, and an end in itself.

3) It can devalue the intellectual dimension of our faith.

4) As a wholly personal practice, it can lead to isolation from the faith community.

 

The contemplative stream and the Anabaptist tradition

Early Anabaptists were accused of being “monkish” or “new monastics.” Some of the early Anabaptist leaders had been monks (e.g., Michael Sattler). Similarities existed between the monastics, who were grounded in the contemplative tradition, and the early Anabaptists, who extended some of the monastic influence to the everyday Christian life. A vital, living relationship with God through Christ lay at the center of Anabaptist faith. The Anabaptists rejected a cultural faith that included baptizing infants into a church of Christendom — a church in alliance with the state. Instead, a present, dynamic relationship with God was the basis for membership in the church.

Anabaptist spirituality focused upon following Jesus in daily life through the power of the Holy Spirit.[2]All of life became the arena of spirituality.

Early Anabaptists reacted against Catholicism and some of its spiritual practices. Also, the Anabaptist emphasis on the believing community was a reaction against a highly individualized spirituality. For this reason, and the centrality of discipleship, one did not hear about Anabaptist spirituality.

The charismatic nature of early Anabaptist worship (which we will consider in the charismatic stream) nurtured spontaneous, ecstatic prayer. Spiritual practices included reading, reflecting on and remembering the martyrs (see Martyrs Mirror). Singing hymns as a form of praise and prayer was an important spiritual practice that flowed within the contemplative stream. Other parts of the early Anabaptists’ spirituality included nonviolence/peacemaking, truth-telling, solidarity with the believing community, and mutual aid.

Contemporary Anabaptists are not only borrowing from the spiritual practices of other traditions but also recovering their own Anabaptist spirituality. Some today see a resonance between Anabaptism and the New Monastic movement.

The contemplative stream and Love is a verb

Contemplation and love as action may seem far apart from each other. Contemplation is in essence the spirituality of doing nothing. At the same time, contemplation without action is lifeless. That is why it is necessary for the contemplative stream to not stand alone.

Love for God lies at the heart of the contemplative stream.

Love for the neighbor is at the heart of the social justice stream. Love for God and neighbor are inextricably linked together. These two streams find their balance in one another. The works of Trappist monk Thomas Merton and theologian Howard Thurman epitomize the integration of contemplation and social action.[3] Contemplation provides the spiritual groundedness and empowerment for the more active stream of social justice. Social justice provides a compassionate outlet for contemplation. Love is a verb calls for a spiritual rootedness in the truth that we are to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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[1] For a fuller description of these spiritual streams, see Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water,

HarperCollins, 1998, and A Spiritual Formation Notebook, HarperOne, 1991.

[2] Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision has been critiqued for lacking a vital spiritual dimension. See Stephen F. Dintaman, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,” Conrad Grebel Review10.2 (Spring 1992): 205–208

[3] See Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, University of Notre Dame Press, Reprint edition, 1998; Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon Press, 1996.