Are a new breed of contemplative evangelical Christians arising to take on the mantle of the monks and mystics of times past?
“We are a bit like Pandas,” a monk once told me. “People like to come and look at us, but we don’t reproduce ourselves very easily.”
Monasteries, the traditional home of regular contemplative prayer, are in decline. With a few exceptions, religious life as it has existed in the UK for centuries is slowly dwindling.
But while that flame flickers, could another be springing into life? Last year’s ‘Youthwork the conference’ began with a retreat based on the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
And across the country, people of a traditionally activist evangelical persuasion can be found investigating meditation, wilderness retreats, and even community living.
That’s not to say such interest is necessarily restricted to believers from the evangelical wing of the church. Contemplative spirituality is much more at home in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, where religious, monastics, hermits, and spiritual directors continue ancient traditions.
In October 2011, Youthwork the Conference, a gathering of professional and volunteer church youth workers, was preceded by an ‘Ignatian Retreat’ run by Mark Yaconelli, the author of Contemplative Youth Ministry .
But while Yaconelli says that he is certain of the need for a return to contemplative spirituality, his experience has led him to be wary of claims that there is a genuine growth of interest in the topic.
He said: “Here in the U.S. I feel like it is a trend that has come and gone too quickly. We are formed by consumerism, so once an idea has been published, taught, seen in media, it is old news and needs to be discarded for the ‘new.’
“So there are countless books among evangelical and mainline Christian publishers for the past 20 years here in the U.S. that concern contemplative practice, silence, spiritual direction, spiritual disciplines, etc.
“But the problem is that there are very few leaders formed in this way of being, and so there are few opportunities for people to experience the mystical, experiential, tradition of the Christian faith.
“Evangelicals, like all Western people, are driven people who have a great need for silence, presence, slowing down, sabbath time, interior reflection, being with God etc., but I don't know if they are taking a greater interest in this area.
“Most evangelical communities are driven by an often anxious desire to ‘succeed,’ often using marketplace measurements, to meet the demands of a demanding God.
“Contemplative spirituality is a radically different way of being for most evangelical communities."
In contemporary British society, with its emphasis on the importance of activity and consumption, a sustained path of contemplative Christianity is profoundly counter cultural. Success is generally measured by achievement, and when it comes to contemplation, achievement is hard to measure, or display.
I interviewed Roy Searle of the Northumbria Community for a book about new forms of monasticism , and during our discussion he made the point that the way in which desert spirituality differs from ‘conventional’ Christian spirituality, is that it focuses upon the inner journey – or the ‘journey of the heart’. This is in contrast to ‘normal’ life which is marked by external signs of movement, progress and achievement.
Perhaps the strongest indication of a counter cultural shift is whether people are willing to give up their personal space and ‘freedom’ – in a very physical form of practising the presence of God.
The Jesus Fellowship, which has been part of the Evangelical Alliance for a number of years, says it now has almost 25% of its members living in community houses around the UK.
James Stacey, who lives with his family in a community house in Coventry, explained that he felt for many the appeal of this radical commitment lies in the emptiness of an over individualised society.
He said: “Evangelical Christians often emphasise the importance of individuals having an authentic relationship with God - 'knowing God personally'. This is indeed important, but it's not the whole story. Christianity is essentially a communal faith - after all, the command to love one another is at its heart.
“I think many evangelicals have found an over-emphasis on individualism has left them hungry for more.
“By definition, 'community' has to be more than just a fad or phase if you're going to experience it truly. To paraphrase Jesus - it's in losing your (independent, self-centred) life that you find real life.”
If the individualism inherent in a consumer society is driving some young people to live together in community, might it also be behind the take up of more contemplative approaches to spirituality too?
This same notion of losing your life, or putting to death your ego, is how teachers of meditation and contemplative prayer explain the path to inner peace.
According to the gospels, when the crowds became too large and noisy, Jesus retreated into the wilderness to pray. Our lives must surely be even more crowded today – they hadn’t invented mobile phones back then.
Chris Goan, of the Scottish Christian community Aoradh, explained the path that led his group to run wilderness retreats.
“Our trips started with long term friendship, in the sense that it was just one of the things we did together on an annual basis.
“Most of us were Christians but not all. Those of us who were Christians were mostly busy in churches and had little or no experience of contemplative traditions. We also had no clear idea as to how we might use nature to shape deliberate spiritual practices.
“It was more to do with the restorative effect of just being in wild places. After all, the magic of being somewhere like this as the sun sets is something that most of us experience very rarely, and it always connects us in a new way with who we are.”
The Aoradh wilderness retreats have outgrown their original purpose, and are now offered openly to anyone who wants to join in.
“We tend to organise our time on the island into times of silence, times of community and times of sharing. We have developed some simple resources for people to use, but often just being in one of these places, and being deliberately silent opens us up in ways that we could not have imagined.”
And there is other evidence too – the growth and spread of the 24/7 prayer initiative, prayer spaces in schools, and projects such as ‘silence in the city’ all testify to an apparent interest in deepening contemplative prayer – and experiencing God, rather than talking about him.
The great strength of monasteries and monastic orders though, was their permanence. The monks were, and are, in it for the long haul. No passing fad for them, but a lifelong commitment to discipleship expressed through prayer. Perhaps only as time passes will we be able to tell whether this movement is indeed here to stay.
May 2nd, 2012 - Posted & Written by Simon Cross