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Contemplative Missiology, Part 2: The Power of Contemplative Transformation

Please remember to check out Part One of the series.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”1 

“Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands of others around you will be saved.”2

The Great Commission is not about making converts. It is about making saints. It is not about regeneration. It is about maturation. Granted, one needs to be converted in order to become a saint (and I understand that some will not make the distinction between a convert and a saint, which can be unfortunate). Yet, the ultimate aim of our Lord’s Commission is not evangelism. Certainly, our Lord charged the Apostles to make disciples of all nations and to, yes, baptize them. But, he also instructed them to make sure these disciples “observe all” that he has commanded them. Needless to say, the observance of Jesus’ way takes a lifetime to work out. One does not learn to abide by all of Jesus’ commands over night. His is a way that we must perpetually grow into. The Great Commission, thus, is not about simply getting in. It is a movement which encapsulates the whole of a disciple’s journey. It is not about merely embracing the faith or adopting a new worldview. It is about the continual conversion of every fiber of a disciple’s being throughout the course of a lifetime. It is not as much about evangelism as it is about sanctification (even though sanctification assumes evangelism).

Yet, the way in which this Commission is interpreted in many circles leaves out spiritual maturation and the pursuit of deification. Churches will interpret the Commission on purely evangelical terms and centralize this Scriptural passage as the filter through which every ministry and action is justified. Ministries and programs that are aiming to reach the unconverted with the Gospel are prioritized, whereas ministries that aren’t intentionally doing so are believed to be absent of the Spirit’s presence and are placed on the chopping block. The church that isn’t living into the Great Commission as translated by this Evangelical hermeneutic is viewed as nearing death, whereas the one that is seen as embodying a missional ethos is deemed as full of grace and power. Evangelical fervor becomes the new orthodoxy in these circles.

The problem with all of this is that there is a difference between just getting people in and teaching them the fullness of the faith. Just because a congregation can fill its sanctuary with attendees does not mean that saints are automatically being made or perfected. People can follow Jesus’ moral teaching, feel fuzzy feelings for an idea of him, embrace a Biblical worldview, and even comprehend deep matters of theology, without ever having made one step towards union with Christ. Thus, a missional ethos is no promise of true orthodoxy or spiritual vitality.

As we will see shortly, there is no greater witness to the world than the life which is continually being transformed by the Spirit of God through prayer. Yet, this is the very last thing we offer to the world whenever we prioritize evangelism to the detriment of sanctification, subverting spiritual transformation to missional agendas. The Anglican ascetical theologian, Martin Thornton, had rather strong words for Christian cultures that do this.

“Pelagianism arises as soon as evangelism, in the sense of recruitment, is regarded as the main work of either priesthood or corporate parish. This again is an extremely delicate position, since sanctification in and through corporate worship is the most spiritually contagious thing there is. It is in fact the method of true evangelism laid down by the pattern of our Lord’s incarnate life and followed by his church ever since, but it follows only when a life of adoration is accepted as the one ultimate aim. In pastoral thought a very delicate twist is sufficient to reduce the most sublime common worship to a justifying work. We face a subtle kind of multitudinist-exclusion compromise when it is suggested that worship-even all we mean by Prayer-is only a value as the ascetical means of evangelism.”3

Once a parish’s existence is justified because it is deemed as “missional,” the heresy of Pelagianism creeps in. This makes sense because at that point a church is justifying its own existence by what it does, instead of seeing its existence as being justified in what it already is. It thinks in terms of what it needs to do instead of fully grasping what Christ has already done in uniting himself with it. Instead of accepting what it is as an entity, it strives towards a fantasy of what it wishes it could become (numerically). The same is true whenever we believe that a minister’s chief purpose is to play the part of the missionary. His ordination is only as valid as the number of pews he can fill.

Moving forward, we must also be very cautious in seeking to use contemplation as a means of cultivating a missional ethos. We should heed Thornton’s thoughts once again here. To make prayer all about evangelism is to strip prayer of its essence and purpose. Prayer, particularly contemplative prayer, is aimed at union with God. If prayer “is only a value as the ascetical means of evangelism” for us, we are seeking the gifts of God over the Giver, and the fruit of prayer over the presence of God. However, as Thornton notes, this is a tricky matter because “sanctification is the most spiritually contagious thing there is.” So, we can talk about how prayer can lead to fruitful missional living as long as we don’t make mission the “ultimate aim” of our praying. This is what I meant whenever I said in Part One that, “missional success occurs in unintentional ways, and should only be considered as an afterthought. Missiology needs to be postscriptive if it is to have any effect. We must end rather than begin with it.” 

In addition to this article being the conclusion to the second half of a series, in many ways it is the 2.0 version of an article I wrote last fall, Learning How to Be “Missional” From Saint Antony. Thus, this is not only the conclusion of a short series, but also the summation of what I have gleaned after a year’s worth of seminary formation. Whenever I came to Nashotah House in the fall, I was chewing on some ideas that I couldn’t quite put words to. After I read St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, however, these ideas became more acutely polished into a form of expression. So, I wrote my article about what I had found in St. Antony.

Since then I have had the opportunity to read other great mystics and ascetics from the Western tradition. I found that they not only confirmed what I had found in St. Antony, but gave even greater expression to the ideas that I had been mulling over since the beginning of the school year. 

In my article on St. Antony, I noted how ironic it was that this saint became “famous everywhere” even though he sought to flee from the world. To quote St. Athanasius once again:

“The fact that he [Antony] became famous everywhere and that he found universal admiration, and his loss is felt even by people who have never seen him, betokens his virtue and a soul beloved of God. For Antony gained renown not for his writings, nor for worldly wisdom, nor for any art, but solely for his service for God.”4

Athanasius expands his line of thought and incorporates all ascetics into this phenomenon. “For though they do their work in secret and though they wish to remain obscure, yet the Lord shows them forth as lamps to all men…”5

With this I began to learn that it is truly God who does the reaching and converting. It is his power, not our missional ingenuity, that impacts and transforms the culture around us. However, this isn’t a possibility until we first allow God to transform us. St. Antony displayed no ambition for preaching to or converting the culture around him. Yet, God used Antony’s transformed life as an icon, one which drew multitudes into the desert after him to learn from his ascetical ways (St. Athanasius being one of them). 

When I wrote my article on Antony, I couldn’t hold back a series of questions in my own mind. What channel of grace did Antony seize hold of in the desert? Is it asceticism in general that is both transformative for us personally and attractive to the outside world? What aspect of Antony’s striving was appealing to a watching culture? Months went by before I began to discover some of the answers to these questions. Then, I began reading the works of the 14th century English mystics (Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, etc.) along with a few of the other mystics of that era (like Meister Eckhart). All of them held one theme in common; that there is a powerful transformation that is triggered through contemplative prayer. Furthermore, this has a magnetic effect upon the people who witness the life that is being transformed. 

The Power of Contemplative Transformation

“And if you knew, daughter, how much you pleased me when you allow me willingly to speak in you, you would never do otherwise, for this is a holy life, and the time is very well spent…For if you said 1,000 paternosters every day, you should not please me as well as you do when you are silent and allow me to speak in your soul.”6

Here, the Lord tells Margery Kempe that nothing is more valuable for her, and there is nothing more “pleasing” to him, than when she sits in silence and allows him to speak to her. This is not to devalue the importance of other forms of prayer, especially liturgical participation. As Walter Hilton advises, there is no better form of prayer whenever our hearts become “dull and dark” than liturgical prayer.7 The author of the Cloud of Unknowing also tells us that corporate prayer must form the foundation for contemplation. One cannot evade the church and do contemplative prayer well. However, the mystics of this era also teach us that liturgical prayer is an invitation to mystery; an invitation to cultivate further stillness in the presence of the Lord.

In terms of the Kempe quote, I think the latter portion of it is a great definition for contemplative prayer. The contemplative is one who habitually gives herself over to times of silence whereby she allows God to speak to her and have his way with her soul. The contemplative defines prayer as Fr. John-Julian does whenever he says that, “I simply think of prayer as nothing more than a conscious sharing of myself with God.8

Moving on, we find that Julian of Norwich is emphatic about the fact that the goal and object of our praying is nothing less the Lord himself. Yet, she doesn’t shy away from talking about the change that God triggers through times of contemplation. “Our Lord is most glad and joyful because of our prayer; and he expects it, and he wants to have it, for with his grace it makes us like to himself in condition as we are in nature, and such is his blessed will.”9 This is a phenomenal quote, and one that harmonizes nicely with what we have seen in Kempe. Again, we see God’s delight in the person who offers the essence of herself in prayer. We learn that God even “wants and expects” our prayer because through it God makes us like himself. Julian says that we are made like him “in condition as we are in nature.” I take this to mean, “in likeness as in image.” Humankind was made in the image and likeness of God. Through the fall, the likeness was lost while the image remained. Here, Julian is telling us that through this practice of prayer, God restores our original likeness. In other words, God transforms us, reversing the effects of the fall in us and enabling us to become imitators of Christ.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing says the same thing. “Not only does it [contemplation] destroy the root and ground of sin, as far as that is possible here below, but it also acquires the virtues.”10 If one were to ask Julian how God uses contemplation to reverse the fall and make us like himself, the Cloud author gives us the answer here. God destroys the “root of sin” within us and he plants the opposing virtues. In other words, God sanctifies us through the times that we set aside to still ourselves and rest in him. Meister Eckhart says something comparable.

“If we cling to God, then God and all the virtues cling to us. And what once you were seeking now seeks you; what once you hunted after now hunts you, and what you once wished to shun now avoids you. Therefore to him who clings greatly to God, everything clings that is godly, and from him everything takes flight that is unlike God and alien to him.”11 

The Unintended Byproduct of Contemplation

As we noted with the Life of St. Antony, there is an unintended social byproduct of contemplative prayer. Not only does God use it to transform those who pursue him through the practice, but there is also a magnetic effect on those who bear witness to the mystic’s transformation. The Cloud author makes this observation: “If a man were practiced in this exercise, it would give him true decorum both of body and soul, and would make him truly attractive to all men or women who looked upon him.”12 God cultivates something within the life of the mystic that others around find desirable. What is it about contemplative prayer that makes the practitioner “attractive” to those around him? The Cloud author tells us that God makes the person more “on par” with himself.13 Julian tells us that, “Prayers make a praying man pleased with himself, and make the man serious and humble who before this was contending and striving against himself.”14 In Fr. John-Julian’s words, God brings the mystic to the “natural state of the soul.”15 In other words, the mystic is learning to live into the fullness of his humanity. Through this discipline, he becomes more of the person that he is destined to become as God restores and cures his nature. It is not as though the person simply becomes more moral (although this is certainly happening as well), but that his union with Christ has transfigured the center of his being. His soul has found healing. He lives rightly (and not simply out of some sense of moral obligation) because “God and all of the virtues now cling” to him. It is God praying through him, and God acting through him, and the way of God has become second nature for him. By God’s grace, the contemplative embodies what the Psalmist says about the righteous. “Their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord.16

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of all of this. While the secular world is quite unfair in many of its critiques of Christianity, constantly recognizing its failures and neglecting to spotlight its moments of compassion and selfless sacrifice, we can still understand why so many people have been put off by the church. Far too often we preach a Gospel that isn’t evidenced in the way we live our lives. We can be overly legalistic, settling for moral uprightness whenever we could be aiming for holistic sanctification and the transfiguration of the self. The watching world has been waiting for Christians to truly practice what they preach, and we cannot preach life change effectively if our lives show little evidence of it. We cannot preach conversion if our souls are not also being cured. If we are to have any impact on the culture around us, we must learn what it means to be contemplatives. We must rediscover the grace of wholeness that God gives through prayer if we are to invite others into this wholeness. As the world watches and listens to the Church, we would do well to remember the words of St. Augustine, “The man whose life is in harmony with his teaching will teach with greater effect…the life of the speaker will count for more in securing the hearer’s compliance.”17 Let us not reach out until we have let God reach into our hearts to begin his project of refashioning us. Let us not seek to baptize others until we more fully live into our own baptismal covenant. If we aim to find the place of stillness and Sabbath rest in God, we will not only be preaching the Gospel with our words, but the watching world will also see it displayed in our lives. They will no longer see our message as being something divorced from our actions.   

Being Cautious in How We Connect Missiology With Contemplation

As we noted earlier, we would be wrong to make contemplation all about missiology (or prayer all about outreach), but perhaps we have constructed too wide a chasm between the two. Certainly, as the Cloud author tells us, we are not to set our own agendas during contemplation. Rather, we need to put a “cloud of forgetting” between ourselves and God, and another one between ourselves and the world as we pray. We are to make ourselves completely free and open to God’s presence, leaving all thought and ambition out of sight. As Father John-Julian says, “It is spiritually wiser to avoid praying for any specific outcome for one’s self or others.”18 

Yet, we cannot ignore what Meister Eckhart has said either; “What we plant in the soil of contemplation we shall reap in the harvest of action.”19 While contemplation is primarily about union with God, we cannot ignore the action of God in the process, nor the wisdom in pursuing the social effect that accompanies transformation. In the words of Fr. John-Julian again, “Still prayer is the most personal experience a human being can have–and also the most corporate and communal”20 because it unites us “with all the saints and angels and all of one’s fellow Christians as well…” This will certainly have an effect on how we relate to and view the world, and how it views and relates to us. Sarah Coakley is quite right when she says:

“The idea of contemplation as an exercise of merely individual insight or self-cultivation must…be rudely and firmly rejected. For it is a distortion of the intrinsically incarnational and social impulse of the practice: here, over time, is the mysterious interpenetration of all created life glimpsed and intuited, the ‘groaning of all creation’ straining towards its final goal.”21 

We can acknowledge that transformation will inevitably accompany these times of resting in God’s presence. We just can’t dictate what this transformation will be or what it will look like (especially its social/missional implications). We must open ourselves wholly to the loving hands of our Maker, permitting him to reform his likeness in us however he so wishes. We can acknowledge that contemplation will lead to missiology, but we must remember that true contemplatives are the ones who are not aiming for any specific missiological objectives. Rather, they simply aim to give themselves entirely over to God. The moment contemplation becomes more about transforming the world around us than the world within, something has gone awry. It is only whenever we refrain from subordinating the first commandment (love of God) to the second (love of neighbor), that we learn to appropriately live into them both. As Richard Rolle has said, “For when God is loved by us with all our heart and mind, undoubtedly, both our neighbor and every other lovable thing is loved as well–and quite right too…For in the love of God is the love of our neighbor.”22  

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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