Following in this series building on my two previous posts, I want now to make a case that a form of contemplative prayer is essential if this is really New Monasticism.
Whether you read the work of Shane Claiborne, and American New Monastics, or those coming out of the Catholic Worker Movement and liberation theology in South America or Europe, a recovery of contemplative prayer is for me, essential.
Contemplative Prayer is a commitment to a form of prayer that is about encountering God, and it starts with silence. There is nothing like silence to have to face who you are beyond the ego, pride, entertainment, immaturity, that forces you to face who you are, and an openness to encountering God on God’s terms. Prayer is so often dumbed down in todays world, where at its worst prayer is uploaded as God as heavenly counsellor who then downloads answers back to the individual. This is so utterly individualistic and consumerist it misses the point. Ultimately prayer is a medium of encounter with God. It is inherently mystical, uncontrollable, and other.
Too often I hear people say – I am an extrovert – contemplative prayer is not for me – because it is for introverts. This is just so wrong and a collusion with the shadow or false self (see the work of Richard Rohr and others on this subject). There are different forms of prayer, ones where we encounter God from nature, from mystical experience outside of ourselves, but importantly here, also encountering God from within ourselves, where God often speaks through the details of our lives. The bible often uses the language of the followers of Jesus as having ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’ within them. This then requires us to seek God from within as well as without.
New Monastics I think therefore draw on different forms of contemplative prayer. For some more into mystical theology and a bit more catholic draw on the Benedictine, Franciscan and Ignatian. Others draw on a revitalised Celtic tradition of nature inspired Christian prayer, and others draw on more contemplative prayer coming out of the charismatic movement descovering spiritual practices. All these traditions draw on a similar root of contemplative prayer. Without this focus on getting beyond your thinking and feeling, the individual is too locked into their own self. True contemplative prayer seeks to get beyond this as part of a call to prayer as part of ‘Prayerful-Action’. This form of prayer is about seeking to catch up with what God is doing, and less about ego-consumptive gratification – the curse of so much of modern Christianity.
To be able to love God, love yourself and love your neigbour (Summary of the New Commandment of Jesus) each Christian needs a healthy, nourishing and sustaining form of Christian spirituality. This comes from study of the Bible, dialogue amongst Christians and importantly here – from Prayer.
In the ancient prayer traditions of the Church, there are two forms of prayer – the Via Positiva – the sense of the presence of God, and the Via negativa – the sense of the absence of God. When we encounter God, then this can lead to joy, warmth and that sense of contentment. But sometimes God feels very absent, which is hard and painful.
Some very unhelpful writers have said that pain is an aboration to the spiritual prayerful path. This I would say could not be further from the truth. Pain is part of the human condition, for us to grow in our spirituality from infancy through adolescence into maturity, minus the false self and ego, change is painful. Infact the mystics teach us, that without pain we would not change. This is the challenge of going deeper with the path of Jesus, and prayer is very much part of this process.
Given all of this, I am convinced that contemplative forms of prayer are not just desirable for new monasticism to be real and deep enough to sustain such a way of being s Christian disciple, I want to argue it is essential. Otherwise New Monasticism just becomes one more romantic fadism that had great promise, but did not deliver.
If New Monasticism is going to be focused on ‘contemplative action’ then it is essential that those who are activists don’t just act out of their own strongly held convictions, but God MUST be the source of the action. And equally that Prayer that does not lead to loving service, is again wrapped up in self-serving Christian spirituality, looses the DNA of Jesus who reminds us that he came in the very nature of a Servant.
So if there is no contemplative prayer, I want to argue its not new monastic, and it is therefore not following the path that leads right back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers who began Christian Monasticism on a focus on prayerful action in the deserts of Alexandria, Syria and Palestine.