Why would any Christian embrace a life of solitude, silence and contemplation? If you, like me, were trained to be an activist for Christ then this question is one of proportion in the end. The call to mission is a call to faithfulness to the Great Commission and this means to be actively serving the Lord. It just seems much too passive to be of any real good to Christ if you live too much of your life in solitude, silence and contemplation. At least this is how I was taught for decades.
I have shared with several of my closest friends how learning to be less active, contemplative and more intentional about times of silence have all begun to shape my own journey. This contemplative way has been taught over the course of Christian history but it has not been common among evangelicals, at least not during the last hundred years or so. If we have been anything, by training and temperament, we have been activists.
Common to monastic life are the practices of silence, work, poverty, chastity, obedience, listening to Scripture, prayer, and humility. But anyone can readily see that these practices are not designed for monks alone. In some way all of us are called to embrace these practices, even if we are actively serving Christ in business or in the life of serving the church as clergy.
Carthusian monasticism stresses that entering into silent anonymity before God can make your prayer life more fruitful for the salvation of the world. Indeed, it is believed by Carthusians that this kind of prayer life accomplishes more than anything else that we can ever do on our own. The Carthusian monk understands the primacy of contemplation in the life of the Church, a truth we neglect almost entirely. This understanding of the primacy of contemplation derives from the truth that the Christian life is all of grace — a life freely given us by Christ. No method or technique born of human industry compels God’s response to us. This is always true if grace is the active principle of how he deals with us. The New Testament , however, abundantly reveals that the humble petition of a repentant sinner always moves God to act. This is the foolishness of the cross, the power of God grace in the gospel.
The world says you should make a name for yourself, especially if you want to be successful. But in the mystery of God we are most faithful when we magnify him above all else. In the words of a Catholic blogger I recently discovered: “In the world, your self-reliance makes a positive impression on most people for a short time, but whatever you accomplish by your cleverness eventually will be forgotten. In God, your reliance on Him will be viewed negatively by most people for most of your life, but what God accomplishes by your trust will last forever.”
What happens when things do not go as you expected? This has been my story for several decades, especially after age 40. And then what happens when you are not understood or successful as you were taught from childhood that you should be? Christ never promised that we would be treated with regard and enjoy universal success, even serving in his kingdom and for his church. He clearly told us to take up our own cross and follow Him. Yet this is exactly where the foolishness of God comes in. A Catholic professor of spiritual theology puts it this way: “In the wisdom of the world, such humiliation is a doom worse than death — but in the wisdom of God, this is a hidden blessing through which new life can flow into the Church by our loving obedience.”
This describes well what I am learning in my own weakness while waiting before God in solitude and quiet. An ancient anonymous writer, the author of the classic Cloud of Unknowing, said, “No matter how grievously a man has sinned, he can repent and amend his life.” Thank God this is true for all his children.
I will say more about contemplation later but suffice it to say that meditative and contemplative prayer is calm and unhurried. There is no set amount of material to be covered and no set pattern one follows. Contemplation will sometimes allow you to focus on one sentence, even one word, for hours or weeks. What is going on in this context is an inner dialog with God.
The core of such communion is love. Dialog with the indwelling Trinity includes praise, sorrow, yearning, thanking and petitioning but when quietness and simplicity rule then steps and procedures become less and less important. This has been my experience but I am but a novice. What you seek, if you seek to practice contemplation, is union with God in simple loving attentiveness. The desire is not to empty the mind, in a Buddhist fashion, but rather to allow the Lord the time and space to take over when and where he chooses. In contemplative silence you become far less aware of yourself and more aware of him. It is not done in a hurry and it cannot be learned as a method, at least as most of us know methods regarding prayer and meditation.