Can Anabaptist Christians be contemplative? Is there any relationship between our practical, active discipleship — helping others, making peace, seeking justice — and the contemplative practices finding favor in some churches today? Are contemplatives really disciples?
I believe so. In fact, I believe contemplation is not only acceptable for Anabaptists but vital to Christian discipleship.
The Anabaptist focus on not being “conformed to this world” often gets more attention than what Paul says next: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2).
Today we hear a call to transformation. In his sermon at the Mennonite Church USA convention, executive director Glen Guyton announced “Be Transformed!” as the theme of the 2021-23 biennium.
Scripture gives more advice on transformation and renewal: “Put away your former way of life, your old self . . . be renewed in the spirit of your minds . . . clothe yourselves with the new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
We are to renounce not only a way of life but an entire old self, one deluded by desire, and to put on a new self, created in God’s likeness and therefore marked by justice and holiness.
Old self? New self? How many selves have I got?
Reflecting on the New Testament’s fundamental message, I have come to understand it this way: God did not send Jesus only to die for our sins so that we could go to heaven, or only to teach us how to create a more just society. Grand as these truths are, they are only aspects of a larger truth. God sent Jesus as the beginning of a new creation, a new start for the human race and the world.
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old things have gone, new things have appeared!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, my translation).
Individually and as members of new-creation communities, believers are radically new. The very image of God in each of us has been refreshed, re-created. Since God’s nature is love, justice and righteousness, new people made in God’s likeness form a new, compassionate, justice-seeking, right-doing humanity.
The imitation of Christ
On a bookshelf in the Indiana farmhouse where I grew up, there was a small volume with the Anabaptist-sounding title The Imitation of Christ. I still have a copy of this book. One of my favorite passages has a Mennonite ring to it: “Seek to do the will of others rather than your own. Choose to have less rather than more. Look for the last place and seek to be beneath all others. Wish and pray that the will of God be fully carried out in you.”
Yet the book’s themes of “the interior life” and “internal consolation” reveal its roots not in Anabaptism but in the medieval Christian monastic tradition. Even so, it expresses a spirituality that may have been a forerunner of the Anabaptist Reformation.
Reading it many years ago, in the spiritual ferment of the late 1960s, I realized that inward spirituality was native not only to the Eastern religions many of us had become interested in but to my faith as well — and that such inwardness could be part of discipleship in a Christian community.
Contemplation and action are not adversaries. Both are integral to complete discipleship, to following Jesus as people who have been made new in him. Merely imitating Christ in an outward way, without the inner resources of the new creation, must prove exhausting.
There has to be being before there is doing: Only when we are who God has made us to be can we do what God has made us to do.
Discipleship starts with giving ourselves to God — not with learning a set of rules or taking a correct position or picking out the really important Bible verses.
To give ourselves to God, we have to be aware of ourselves, to know ourselves in God, to “clothe ourselves with the new self.”
What makes you come alive?
What follows that is surrender, which the early Anabaptists called Gelassenheit. It means letting go, yielding. It means self-surrender or self-abandonment — complete consent to God’s will, whether it suits our ideas and desires about ourselves or not. This spiritual surrender, placing ourselves at God’s disposal (Romans 6:12-13), is the root of active discipleship.
Jesus named this surrender faith — a childlike trust in God’s love so complete it will permit God to do anything.
Jesus’ first disciples responded to his call with this faith, as to a call from God, no matter how unexpected. Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew away from their boats and their nets, Joanna and Susanna from their wealthy husbands and households, Levi from his tax collecting, Martha away from her hosting and toward her sister Mary’s attentive listening (Mark 1:16-20 and 2:14, Luke 8:3 and 10:38-42).
Christian contemplation involves a similar kind of surrender. Slowly we learn to unwind the ways we have imagined ourselves, the ways we have created ourselves in an image we think others will like.
This is the process of laying aside the old self and opening ourselves to the new self, the authentic image of God.
Howard Thurman, the great teacher of Christian contemplation and nonviolent action, once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive — and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
This is what I mean by putting being ahead of doing — and finding our deepest identity in Christ.
Where the quest begins
We may already have contemplative practices without thinking of them in that way. Any discipline or habit that brings us into closer touch with our deepest selves can be part of contemplative discipleship.
If the word “contemplation” seems alien or remote, think of silent prayer or a prayer of self-offering to God. Think of listening prayer — listening for what God wants you to be and then for what God wants you to do.
Listening like this means admitting we may not already know what God wants. Contemplative practice aims to place us where we can listen and hear, where we can learn from God and be drawn by God (John 6:44-45).
Other practices create ways of being drawn by God. Seeing the world’s wrongs — or its lacks, which need filling up — draws people to Jesus. Taking one step toward justice and peace builds our willingness to learn the next steps. Seeing and contemplating, listening and acting are all part of our never-ending coming to Jesus.
Seeking our deepest selves through contemplative practice helps us find the inner resources that enable us to serve others (the “fruit of the Spirit,” Galatians 5:22-23). Paradoxical as it seems, contemplative solitude is neither an escape from responsibility nor an abandonment of the quest for justice, peace and wholeness.
It is the point from which the quest begins.
Before the doing is the being. Before speaking the truth, sharing with others and being tenderhearted and forgiving comes clothing ourselves with our new reality, created in the likeness of God (Ephesians 4:22-32).
To live as disciples, we who do so very much must also learn to be.
David Rensberger is retired from teaching New Testament and other biblical subjects at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and continues to preach, write and lecture. He is a member of Atlanta Mennonite Church.