Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.—Mark 1:35 TNIV
I appreciate the ministry of Richard J. Foster, who imparts a vision for church renewal and spiritual growth combining the best from six great historic traditions of Christian faith and life.
Foster demonstrates the importance and enduring quality of each of the six spiritual “streams”—Contemplative: The Prayer-Filled Life, Holiness: The Virtuous Life, Charismatic: The Spirit-Empowered Life, Social Justice: The Compassionate Life, Evangelical: The Word-Centered Life and Incarnational: The Sacramental Life.
Many in Mennonite Church USA have used Foster’s materials in a search for a balanced Christian life. Our church would benefit from a wholehearted embrace of Foster’s thesis that spiritual renewal comes through a balance of emphasis on these various streams. Some of the current tension in our church is exacerbated by a lack of appreciation for the strengths each of these streams brings. To that end, I made reference to his teaching in my February column.
We need the contributions of all six of these streams, since all are rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus. I dream of a day when we can embrace all six traditions in a robust web of spiritual practices, a diverse mosaic contributing to the vitality of the whole church. Therefore, I intend to write my next six columns on this concept, discussing the six traditions in the order that Foster lists them.
When I was young, I didn’t hear much about the contemplative life, other than by negative references to nuns and priests cloistered in Catholic monasteries. No one promoted the practice of the “daily office” or other regimented disciplines of Bible reading and prayer.
I was first introduced to the contemplative tradition by an esteemed pastor who gave me a copy of A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants by Ruben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck (The Upper Room). The prayer guide embodied many of the strengths of the centuries-long contemplative tradition. It seeks to emulate the life of Jesus, pursuing intimacy with God. For the first time, I engaged in the practice of daily prayer and contemplation based on a reading of the Psalms and other Scriptures from the Common Lectionary. I joined the authors of the prayer guide as a pilgrim on a journey to experience my “relationship with God alive and vital every day.”
I’ve watched with appreciation over the last two decades as Mennonites have embraced many of the practices associated with the contemplative tradition. Our seminaries now emphasize spiritual formation, teach the rhythm and rule of the spiritual life and provide specific training for spiritual direction. Many of our conference gatherings have used the lectio divina method of Bible study via a practice called “dwelling in the Word.” Along with many other faith communities, my congregation offers monthly Taizé worship services, a quiet liturgy of Scripture reading, prayer and singing.
The contemplative tradition helps make Christianity a deeply personal matter, cultivating times of solitude and silence with God away from the persistent and raucous invasion of modern media. It gives form to the daily disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer, fanning the flames of intimacy with God through unceasing prayer. It invites us to look for spiritual sustenance beyond the confines of cerebral religion, seeking God’s presence in all the vicissitudes of daily life.
Taken too far or exercised with neglect of other traditions, the contemplative life can lead to a neglect of the communal aspects of Christian faith or even an unhealthy asceticism. It could lead to a devaluation or neglect of intellectual efforts to articulate our Christian faith.
Like Jesus, we all need times of solitude and communion with God. The contemplative tradition provides one proven way to follow our Lord’s example, both privately and in company with the community of faith.
Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA.