Contemplation and the West

Tonight we will host our first worship service. It will be a service of psalm chanting and will be intentionally invoking the daily office practiced by Christian Monks for centuries. In the 1950s and 1960s Thomas Merton began to write and speak about bringing the experiences of the monastery beyond the walls of the monastery, specifically the contemplative practice the monks engaged in daily. He believed that as culture changed, Christianity also needed to change, and that contemplative practice was key to this new experience of Christianity in the world.

Around the same time, Thomas Keating, another monk, was also feeling the need for something new. He was seeing the rise of eastern meditation practice growing, and knew the Christian church had something to offer into the midst of a emerging new experience within spiritual practice. He challenged his monks to find something within the Christian tradition that would engage into the same kinds of spiritual realms as eastern meditation practices and Centering Prayer (emerging from various ancient Christian sources) was born.

The combination of Merton and Keating’s work (along with many other monks, scholars, pastors and laypeople) laid the groundwork for what many have started to suggest might be the next major reformation of Christianity. Merton sought to bring contemplation beyond the walls of the monastery, Keating sought to give it form.

It is here that our worship service this evening is rooted and grounded. We will be exploring what contemplative worship can look like. It should be noted, we are not going to get this right tonight, and although one could argue we will never get it perfectly right, we may not even get it kind of right for a number of months.

But there are a few things I want us to be thinking about as we head into tonight’s service and beyond.

Merton, in his book Zen and the Appetite of Birds points out that in Eastern contemplative traditions, like Zen, a person becomes a contemplative to serve the greater community. Thich Nhat Hahn (who many suggest helped inspire Merton and Keating) in his seminal book Being Peace talks about how the contemplative, in their ability to be calm, can calm those around them. He uses the metaphor of a boat, and how if ever one is going a little crazy, one person remaining calm has the ability to calm the whole boat.

Yet, as Merton goes on to point out, in the West, particularly today, folks move towards things like meditation and mindfulness as a solitary retreat from the world instead of as a way of seeking the healing the world. In today’s ego driven society, Merton suggested that once someone calls themselves a contemplative, they are no longer a contemplative, because it is so easy for their motivations to be selfish (not his word, that is my own).

So as we begin down this path of contemplative practice, let Merton’s warning echo clearly in our ears, for we can not be doing this for ourselves, we are not chanting and praying and meditating for ourselves, rather we are doing it so that silence and stillness and calm may move through the world. Silence, stillness and calm are the vehicles of Grace in this world, and it is Grace that softens the hard edges and the barriers and allows Love to move more freely. We do this not for ourselves, but for the world.