What is a Christian contemplative? Part One

Maple tree--photo by Julie McCarty--click to enlarge

Be still and know
that I am God. . .
–Psalm 46:10

For many years, I have been attempting to live a contemplative lifestyle that is often puzzling to others, even to professional church leaders. This way of life is grounded in my calling to follow Christ, but has often been difficult to explain in “sound bite” definitions, because this vocation does not fit easily into the Catholic or Protestant paradigms many of us were taught.

In addition, I can hardly begin to describe whatever-this-is that God desires for my life (at least I believe God wills this!), when the contemplative quest is so very difficult for me to grasp myself. So mysterious does all this seem that many times I have tried to keep this calling hidden, feeling others might not understand. (Many of you already know this about me–it is only I who think I need to “come out” of the contemplative closet!)

What I have discovered, ever so gradually over the course of my life, is that I am what could be called a Christian contemplative (also known in some circles as a lay contemplative, or, in my case, a married contemplative). A Christian contemplative is a person wholeheartedly attempting to follow Christ in a concrete way that emphasizes “be-ing” over “do-ing” in their day-to-day attitudes, work, and prayerful lifestyle. Although living “in the world,” a Christian contemplative focuses his or her life more intensely on spiritual values and practices that are often thought of as belonging to monks, such as silence, solitude, Christian meditation, biblical study, simplicity, and digging deep into one’s own soul, searching for the Holy Spirit or ongoing presence of Christ within.

This idea of living monastic values in the midst of the world is, in some ways, new, and in other ways, ancient. Many Western Christians assume a strict delineation between monastic living and those “in the world,” and, indeed there are significant differences between the two ways. For example, as a married lay woman, I am not celibate and I do not live in a monastery setting. On the other hand, monastic values, such as silence, almsgiving, humility, and treating others as brothers and sisters in Christ, are ancient practices found among biblical figures who were family men and women, living “in the world.”

Two books that really helped me understand this lay contemplative calling and how to begin to put it into practice are listed below:

  • The Lay Contemplative: Testimonies, Perspectives, Resources edited by Virginia Manss and Mary Frohlich with Foreword by Tilden Edwards (St. Anthony Messenger Press)
  • Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics by Marsha Sinetar (Paulist Press — I see there is a new edition of this since I last read it.)

I found these books unique because they describe the experiences of other people who are also searching for a quieter, more contemplative lifestyle outside monastery walls.

This is not to say that the contemplative lifestyle is necessarily “better” than those who are called to a more “active” service- or ministerial-oriented lifestyle. However, I think it would be good for those who lead the church to have a grasp on this often misunderstood Christian path. 

click to enlarge

If you feel drawn to a more contemplative lifestyle and would like to share your experiences, or perhaps just want to ask questions, join the conversation! Feel free to post your thoughts, or use the contact tab to write to me privately if you wish.

More to come on this topic in a future post…

Until next time, Amen! 

P.S. Yes, it is always okay with me to forward this post to your friends via e-mail. –Julie

3 thoughts on “What is a Christian contemplative? Part One

  1. Barbara Keffer

    I resonate with what you have written about the call to the contemplative life. A number of years ago I wrote:
    “I don’t have time to hurry.
    My job is to listen to the sacred depths of dailiness
    And to invite others to do the same.”
    I am relishing the elder years where there is less temptation to hurry and more space to delight in the gifts of the day.


  2. paul harris

    You have so much to teach me, but I’m afraid that tempermentally I’m a difficult student. I find your description of the contemplative life moving and beckoning, but it’s far from how I naturally live.


    1. I really appreciate your comment! It makes sense to me that not everyone would feel the same way. I believe that God made people with different personalities, spiritual gifts, and callings to serve others in various ways. I don’t expect that everyone would feel drawn to a contemplative lifestyle. After all, Jesus led a very “active lifestyle” in terms of ministry. I’m glad you posted this comment because it reminds me that I never got back to writing Part 2 of this blog post! I better get on that! Thanks!


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