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

Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Married Contemplative

Some Christians think of the month of May as a time for honoring the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, known also as “Mother of God” or the “Theotokos” (the God-Bearer). Where I live, May is the month when the earth comes to life again after the long Minnesota winter, and families celebrate Mother’s Day. Below is a spiritual reflection I wrote about Jesus’ mother, a short excerpt from a book I wrote.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. –Luke 2:19.

Was Mary a nun or a wife? Growing up Catholic, I associated Mary more with nuns than with married women. After all, she wore long, voluminous garments and a veil like that of the nuns who taught my religion class. Her statue was displayed clear across the church from that of Joseph; even in the manger scene they kept a respectful distance. Although I hadn’t a clue about the meaning of the phrase “ever virgin,” I clearly understood that Mary and Joseph were a special case.

The above Scripture verse (along with a similar one, Luke 2:51) is often used to represent the prayerful, contemplative side of Mary. She marvels at the surprise visit of the shepherds, who speak of heavenly beings revealing that her baby is the Messiah and Lord. Mary carefully stores the amazing details into the motherly scrapbook of her heart.

In the Bible, the “heart” is the hidden center of the entire person. In the heart one thinks, discerns, feels, hopes, reasons, and intuits. The heart is the inner space within, the place in which one encounters the Living God. When Mary ponders things in her heart, she is prayerfully mediating on the mystery of God acting in her life. Luke paints a picture, not of a stereotypical peasant woman, thought to be of no account, but of a woman who thinks, reasons, remembers, and meditates, trying to put all the pieces of her life together to make sense of God’s plan.

Because of this, Mary is sometimes called the contemplative par excellence. Yet, contrary to what we might subconsciously think, Mary was not a vowed nun. She experiences God’s presence while cooking for her family, nursing her baby, or stroking her husband’s hair as they drift off to sleep. She meditates while walking to the town well to fetch water and prays while baking bread or weaving fabric. Mary’s heart is open and pure, praying and acting in total communion with God at all times. In short, she is the married contemplative.

–Excerpt from The Pearl of Great Price: Gospel Wisdom for Christian Marriage by Julie McCarty (Liturgical Press), pages 28-29.

Spiritual Aerobics

For journaling or small group discussion 

1. How do I think of prayer and the life of married couples, families, or other laypersons? Is deep holiness and prayer only for those viewed as the “professional religious” (priests, ministers, parish staff, nuns, etc.)? Is that what Jesus taught in the gospel?

2. Get creative: How would you portray Jesus’ mother in drawing, collage, paint, clay, or other art form? You don’t have to be an artist. How do you imagine her daily life? How did she pray when the angel Gabriel wasn’t visibly present?

3. Is every Christian or every human called to be contemplative? Just what does that word “contemplative” mean to you, and what might it mean for the future of Christianity?