Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

On Being "Contemplative"

In the mid-1990's, I was a Baptist pastor searching for my soul, trying to discover a more grounded, spiritual path for moving through mid-life. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about prayer. Perhaps more importantly, I was experimenting with what I read, trying out the different methods and approaches suggested by Richard Foster and Madame Jeanne Guyon, by Eugene Peterson and Thomas Kelly. I explored liturgical prayer, quiet prayer, charismatic prayer, contemplative prayer, and more. The exploration itself was energizing and somewhat dangerous, especially for a Baptist pastor.

At one point, a friend shared with me some notes he had taken at a "School of Prayer" hosted by his congregation. The "School" was led by Bill Clemmons, a retired Southern Baptist seminary professor. I was drawn to the notes -- and eventually to the person -- first because he was a like-minded Baptist who dared to talk about and write about prayer, but then because within his notes were glimpses of what I had experienced in my own experimentation. I read and re-read those notes, gleaning from them all I could from lifting words off the page.

At some point, I decided I wanted more Bill Clemmons in my life. I got his contact information from my friend and called him in Memphis. One phone call led to another, and soon I found myself being guided by a wise Baptist saint, unlike any other Baptist I had known to that point. At some point, I casually asked if he would be interested in coming to my Baptist congregation on the east side of Houston to offer his School of Prayer. I didn't expect that he would actually do that, and I wasn't prepared for his "Yes!" I had not selected potential dates for the School, nor run the idea past the church leadership, which I would learn over time was not a wise practice. Nevertheless, his answer was "Yes!" and we set in motion plans for him to come to Houston for a Friday, Saturday, Sunday edition of his School of Prayer.

I don't remember a lot of details about that weekend. As with most relationships that turn out to be significant for any of us, my connection with Bill over a long stretch of years shaped me much more than this single encounter. However, the one detail I DO remember from the weekend took place Saturday in the early afternoon. Bill made it clear that whenever he traveled to Houston, he packed plenty of antacids, because he wanted to eat the best Mexican food possible. The antacids meant that he knew his stomach would pay a price, but still he wanted to eat good Mexican food. So after he led the Saturday morning session, I took Bill -- along with my children Sarah and Bradley -- to the Original Ninfa's on Navigation on the East Side of town. We ate outstanding Mexican food. Bill loved it. We talked about Mexican food. Bill engaged with my two children. He and I talked about our experiences of prayer.

And there, over Mama Ninfa's enchiladas, Bill asked me, "How long have you been a contemplative?"

I had never been asked that question before. And I don't think, up to that moment, I thought of myself as a "contemplative." I was exploring the landscape of prayer, and I had explored some contemplative forms of prayer. But never in my wildest imagination had I considered myself a contemplative.

I have no idea what prompted Bill to ask. I never asked him in all the subsequent years of our friendship. And I don't remember how I answered him.

I will say, though, that within 5 years of those Ninfa's enchiladas, the word "contemplative" was one of the key words I began using to describe my desired way of being in the world, the way I wanted to see the world, the way I wanted to relate to God, self, others, and the created world.

Bill Clemmons helped expose me to others who would help give expression to what it means to be contemplative in the world. Among those Bill commended to me was Thomas Merton. Merton articulated as well as anyone the meaning and importance of being contemplative. Merton was convinced that a contemplative stance toward life, centered in God and active in the world, could change the world in which we live.

I'll share some of Merton's ideas here [from The Inner Experience: Kinds of Contemplation (IV), selected and edited by Patrick Hart from articles reprinted in Cistercian Studies Quarterly Review 18 (1983), pp. 290ff], then in another post try to give some flesh to what it means to be contemplative in the contemporary milieu.

In active contemplation, there is a deliberate and sustained effort to detect the will of God in events and to bring one's whole self into harmony with that will. . . . Active contemplation is centered on the discovery of God's will, that is to say the identification of the real direction which events are taking, especially in our own life. . . .

The contemplative mind is, in fact, not normally ultra-conservative; but neither is it necessarily radical. It transcends both these extremes in order to remain in living contact with that which is genuinely true in any traditional movement. Hence I would say in parentheses that the contemplative mind today will not normally be associated too firmly or too definitively with any "movement" whether political, religious, liturgical, artistic, philosophical or what have you. The contemplative stays clear of movements, not because they confuse him, but simply because he does not need them and can go farther by himself than he can in their formalized and often fanatical ranks.

Nevertheless active contemplation should be to a great extent in contact with the logos of its age. Which means in simple fact that the contemplative today might be expected to have an intuitive grasp of, and even sympathy for, what is most genuine in the characteristic movements of our time -- Marxism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, eirenism [aimed at making peace; reconciling various denominational traditions (jw)]. They may even at times present a serious temptation for him. But if he is a genuine contemplative he will be able to resist temptation because his contemplation itself will instinctively avoid becoming enmeshed in conceptual systems. I say if he is a genuine contemplative, meaning, "if he is sufficiently initiated into the meaning and value of a spiritual life to prefer its simplicity to all the complexities and pretenses of these intellectual fads and campaigns".

In active contemplation, a man becomes able to live within himself. He learns to be at home with his own thoughts. He becomes to a greater and greater degree independent of exterior supports. His mind is pacified not by passive dependence on things outside himself -- diversions, entertainments, conversations, business -- but by its own constructive activity. That is to say that he derives inner satisfaction from spiritual creativeness: thinking his own thoughts, reaching his own conclusions, looking at his own life and directing it in accordance with his own inner truth, discovered in meditation and under the eyes of God. He derives strength not from what he gets out of things and people, but from giving himself to life and to others. He discovers the secret of life in the creative energy of love -- not love as a sentiment or sensual indulgence, but as a profound and self-oblative expression of freedom.

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