Carl McColman: How to Find a Contemplative-Friendly Church


Spirituality is all about love, and love only exists in relationship. Therefore, spirituality is healthiest when it is expressed in a communal way. For better or worse, this means - at least for followers of Jesus Christ and the Christian contemplative/mystical path - finding some sort of church or other faith community.

That's not always easy. Frankly, many churches are indifferent, or even hostile, to Christian contemplation and mysticism. Many Protestant and Evangelical Christians reject mysticism and contemplation as "too Catholic." And Christians across the spectrum, Catholic or Protestant, sometimes worry that mysticism and contemplation have more to do with non-Christian spirituality (like Buddhism or Vedanta) than with following Christ.

These ideas are misconceptions, but they exist, and that means sometimes churches can be decidedly unfriendly to contemplative seekers and aspiring mystics. So how does one find a nurturing and healthy church home?

A Church is more than just a building...

A Church is more than just a building...

A reader of this blog named Dan wrote a question along this line:

I read The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. I'm trying to start a journey in the direction of a greater spirituality. I've been out of the faith community for many many years. One of the tenets of your book is to join/rejoin the community of believers. There are so many churches in my town that I'm not sure where to begin. Do you know any churches that may be incorporating the principles of your book or anyone I may be able to contact to help in my search?

This is a problem centuries in the making...

As I said above, many churches will either be indifferent, or even hostile, to contemplation and mysticism. Fortunately, though, this situation is changing for the better, as more and more seminaries (where pastors are trained) begin to offer better spiritual formation for their students, and more individual Christians take it upon themselves to embraces the riches of the Christian inner life.

Much of Christianity is still in a kind of spiritual drought that historians think goes back to at least the fifteenth century, if not earlier. For a variety of historical, philosophical and theological reasons, Christianity (especially in the west) lost much of its own contemplative and mystical heritage - a heritage that for centuries had been confined primarily to monasteries, but as many monasteries became decadent or corrupt in the late middle ages, followed by the reformation which tried to do away with monasticism altogether, the precious jewel of mystical spirituality was almost entirely lost within Christianity.

Within the last 100 years or so, that's been slowly changing. Thanks to pioneering scholars like Evelyn Underhill and  Thomas Merton (who were mystics in their own right), western Christianity has begun to recognize and reclaim its lost contemplative heritage. And while it makes some Christians nervous, Christianity's encounter with eastern religions like Buddhism has had the blessed effect of encouraging many Christians to dig deep within our own history to find our own wisdom tradition, steeped in silence, contemplation, and illuminative insight.

Now, to answer the question...

But back to Dan's very practical, down-to-earth question: how does an ordinary person find a church where you can talk about these kinds of things without somebody looking at you like  you've sprouted an extra head?

When I joined the Catholic Church in 2005, our pastor at the time had a large painting of Thomas Merton hanging in  his office. This was a very good sign - when I brought up that I was a fan of Merton, we discussed his work enthusiastically.

So my first piece of advice is this:  look for a church where at least one of the ministers or church leaders is willing to talk about contemplation and mysticism without attacking it.  This means you have to be willing to chat up at least one of the pastors, and if you're an introvert like me, that's not always easy to do! But most pastors are friendly if not gregarious people, and gauging their interest is a good way to sense if the church as a whole is a friendly place for interior seekers.

One question to ask a minister is to see if he or she, or someone else in the congregation, has a ministry of spiritual direction. Most spiritual directors are themselves committed to contemplative living, and can help others who seek to walk along the mystical path.

However, even a pastor who is interested in contemplation does not mean the church as a whole is. When I shared with my pastor my interest in mysticism, he shook his head sadly. "Carl, we have over 1200 families in this church," he said, "and I can count on one hand the number of people who even know about mysticism, let alone are interested in it."

So my second piece of advice: look for a church that has either a centering prayer group or some other form of regular (weekly) offering for personal spiritual growth. You can contact contemplative organizations like Contemplative OutreachShalem, or the World Community for Christian Meditation to see if they can refer you to a church in your neighborhood with an active contemplative program.

My next advice is pragmatic.  Don't expect a church - any church - to "meet all your needs." Churches are not social clubs. We join them not because they make us happy all the time, but because they are communities where we can deepen our relationship with God and learn to grow in grace. I'm not suggesting that we should be "martyrs" who join churches where we are perpetually miserable! Obviously, we need to feel comfortable and at home in our faith community - for example, if you are a strong environmentalist, you will likely feel uncomfortable in a church where members think recycling is a waste of time.

Churches, even within the same denomination, often have their own unique character: some are conservative, some liberal, some boisterous and extraverted, others quiet and introverted. Find a church with a "personality" that resonates with your own - but don't expect the church to be perfect. And even a church that is 99% wonderful might let you down when it comes to contemplation and mysticism.

So what to do then? My advice:  join that "good enough" church, and then seek your spiritual nurture elsewhere,  such as at a monastery, a Jesuit center, or some other setting that exists specifically to help people grow spiritually. Many monasteries and convents have lay or oblate programs where non-monastic people can formally study spirituality with the monks or nuns. Some seminaries offer programs for spiritual growth, and retreats designed to help you grow spiritually are offered by retreat centers in every state. Googling "Christian contemplative programming" or "Christian contemplative retreats" could be a way to start.

One of my favorite churches (the Crypt Chapel at the National Shrine in Washington DC). But it's people, not architecture, that makes a church.

One of my favorite churches (the Crypt Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington DC). Beautiful architecture can inspire - but the heart of a church is its people.

You may be wondering "If I have to go elsewhere to get spiritual nurture, why bother joining a church at all?" But that goes back to my conviction that we join a church not to get our needs met, but rather to learn to love God and others better. A church is about the whole person, not just our spiritual dimension. In church we learn to worship, how to read the Bible, how to make informed moral and ethical choices, how to appreciate good music or art or architecture, and how to serve and care for others, especially those who are in need.

Having a deep interior life supports all of these things, but it doesn't replace them. A spiritual center like a monastery or a retreat house can really help you to become disciplined in contemplative prayer, but it doesn't have the resources to do all the other good things that your neighborhood church does. So find a monastery where you can pray, but also find a church where you can serve.

To sum it up...

I'm sorry this is such a long post, but it's an important question that deserves careful consideration.  Finding the right church is like finding the right house or neighborhood: it's worth taking the time to do the search right.  If you're new to a community or are returning to church after a time away, take your time to visit a variety of congregations: small and large, Catholic or Episcopal or Quaker, liberal or conservative or middle of the road, traditional music with an organ or contemporary music with a rock band.

Get to know the diversity of Christian communities - and when you find a church you like, then get to know the pastor, see what kind of ministries the church offers, and also seek spiritual resources outside the congregation. Finally,  pray for guidance  - God wants what's best for you, so take time to listen for the still small voice.

Do you have any other suggestions for how someone interested in Christian mysticism or contemplation can find a church? Please leave a comment below, or on your favorite social media platform.

Do you have a question for me? Please send it to me using my contact form, and I'll consider it for a future blog post. Thank you.

From Carl's Website.