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Thoughts on Contemplative Conversations in Congregations

Article by Stuart Higginbotham (November 2018 eNews)

Is it possible to be contemplative in our conversations with others? It seems a challenge today in any context—at work, in the home, even at church. When it comes to the experience of contemplative conversations within a parish church, which is where I serve, I think it is important to ask whether or not such an endeavor is even possible within the context itself.  Does the institutional parish offer a space to explore this, or are contemplative conversations more for those “who are into that sort of thing?”

Can such a contemplative posture infuse and transform the leadership structure of an existing community, or is such contemplative engagement tangential? Do we only explore this posture on retreats, or can we seek out ways to cultivate a transformed attunement within the institution itself? For a while now I have been referring to this as a possible contemplative reformation within congregations.

I would argue that such a posture of deep listening is not only possible within a traditional parish structure; it is also the very experience that can bring the institutional church out of the mere survival mentality in which it finds itself. I think the current struggle of the institutional church lies at the level of the heart. Where is our heart focused?  In what is our heart grounded? What does it mean to be a part of the Body of Christ? How do we understand our deeper, communal identity?

I often think of how our liturgy can be constricting—or liberating. While we in The Episcopal Church, at least, may hide behind our beautiful liturgy in an effort to avoid change, the liturgy itself holds a path for heart-centered attunement with God’s presence. Our Collect for Purity begins the service with the words “to you all hearts are open, all desires known.” We pray that the Spirit will “purify the thoughts of our hearts” so that, in our worship, we may be oriented toward the deep, transforming power of the Spirit of Christ. As well, in the post-communion prayer, we discover the bookend, if you will, as we thank God for our Eucharistic experience that has filled us with “gladness and singleness of heart.” So, we begin and end our liturgy with an intentional prayer about heart transformation. The deeper truth is right here!

My own experience found me, in early 2014, at my current parish, a community with wounds, confusion, hopes, dreams, yearnings—and a 190-year-old memory! I wrestled with how to embody my own vocation in an environment that—as any large church does—had a certain corporate gravity. My own contemplative grounding, interestingly, had been a key part of the search process that invited me here. I had been explicit about my hopes and desires, and they had been honest about their struggles and yearning to “go deeper.” I had held nothing back, so when I arrived, I thought, “why not take it out for a spin?”

For three months, around 150 people met every Wednesday night to share in Listening Circles. We gathered ourselves around key framing questions, each night asking ourselves “what have been the most meaningful experiences in your life at Grace with _____?” We placed a different parish ministry in circle each night, such as children, outreach, worship, pastoral care, etc. We focused on meaningful experiences, and I set out a clear boundary that any “venting” or responses grounded in anger would not go further into the discernment. We pushed ourselves to be vulnerable from the outset, and that made all the difference.

Scribes at the tables wrote down what they heard, after shared spaces of silence. Each week, the responses were compiled and presented back to the larger group for further reflection. At the end of that particular process, the community was able to recognize a deeper embodiment of shared ministry. We took a step away from a “club mentality” toward a space of deeper appreciation of one another and the Spirit’s presence among us. We noticed a heightened awareness of the importance of the practice of prayer, and we caught a glimpse of what it might be like to ground ourselves in a heart space.

St. Augustine rightly said that the whole business of this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. I have held this image close, even putting it on my email signature so it goes out with every note I send. I have seen the truth of this possibility, within my parish. I continue to see the potential of heart-centered awareness within a traditional parish church. Such an awareness, grounded in a listening posture, enables me, as the rector, and the entire community, to respond and be nimble to the nudging of the Spirit. It empowers us to risk, to be vulnerable. For those who think that such a contemplative reformation is not possible within the confines and pressures of a traditional parish church, I disagree. I guess, at the end of the day, I side with G. K. Chesterton, who once said that it is not that Christianity is a failure; it’s just that it hasn’t been tried yet.

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