A spirituality of contemplative activism (Colin Brown)

Monday, 13 April, 2009

Colin BrownColin Brown explores a spirituality of contemplative activism.

Last month 23 'fresh expressions pioneers' were on a five-day retreat at Lee Abbey, on the north Devon coast. It was facilitated by me and three others and I'd like to share a bit about it with you.

We put on the advertising that this was:

  • a special, prayerful place to stop for a few days;
  • space to reflect, pray, worship and listen;
  • time to be recharged, refreshed, reinvigorated, encouraged ... by giving space and time to God and to yourself.

As we know, Jesus modelled this as he spent time alone with God the Father in prayer, often in isolated places. He seemed to need the space to enable the activity of his ministry - 'time out' with God. Then he passed this on.

In Mark's gospel the disciples are sent out by Jesus two-by-two. On their return they gather around Jesus, eager to tell him all that they've done. His response to them is: 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile' (Mark 6.31).

The work of building fresh expressions of church can be demanding, but even Jesus needed time out! How much time out are we giving ourselves?

St Bernhard of Clairvaux - one of the great reformers of the 14th century encouraged his people with these words in a Pentecost sermon:

'If you be wise, you will make yourselves reservoirs rather than channels of God's love - the difference being the channel discharges all its water almost as soon as it is received - and a reservoir waits until it is full to the brim and only gives away what is superfluous - it gives away without loss to itself.

'...we have in the church today many channels, but few reservoirs. We want to give away before we have received, more willing to speak than to listen. Beloved, learn to minister from the overflow and do not desire to be more generous than God ... behold how much has to be poured into us that we may venture to pour out, giving of our plentitude, not of our poverty.'

At Lee Abbey it took time for us to begin to change gear ... to move into that place of 'being' rather than 'doing'. Many of us are activists, and rightly so because action is a vital part of life, and of ministry. We don't feel called to just sit and pray that God will magically change the world. As St Francis prayed: 'Make me a channel (or reservoir?) of your peace'.

There is a balance to be found between contemplation and action. By 'contemplation' I don't mean navel-gazing, but a rhythm of prayerful awareness of God – of his love, his abiding presence, and the challenge of his gospel. It can and does lead to action – often starting with the one person I can change – me! And then out into a needy world. Could contemplation be a crucial step along the way towards fresh expressions of church? I recommend a Grove booklet by David Runcorn on this subject, entitled The Road to Growth Less Travelled – spiritual paths in a missionary church.

In chapter 5 - 'A Contemplative Spirituality' - Runcorn says this:

'[Contemplation] is not about being quiet rather than active. Contemplative traditions ... have close links to the awakening of social conscience and to resistance movements. It is a way of depth and maturing that will help lead people away from a religion of easy answers...'

We don't have to be 'introvert' to go deeper in our faith, or to enjoy the space and silence of God's embrace that is beyond words and human activity. In Myers Briggs terms I am an 'extrovert', yet I have come to value silence and contemplation greatly, especially as a means of listening – to my deeper self, and to God in the midst of my responses to life.

The retreat was a journey for all. Like a super-tanker, it takes time to stop, especially when we're very active. In time the initial struggles gave way to a deeper ease. Much was shared and learned from one another and from God, in a safe and held space. 

Here are reflections from a few of the pioneers, when asked what the retreat had been for them:

  • peace, space and affirmation;
  • an unexpected sense of healing;
  • inspiring, enlightening, relaxing, connected;
  • time to live and breathe again, and a sense of His intimacy with me.

The retreat was not a conference. It was a place with space to be with God. We don't have to go all the way to north Devon to find space and God. It's about finding a rhythm for you and God in daily life.

About the author: 

Colin Brown is a Church Army Evangelist exploring a fresh expression amongst the art community.


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