Over the years I have discovered that there are three types of people interested in Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality:
- Some are practicing Christians, active in their local parish or church but frustrated by what they see as the lack of spiritual nurture that takes place in such settings;
- Others are people who may have been raised in the church, but really have no connection to institutional Christianity; they are interested in spirituality but not religion, and while they might see Christianity as the faith of their ancestors, they are no more loyal to it than to any other spiritual lineage or tradition;
- And finally, there is a small percentage of people who want to understand Christian spirituality, but they are practitioners of other faith traditions; they have no desire to convert, they just want to learn.
The third group is, in my experience, the smallest. I am always honored when a Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist person approaches me with a desire to learn Christian spirituality just for the sake of their own personal growth and development. But since those persons are not actually interested in practicing Christian mysticism or contemplation, this particular blog post is not directed at them.
Today I want to write for the first two groups: people who really are interested in taking the wisdom of Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality to heart, and want it to make a difference in their lives. Some of them are practicing, churchgoing Christians, and some are not.
It is pretty obvious to me that the church-goers and the “spiritually independent” folks have this in common: they both recognize that the church often does a poor job at promoting deep spirituality.
I wish I could say, “It’s not really that bad.” But I’m afraid it is.
So if you feel like your local Christian Church doesn’t support you spiritually — you are not alone.
For evidence to show that this is not just our imagination — that the churches really do have a bias against nurturing spirituality — you don’t have to go any further than the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While this is a Catholic source, I’d be willing to bet that the problem I see in it would be just as true of most Protestant or Evangelical Churches as well.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a large book that gathers together the material that the Bishops and the authorities in Rome consider to be essential for teaching the faith. It’s the ultimate syllabus for how a church should teach the faith — not only to children, but to adults who are newcomers.
The Catholic Catechism is divided into four sections, based on the Apostles’ Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer). In other words, the four sections cover what the church believes (doctrine and dogma), how the church worships (liturgy), the church’s ethical teachings (morality), and the church’s spirituality (prayer).
All of those sections sound important, right? So shouldn’t the Catechism be divided more or less evenly between those four sections?
Alas, it’s not.
Here’s how it’s divided up:
- The first section (doctrine and dogma) fills approximately 39% of the Catechism;
- The next section (worship) is about 22%;
- The section on morality takes up about 28%;
- And so spirituality gets the leftovers — about 11% of the Catechism.
Looking at the Table of Contents of the Catechism, and seeing how little attention is paid to prayer and spirituality, it feels almost as if it were an afterthought.
The Catechism is an official document of the Catholic Church. So this represents the mainstream reality of church culture. Attend a Catholic Church and you can expect that the clergy and other church leaders will pay the most attention to doctrine (learning to believe “the right things”), followed by morality (how good Christians should behave), with some focus on the rituals and customs of public worship — but as for spirituality, it’s the least emphasized aspect of the faith.
And like I said: I don’t think the Protestant or Evangelical Churches get a free pass here. After all, they are rooted in the same religious tradition. They don’t have official teaching documents like the Catholic Catechism, but I am willing to bet that most of them have the same hierarchy of emphasis: believing the “right” things matters most, followed by behaving the “right” way, followed by worshiping in the “right” manner. But as for nurturing an intimate, lively relationship with God? Well, that seems to be not that important, at least to the institution.
Friends, I’m sure you will agree with me — that no one has ever rejected Christianity by saying:
- “I’m dogmatic, but not religious.”
- “I’m moral, but not religious.”
- “I’m worshipful, but not religious.”
People are walking out of the churches because they are not getting fed spiritually. And the ones who hang on in the church find this lack of spirituality to be an ongoing source of frustration.
Young people, especially, leave Christianity because it doesn’t meet their spiritual needs — and yet the institutional church continues to focus on dogma and morality to the neglect of spirituality. No wonder church attendance continues to decline.
So What Do We Do About This?
The point behind this blog — and indeed, all the books I write and my public speaking work as well — is to make my own, modest, layperson’s contribution to redressing this problem.
I have been very fortunate in my life to have friends, mentors, and community resources to support me in finding the rich spiritual depth of Christianity. Yes, it really exists! But most people, because of the church’s obsession with doctrine and morality, never find those springs of living water. Is it any wonder that many people go elsewhere to quench their thirst?
I don’t judge people who leave, but as someone who has chosen to follow Christ and who finds joy in Christian spirituality, I want to make sure that everyone at least gets to know that Christian spirituality exists, it’s real, it’s mystical, it promises heightened and transfigured consciousness, it leads to happiness and joy (felicity and beatitude), and it’s as deep and beautiful as any other mystical path out there.
If someone raised as a Christian decides to identify as “spiritual but not religious” — again, no judgement — I just want to make sure they understand that they don’t have to abandon Christianity to find the treasure they are seeking.
If you are a churchgoer, try to advocate for more or better spiritual programming in your neighborhood parish or congregation. If none exists, try starting a centering prayer group, or a book group that reads the writings of folks like Cynthia Bourgeault or Richard Rohr, or a prayer ministry that works together to pray for the needs of the church and the world.
Try connecting with a local monastery or retreat center where you can make a retreat once or twice a year. If you are ready to go deeper in your spiritual life, consider meeting regularly with a spiritual director who can assist you in starting or maintaining a daily prayer and meditation practice.
As for those who do not go to church but remain interested in Christian spirituality, first I want to thank you for not giving up on the mystical heart of Christianity, even though you have needed to separate from the institution. I hope you will pray for the institution, and for those who remain within it. I hope you will take responsibility to continue to grow spirituality, which includes being challenged in very real and deep ways. Consider connecting with a monastery or retreat center where you can make retreats or take classes for spiritual nurture. Consider working with a spiritual director. And if it wouldn’t be too painful for you, consider participating in a centering prayer or other spiritually-focused group at your local church, even if you don’t participate in any other way. Your presence there will be a blessing to the other members of the group, and hopefully you will all teach and support each other in your shared spiritual journey.
Ten years ago when I wrote The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I made a strong case for being part of a church community as an essential mystical practice. A decade later, I am less willing to insist on being part of the institution — I know too many people who have been hurt by it. I still believe community matters, though: so if you are serious about spiritual growth, find your tribe. It doesn’t have to be in a church building. But it does have to be a place where you are both nurtured and challenged to grow.