A model of contemplative witness in community
"As any contemplative will say, the church is going to wither and dry up unless there are some who take on this calling in a public evident way." Rowan Willliams, "Tokens of Trust"
One way forward for evangelical growth is the bigger the better. Another model could be small groups on the fringes of church. The latter follows the principles of “small is beautiful” as championed by E.F. Schumacher in the 1970s. David Clark in his book Breaking the mould of Christendom speaks of church having to start again and find new models of a serving church. These small groups become sources of learning leading to real transformation. To quote: “through the work of the spirit, community becomes an experience of being loved and being able to love, of belonging to God and to one another in the deepest sense we can ever know.”
This model of church lends itself to those who wish to explore their Christian faith from the perspective of a contemplative. The purpose of this article is to paint a template of how such a group can get started, how it decides to operate, how it sustains itself and how it becomes a place of growth in community not despite, but because of its smallness. It is based on our own group “The Glaven Contemplative Prayer Group” who meet every Tuesday at the Blakeney Methodist chapel at 5.45 pm.
How we started
If you are attracted to the contemplative’s vision, by its very nature it comes about in the privacy of your soul. Problems occur when trying to find expression for this calling within the church, as there used to be no recognition of this type of prayer. Hence many became attracted to the eastern religions, which catered for this inner transformational need. Fortunately, with the growth in Christian contemplative awareness since the 1970s, much due to Thomas Merton, contemplatives are no longer so isolated and the church is slowly becoming more accommodating at providing a forum for this type of prayer.
Sustainable groups nurturing the contemplative way and fellowship are still not common. But they are essential. At a leaders’ church group meeting several years ago I found myself as a Reader in the church saying I wanted to set up such a group and giving my reasons. I was surprised at the strength in my voice, and I can now only look back and conclude the Holy Spirit was guiding me. Everyone there agreed I should proceed. So a group of four met and agreed a loose format for the structure of our first meeting, allowing the group itself to determine it at a later date.
There were about a dozen who turned up initially, and this remained fairly consistent in the early years. It took only a few sessions of trial and error to find a pattern of worship that we were all happy with. The focus is and always will be on silent contemplative prayer. There is no insistence on how we use the silence; hopefully God will do that for us. But we broadly adhere to the method of centering prayer as taught by Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault.
However, we deliberately call ourselves a Contemplative prayer group not a centering prayer group, so if someone wants to use another method such as listening to their breath or using a mantra to deal with distractions, they are more than welcome. We hold the silence for 30 minutes. We sit in a circle with a lit candle in the middle. At the beginning an allocated person from the week before will bring a short spiritual reading.
After a short rest period the same person will read a psalm. We use a contemporary version of the psalms from Nan Merrill: Psalms for praying. We then have a further period of silent reflection on the psalm and at some point we all get up, hold hands and say the grace together. We then turn around, continue to hold hands and say together “we take the peace into the world”. That marks the end of our prayer time.
Growth in confidence and into the community
We have found that a consistent pattern of worship is essential. So we always use the same pattern, we always meet each week at the same venue, and we know what to expect when we turn up. Through having an independent identity, we have the freedom to grow into other areas.
Every month we host a service of peace and healing in one of our local churches. The service is very simple with the focal point being 20 minutes’ silence. We host occasional contemplative retreats. We have our own monthly teaching sessions to learn from each other about contemplative prayer. As we have a totally sympathetic Priest, we also have contemplative Eucharists from time to time. In essence the Eucharist is stripped to the bone in terms of liturgy with much silence surrounding the sharing of the Sacraments.
We had to evolve for many years before we had the confidence to explore this but it has felt very right. Though we may not be shouting it out, we have no doubt that our very presence and the activities as described above have meant that we do have a community presence. A contemplative flame has been lit which we hope subtly influences the spirit of our community, bringing the spirit of peace to many who live or who visit.
The growth of Fellowship
Rather as Paul encourages the Christ-like fellowship of the community in Philippians, we like to think the same has happened to us. In the regularity of our meeting and in the depth of our silences as a group, we have developed a Christ-like fellowship between ourselves. It is strange how one can feel closer to others in silence.
The deep friendship has been the key to the group’s growth coupled with the sense that such is the closeness between ourselves that this cannot but go on. God can feel very close even on a cold, dark winter’s night. We are very keen to welcome any one new to the group and new members are assimilated, being washed onto our shore, coming to explore the group and liking what they experience.
The making of a sustainable contemplative group
The group is based on the coming together of a small group of individuals with broadly the same vision of what they want. There should be a safe forum with a well-worn pattern of service, where they can meet every week regularly to be in contemplative silence. The group should have a democratic feel. It should be independent of main church, but intimately linked as well, as it grows out of the laity, namely bottom-up. This independence attracts people who have been damaged by the church, or who have had no previous connection with church. The final building block is a desire to slowly grow into the community with confidence and within the contemplative way of witnessing to Christ and his peace. This very much keeps the group alive.
For more information on the prayer group at Blekeney, contact Mary Wakelin by email or phone 07875 676663.
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