It was the second day of my three-day silent retreat at a Trappist monastery in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Despite the well-below-freezing temperature as I walked from the retreat house up to the chapel for vespers, I was thinking about how much I was enjoying the retreat. I was thinking that it would be kind of great to get to spend a lot more time on retreat. And soon I was thinking, “I wonder if there’s such a thing as being a professional retreatant?”
To which the semi-sarcastic voice in my head (the one that often responds to the random questions I pose to myself) replied, “I think that’s called being a nun.” And that pretty much ended that.
There are many reasons I neither want nor feel called to be a nun. But the real problem with my idea of running away to be a “professional retreatant” was that it would have been just that: running away. Those who are truly called to the cloistered religious life commit to that life of prayer because that is how God has called them to labor for God’s Kingdom. But that is not God’s call for me. God has called me to labor for his Kingdom in the midst of my life as a spiritual director, pastor, neighbor, and friend. For me, a silent retreat is a gift. It’s a practice God uses to form me in the image of Christ and equip me for the work he calls me to.
One of the misperceptions of a contemplative Christian life is that it amounts to so much spiritual navel-gazing. Regularly practiced disciplines like silence, solitude, centering prayer, and retreats are sometimes seen as self-focused or even indulgent, a way of escaping from the hard realities of the world or the outward-focused ministry we’re called to. “What use is contemplation when there is Kingdom work to be done?” some might ask.
The truth is that the contemplative practices are vital for a life lived pursuing the Kingdom of God. Far from being at odds with Kingdom action, these practices—which encourage us simply to rest with and in God—are tools God uses to shape us for the Kingdom work he calls us to. The contemplative life is one in which God fashions our hearts after his. It leads us to care about the things God cares about and to labor for the things God labors for. And it empowers us to do all of that from a place of deep abiding in the love and mercy of God.
I recently came across a reading of Genesis 18 that helped me understand this in a new and powerful way. This chapter of Genesis describes angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, promising them the birth of a child through whom God would create a great nation. Immediately following the angels’ visit, God tells Abraham that he is going to go to Sodom and Gomorrah to assess whether their sin is truly as terrible as he has heard. But Abraham is worried: what if God decided to wipe out the cities, and there were actually a few righteous people living there? From his worry, Abraham convinces God to agree not to wipe out the cities if 50 righteous people are to be found there. Then follows a remarkable (and funny!) scene, where Abraham negotiates God down: Will God save the cities for 45 righteous people? What about 40? Then 30, then 20. Until finally God agrees to spare the cities if even 10 righteous people are found in them.
In his book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that this entire exchange between God and Abraham was actually unnecessary: God already knew how many righteous people were in Sodom and Gomorrah (the answer: none). So when Abraham asked God if he would destroy the righteous with the unrighteous, God could have simply said, “There are no righteous in the city. Not a single one. So don’t worry about the righteous being unjustly treated.”
But that’s not what God did. God engaged in this whole conversation—this prayer—with Abraham, because God wanted to shape Abraham’s heart. Having just told Abraham that he was going to become a father, God wanted to shape Abraham’s heart as a father to reflect God’s own heart as a father. Jonathan Sacks writes:
“To be a father—implies the Bible—is to teach a child to question, challenge, confront, dispute. God invites Abraham to do these things because he wants him to be the parent of a nation that will do these things. He does not want the people of the covenant to be one that accepts the evils and injustices of the world as the will of God.… He wants them to hear the cry of the oppressed, the pain of the afflicted and the plaint of the lonely. He wants them not to accept the world that is, because it is not the world that ought to be. He is giving Abraham a tutorial in what it is to teach a child to grow by challenging the existing scheme of things.”
God had called Abraham to be the father of God’s covenant people. He had called Abraham to be part of God’s work of building his Kingdom. And it was in prayer that God shaped Abraham into the kind of person who would long and labor for that Kingdom.
As with Abraham, so with us. God has called each of us to be part of his work of building his Kingdom. God must shape us into the kind of people who will long and labor for that Kingdom. And it is in prayer that God so often chooses to do that.
Take, for example, the kind of conversational prayer that Abraham engaged in, when we speak to God and take time to listen for God’s responses. In practicing this kind of prayer, we learn to recognize God’s “voice”—not often an audible one, but the way that God speaks to us through thoughts, feelings, images, or scriptures that come to mind as we prayerfully listen. And the more familiar we become with the way God speaks to us, the more able we are to hear God’s voice as we go about our days, guiding us into the kind of love-your-neighbor living that is the hallmark of God’s Kingdom.
Or consider silent (or contemplative) prayer. In this kind of prayer, we don’t talk to God or really even listen for him. Instead we simply rest in God’s loving presence, much like we might enjoy simply sitting in silence with a dear loved one. As we regularly practice this kind of prayer, our souls become steeped in God’s love. Our hearts become infused with God’s heart, not just for ourselves, but for the world around us. God uses our practice of silent prayer to form us into people who desire and labor for the things of God’s heart—love, mercy, justice, peace.
The contemplative life—far from being an escape from Kingdom work—actually forms and equips us for that work. And whether as “professional retreatants” or just occasional ones, God calls each of us to be not just citizens of his Kingdom, but co-laborers with him in it.
Questions for Reflection
1. Some people are naturally drawn more to the contemplative dimension of the Christian life, while others naturally tend toward the active dimension. What is your tendency?
2. Prayerfully consider whether God might be inviting you to lean into the dimension that comes less naturally to you, and how you might do so.
3. Ask God to give you a vision for how the contemplative and the active might interact to shape you into someone who increasingly longs and labors for the Kingdom of God.
If you’d like to dig deeper into the contemplative life, check out some of these additional resources on the Novo blog:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin Bair serves as a spiritual formation associate with ReNew, a team within ChurchNext. She loves offering spiritual direction, retreats, and other forms of spiritual care to Christian leaders. In addition to her work with ReNew, Erin is an Anglican priest and serves as the pastor of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Gainesville, VA (in the DC metro area). When she’s not working, Erin loves reading, cooking, hiking, watching British murder mysteries, being an aunt to her nieces and nephew—and taking silent retreats.
The quote is from To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Jonathan Sacks.