Christian Contemplative Practice

At the perennial center of Christian life and theology is the personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But how do we establish, nourish, and dwell in this relationship? Christian contemplative practice describes the things we do in order to reorient our personal, inward lives around our relationship with Jesus.

All Christians engage in some contemplative practice, inasmuch as they live their inward lives around loving and believing in Jesus Christ. This article seeks to outline the spectrum of contemplative practices present in Christianity today, where they come from, and what we hope to learn about contemplative Christianity in India.

Special Note: Some Christians are concerned about the use of terms like "contemplative practice" because of new age/cultic connotations. While there are some groups who take these words and instill them with meanings that are clearly outside of and often in contradiction to the corpus of Christian belief and teaching, these views are beyond the scope of this discussion. We are here concerned with "contemplative practice" defined as the methods and means of building and strengthening relationship with Jesus Christ.

Common Contemplative Practices for Christians

tree.jpg

Some contemplative practices are a part of almost every Christian life, regardless of denominational attachments. These include:

  • Reading Scripture
  • Prayer
  • Leading a moral life
  • Acts of service or charity
  • Confession of sins
  • Singing of psalms and hymns
  • Spiritual friendship, guidance, or discipleship
  • Participation in the Church
  • Community sacraments
  • Imagery and symbols
  • Participation in the cycle of Christian holidays

Some contemplative practices are widely used, but they are not a part of every denominational program. These include:

  • Breath prayer
  • Charismatic experience (ie. speaking in tongues, healings, exorcism)
  • Prayer beads
  • Forms of meditation, such as centering prayer
  • Formal liturgies or prayer books
  • Fasting
  • Vigils
  • Silence
  • Pilgrimage
  • Veneration of sacred objects
  • Prayers for the intercession of Saints

Sources for Christian Contemplative Practice

The three primary streams converging in today's contemplative Christian practice are the broader Christian Tradition, the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, and other religions.

Christian Contemplative Practice and India

India has been called a "spiritually fertile" land: a place with its own deep spiritual traditions, that even offers a unique burst of metaphysical vitality to whatever religion penetrates its shores. This certainly seems to be true, given the historical spiritual diversity of the country, and the strength of its influence on emerging spiritual movements. (The line between "coincidence" and "metaphysical phenomenon" is always a little bit difficult to pin down.)

Regardless, there are things in India that are particularly relevant to the ongoing development of Christian contemplative practice. These include

The Entryway of //Shativanam// Ashram in Kerala.
The Entryway of Shativanam Ashram in Kerala.
  • India has an Independent Christian Tradition. St. Thomas is said to have brought Christianity to India in 52 AD, and, even if that is not true, there are communities within the Indian Church that have commendable antiquity. While historically the Indian branch of Christianity had a hard time making a creative religious impact on its neighbors of other faiths, and was somewhat abused by the policy of Portuguese clergy, it still has many unique insights to offer the Christian community as a whole. Currently, there are more Syrian-rite Christians in India than any other country in the world. As more resources come to India, they are undergoing their own process of coming to understand, interpret, and own their heritage. And that heritage is very different than that of the Western Church.
  • India was the Cradle of modern Christian Missionary Work. India was the place where many continental missionaries put their theology and worldview to the test in missionary efforts. St. Francis Xavier and William Carey, definitive early theorists of missiology, both worked in India.
  • India has Produced a Lineage of Unique Christian Voices. Christians who have been involved with the Subcontinent have already made small but fascinating contributions to questions of Christian contemplative practice. They bring perspectives that are tempered by deep cross-cultural conversation, and often combine Eastern and Western methodologies. These voices include E. Stanley Jones, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Lesslie Newbigin, Henri Lesaux (aka Abishiktanada), Bede Griffiths, and Nathaniel's grandfather. Though not Christian, men like Tagore and Gandhi also had some of these characteristics.
  • India is still a Culture Sympathetic to the Spiritual Quest. Over a period of several centuries through Scholasticism and the Enlightenment, spiritual thinking was systematically eliminated from Western epistemology. While recently there has been some revival in such ways of knowing, by and large the culture does not yet fully accept these yearnings. By contrast, concepts like "spiritual practice" and "pilgrimage" have a long and more or less uninterrupted history in the national consciousness of India.

image credit 1 http://www.castpaper.com/art-pages/celtic-tree-of-life.html
image credit 2 http://www.members.shaw.ca/abhishiktananda/Shantivanam.html

More about the Image: Shantivanam is a Hindu-Christian Ashram founded by Abishiktanada. Bede Griffiths also spent many years there. It has been a leader in reviving Syriac liturgies, and allowing a greater degree of cross-fertilization between Christian and Hindu contemplative practices. You can see the confluence of these traditions in the icongraphic detail at the top of the entryway. We hope to make it a destination on our journey.


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