The Archbishop of Canterbury on the Contemplative Approach

The following paragraphs are from “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”

In the Address, Archbishop Rowan Williams discusses the importance of contemplative practices in the Christian faith tradition, especially in relationship to evangelization. [You can read the full address here.]

Here follows paragraphs 12-15 of the address:

12. Those who know little and care less about the institutions and hierarchies of the Church these days are often attracted and challenged by lives that exhibit something of this.  It is the new and renewed religious communities that most effectively reach out to those who have never known belief or who have abandoned it as empty and stale.  When the Christian history of our age is written especially, though not only, as regards Europe and North America—we shall see how central and vital was the witness of places like Taizé or Bose, but also of more traditional communities that have become focal points for the exploration of a humanity broader and deeper than social habit encourages.  And the great spiritual networks, Sant’ Egidio, the Focolare, Communione e Liberazione, these too show the same phenomenon; they make space for a profounder human vision because in their various ways all of them offer a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.

13. And, as these examples show, the attraction and challenge we are talking about can generate commitments and enthusiasms across historic confessional lines.  We have become used to talking about the imperative importance of ‘spiritual ecumenism’ these days; but this must not be a matter of somehow opposing the spiritual and the institutional, nor replacing specific commitments with a general sense of Christian fellow-feeling.  If we have a robust and rich account of what the word ‘spiritual’ itself means, grounded in scriptural insights like those in the passages from II Corinthiansthat we noted earlier, we shall understand spiritual ecumenism as the shared search to nourish and sustain disciplines of contemplation in the hope of unveiling the face of the new humanity.  And the more we keep apart from each other as Christians of different confessions, the less convincing that face will seem.  I mentioned the Focolare movement a moment ago: you will recall that the basic imperative in the spirituality of Chiara Lubich was ‘to make yourself one’ – one with the crucified and abandoned Christ, one through him with the Father, one with all those called to this unity and so one with the deepest needs of the world.  ‘Those who live unity … live by allowing themselves to penetrate always more into God.  They grow always closer to God … and the closer they get to him, the closer they get to the hearts of their brothers and sisters’ (Chiara Lubich: Essential Writings, p.37).  The contemplative habit strips away an unthinking superiority towards other baptised believers and the assumption that I have nothing to learn from them.  Insofar as the habit of contemplation helps us approach all experience as gift, we shall always be asking what it is that the brother or sister has to share with us – even the brother or sister who is in one way or another separated from us or from what we suppose to be the fullness of communion.  ‘Quam bonum et quam jucundum …’

14. In practice, this might suggest that wherever initiatives are being taken to reach out in new ways to a lapsed Christian or post-Christian public, there should be serious work done on how such outreach can be grounded in some ecumenically shared contemplative practice.  In addition to the striking way in which Taizé has developed an international liturgical ‘culture’ accessible to a great variety of people, a network like the World Community for Christian Meditation, with its strong Benedictine roots and affiliations, has opened up fresh possibilities here.  What is more, this community has worked hard at making contemplative practice accessible to children and young people, and this needs the strongest possible encouragement.  Having seen at first hand—in Anglican schools in Britain—how warmly young children can respond to the invitation offered by meditation in this tradition, I believe its potential for introducing young people to the depths of our faith to be very great indeed.  And for those who have drifted away from the regular practice of sacramental faith, the rhythms and practices of Taizé or the WCCM are often a way back to this sacramental heart and hearth.

15. What people of all ages recognise in these practices is the possibility, quite simply, of living more humanly – living with less frantic acquisitiveness, living with space for stillness, living in the expectation of learning, and most of all, living with an awareness that there is a solid and durable joy to be discovered in the disciplines of self-forgetfulness that is quite different from the gratification of this or that impulse of the moment.  Unless our evangelisation can open the door to all this, it will run the risk of trying to sustain faith on the basis of an un-transformed set of human habits – with the all too familiar result that the Church comes to look unhappily like so many purely human institutions, anxious, busy, competitive and controlling.  In a very important sense, a true enterprise of evangelisation will always be a re-evangelisation of ourselves as Christians also, a rediscovery of why our faith is different, transfiguring – a recovery of our own new humanity.