A Little Gentler: Contemplative Prayer and the Evangelical Church

By Hunter Sharpless
September 25, 2014

In episode 103 of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah spends a day in “America’s most unusual town.” You might think that it’s in California, or Texas, or Massachusetts, or maybe Oregon, but you would be wrong. With a population of less than 10,000, somewhere in the middle of the great plains, Fairfield, Iowa is the home of Transcendental Meditation, a practice introduced to the United States in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

One of my MFA classmates grew up in Fairfield. Tremendously smart, captivatingly dynamic, Malinda is writing a memoir about her spiritual life, tracing her Fairfield origins to her high school years, when she left Iowa for a monastic program in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where every day for three years she spent hours in meditation. Her book is funny, quick, nuanced. I won’t spoil the whole thing, because hopefully you’ll read it when, someday, it’s published, but a particular scene toward its beginning startled me.

The young Malinda, just in preschool, eager and earnest, who has grown up with both her parents practicing twenty minutes of Transcendental Meditation twice every day, asks her teacher at Agape Land—a Christian school—if she meditates. At which point the teacher asks: “What is that?”

The number of evangelical Christians in the United States is huge and ultimately unknowable, with estimates varying quite a bit. Some say that as many as 90 to 100 million Americans could be considered evangelical. Some say less. And there are all sorts of subgroups, -genres, and -categories that I don’t want to get into. Born again, reformed, Pentecostal. It’s like an upscale ice cream shop, flavors of endless specificity.

But I’m not writing about numbers, and this essay isn’t supposed a statistics form. Because whatever the exact number is, the fact remains the same: Not only are there tens upon tens of millions of evangelical Christians in the United States, but as a group evangelicals wield enormous power politically and culturally. And there’s another fact, one that won’t make news headlines any time soon: The vast, vast majority of evangelical churches in this country not only fail to encourage the practice of meditation or contemplative prayer to any degree, they completely ignore it.

I know because I grew up in one such church. From the time I could walk to—well, to last Sunday—I have attended an evangelical church. I didn’t even possess a vocabulary for meditation or contemplative prayer growing up. In my mind, it wasn’t a part of Christianity’s history. I’m from Dallas, Texas, and in Dallas power is politics, not prayer. President George W. Bush now resides only a few miles from my old home. The upper-middle-class, predominantly white culture in which I came of age was, as you can imagine, almost entirely Republican, protestant, generations of Reagan and Bush voters. I don’t want to talk about the policies of these presidents. I just want to note that one of the main ways in which faith penetrated culture was through the political sphere.

Although the churches that I attended with my family were, by Dallas standards, moderate—the pastors never endorsed candidates explicitly—the general atmosphere was anything but apolitical. And so the idea of something as mystical and opaque as meditation never entered the conversation. My youth group never talked about it. My church friends never talked about it. My pastors never talked about it. The Christian summer camps that I attended never talked about it. Meditation was yoga, Eastern, other. Definitely pagan, probably idolatrous. And I’m afraid that many evangelical kids today feel—and are taught—exactly what I believed.

This is what I know: Contemplative prayer—I began a daily practice about 12 months ago, and spent the 12 months before that trying to develop a daily practice—has been infinitely more transformative in my life than any other spiritual discipline, whether private or public, whether my own study of theology or the preaching of the Word from the pulpit, whether a personal prayer journal or corporate worship. Contemplative prayer precludes none of these disciplines—on the contrary, it fills them with teeming life, and likewise they deepen the experience and fruit of prayer—but nonetheless when compared to the intense intimacy of contemplation these practices seem secondary. And why shouldn’t they? It’s the difference between knowing facts about someone and spending time in his presence.

Of course one can experience the presence of God intellectually, reading the Scripture, or emotionally, in the presence of others; but, at least for me, every other spiritual endeavor besides contemplation is so fraught with, so vulnerable to, self-interest. I find myself reading St. Aquinas just so that I can flippantly write the fact into an essay so that I seem smart, or I parse Romans hoping to subvert someone else’s theological argument. I am a pretty austere person. I like being right. I hate losing. But, slowly, very slowly, I’ve become just a little gentler.

I have never experienced a weakness so palpable as I do each morning in contemplation. I cannot hold my mind for 20 minutes—the length of my morning practice. I can’t even hold myself for 20 seconds. When I settle to wait for God’s presence, my mind wanders to cheeseburgers, Bruce Springsteen, and whether or not I’ll have time to go to the bank that day. Rather than 20 minutes of sheer serenity, most mornings I experience 20 minutes of chaos.

This weakness and embarrassment almost killed my habit early on, but then I stumbled onto Thomas Merton, to whom, because he was a Catholic, I had never been exposed as a child.

“Prayer and love,” he writes in New Seeds of Contemplation, “are really learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart turns to stone.”

Suddenly, hope! The hope to sustain my fragile prayer life.

“No matter how distracted you may be, pray by peaceful, even perhaps inarticulate, efforts to center your heart upon God, Who is present to you in spite of all that may be going through your mind. His presence does not depend on your thoughts of Him.”

Many readers will no doubt fear that I am descending into religious pluralism, but they would be mistaken. That’s the straw man of meditation, the idea that it exists outside of the strictures of orthodox theology. I have come to see that the opposite is true, that without contemplation we fail at the very foundations of our faith.

In the end, the weakness I experience in contemplation—Merton calls it “helplessness” elsewhere—is the microcosm of the gospel. If we learn anything from the Bible, all the way from the Torah to the Book of Revelation, it’s the ineptitude of humanity and the love of God. That’s how I try to begin each day, and in my weakness I discover a great strength.

But what does contemplative prayer do? That’s the implied question that evangelicals ask, the reason that they stay away from the whole enterprise in the first place. Meditation doesn’t make sense in any utilitarian sense (at least not on the surface, but you should look into addiction recovery and meditation). In the post-Enlightenment West, in the United States of culture wars fueled by the certainty of scientism and religiosity, what does contemplation do? On the news are ISIS beheadings, reports of a black hole national deficit, outbreaks of Ebola, police shootings ... what does meditation do?

I don’t know.

But I do know that St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Thérèse, St. John of the Cross, The Cloud of Unknowing—I know that it’s alive. That it’s alive today in Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer. That despite efforts to ignore it, it remains.