Two branches of the Church, the contemplative and the evangelical, have been somewhat at odds with each other over history. Both branches grow out of a passionate and intense experience of the Lord’s presence and power, yet the branches seem to divide over how the faith is most appropriately incorporated. It may be said that the various denominations of the Church embrace either the one or the other. And, as we might imagine, the Episcopal Church seems to insist on holding the two together. Such is the path of the Anglican way, as it legitimately bears both the Catholic and Protestant.
Both branches may claim historical roots. The evangelical branch may cite the Lord’s command to go into the world and preach the gospel, while the contemplative may reference the Last Supper where the apostles were encouraged to gather in the Lord’s name and partake of his ongoing presence. As it is with humans, we often fall into upholding our means of experiencing the truth over and above the truth itself.
The strength of the contemplative approach is that the individual is urged to deepen an appreciation of the Lord’s way and will. Through piety and prayer, silence and worship, obedience and discipline, the contemplative learns to accept that the Lord is guiding all things to completion. The contemplative comes to a place where the ordering of one’s prayers and reflection allows us to see that we are tiny and insignificant as compared to the one who orders the universe, yet we also must accept the great importance of our own practice of devotion. As contemplatives steep themselves in daily prayer they typically are brought to a patient and peaceful place of acceptance: what people do does not deter the Lord from accomplishing God’s will. Silent devotion is the most appropriate response, the contemplative may well believe, to this holy Lord.
The strength of the evangelical approach is its zeal to share the good news of salvation. Through study and praise, living into the gifts of the spirit, preaching and teaching, the evangelical is taken up into the truth of Jesus Christ as the only way one is made worthy to enter the kingdom. In a rather delightful sense of desperation, evangelicals must take this good news to everyone one they meet. The question, “Are you saved?”, is not intended as meddlesome but is asked out of a dire need to bring more into that which one knows is so good.
As the two approaches play themselves out, the contemplative naturally leads to a general acceptance of things as they are while the evangelical leads to an encouraging of where things need to go. Very probably, the strengths of the two approaches at some point become their respective weaknesses. The contemplative may fizzle into an “anything goes” mentality, while the evangelical may spiral into a self-righteous judgment of others or fundamentalism where the truth is seen in very shallow terms. And devotees of both branches must struggle with the temptation to believe that their way is the only way.
In fact and truth, the Church needs both branches. Your rector and St. John’s may well lean toward the contemplative, yet it could not be a good thing if our emphasis on devotion to the holy led to a privatized spirituality or a focus only on ourselves. The true contemplative will inevitably recognize the need to reach out to others and the true evangelical must know that words must first be applied in one’s own life.
In more practical terms, each of us may have a similar struggle. We may get lost in the doing of things or taking stances on issues and forget the peace and joy at the core of life. Or we may try to cut ourselves off from everyone else who seems to have forgotten the truth we have found. If each day could begin and end with contemplative practice, while the doing of the day is embraced and carried out, then a holy rhythm may be established.
Pray fervently. Listen. Do what your day calls you to do. And then listen some more.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.