Sunsets, monkeys, and a contemplative approach to the soul

Some people see only night and day. Light and dark. Black and white.

Others see the gradual rise of the sun to start the day and the slow descent of the sun in the western sky. They see the nuanced, fiery colors across the canvas above them. It’s a chromatic spectrum that, with each day, brings a different experience wholly unlike yet equally as beautiful as the one before.

When I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I took a class on the Christian doctrine of sanctification. Sanctification, within the Christian context, is the process by which we achieve holiness. There are almost as many views understanding how sanctification plays out in the life of a believer as there are denominations. IMG_3363.jpgUnderstandably, each one claims to hold the correct view. The other night I came across one of my textbooks, “Christian Spirituality,” covering five views of this doctrine: Reformed, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Contemplative.

At DTS, most of the students were male and a third of them came from engineering backgrounds. Half of the students received their undergraduate degrees from Evangelical Bible colleges. As a Communications major from moderately left-leaning, Trinity University, a non-sectarian liberal arts university in San Antonio, I was hardly your typical Dallas Seminary student.

I remember other students from the course mocking the Contemplative approach to sanctification. During my childhood days as a Catholic, I was surrounded by priests and nuns who embraced a Contemplative approach to spirituality. It was disheartening, albeit not surprising, to hear the Evangelical, western-minded, Bible students mocking a tradition that was foundational to my earliest ventures into spirituality.

Each chapter of the textbook gave an overview of the various approaches, followed by responses from representatives of each of the other schools of thought. It was interesting to me that none of them necessarily refuted Contemplation. In fact they acknowledged its value.

As I’ve made my way back to my contemplative roots, it’s been interesting to me how many people misunderstand and even misrepresent where my journey is leading me. As I have turned away from a dualistic view of faith and spirituality (and, for that matter, life as a whole), one would think, to hear some talk, that there is something wrong with me or that I am living in doubt or in a crisis of faith.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A friend helped me realize that where I’m landing with my spirituality is only a problem for those that cling to a dualistic, black or white, this or that approach. For this group there is no other choice. They must view me as being in a crisis of faith because they only allow themselves to view their understanding of spirituality through a binary lens. Either I’m wrong or they’re wrong. They cannot see it any other way.

How someone views my journey or whether they are critical of it is not my concern, however. As I’ve grown fond of saying these days, “not my circus, not my monkeys.” To paraphrase a recent lunch conversation with my friend Andre, I’m reminded of a quote often attributed (incorrectly) to Dr. Seuss: “Those that mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind.”

I’m learning the reality of a nuanced spirituality, one that notices all the colors God has splashed across the canvas and appreciates them for their uniqueness, rather than trying to force a dichotomy of black and white thinking, values the work God is doing in our world and in humanity for all that it is. 

I’m just glad to be re-discovering my roots.EK6FeOy

Dozing off to sleep last night, I came across this response in my old textbook:

“When the ‘old gods’ become oppressive, when theology becomes bogged down in abstract objectivist descriptions and hair-splitting scholastic definitions, or when it’s ethics become too legalistic and heteronomous, or perhaps when the gods are eclipsed by an arid scientific and technological society…The contemplative knows that the affective dimension holds the key to our real growth.

Love is the ultimate motor and the goal of sanctification.”

Gerhard O. Forde
Lutheran response to Contemplation
“Christian Spirituality”
edited by Donald L. Alexander, 1988

One thought on “Sunsets, monkeys, and a contemplative approach to the soul

  1. As a fellow traveler on this journey away from dualistic thinking, I’ve also been learning to embrace the both/ands rather than the either/ors. It’s challenging at times to live in the question marks rather than the periods, but when I’m being most honest I see my former “certainty” as a mere mirage anyway…

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