Sacred Pathways: The Ascetic & The Contemplative

September 28, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Sept. 28, 2014


 “Sacred Pathways: The Ascetic & The Contemplative”

Matt. 6: 1-6


 “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.

“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘play actors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

 “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.                                                                                  Matt. 6: 1-6


All you have to do today to sell a magazine is one of these things:

  1. Put a picture of Oprah on it.
  2. Put a picture of the late Princess Diana or her sons on the cover.
  3. Do a feature article on spirituality.

In case you haven’t noticed, spirituality is in vogue now.  Realize I’m not talking about religion ~ it’s out of style.  But spirituality is definitely IN!  People seem to be looking for ways to relate to God in their own manner and in their own time.  And far be it from any of us to complain.  Even those of us who profess Christianity and regularly attend worship, Sunday School, and Bible study are on a quest to find new and helpful ways to relate to God.


The sermon series I am sharing with you is an exploration of various spiritual pathways ~ different and equally acceptable ways of demonstrating our love for God.  I am using Gary Thomas’s book “Sacred Pathways; Discover Your Soul’s Pathway to God” as my major resource for this series.  In the book, Gary defines 9 different pathways.


Today, we’re going to explore two new sacred pathways ~ the Ascetic and the Contemplative


John Rosemond, the syndicated columnist and also a family psychologist, likes to take an informal poll of parents.  He asks parents, “Do your kids complain about boredom?” Without exception he’s always been told no outside of this country.  In fact, parents in other cultures look at him with incredulity, as if to say: Boredom and kids just don’t go together!


Rosemond also asks parents who raised their kids in the United States, but did so in the forties or fifties.  And they express that their children were rarely bored.  In another survey, Rosemond asks middle-aged parents, “How many toys did you have growing up?”  The answers range from zero to 10, but mostly these folks respond with something like, “Toys?  We took a cardboard box, and we made something out of it.”


In contrast, Rosemond says the typical American child of five years of age has accumulated 240 toys!  Now, since five-year olds have only lived for 260 weeks, they’re apparently accumulating almost one toy per week.  And yet, they’re bored.


So where does contentment come from?  Does it come from having more toys?  From going to more movies?  From eating out more often?  From enlarging our wardrobes?  From escape of any kind?  No, contentment comes from within.  It’s an internal disposition, and we know it.  We just don’t live as if we know it.  The two sacred pathways we’re talking about today are examples of living as if we understand that growing closer to the divine is not about doing and having… it’s about being.


Ascetics want nothing more than to be left alone in prayer.  Take away the liturgy, the trappings of religion, and the noise of the outside world.  Let there be nothing to distract them – no pictures, no loud music – and leave them alone to pray in silence and simplicity.


Ascetics live a fundamentally internal existence.  Even when they are part of a group of people, they might seem to be isolated from the others.  Frequently introspective, sometimes to a fault, they are uncomfortable in any environment that keeps them from “listening to the quiet”.


Singer and writer Michael Card is a good example of the ascetic temperament.  He lives in a Shaker-inspired home on one hundred acres in a rural part of Franklin, Tennessee.  Michael admires the Shaker emphasis on simplicity in architecture and lifestyle.  His dream is to establish a small, silent retreat center on his land where pastors, artists, and songwriters could spend time with God in prayer and fasting.


Here is one of his song lyrics that advocates the simple life:

“Every heart needs to be set free

                        From possessions that hold it so tight

                        ‘Cause freedom’s not found in the things we own

                        It’s the power to do what is right

                        With Jesus, our only possession

                        Then giving becomes our delight

                        And we can’t imagine the freedom we find

                        From the things we leave behind.”


The Bible gives several examples of ascetics.  The Psalms provide treasured passages for the enthusiasts, who love to celebrate.  But ascetics also know they are called to mourn.  And Lamentations, Daniel, and Joel offer rich passages for ascetics too.  Daniel writes of fervent prayer in which he pleads with God, fasts, and sits in sackcloth and ashes.  Joel challenges spiritual leaders to wear sackcloth, to mourn, wail, fast and spend the night watching prayer, crying out to God.  These texts, by the way, are the basis upon which many Ash Wednesday services developed.


The ascetic values solitude, austerity, and strictness.  Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, raised a large family but craved an austere and solitary place from which she could meet her God.  Her solution?  She frequently pulled her apron over her head and prayed.  Her kids learned not to bother her when her apron was over her head!


Temptations experienced by those with ascetic dominance are: an overemphasis on personal piety and seeking to gain God’s favor.


If you’re looking to enhance your spiritual journey, I would encourage you to try some ascetic practices.  Take an overnight retreat at the spiritual life center or a retreat house.  Go into a small, plain, and quiet place to study or pray.


Similar to the ascetic is the contemplative pathway to God.  These Christians might refer to God as their lover, and images of a loving Father or Mother God dominate their view of God.  Their favorite Bible verses might be taken from the Song of Songs as they experience what it refers to as “divine romance”.  The focus of a contemplative is not necessarily serving God, doing God’s will, accomplishing work in God’s name, or even obeying God.  Rather, contemplatives seek to love God with the purest, deepest, and brightest love imaginable.


One of the best Biblical descriptions of the role of the contemplative is found in Moses’ prophecy/description of the tribe of Benjamin:  “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.”


“Resting between God’s shoulders” is the favorite pastime of the contemplative.  He or she wants to enjoy God and learn to love God in even deeper ways.  The psalmist David expresses the contemplative desire when he writes,

“O God, You are my god;

            Early will I seek You;

            My soul thirsts for You

            My flesh longs for You

            In a dry and thirsty land

            Where there is no water.

            Because your loving-kindness is better than life,

            My lips shall praise You.

            My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness.

            And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips.

            I meditate on you in the night watches.

            My soul follows close behind You.”


The love relationship that fuels the contemplative is not hesitant and done out of a sense of obligation.  It is simply an appreciation for Christ that empties into unadulterated adoration.  Time is one of the best gifts we can give and the contemplative want to give God plenty.


But, like any spiritual path, there are potential hazards for the contemplative.  Losing balance, ego absorption, and addiction to spiritual experiences are a few of the possible pitfalls for a contemplative.


It’s difficult to give a well-known, modern-day example of a contemplative since a true contemplative is not going to seek the spotlight.  However, virtually every Christian is familiar with the biblical account of Mary, who sat and worshipped at Jesus’ feet, and who was commended by Jesus for doing so.  If you love this story and feel a kindred spirit with Mary, you may be a contemplative.


The lives of ascetics and contemplatives remind us of a startling fact:  There is one thing that each individual Christian can do that nobody else can.  There will always be evangelists, teachers, writers, and witnesses, but all a person has is him/herself to give to God.  Our spouses, pastors, and coworkers can’t do this for us – only we can give God our personal love and affection.