a bit monkish.
The monk’s words startled me, so I asked him to repeat what he had just said. Sure enough, I had heard him correctly, and either this Roman Catholic Trappist monk had a misunderstanding of John Wesley or this faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary did.
“John Wesley has always been my favorite Protestant contemplative.”
For the past quarter of a century, I’ve read Wesley, taught Wesley, and incorporated Wesleyan theology and practices into my daily life and ministry. I’ve also studied, read, and translated from Medieval Latin the writings of major contemplatives in Christian history. Yet not once had I ever put the terms “John Wesley” and “contemplative” in the same sentence. Wesley’s well-known daily activities included preaching more than once, walking several miles, traveling on horseback or by coach, working with children, responding to letters, and engaging with a society meeting before retiring for the evening. These endeavors seem to defy the life of a contemplative. Furthermore, in Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse Four, Wesley emphatically states, “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”
How, then, could this well-intentioned Cistercian monk of Gethsemani Abbey refer to John Wesley as a contemplative? It is true that Wesley rose around 4am each day to pray, search the scriptures, and absorb himself in spiritual readings. In his letters and other writings, he encouraged others to engage in private prayer in solitude - retiring from society to spend time alone with God. In that same sermon, for example, Wesley states:
"It can hardly be, that we should spend one entire day in a continued intercourse with [others], without suffering loss in our soul…and grieving the Holy Spirit of God. We have need daily to retire from the world, at least morning and evening, to converse with God, to commune more freely with our Father which is in secret."
We should not spend so much time in private, intimate prayer with God that we neglect the world where God has placed us. This would amount to spiritual negligence and a destruction of the Christian’s role in society. Conversely, unless we spend time each day hidden with God away from others, we do damage to the very soul Christ died to save.
Perhaps that Trappist monk understands Wesley after all. Living a contemplative life is not about engaging solely in what appear to be contemplative endeavors. Rather, a contemplative is one whose heart is continually open to receiving the Holy Spirit and thereby engages the world with the saving message of the Gospel with a meditative, Christ-centered heart. Anything we do or say on behalf of Christ (Colossians 3:17) should emerge from our personal encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. When our ‘doing’ becomes more important than our ‘being,’ we have forgotten what it means to abide in the love of Christ (John 15:4). A contemplative life is one uncluttered with life’s many distractions and anxieties so that God is clearly and intentionally at the center of one’s life. It is a life that has been so transformed by God that one cannot imagine life apart from God. A contemplative life is nothing more than a life of holiness.
Through his life and writings, John Wesley demonstrated a healthy synthesis of contemplation and action. Engagement with the world is to be salt to the world (Matthew 5:13). However, without contemplative heart originating from withdrawal from the world with God, we become salt without any Holy Spirit flavor. Daily withdrawal from the world reminds us that our life and ministry do not belong to us, but to God. As Wesley certainly knew, the indescribable love of God the Father, the salvific message and work of Jesus the Son, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit are more easily conveyed to others from someone who has daily, intimate conversations with God. Whether it is in the early morning and evening like Wesley or some other times in the day, intentional withdrawal from the world is essential for everyone who desires to live as a faithful disciple of Christ. May we, like Wesley, remember that faithful action should begin with faithful inaction.
(c) 2018 Michael C. Voigts
* This article first appeared in the Asbury Theological Seminary Academic Affairs publication, In the Loop (December 2017).
"I would like to know what he meant by coming to us, and why we did not instead go to him. We were the ones in need, and the usual custom is not for the rich to come to the poor, even when they want to help them....That we go to him was more fitting, but there was a twofold obstacle. Our eyes were darkened, yet he dwells in light inaccessible; and lying paralyzed on our mats we could not reach the divine height. That is why our most gracious Saviour and Healer of souls both descended from his lofty height and dimmed his brilliance for our weak eyes."
(Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for Advent 1:8)
Translated from the Latin by Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Beckett, and Conrad Greenia OSCO and taken from Bernard of Clairvaux: Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season
The celebrations have already begun for Protestants as this week marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the start of the Protestant Reformation. The celebration centers on a rediscovery of the importance of the Bible (sola scriptura), an emphasis on personal faith in Jesus Christ (sola fide), an affirmation of God’s grace (sola gratia), a love for Christ (sola Christus), and a reminder that the glory of God is our chief end (soli Deo gloria). Luther’s actions in 1517 changed the course of human history, and brought about the formation of thousands of denominations in the 500 years that followed.
Had the Rome-Centered Church stayed true to its historical, theological, and Biblical foundations, Luther may have lived-out his years as an Augustinian monk rather than the Father of the Protestant Church. Instead, what Luther saw was that as the decades and centuries had progressed, the lust for money, power, and prestige had overtaken the Christian Church in the West. Nominalism had become the standard for Christian commitment. As prayer became entangled with money and the Scriptures distanced from the general population, a personal relationship with Christ had morphed into an obligatory relationship with the Church.
What began with Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Calvin, and Cranmer, continued with Spener, Fox, Zinzendorf, Wesley, and Wakefield. Their teachings re-laid the foundations of ancient Christianity from Biblical times through the early Church Fathers.
It’s 2017. Slowly, as the decades and centuries have gone by, the lust for money, power, and prestige has overtaken many Protestant denominations in the West. Nominalism has become the standard in Christian commitment, and applause from the culture around us has become our aim.
Sometimes God uses the equivalent of a quick, unexpected earthquake like the Reformation to shake His people and put us back on course. Perhaps reflecting this week upon the actions of Luther and the other reformers will embolden us to pray for a Holy Spirit earthquake that will shake us into a renewed understanding of the Church based on holy love and a desire to make disciples in a post-Christian culture. Instead of a Church that reflects the moral fashion-trends of the pop culture, perhaps we will unashamedly stand for the time-tested moral truths of Scripture, even as the pop-culture around us disapproves.
I see not a need for another Reformation, but a Restoration. Perhaps we shouldn’t seek a reformation of our existing denominations but a Restoration of the Church as we were in our earliest years. In the 1100s, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to the Pope, “Maybe you can bring us back to the Church as we were in days of old, when we let down our nets not to catch gold and silver, but people’s souls.” This was language of a restoration of the Church, not a reformation.
Times and cultures have changed since Europe in the 1500s, but the issues Luther and others faced are the same issues we’re facing today: We’ve become such a part of the corruption of the Holy Church initiated by Jesus and inaugurated by the Holy Spirit that many of us can’t even see it.
We’re living in a time of great transition in the global Church. Will we be open to the changes God will do in our midst? Perhaps our prayer should be like the prophetic letter of that medieval abbot: That we will not let down our nets to catch the approval of a sinful society and the maintenance of denominational systems, but a Church that reflects a Holy Spirit passion for evangelistic holiness in cultures that despise us.
On this week in which many Protestants will be looking back 500 years, this lover of church history will be looking forward with excitement and prayerful anticipation. May our descendants 500 years from now look back on this generation and say, “That’s when God did a new thing.” Come, Holy Spirit!
You make me wonder, little leaf
Why you aren’t on the ground.
Your friends lie scattered far below.
You aimed for Jesus’ mouth.
All summer long you flew above
The earth and all below.
You danced in choreography
When warming winds would blow
When Southern winds came from the North
And nights outlasted days,
Then one by one your friends would fall
But did they sing God’s praise?
So did they teach you where to fall
In playful, swirling swings?
Your friends were waiting far below
Your mind was on holy things.
If I could fall just like that leaf
And land wherever I pleased
Would I choose the loving lips of him
Who spoke to the least of these?
Lord, make me like this little leaf
Who chose the better way.
If my heart ever landed far below
I fear it would decay.
(c) 2017 Michael C. Voigts
I began my discovery of Cistercian spirituality more than a quarter of a century ago. It’s been at the heart of two doctorates and a lifestyle of simplicity and contemplation in the world. About eight years ago I made a formal commitment to live the Cistercian charism beyond the walls of the monastery when I became a Lay Cistercian of Gethsemani Abbey. Rather than becoming a conflict with my deeply-held Wesleyan convictions, my Cistercian journey has actually deepened my Wesleyan commitments, particularly in Wesley’s focus on the Means of Grace and their relationship with personal and social holiness.
When I gather with the other Lay Cistercians and monks at the abbey once a month, I feel one with them. We have common interests in Christian spirituality. We have the same commitments to the same Trinitarian Godhead. We’re striving to live lives of holiness. We pray for one another, encourage one another in our faith, and embrace each other in friendship.
However, when I attend mass, I feel completely alone in a room full of people. It’s as if I’m not part of the Body of Christ. I’m not a member of the one True Church. This is because the priests can’t share the Body and Blood of Christ with me.
I know the priests would serve me if I went forward and made an altar with my hands. Yet out of respect for their tradition and teachings, I don’t ask. Instead, I cross my arms against my chest like someone out of a state of grace, and ask for a blessing. I’m thankful and deeply moved to receive this blessing from two Cistercian priests. However, the process makes me feel as if I’m not worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I believe without a doubt that Christ is present in these two elements. While my focus is on a spiritual presence more than on a physical one, His presence is definitely real to me.
In times of fellowship and study, the Gethsemani monks refer to me as “brother,” yet because of their ecclesial laws they are unable to share with me the most intimate expression and celebration of Christ and Christian fraternity. Mass at the abbey reminds me that I’m more of a step-brother in Christ rather than a true brother in Christ.
My heart weeps of the divide in God’s people and I longingly pray for a day when we may be one Church. Until then, I continue to cherish the daily office in unity with the Gethsemani community and I strive to unite holiness of heart and life as a witness to the world.
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.
These thoughts aren't written well and I almost didn't post them. Attempting to summarize the impact of a giant on one's life in 650 words is a laughable endeavor. However, to take the words of a great man out of context, "Here I stand, I can do no other."
When I was 8, I saw him as an immoveable rock; a super hero in whom I could trust - even though physically he didn’t look like one due to his polio-stricken legs.
When I was 10, he was a prophet who spoke on behalf of God about my future, telling me during a Saturday catechism class not to make any career plans because God had already chosen me to be a pastor one day.
By the time I was 12, he had already been my first seminary professor for two years, offering advice and wise tips about how pastors should deal with opinionated people and difficult situations. Even though I didn’t think I had any gifts or graces to be a pastor, if Pastor Ed said I could do it, I trusted him.
When my immediate family was falling apart, he became a source of stability and strength, allowing me to stay with his family (and my friend James, his youngest son) for a couple of weeks at a time. Actually, the entire family accepted me and allowed me to be part of their madcap life.
This week, Pastor Edgar Homrighausen rested from his many years of fruitful labors and entered eternity with God. I’m thankful his 90+ year-old body is no longer laboring, but I’m finding it difficult to process his death. My lifelong mentor and pastor is now gone in the same week I begin life not as a parish pastor but as a seminary professor (I’m trying not to read too much into that).
There’s no way I can recall the many times his wisdom came back to my memory when I’ve faced pastoral issues throughout the years. Three years ago, for example, our church helped someone who had a mental illness. We welcomed her, I baptized her, we supported her financially, and then one day she showed up to my church office in a maniacal state. As I received her curses and threats, I remembered a conversation from long ago.
“See that woman in that pew back there?” Pastor Ed asked me when I was about 11, “She’s crazy. She was yelling and screaming at me earlier. She said she’s going to kill me.”
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“Nah! She won’t touch me. Remember that people always lash out at the ones they love the most.”
I told the screaming woman in my church office that if she couldn’t calm down, I wasn’t going to listen to her. “I’m not going to pay attention to you while you’re acting like that. Come back tomorrow if you want to.” To my surprise, she turned around and left the building. Thanks, Pastor Ed.
From dealing with disruptive people, to preaching with uncompromising boldness, to standing for what is right even if the denominational leaders didn’t like it, to dozens of other life and ministry lessons, I’m just realizing that Pastor Ed’s ministry has served as a model for my own ministry vocation. I pray I've been able to have a tenth of the impact on other people that he had. Then again, there will never be another Pastor Ed Homrighausen.
This is a bold statement, but I cannot imagine where my life would have ended up had Pastor Ed not been in it when I was a child. I am merely one of hundreds of people he mentored throughout the years. And although I haven't seen him in a decade, knowing that he’s not breathing the same air that I am anymore makes me feel just a little bit alone. However, what warms my heart is that after being a faithful servant of God, Pastor Ed has entered a place he's preached and taught about for at least 75 years, and his frail body has now been made whole.
Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Now get out of that wheelchair… and run.
(c) 2017 Michael C. Voigts
How different is "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" from "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!" How different is "The King of Israel!" from "We have no King but Caesar!" How unlike one another are green branches and the cross, flowers and thorns! See how the one before home the garments of others were spread is stripped of his own, and lots are cast for them. How bitter to you are our sins [O Lord], which need such bitterness to wash them away!
— Bernard of Clairvaux, “Palm Sunday: Sermon Two”
It's amazing to think how the same crowds who praised Jesus on Sunday could be shouting for his death on Friday. Were the people so fickle and simple of mind that they could be swayed from praising Jesus to cursing him in just a matter of days? History hasn’t been kind to these Jerusalem crowds. Some have claimed they only cheered for winners, and when Jesus was arrested, they didn’t want to be linked with a loser and face the wrath of the religious leaders themselves. Others contend that the core of the mob’s change of heart was in their misunderstanding of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God.
In his second Palm Sunday sermon, Bernard of Clairvaux offers that the differences between Sunday and Friday can be summed up in one word: sin. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was actually a demonstration of the people's the need for his Jerusalem arrival. Their cheers turned to jeers because sin was competing with godliness for the rule of their hearts.
It’s easy to look back at these crowds and condemn them. Yet this inner heart battle is as alive in the world - the Church! - today as it was in first-century Jerusalem. How easy it is for us to worship God on Sunday morning and then mistreat our Sunday lunch server because she forgot to remove the onions from our burger. How easy it is for us to say we can't work with the children or youth at the church because we're too tired. The same battle that existed in the hearts of the Jerusalem crowds is a battle that lives inside many of us who claim Jesus as our Savior and Lord.
Perhaps we too misunderstand Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God. Our misconception may come not from an expectation that Jesus will overthrow an oppressive government. Instead, I wonder if North America’s misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God is that we expect it to offer convenience. In another sermon, Bernard stresses that Jesus didn’t suffer to relieve us of suffering. He suffered so we might share in his suffering. The Christian life isn’t about what we want, or deserve, or about what rights we have. It’s about forsaking our life so we might live completely for Jesus in authenticity and consistency.
The heart-battle is over and Jesus has won. This is the essence of holiness.
(c) 2017 Michael C. Voigts
after reading 1 John 1:1
The greatest voice I never heard
Is the voice I love the most.
For from this voice the mountains rose
We call this voice The Word.
How did He sound when teaching truth
Or when He was moved to cry?
Or when he scolded priestly ones
Or when He blessed the youth?
This greatest voice I never heard
Once cried out loud in pain.
Through sweat and blood and many tears,
My life with Him secured.
One day of joy He did reveal
To those who loved Him most.
He rose from death forevermore.
The voice they heard was real.
I know someday I will go home
To kneel and kiss his feet.
That greatest voice I never heard
Will speak to me.
(c) 2017 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.