On Sunday night of our centering prayer retreat the western sky was radiating red as I slipped out of a side door of the Rosaryville Spirit Life Center. I had just received a clear message during lectio divina (sacred reading). The passage speaking to me was from Psalm 139, with a new translation bringing these words into my ears and heart: “Lo, You have already heard my heart call.” The phrase was originally being spoken by the psalmist to God, but as often happens in lectio divina, the reading (lectio) and the meditation (meditatio) had led to a prayer (oratio) offering a different message. This time I was hearing the same phrase spoken to me by God.
I wrote what I heard in my journal: “William,” God said, “you have already heard my heart call.” The message was personal and intimate, meant for me. This reversal had a clear meaning, and since I rarely have a sense of spiritual clarity, I took notice. The “heart call” of God meant that God wants to call all people into God’s presence. That is what is in God’s heart. So when I feel called to be a contemplative missionary, to practice the presence of God and share that with others, my calling is an expression of God’s heart call. God’s heart call for the world is coming into and through me, radiating like the beautiful red of the evening sky.
I had just been blessed Sunday morning to share this heart call of practicing the presence of God during our Sunday School hour with 24 youth and adults from the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, California, who were visiting our church. I felt radiant joy in sharing stories with them, answering questions, and learning some of their favorite ways of practicing the presence of God.
The group was led there by Rev. Robert English, a young clergy person who is just transitioning into a new position to create spiritual communities similar to ours in their region. There was an immediate kinship between us, a sense of being on this particular journey of creating imperfect contemplative communities together, which made the sharing time extra rich. I especially enjoyed it when he said they were interested in creating “anti-excellence communities,” meaning small groups who seek to grow deep in really living their faith, instead of the kind of “church excellence” that translates into entertaining large groups of people who will attend church weekly and give lots of money. It seems like Robert is my kind of guy.
I got to tell stories about our School for Contemplative Living, which creates contemplative communities who practice God’s presence and serve from that presence, and about our Parker Memorial United Methodist Church community, which is one expression of an emerging church: a messy, multi-cultural, progressive and inclusive group who co-create worship and ministry. I had committed to leave my silent retreat long enough to connect with the group during Sunday School and worship, and found great joy in being a contemplative missionary with them.
When I returned to the silent retreat Sunday afternoon, I listened to the teaching about the fourth moment of lectio divina, which is contemplatio, or resting in God, and the fifth moment, which is “being a word of God” in the world. This teaching by Leslee Terpay of Contemplative Outreach was a beautiful expression of my own sense of calling: moving from contemplation, (the practice of God’s presence), into service (being a word of God by expressing God’s heart call in the world). We learned about these moments, and then we practiced the first four moments by praying scripture. That’s how the passage from Psalm 139 came into my awareness.
I felt like I had been radiating God’s heart call at the church, and then I was hearing a direct affirmation of my form of being a contemplative missionary in the lectio divina training and practice. An image came to mind of concluding this five-day retreat by going to see Robert again, to learn more about his vision and sense of mission, and to offer a blessing on his life and ministry.
It might seem grandiose, but I had this weird sense of wanting to pass on the mantle of being a contemplative missionary to Robert, who is more than twenty years younger than me. In my mind it looked like a modern day version of Elijah passing on a mantle of prophetic responsibility to Elisha. Though I am far from done with my own service as a contemplative missionary, I really want to bless the heart call of God radiating in younger people like Robert. And so we will meet again in a few days so I can offer my blessing.
The day had been full, and fulfilling. As the Sunday evening was drawing to a close and I was about to drop off to sleep, I checked my cell phone for any last texts from my wife. She had left word that she was on the way to an emergency room to get a possible infection checked out after a week of symptoms. So here’s the sad part of the story. I didn’t respond by radiating love for my wife. I responded from a self-centered place of having my retreat disturbed, and from a frustrated awareness that I would probably need to leave immediately to drive to meet her and miss the night’s sleep.
The questions I asked her were clearly not from a heart of love. My emotional reaction was more like, “Not another health emergency,” and my questions probably sounded like this: “So why did you wait all week and decide to go tonight, when I was just with you in town a few hours ago?” I didn’t say any of that, but I admittedly felt it. So my listening to God’s heart call went right out the window just when Carol needed it most. So much for being a contemplative missionary with my own family.
She told me not to drive back to town, but to wait and let her update me when she knew something. Being in a very self-centered place, I did just that. I put my head on the pillow, and even fell asleep a few times between texts. Finally, at 2:34 a.m. she texted that they found a small infection, gave her a prescription, and sent her home. She also added that her kidney function was just fine. I fully admit that I was relieved, partly because she would be okay and partly because I could go back to sleep after a long day.
So here’s the thing: I do still love being a contemplative missionary, radiating God’s presence with all kinds of people. But someday I would sure like to get better at radiating with my wife.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, also available as a Kindle book.