Contemplative Worship

by Diana Butler Bass

Diana Butler Bass teaches at Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September, 19, 2006, pp. 25-29. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Diana Bass describes the forms of contemplative worship in two churches: "Holy Communion" and "Calvin." These churches are full of normal, struggling people who are rediscovering God in meditative, centering, reflective silence.

For some people, Memphis, Tennessee, conjures visions of southern religion: folks hootin’ and hollerin’ about God, eternal damnation and hell; sweating preachers thundering on about sex, drinking and Democrats. Southern religion is all heat and fire, the blinding light of Jesus converting sinners to saints in a flash. This is what more reasonable Christians used to ridicule as "enthusiasm."

The Church of the Holy Communion, an Episcopal parish in Memphis, stands in stark contrast to these stereotypes. Situated on a prominent street corner in a prosperous part of town, Holy Communion has white columns and a graceful spire that point seekers toward heaven, and a genteel brick exterior and clear glass windows that represent a different southern tradition, one of measured and rational faith.

I join about 100 others for a Sunday evening service of contemplative worship. Electric lights are dimmed, and the primary light in the building comes from hundreds of candles on the high altar and the chancel rail, around the lectern and pulpit. A large Celtic cross graces the altar. Icons flank the table, along with two large racks of unlit votive candles. A small group of musicians is playing an Irish tune, "Si Bheag Si Mhor," on hammered dulcimer, harp, guitar and wooden flute.

A bell rings. The priest enters and draws the congregation to prayer with words written by the Iona community in Scotland: "Breath of God, Breath of life, Breath of deepest yearning." They respond, "Come, Holy Spirit." The invocation continues:

Comforter, Disturber, Interpreter, Enthuser,

Come, Holy Spirit.

Heavenly Friend, Lamplighter, Revealer of truth,

Midwife of change,

Come, Holy Spirit.

The Lord is here.

God’s spirit is with us.

The congregation sings an Irish hymn, ‘How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts to met" After a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we sit in silence. The priest offers a meditation on the Gospel and we sit in silence again -- this time for two minutes. As the musicians play, people get up, walk to the altar and light candles in the votive stand as a symbol of their prayers. The soft candlelight glows brighter with each prayer. "See that ye be at peace among yourselves," offers the minister, "and love one another. Follow the example of good men and women of old, and God will comfort you and help you, both in this world and in the world which is to come."

The music carries us to communion, and the leader invites us to come forward and partake of the Lord’s Supper:

This is the table, not of the church, but of the Lord.

It is made ready for those who love him

And for those who want to love him more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,

You who have been here often and you who have not been here long,

You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.

Come, because it is the Lord who invites you.

It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.

It is an altar call, but not like the altar calls I remember in southern churches, where salvation came through fear. Here the invitation is to dine with God -- not to submit to God’s gaze of condemning judgment. Instead of "Just as I Am," I hear a traditional Scottish ballad as I walk down the aisle. A picture of Holy Communion’s spire comes to mind and I remember the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: "Continual silence, and removal from the noise of the things of this world and forgetfulness of them, lifts the heart and asks us to think of the things of heaven and sets our heart upon them."

And, as in all "good southern religion," there is heat and fire, with the blinding light of Jesus pointing us heavenward. At Holy Communion, however, the heat and fire is in contemplation, in candles flickering with prayer. The blinding light shines through silence and the Spirit comes not in a whirlwind, but in stillness. We are walking the sawdust trail as our ancestors did, only here the trail is marked by icons. The service ends with a hymn to the tune of "Ar Hyd Y Nos":

Go, my children, with my blessing, never alone.

Waking, sleeping, I am with you, you are my own.

In my love’s baptismal river I have made you mine forever.

Go, my children, with my blessing, you are my own.

At the end of the service, I am not the only one weeping.

In January 2001, when I was teaching a course at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., a student asked me what I thought the 21st century would be like. Without a moment’s hesitation I replied, "Noisy. It will be noisy" So I have been surprised by the silence I have encountered in many churches. As a girl I rarely experienced silence in mainline churches and seldom witnessed acts of prayer. My church had succumbed to writer Richard Rohr’s prediction, "When the church is no longer teaching the people how to pray, we could almost say it will have lost its reason for existence," Yet in the congregations I have visited, silence, meditation and contemplation were commonplace, and many new members testified to the spiritual attraction of prayer. Martha, a member of Holy Communion, is one of them. "Not many churches give you real silence, if you think about it. I’ve come to value it . . . Encountering God certainly [happens] in silence."

The contemplative nature of ancient Celtic airs and the deep silence of the liturgy at the Church of the Holy Communion are only two examples. I witnessed Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Congregationalists practicing silence at board meetings, prayer meetings, Bible studies, pastoral care sessions, labyrinth walks, yoga classes and discernment groups. I shared in centering prayer with Presbyterians and went on retreat with Episcopalians following the teachings of the monk Thomas Keating. A group of Lutherans who engaged in practices drawn from Ignatian spiritual exercises told me that they had "learned to listen to God, not just to pray for things." I watched small children in their Sunday school classrooms sit -- for a few seconds -- in God’s stillness. Mainline Protestants, known for their earnest activity, are finding God in silence as if they were seasoned monastics or practiced Quakers.

Some consider silence to be boring and an evangelism turnoff, and see contemplation as something practiced only by supersaints. A fellow historian reminded me that "the tradition has always reserved the contemplative life, and contemplation itself, for the very few." After all, contemplation leads directly to God’s divine presence, and such "unmediated access to the divine energy" can be spiritually dangerous for novices. Following this logic, one might decide that it’s best to keep everyday Christians distracted with overhead projectors, rock bands and podcast sermons.

In our society, noise disconnects us from others and drives us deeper into isolation, claims David Schimke in the Utne Reader. "Surround sound," he says, "is the new, virtual picket fence." P. M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, says that noise is "part of a phenomenon expressed in ancient Latin as horrovacui, which is abhorrence of the void, fear of emptiness, horror of nothingness. I believe that we often overuse electronic gadgets for the same reason that we spend innumerable hours shopping: We do not want to be left alone with our thoughts." Forni believes that one of the most disquieting phenomena of our time is the flight from thinking, meditating and ruminating. When was the last time we followed a thought where it would take us without our eyes or ears being pulled away by a screen or an artificial sound?

We need to rediscover silence because, as 14th-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, "Nothing in all creation is so like God as silence," To rediscover silence, as these churches are doing, is to rediscover God. The Church of the Holy Communion has come to understand itself as "the sacred center" of Memphis, where God’s presence is palpable, where people serve in Jesus’ name and where spiritual growth is a communal hope. Holy Communion is becoming an open monastic community with contemplation at its center.

For much of its history, the church focused on tasteful worship and good works. Piety was deeply personal and privatized; people did not talk about their faith. Today, however, parishioners are expressing their hunger for a deeper spiritual life. Robbie and John McQuiston, who have been practicing the rule of St. Benedict with a small group of parishioners for several years. were finding it difficult to connect Benedictine spirituality with the life of the larger congregation. Then Gary Jones arrived at Holy Communion. Jones’s first day at his new parish was the day of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When he arrived at church that morning, Jones and his new staff hung a huge banner on the front of the church: OPEN FOR PRAYER. Martha refers to this time as "kairos time, God’s time," a unique moment that birthed new possibilities. The people of Holy Communion were about to embark on a journey in prayer. They were open for prayer, open to prayer and open to change. Thomas Merton says: "Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart -- it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God."

Gary Jones knows about meditative prayer. As a young priest he spent time with the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist; the crucible of silence shaped his ministry. By the time he came to Holy Communion, he had led two other parishes in the practice of contemplation and the cultivation of the inner life. He quotes Carl Jung: "If you can’t stand to be alone in silence with yourself, why do you inflict yourself on us?" From the earliest Christian thinkers onward, tradition has insisted that faith, rightly understood, is a quest to know oneself in God. To run from the self is to run from God. People need silence; they need a recovery of the contemplative arts of "thinking, meditating, ruminating."

These things, Jones believes, are not reserved for a spiritual elite, but contribute to the balance necessary for a healthy personal life and a vital congregation. "We need it now greater than ever. Our haste leads us to forget the needs of the soul. We will latch onto anything to feed us. We hope that something -- our clergy, a new love relationship -- will satisfy our restlessness."

Holy Communion’s pathway of contemplation includes reflection, attention and restraint. Restraint is not a word that most people associate with contemporary Christianity, but at Holy Communion restraint is not a spiritual avoidance tactic, but a kind of balance that leads to a deep personal relationship with God. This emphasis grows out of the traditions of Benedictine spirituality, which encourage sensible engagement with principles of mind, body and spirit. With such balance, contemplation does not veer into spiritual excess or elitism but instead leads one to practical wisdom. As one parish publication puts it:

At Church of the Holy Communion, we work to foster the connections that matter -- connections with one’s self, with one’s community, with one’s family and with God.

Those links are strengthened not just by Bible study or prayer, not just by trying to love your family or your neighbor, but by balanced attention to caring for one’s mind, body and spirit.

Holy Communion’s contemplative and mystical practices are loosely drawn from the Rule of St. Benedict, and bits and pieces of monastic practice may be seen throughout the congregation. Small groups teach classical forms of prayer and even chant ("Chant, It’s Not Just for Monks Anymore"). In addition to the Sunday evening service, there is a daily morning prayer service modeled after the monastic practice of hearing scripture read in community. Gary refers to the service as "a corner of monasticism in the parish." Brothers from the Society of St. John the Evangelist visit the parish, and members of the congregation make retreats with the monks. Parishioners are expected to tend to their spiritual lives by participating in prayer and Bible study.

Like Gary Jones, Pastor N. Graham Standish of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, believes that contemplation is essential to a life that connects the physical and spiritual, the personal and communal. He thinks that most mainline churches have fallen prey to a businesslike functionalism that causes spiritual "respiratory failure." "The first sign of openness to the spiritual is the extent to which Robert’s Rules of Order dominates the proceedings of the church. The more determined the church’s leaders are to follow these rules to the letter, the more the spiritual is cut off." Just as Robert’s Rules of Order is the traditional secular guide to meeting procedure, prayer, Standish insists, is the foundation for a spiritual church.

Standish began introducing silence into the congregation because he was convinced that spiritual renewal starts not with "big" programming, but with listening to God’s word, meditating on scripture and discerning God’s will. He dreamed of "a congregation of mystics," and quotes Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly, who says that at the core of every church lies "a blessed community" made up of mystics centered in prayer. Like Jones, Standish describes his congregation as a church full of people with direct, personal experience of God.

One member recalls how change started to happen:

As slowly as you can, [Standish] has tried to mentor us by bringing more silence, more resting in God’s presence. Gently because so many people are uncomfortable with silence. He’s introduced this in very non-threatening packages, a little bit of reflection before we start a committee meeting. We will meditate on scripture as a way of settling down before we do business. We’re saying "God, we want you to come in before us, plow this row before we go.

"Plow this row before we go" reflects the simple Quaker feel to the practice of silence at Calvin. Unlike Holy Communion, where mysticism tends toward the sacramental and transcendent, Calvin Presbyterian practices a more earthy, pragmatic mysticism, finding God’s presence in the stuff of everyday life. Carol, a prayer minister in the church, longs for even more silence in the worship service; "I wish everyone would sit in silence between sections of the service. I think it’s like spinach. We all need it."

The key to Calvin’s vibrancy is linking desire for God with a homey simplicity that mirrors both the great Christian tradition of mystical experience and the small-town sensibilities of historic American Protestantism. Members practice silence at a small Wednesday evening centering and healing service. They pray when they knit shawls for those in need. "As we make these shawls," they pray, "may we keep in mind that we are surrendering our hands to God’s use." Outside, a handmade rock labyrinth offers a path for contemplative prayer.

A pamphlet titled "A Guide, to Listening and Hearing God" suggests that one read scripture regularly and learn to recognize God’s voice. On the back is a benediction by Standish, "I wish you God’s blessing in your listening." In a way, that describes his ministry to the whole congregation -- to model and mentor listening, the power of silence and prayer for all. Business, board and budget meetings begin with silence, and many meetings have an extended time of centering prayer built into their agendas. An elder in the congregation says that the meetings are like mini-prayer meetings, with elections that result in "God’s dream team" leadership. The people of Calvin testify to many personal and communal experiences of God’s grace that have come to them as they have learned to pay attention in silence and prayer.

At Sunday services, silence does not focus on the holy meal as it does in the liturgy at Holy Communion. Rather, the focus is on prayer, singing, the reading of the word and preaching. Silence serves as a spiritual white space between the words, allowing each person to hear the word within. A member remarks, "The worship service is a hybrid of this island of reverence, quietness and reflection combined with a dose of what you do with your life now and what God is doing." Services begin with a centering chant, followed by a prayer of humility and a time of silent confession. The music is mostly contemporary, but not in the "happyclappy" style. Instead, there are meditative Taizé chants and songs like "The Centering Song" and "Simple Gifts." Standish and music director Bruce Smith write music too. Their "Rest in the Bow with Me" provides an unexpected image of contemplative prayer:

Storms and high seas crash over me, Threatening to drown my soul.

Seeking the voice of Christ, I hear:

"Rest in the bow with Me."

Communion is offered every week at the early service and once a month at the later service. But I sense God’s presence at both services and recall Quaker friend Brent Bill’s words, "Worship becomes Eucharist when we sense God present with our group." The congregation of mystics at Calvin Presbyterian make Eucharist not only with bread and wine, but with words and silence.

After decades of decline, Calvin is growing again, with weekly Sunday attendance up from 100 to 240. The church has begun a building program. "There is a strong belief here now," Standish says, "that when you root things in prayer, God actually does answer.

"Praying congregations are not temples of holiness. They are not filled with mystics or experts on prayer, says Jane Vennard, a United Church of Christ minister. "Praying congregations are lively places made up of diverse people who are longing to take prayer seriously." Holy Communion and Calvin are full of normal, struggling people who are rediscovering God in silence. The form their prayer takes is as different as the congregations themselves: centering, contemplative, meditative, while knitting shawls or building Habitat houses, in worship, in homes and small groups, in closets, alone and with others. They are finding that the practice of silence is not narrow, strict or exclusive. Rather, it is a way marked with a large banner: OPEN FOR PRAYER.