Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
by Rev. Michael McNamara
As I slowly and deliberately near the top of the climb, I am surrounded by emptiness. At this height the world is far away, and with the exception of a turkey vulture circling below me, all is small and still. At this height the wind envelopes everything, howling with such steadiness it becomes a blanket of white noise, producing a deep and profound silence. At this height the vastness, the void, the sheer expanse of space is overwhelming and in that moment simplicity reigns, for I can only focus on is what is in front of me: handhold, foot hold, pull up, the jingle of gear, the rope every so gently reminding me that it is there, the smell of chalk and sweat, rock dust faint in my nostrils. Whatever worries or thoughts or motives I brought with me to the base of the climb have been given over to this still, simple silence.
It is there that a clarity emerges, ever so fleetingly, it exists in a place beyond words. I am united with something impossibly expansive, a deeper self, a self in unity with this Ultimate Reality. Time slows into the moment and the sense of clarity begins to feel like eternity itself, as if all things flow through, into and out of this moment.
I once had a maroon t-shirt with the image of a imposing mountain face embossed with the words: “Somewhere between the bottom and the top is the reason that we climb.” The longer I climb, the more I appreciate the truth this shirt proclaimed. For the uninitiated, climbing may look like little more than a way to seek thrills, to tick off summits from a list. But the more one climbs, the more the joy comes from moments like the one described above. In the process, I would even go far as to say the joy really starts to come in the midst of the monotony of it.
Yes, believe it or not, climbing can become mundane. Imagine obsessing over subtle shifts in the texture of a rock face, checking and re-checking gear, the act of belaying (holding the rope with a friction device so the climber climbing does not fall to the ground) is often a practice in tedium, and this goes on for hours on end. But it is in that very monotony — as opposed to the “mountain top” experiences — that one can uncover these fleeting moments of clarity.
If this seems counter intuitive, think of the way the world is currently obsessed with “experience” — particularly the spectacular kind. Cruise through just about any social media feed and it is ripe with curated posts and selfies that feel almost like an arms race towards who had the greatest experience! This happens in the spiritual world as well: the perfectly lighted yoga studio, the wellness trips to beautiful destinations. Even in the church there has been a push for experience: the best praise band, the perfect background for slides, the “right” website, making sure the greeters are properly trained. There is a particular kind of seeking that seems to be looking for God in the profoundly extraordinary and miraculous.
The summit experience, when I began climbing, fit the bill as profoundly extraordinary and I undoubtedly chased after them for a while. After nearly 28 years of spending time in the mountains, I can honestly say that summits are now just a part of the journey, no longer the goal in themselves. The real transformation has come through being patient with the process and resting in stillness, silence, and simplicity. And if climbing has taught me anything, it’s that stillness, silence, and simplicity are best when they are internal states of being. In other words stillness does not need to be still, silence does not need to be silent, and simplicity can be found in even the most complex of tasks.
This isn’t a perfect parallel for the church, but there are similarities. For one, focusing on “experience” will only get a person so far. And if there is no one around ready to invite people past “experience,” someone with some familiarity with stillness, simplicity ,and silence, then the community will not get very far.
The good news is that one does not need to perch themselves hundreds of feet above the ground to discover stillness, simplicity, and silence. In fact, although I may have first uncovered fleeting moments of clarity in the mountains, it is through contemplative practice, through intentionally being present to God, that I am able to deepen those moments and expand those moments and to let those moments continue to transform and work through me towards a unity with the divine.
Amid the rampant anxiety of the mainline church at the moment, we need the counter-intuitive. There is a reflex in the face of dwindling membership numbers to be more attractional, getting caught up in providing an experience, to do anything to just get people through the doors. Maybe thats the starting place, maybe not, but if the church can not provide a pathway towards that deeper experience, in stillness, silence, and simplicity, then it will almost certainly fail, for those fleeting moments of clarity that come through practice and embracing the process and letting go into the undefinable vastness of God are where real transformation happens. Are you embracing stillness even when its dancing, silence even when its loud, and simplicity even when its nuanced and paradoxical? Where in the impossible expanse of God do you let go and rest into the still, simple silence?
Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.