Desert Youth Worker: Disciplines, Mystics, and the Contemplative Life

October 8th, 2009


The words “Jesus' blood never failed me yet” are being sung over and over, but it's not Martin Smith of Delirious singing them. It's Tom Waits accompanying an unnamed homeless man on Gavin Bryars' 74-minute modern classical piece, “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” It's tape loop played over an orchestra with the same phrase repeated for the duration: “Jesus' Blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet; Jesus' blood never failed me yet. This one thing I know, for he loves me so. Jesus' blood never failed me yet.” When I bought the CD, I remember the clerk saying, “You might not want that one. It's sooo repetitious.” But for me, that's the whole point.

I used the CD as part of a spiritual disciplines retreat for teens. It served as a multimedia approach to what's called Logos meditation by some and Lectio Divina by others. Simply put, it's the repetition of a thought over and over again. “This one thing I know”

The sun had just set, and I was sitting in the common room of a lakeshore cabin with 10 teenagers, two of whom were sleepingone snoring. The rest of us were in a semi-conscious state. Hearing Tom Waits singing along with the tape loop told me the disc was nearly over. One of the students later commented to me that as he realized the music was starting to fade out, he experienced a sense of loss.

“I didn't want it to end,” he said.

I know what he meant. I felt like I was cradled in Jesus' arms, just resting there. The worries of school, work, and life in general were a million miles away. The words “never failed me yet” have taken hold in my heart, and today I'll still find myself humming the tune during a traffic jam and returning to the thoughts this meditation birthed.

In the morning, we packed up from the retreat and returned home. It was the second year we'd held this sort of retreat—no fun games, no big events, just around-theclock prayer vigils, prayer walks, times of meditation, and teaching on the spiritual disciplines. We can't even say the food was great, since we fasted for the first 24 hours of the retreat. The closest that weekend came to resembling a regular youth retreat was a time of worship and celebration. And this was nearly ten years ago, when it wasn't in vogue to use spiritual disciplines with students.

The Disciplines

I bumped into the classic spiritual disciplines while taking a course called “Dynamics of Christian Life” in my second year of Bible school. One of our textbooks was The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. The course and textbook only touched on the actual disciplines, but the concept captivated me. The following spring, I found a copy of Richard Foster's spiritual classicCelebration of Discipline in a used bookstore. Opening it and discovering each discipline detailed chapter by chapter, I felt a profound sense of joy and excitement. I'd found a real treasure.

I began reading and exercising the disciplines one by one. Working as a camp director, I was virtually alone in a provincial park for two months before the summer program began. Instead of bemoaning my loneliness, I found myself embracing the solitude. I also set out one day of every week for fasting.

When the summer program began, I'd prepared an experience for each week with the teens that revolved around the disciplines. Each day we spent 15 minutes in a time of meditative prayer, followed by daily Bible study. We spent a day fasting, which gave our cooks some well-deserved time off. We spent a day practicing “celibacy” by dividing the camp in half and doing all our activities separated by gender. That night was one of my best moments in camp ministrya two-hour guys' run through Lodge Pole pine forest to the top of a lookout point, where we watched the sun set over the prairies in meditation and prayer. The week culminated in an intensely interactive spiritual worship celebration that had been planned by the campers throughout the week.

Sadly, I didn't know how to replicate any of the disciplines once I returned to my studies in the fall. It was easy to be meditative in the middle of God's creation and to practice solitude when there was no one around. Fasting when your roommates just ordered pizza proved to be much more challenging.

The Mystics

Thankfully God provided another impetus to press on. My church history class introduced me to the word “mystic” in the Christian tradition, and after looking further into the history of Christian mysticism, I found overlap between the disciplines I so wanted to practice and the teachings of these Christian fathers and mothers. I read the writings of Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. Their words were poetic rather than prosaic—which, for my spirit that had been fed entirely on the modernist apologetics of the “evidence that demands a verdict” late '80s, was like eating a gourmet meal after years of protein shakes. These were people of the faith unlike any I'd encountered—those who had rejected the pleasures of wealth and comfort to live in solitude or monastic communities in deserts, mountains, and forests.

As an artist growing up in the church, I'd always wondered where my place really was or if I even had one. As I studied the mystics and the classic disciplines, I realized I'd been hungering for this way of knowing God. In my late teens I'd often rise after a lengthy period of reading the Bible and run barefoot out into the night air. Sometimes my runs took me to the desert-like coulees that surround my home town of Medicine Hat. Surrounded by cactus and tumbleweed, I imagined I was one of the desert mystics or Elijah or David out in the Judean wilderness. I felt far closer to God in those moments than I did sitting in pews on Sunday morning.

Encountering Resistance

While the lives of the mystics were an encouragement to press on in practicing the spiritual disciplines, they were also a hindrance to finding acceptance for those same disciplines in my faith community. Evangelicalism was suspicious of such desert experiences in those days. Meditation was considered “New Age” (but I think everything that the church couldn't label and wanted to disparage was called “New Age” in the late '80s). In fact, when my friend would go for prayer walks in heavy rain, people began to wonder if he was mentally disturbed.

I had ideas from the mystics about implementing the disciplines into everyday life, but no one to help me examine these ideas. When I asked my professors or pastors about it, I got mixed results. Either they didn't see the need or warned I was making my faith too esoteric. Even when I took a seminary course on the subject, the teacher admitted that in undertaking the disciplines, we would be experimenting on our own since he was no expert in the field. Consequently, I had no mentor to guide me on this path save for the writings of people long dead.

Morton Kelsey refers to the experience of contemplative prayer in all its forms as entering a “laboratory for the soul.” While this phrase entices me with its sense of adventure, it frightens most believers. For too long, evangelical Christianity has packaged faith in safe bundles. Very few books on prayer need to have a “dangerous goods” sticker applied to them (Pray like Hell by Maxine Outlaw being one of the exceptions). Describing contemplative prayer as a form of exploration into uncertain territory didn't inspire confidence in my peers.

Inward Journey

Therefore I was largely alone in my explorations. I tired of debates with classmates who accused the disciplines of being occult practices, so I started using the phrase “listening prayer” when I talked about my own experiences in meditation. I built myself a prayer room—a tiny sanctuary in a basement closet filled with books on spiritual disciplines, contemplative prayer, and Christian mysticism. In that space I lit candles, burned incense, hung rosaries, and listened to tapes of Benedictine monks. I meditated for hours on words, images, and sounds. I reached the point of being able to achieve alpha brain patterns, the state in which dreams occur, while still awake and meditating. I made many journal entries of my prayers, thoughts, and dreams. I listened to that Gavin Bryars CD a lot.

Corporate Journey

Likewise, in the midst of my personal journey I began to embark on a corporate one. I proposed the idea of a weekend spiritual disciplines retreat while I was working as a high school ministry intern. My boss liked the idea, but people questioned how many teens would show up. Who would actually pay to go to something where you wouldn't be fed and would have to get up in the middle of the night to participate in an all-weekend prayer vigil?

As it turned out, around 25% of our students attended the retreat—far exceeding my expectations. The weekend was a microcosm of my own experience; learning to teach the disciplines was nearly as daunting as learning to undertake them had been. How could I be authoritative on a subject about which I was still learning?

Nevertheless, the weekend was a success, and in the spring of the next year, the students requested an encore, which is how I got to that lakeshore cabin listening to Gavin Bryars with a room full of high school students.

Recent Experiences

<p style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 0px; padding-top: 10px; padding-right: 0px; padding-bottom: 10px; padding-left: 0px; “> My journey from that cabin has been a tighter weave of the personal and corporate journeys. I worked as a church planter the following year and began using contemplative elements in worship from the outset. We held “thin place” services in reference to a belief that in prayer, the veil between us and God becomes thinner. Entire nights were devoted to guided meditations, drum circles, and “soul labs.” At soul labs we used the rave culture's approach of multiple rooms for different music to create a number of prayer stations, where people could try various approaches to contemplative prayer. During Lent, we all fasted—be it from food, caffeine, coarse language, or video games. Having a community with whom to practice the disciplines has made it less necessary for me to carve out opportunities to practice them alone.

As a result, when my wife and I moved into our current home, I never rebuilt my prayer closet. I believe it was a tool for a season, to help me find a quiet place to rest in God. Now all I need to do is close my eyes and begin deep breathing or whisper a phrase from a Logos meditation, and my heart is opened to feel God's presence. Like anything else we do, the contemplative life becomes more and more natural with practice.

“Still Apprehensive”

Despite a growing interest in the disciplines, thanks largely to the huge and continually growing success of Richard Foster's book, Evangelical Christians are still apprehensive about the subject of meditation and contemplative approaches to Christian living. While serving as staff pastor at a large summer camp in British Columbia, I came face to face with the suspicions that still surround the mystical approaches to Christianity. Each morning I was responsible for staff devotions. My devotional experiences for the past ten years have been largely contemplative, and so I purposed to teach the group the same.

The morning after I expressed my intention to the group, a young lady came to me with a concerned expression.

“You're going to teach us to meditate?” she asked.

“That's right,” I said.

“Isn't that New Age or Buddhist?” she asked.

“Well, Buddhists do meditate, and there are many New Age meditative practices, but what I'm going to teach is Christian meditation.” I silently promised myself to never use the word meditation in a public Christian setting ever again.

“What's the difference?”

“Well, on the surface, nothing. The approach to meditation for a Buddhist looks an awful lot like what I do. The difference is the reason we're doing it. The Buddhist empties the mind for the sake of emptying it. The Christian empties the mind to fill it with Christ.”

“I don't know about this.”

I wished I could better understand her apprehension. I wanted to be able to say something tried and true, to quote Max Lucado on the subject, and to tell her that I had strong statistical documentation proving nine in every ten people who try meditation come closer to Christ. All that came to mind is Sam I Am giving his sales pitch for green eggs and ham, and his words blurred with the Psalmist.

Try them, try them, you will seesee that the Lord is good.

“Into the Desert”

It's impossible for me to prove to anyone that practicing spiritual disciplines will make him or her a better Christian, or that contemplative prayer is great to use with teens. That's not what I've learned along the journey. What I've learned is that we all come to a greater knowledge of Christ along various roads—praying, singing, and serving differently. If that road takes you into green pastures full of friends and family and familiar devotional books, then so be it. If the road that leads you to Christ is safe and comfortable, then so be it. If, however, the road leads into the desert, to sit in silence or solitude for days, to pray into the darkness and silence with no answer for weeks or months, or to meditate on God's Word, then into the desert you must go.

But don't worry; you'll be in good company. Ever since the time of Abraham, God's people have been called to the desert. Come join this great cloud of witnesses. There isn't a lot of water, but the sunsets are to die for.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.