Letter to the Editor: My Church is Having a “Contemplative Communion” Good Friday

To Lighthouse Trails:

My church just started advertising a “Contemplative Communion” service for Good Friday. My pastor is really into contemplative prayer, spiritual disciplines, etc. Since I’m a faithful reader of your site (and the BIBLE!), I know that this is bad news. I wanted to mention the contemplative communion thing to you folks in case you feel it might be good to warn people about it, especially this close to Easter. There’s more info on the Shalem Institute’s website.

Thanks for speaking the truth!!


Our Response:

There is actually a story behind the story regarding Shalem Institute’s ecumenical “Contemplative Communion” Good Friday service. Because we have followed Shalem Institute for many years now, it is no surprise to us that they are holding a contemplative service. Shalem’s contemplative roots go back to its beginning. And when we say contemplative, we mean contemplative in its “purest” form, meaning interspiritual, universalistic, New Age/New Spirituality, and so forth. But the story from our vantage point (actually a two-fold story) is that first, mainstream Christianity (United Methodist, Episcopal, etc) has stepped over that line onto the New Age playing field, and second, largely because of one key figure who was trained at Shalem, the evangelical church is right behind them. In other words, Protestant Christianity is beginning to fulfill the “prophecy” from occultist Alice Bailey, whose “spirit guide” told her that the Age of Aquarius (or Age of Awakening for mankind – to know he is Divine) would come to the world, not around the Christian church, but rather through it.

Shalem Institute, located in Washington, DC, was founded by two interspiritualists: Tilden Edwards and Gerald May. We first heard about Shalem before Lighthouse Trails even began, when we were handed an unpublished manuscript by Ray Yungen in the year 2000. In that manuscript, later to be published as A Time of Departing,Yungen  revealed that Shalem Institute played a major role in bringing contemplative prayer to the Christian church. Below is an excerpt from A Time of Departing:

Ray Yungen (pp. 65-67, A Time of Departing): If the contemplative prayer movement has a major alma mater, it would be the Shalem Institute (for Spiritual Formation) located in Washington D.C. The Shalem Institute is one of the bastions of contemplative prayer in this country and has trained thousands of spiritual directors since its inception in 1972. To understand the interspiritual proclivities in the contemplative prayer movement, I invite you to take a good look at this organization. Founded by an Episcopal clergyman, the Reverend Tilden Edwards, Shalem’s mission is to spread the practice of mystical prayer to Christianity as a whole.

Dr. Edwards himself makes no effort to hide his interspiritual approach to Christianity. One example was a workshop he did titled: Buddhist Contributions to Christian Living. He promises that if one wants to live in the divine Presence, then consider that:

“Some Buddhist traditions have developed very practical ways of doing so that many Christians have found helpful . . . offering participants new perspectives and possibilities for living more fully in the radiant gracious Presence through the day.”

An individual who had a particularly large influence in the Christian counseling field is the late psychiatrist and author Gerald May. May, who passed away in 2005, was also a cofounder and teacher at the Shalem Institute. . . .  one finds a direct affinity between May and Eastern mysticism.

In the front of his book, Simply Sane, he states upfront: “The lineage of searching expressed herein arises from scriptures of the world’s great religions.” He then gives thanks to two Tibetan Buddhist lamas (holy men) and a Japanese Zen Master for their “particular impact” on him.

The influence of Eastern spirituality is also depicted in his book, Addiction and Grace, which is considered to be a classic in the field of Christian recovery. In this book, May conveys that “our core . . . one’s own center . . . is where we realize our essential unity with one another with all God’s creation” (emphasis mine).

Of course the method for entering this “core” is the silence, which May makes obvious when he explains:

“I am not speaking here of meditation that involves guided imagery or scriptural reflections, but of a more contemplative practice in which one just sits still and stays awake with God.”

May is even more upfront about his Eastern metaphysical views in his book, The Awakened Heart, where he expounds on the “cosmic presence” which he explains is “pervading ourselves and all creation.”

One might defend May by saying he was just speaking of God’s omnipresence. But May was firmly in the mystical panentheistic camp. There can be no mistaking his theological underpinnings when May revealed his meaning of “cosmic presence” in such statements as:

“It is revealed in the Hindu greetings jai bhagwan and namaste that reverence the divinity that both resides within and embraces us all.”55

Like [New Ager] M. Scott Peck, May started with Zen Buddhism back in the 1970s. He was still in tune with it some thirty years later when he wrote the foreword to a book called Zen for Christians. In it, he wrote: “I wish I’d had this book when I began to explore Buddhism. It would have made things much easier.”56

Later in A Time of Departing, Yungen quotes Shalem founder Tilden Edwards as saying the following: “This mystical stream [contemplative prayer] is the Western bridge to Far Eastern spirituality.”

That is the very core of why Lighthouse Trails continues warning about the contemplative prayer (i.e., spiritual formation) movement that has literally knocked the evangelical church off its feet (only she doesn’t realize it).

There are two key players within the evangelical camp who have been heavily impacted by Shalem Institute, one directly and one indirectly: Ruth Haley Barton and John Ortberg. Barton was trained at the Shalem Institute and later became the Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Willow Creek. There, she teamed up with John Ortberg to create Willow Creek’s curriculum on Spiritual Formation. While Richard Foster was bringing contemplative prayer into the church through his 1978 classic Celebration of Discipline, Barton and Ortberg were bringing it in through a side door, the highly influential Willow Creek. Today, both Barton and Ortberg are actively doing their part in bringing about this paradigm shift to evangelical Christianity.

If one would like to see what the evangelical church is becoming, one only needs to take a look at Ruth Haley Barton today. After she left Willow Creek, she went on to start her own organization, The Transforming Center. There, her program trains thousands of pastors and church leaders how to become contemplative.

Again, from Ray Yungen:

The following scenario Barton relates could be the wave of the future for the evangelical church if this movement continues to unfold in the manner it already has:

“I sought out a spiritual director, someone well versed in the ways of the soul . . . eventually this wise woman said to me, . . . ‘What you need is stillness and silence so that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.’ . . . I decided to accept this invitation to move beyond my addiction to words.”6

By “addiction to words” [Barton] means normal ways of praying. She still uses words, but only three of them, “Here I am.” This is nothing more than The Cloud of Unknowing or the prayer of the heart.

Like Richard Foster, Barton argues that God cannot be reached adequately, if at all, without the silence. (p. 172, A Time of Departing)

On Ruth Haley Barton’s website, it states:” Our passion is to see every church become a center for spiritual transformation.” We believe it would be profound to know how many evangelical pastors, who are holding Good Friday services this coming Friday, have been influenced by Ruth Haley Barton or Richard Foster. Most likely the majority of them have a copy of Celebration of Discipline on their bookshelves. If your pastor is one of those who does, take a look at Shalem Institute, and we believe you will be taking a look at the near future of evangelical Christianity.

A number of years ago, one of our colleagues contacted Gerald May via e-mail and asked him if he believed that Jesus was the only way to salvation. He answered emphatically, “Absolutely not!” This is the face of the Christian of the future, a future that is at the threshold right now.

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