Trevecca Nazarene University Promoting Contemplative Spirituality in No Small Way

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Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN has now been added to the Lighthouse Trails Contemplative Colleges list. Three other Nazarene universities: MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, KS, Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, OH, and Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, ID are also on the list. We have also now added Point Loma Nazarene University. Nazarene universities are promoting contemplative spirituality (i.e., spiritual formation) in significant ways.

Trevecca Nazarene University’s Spiritual Formation program offers a number of venues through which students are introduced to contemplative spirituality. This article will focus primarily on one of them: the “Spiritual Formation Retreat” (Silence and Listening for the Voice of God) taking place on March 27-29. The retreat will actually be held at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

This monastery is well known for its numerous interfaith “dialogues” between Catholics and Buddhists. In 1996 (and also in 2002), a meeting of Buddhists and Catholics took place called the “Gethsemani Encounter.” Of the 1996 meeting (in which Zen-Buddhist trained monk David Steindl-Rast facilitated), the Dahli Lama wrote a book called Spiritual Advice for Buddhists and Christians. A third Gethsemani Encounter occurred in 2008 as well. The closing talk at the 2008 meeting illustrates the focus of these gatherings: MONASTICISM FOR THE GOOD OF THE EARTH: BUDDHISTS AND CATHOLICS SPEAKING WITH ONE VOICE.” Remember, the “fruit” of contemplative spirituality is interspirituality (all paths lead to God).

Knowing a little history of such interspiritual dialogues is helpful in understanding the significance of the Gethsemani Encounters. In the mid-seventies, three monks wanted to bring contemplative prayer to Christianity. This is how they did it.

They invited to the abbey ecumenically oriented Catholic theologians, an Eastern Zen master, Joshu Roshi Sasaki, who offered week long retreats on Buddhist meditation, and a former Trappist, Paul Marechal, who taught transcendental meditation. The interaction between these Christian monks and practitioners of Eastern meditation helped distill the practice of Christian contemplative prayer into a form that could be easily practiced by a diverse array of “non-monastic” believers: priests, nuns, brothers and lay men and women. 1 (See more on the 1977 meeting.)

Those three monks? Thomas Keating, William Meninger and Basil Pennington – all three mystic and panentheistic interspiritual proponents). And who was their inspiration? None other than Thomas Merton, who had already passed away by this time, but his influence lived on in these men’s hearts. It was there at the Gethsemani monastery that Henri Nouwen once met Thomas Merton, a meeting that changed the life and spirituality of Nouwen forever.2

For those who may be wondering whether Trevecca’s trip to the Abbey of Gethsemani is a benign trip or an isolated event, and TNU has no plans to introduce students to contemplative spirituality, you may find the following helpful when forming a conclusion. First of all, on the TNU website, “Suggested Spiritual Formation Resources” are almost all contemplative authors, some of which are Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster (a disciple of Thomas Merton), Marjorie Thompson (Soul Feast), Morton Kelsey, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (also promoted by Rick Warren3), Dallas Willard, Ruth Haley Barton, and Mike Yaconelli (see Lighthouse Trails Research for information on all these authors).

Secondly, to substantiate our claims that TNU has become a contemplative promoting university, textbooks used in class include a number of contemplative authors. One of those is Keith Drury’s book, There is No I in Church. The book is being used in PRA 3300 01 PASTORAL THEOLOGY. Drury has been the subject of Lighthouse Trails articles because of his contemplative promotion. In the book that TNU is using, Drury points readers to mystics, including Nouwen and Thomas Aquinas. Drury also wrote a book for a series called the Lectio Divina Bible Studies, which is published by Wesleyan Publishing.

Other textbooks used at TNU that have contemplative (and some with emergent) material include three from Upper Room Books, one of which is The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry, a primer on contemplative/emerging spirituality with panentheistic overtones. Upper Room is an organization with strong mystical/interspiritual propensities; they are also the creators of the contemplative Walk to Emmaus. For a complete listing of textbooks used at TNU, click here.

In addition to recommended resources, the retreat at Gethsemani, textbooks being used, TNU also offers students a labyrinth.

We would like to leave you with some thoughts about Morton Kelsey, who is listed on the TNU “Suggested” reading list. Ray Yungen discusses Kelsey in his book, A Time of Departing:

Morton Kelsey is an Episcopalian priest and a popular writer among certain Christian thinkers. His most influential book, Other Side of Silence: The Guide to Christian Meditation has influenced tens of thousands. One publication stated that his book, Companions on the Inner Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance was a “favorite among spiritual directors”(p. 67, ATOD). Where contemplative prayer has lead Kelsey is apparent in his pronouncement that: “You can find most of the New Age practices in the depth of Christianity…. I believe that the Holy One lives in every soul” (p. 67, ATOD).

Kelsey had a close relationship with author Agnes Sanford, a renowned panentheist who wrote The Healing Light. Sanford, in turn, has influenced a number of authors who have had an impact in Christian circles. Kelsey has been a significant promoter of mysticism within the traditional denominations. He asks the question:

How can the Christian community meet the religious needs of modern men and women pointed up by the New Age–needs that are not now being met by most Christian churches?

Each church needs to provide classes in forms of prayer. This is only possible if seminaries are training pastors in prayer, contemplation and meditation, and group process…. The church has nothing to fear from the New Age when it preaches, teaches, and heals (p. 67, ATOD) – from chapter 3, A Time of Departing)

With Travecca Nazarene University’s openness toward contemplative spirituality and the mystics, an openness shared by Kelsey, Merton, and Nouwen, the question must be asked, would TNU agree with Kelsey when he said, “the church has nothing to fear from the New Age”? And if TNU does not fear it but rather embraces it, will not the results be spiritually catastrophic for TNU students. Considering that many of those students will become pastors, leaders, and missionaries, these results could be widespread.

In Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water, Foster talks about an “all inclusive community” that he feels God is forming today. He sees this as “a great, new gathering of the people of God” (p. 273). Yungen explains:

On the surface, this might sound noble and sanctifying, but a deeper examination will expose elements that line up more with Alice Bailey’s vision than with Jesus Christ’s. Foster prophesies:

I see a Catholic monk from the hills of Kentucky standing alongside a Baptist evangelist from the streets of Los Angeles and together offering up a sacrifice of praise. I see a people (p. 274). 

The only place in “the hills of Kentucky” where Catholic monks live is the Gethsemani Abbey. (from ATOD, chapter 7, Seducing Spirits)

Note: The youth of Hermitage Church of the Nazarene in Tennessee are partnering with TNU for the Spiritual Formation Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Related Information:

Nazarene Superintendent Praises “A Time of Departing” But Denomination Sinking into Contemplative