Original Posting At http://mikevoigts.com/from-my-mind-to-yours/an-unexpected-wesley
“John Wesley has always been my favorite Protestant contemplative.”
For the past quarter of a century, I’ve read Wesley, taught Wesley, and incorporated Wesleyan theology and practices into my daily life and ministry. I’ve also studied, read, and translated from Medieval Latin the writings of major contemplatives in Christian history. Yet not once had I ever put the terms “John Wesley” and “contemplative” in the same sentence. Wesley’s well-known daily activities included preaching more than once, walking several miles, traveling on horseback or by coach, working with children, responding to letters, and engaging with a society meeting before retiring for the evening. These endeavors seem to defy the life of a contemplative. Furthermore, in Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse Four, Wesley emphatically states, “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”
How, then, could this well-intentioned Cistercian monk of Gethsemani Abbey refer to John Wesley as a contemplative? It is true that Wesley rose around 4am each day to pray, search the scriptures, and absorb himself in spiritual readings. In his letters and other writings, he encouraged others to engage in private prayer in solitude – retiring from society to spend time alone with God. In that same sermon, for example, Wesley states:
“It can hardly be, that we should spend one entire day in a continued intercourse with [others], without suffering loss in our soul…and grieving the Holy Spirit of God. We have need daily to retire from the world, at least morning and evening, to converse with God, to commune more freely with our Father which is in secret.”
We should not spend so much time in private, intimate prayer with God that we neglect the world where God has placed us. This would amount to spiritual negligence and a destruction of the Christian’s role in society. Conversely, unless we spend time each day hidden with God away from others, we do damage to the very soul Christ died to save.
Perhaps that Trappist monk understands Wesley after all. Living a contemplative life is not about engaging solely in what appear to be contemplative endeavors. Rather, a contemplative is one whose heart is continually open to receiving the Holy Spirit and thereby engages the world with the saving message of the Gospel with a meditative, Christ-centered heart. Anything we do or say on behalf of Christ (Colossians 3:17) should emerge from our personal encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. When our ‘doing’ becomes more important than our ‘being,’ we have forgotten what it means to abide in the love of Christ (John 15:4). A contemplative life is one uncluttered with life’s many distractions and anxieties so that God is clearly and intentionally at the center of one’s life. It is a life that has been so transformed by God that one cannot imagine life apart from God. A contemplative life is nothing more than a life of holiness.
Through his life and writings, John Wesley demonstrated a healthy synthesis of contemplation and action. Engagement with the world is to be salt to the world (Matthew 5:13). However, without contemplative heart originating from withdrawal from the world with God, we become salt without any Holy Spirit flavor. Daily withdrawal from the world reminds us that our life and ministry do not belong to us, but to God. As Wesley certainly knew, the indescribable love of God the Father, the salvific message and work of Jesus the Son, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit are more easily conveyed to others from someone who has daily, intimate conversations with God. Whether it is in the early morning and evening like Wesley or some other times in the day, intentional withdrawal from the world is essential for everyone who desires to live as a faithful disciple of Christ. May we, like Wesley, remember that faithful action should begin with faithful inaction.
(c) 2018 Michael C. Voigts
* This article first appeared in the Asbury Theological Seminary Academic Affairs publication, In the Loop (December 2017).