Contemplating

The Christian imagination is an invitation to wonder. Wondering is one of those human activities that appears too obvious and ordinary to reflect on with much seriousness. The relative lack of literature on the topic appears to confirm this observation. Robert C. Fuller, one of the few scholars to bother writing an entire book on the subject, thinks ‘you can surely get life without a developed sense of wonder, but you would lack certain sensibilities that enrich the texture of human existence’.5 More recently, Australian author, historian, and journalist Julia Baird devoted an entire chapter to the sustaining role of wonder in our lives, particularly ‘when the world goes dark’.6 Pastoral supervision is a way to rehabilitate and reintegrate wonder into our work, lives, and world. Why is this significant? As Fuller argues:

Experiences of wonder would thus seem to comport well with reasonable criteria for healthy and responsible living. Such experiences, moreover, often give rise to an enduring sensibility for an unseen order of life—a sensibility that also fares well when assessed [for] its immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness.7

Supervision becomes pastoral when it reveals light (i.e., is luminous, reasonable, and helpful) through the experience of wondering. Luminosity makes supervision beautiful; reasonableness discerns the truth; helpfulness enables supervision to be good. Conversely, supervision that neglects truth, goodness, and beauty will never be pastoral. Wondering, closely related to the term I am adopting of contemplating, is deepened and extended in light of Luke 24’s revealing Jesus. First, I note the intersection with the wider supervision literature (including coaching supervision and mentoring), particularly in the concepts of reflection and theological reflection. Second, I explore the Christological focus of contemplation in Luther. Third, I suggest how pastoral supervision engages in contemplation that is Christological contemplation, not mere theological reflection.

Pastoral supervisors know not to avert the eyes or avoid the emotions in the crucible of disappointment. Leach and Paterson call for ‘hosting and containing: the kind of hospitality that enables transformative learning’.8 For those more familiar with traditions of hospitality within healthcare, the posture of hospitality draws deeply from the wellspring of the Christian faith.9 The Emmaus story, as Brendan Byrne has shown, invites the reader to lean into this ‘hospitality of God’.10 Parker J. Palmer interprets hospitality for the crucible of disappointment through the ancient wisdom of the Rumi poem ‘The Guesthouse’:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.11

Palmer believes the words of Rumi’s poem ‘help us stay faithful’ in the crucible of disappointment (what Palmer calls the ‘house of sorrows’) because human flourishing and faithfulness demand that ‘we embrace the human frailty with reverence and respect’.12

The indispensable role of reflection within pastoral supervision is well attested.13 The extant literature classifies this as the restorative (or supportive) task of supervision.14 Leach and Paterson consider this function so essential to good pastoral supervision they devote an entire chapter to the process of‘attending to the process’ based on Luke 24.15 There are, not surprisingly, many approaches to both the what and how of reflection, including personal reflection, reflection on practice, critical reflection, spiritual reflection, and theological reflection.16 All of these have a place within good pastoral supervision because they are not mutually exclusive or even independent of one another.17 In Australia, Hewson and Carroll have developed a toolkit, because they believe:

The best teachers are not outside of us—they are inside. Collaborative reflection in supervision can transform our experiences into learning. Daphne Hewson and Michael Carroll highlight the importance of

Reflective Space as one of six supervisory spaces (the others are Directive, Evaluative, Passive, Restorative and Active Space).18

Are the best teachers really inside us? This idea is a deeply spiritual one across many religious traditions (e.g., Buddhist) but fairly uncommon in Christian theology outside of the Quaker tradition. Hewson and Carroll’s guidelines for their reflective space ‘invite practitioners to learn from their professional experiences’.19 Even advocates of the inner teacher, such as Parker J. Palmer, recognise the revelatory—and necessarily external—source of true learning and wisdom.20 This is why Scaife first proposes methods that encourage self-awareness but extends into methods that encourage ‘decentering’ in her Supervising the Reflective Practitioner.2' Other theorists focus on the conscious mind with a growing emphases on mindfulness.22 Mackenzie proposes that mindfulness enables the supervisee to ‘access their deepest intuition’.23

Luther discovered, 500 years before the mindfulness movement, that contemplation produces gratitude. Why? Because it is revelatory and therefore a gift that must be received, made famous by the phrase sola fida, ‘justification by faith’, which depends on sola gratia, ‘by grace alone’. In his ‘A Simple Exercise for Contemplating the Creed’, Luther emphasises the gratitude and joy found in Christ because contemplation is becoming ‘grateful for such grace and rejoice[ing] in your salvation’.24 Luther’s tract, commonly translated in English as ‘The Bondage of the Will’, is more properly ‘The Bound Will’ (de servo arbitrio), according to David M. Whitford.25 Luther’s complete pessimism regarding the human will as ‘free’ does not need to be rehearsed here. Inner contemplation, according to Luther, is futile. Instead, contemplating ‘the voice of the gospel, revealing Christ as the deliverer’ is encouraged.26 Christ’s cross is the precise locus of contemplation for Luther:

We say without hesitation that those who contemplate God’s sufferings for a day, an hour, yes, only a quarter of an hour, do better than to fast a whole year, pray a psalm daily [Vol. 1, p. 175], yes, better than to hear a hundred Masses. This meditation transforms a person’s being and, almost like baptism, gives a new birth. Here the passion of Christ performs its natural and noble work, executing the old Adam and expelling all joy, delight, and confidence that a person could find in other creatures, even as Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.27

A generation ago, pastoral theologian Eugene Peterson, in his book titled The Contemplative Pastor, suggested the evocative image of the whaling harpooner, whose specialist role demanded the harpoon be thrown from a posture of complete stillness in order to hit the whale. Few pastors in the twenty-first century are likely to adopt Captain Ahab (or his harpoon-ist) as a role model for ministry. The politically incorrect image captures, however, the intimate and inseparable relationship between contemplation and action, or more precisely, as in the case of Thomas Merton, contemplation focusses on—and leads to—creative expression or discovery; there is an active dimension.28 Writers and thinkers often considered marginal to understanding pastoral ministry, like Merton and those he inspired—Henri Nouwen, Parker J. Palmer, and Richard Rohr—have guided many busy and burnout pastors in rediscovering and reclaiming their true vocation.29

During (or after) a supervision session, both supervisor and supervisee may not be able to easily delineate between action and contemplation. Good supervision practice does depend, however, on the centrality of revelation within contemplation. The pastoral wisdom sought by the supervisee is not merely waiting to be discovered, even though, as Gel Norton once summed it up so nicely, supervision can be a wisdom pause. Pastoral supervision depends on something new being revealed, disclosed, or unveiled. Theologically, as Luther so emphatically argued, the Christian depends on solus Christus, ‘Christ alone’, who reveals. How might pastoral supervision nurture and sustain places and patterns of contemplative reflection?

One of the lesser benefits of hindsight is the constant nagging of ‘why couldn’t I see?’ and ‘why didn’t I understand?’ When the two Emmaus disciples disappear from the Lukan accounts at the end of Chapter 24, we are not informed of their latter reflections. The text, however, does suggest a theological answer to the questions ‘why couldn’t I see?’ and ‘why didn’t I understand?’ Good pastoral supervision depends on this kind of contemplation even when the answer remains theologically difficult. According to Luther, the Christian is kept from seeing and understanding as a grace. It is a grace because the Christian was not ready to have the truth revealed. Luther’s paradox is strangely comforting for the perplexed supervisee. It was not because they were stupid, weak, or naughty that they did not see or understand what was happening. Contemplation, according to Luther, is waiting for God to be disclosed by the revealing Jesus (see further on the practice of expecting in Chapter 8).

Luther understood there was a deeply contemplative dimension to the cross. Luther himself understood the importance of waiting with hope for God’s grace and favour in the crucible of sin and disappointment:

This is sweet comfort for us. And we are to make use of it in comforting the afflicted. We are to say to them: ‘Brother, you would like to feel God’s favor as you feel your sin. But you are asking too much. Your righteousness rests on something much better than feelings. Wait and hope until it will be revealed to you in the Lord’s own time. Don’t go by your feelings, but go by the doctrine of faith, which pledges Christ to you’.30

The historical context and hierarchical culture of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Luther will be familiar to many in pastoral ministry from their theological studies. Even those with the barest knowledge of the

Reformation can relate to the young monk Martin, burdened with a desire for God, to know and serve that God, self-sabotaged by his own failure and failings. Luther’s never-ending cycle of confession and compliance, penance and performance, was profoundly unsatisfying and eerily familiar to many devout ministry workers today. It is true that most clergy and ministry workers across the contemporary church are no longer burdened by confession and penance thanks largely due to Luther’s Christology of revelation and redemption. Luther also cautions in the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), thesis 24: ‘yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner’.31

Luther experienced, through his own reflection and conversion, that God was hidden in the cross even as theologians of glory resisted the theology of the cross. Pastoral supervisors must wisely discern the presence and purposes of God, concealed in the shame, sorrow, and suffering of the supervisee. The way of the cross is not optional in pastoral supervision; in fact, it must become the test of everything.

 
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