Teresa Mateus of the Mystic Soul Project.

Glen Argan: Contemplation a path to bridging cultures

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  • January 28, 2019

The cover headline on the December issue of Sojourners magazine caught my eye — “Decolonizing the Spiritual Life: Contemplation, healing, and activism centred on people of colour.” It pointed to an article inside the U.S. magazine, an interview with Teresa Mateus of the Mystic Soul Project.

When I turned to the article, I read the subhead which told of Mateus rebelling against gatherings of Christian contemplative spirituality which were “centred in whiteness.” I wondered about that.

An important part of the history of Canada is the repression of Indigenous spiritual practices by a conquering culture which viewed them as pagan idol worship. That repression was a travesty, a crucial part of the theft of Indigenous cultures, a major element of taking the Indian out of the Indians.

The Mystic Soul Project, the article stated, aims at enabling people of colour “to reclaim ancestral practices that have been abandoned or erased by Western traditions.” One might disagree with some of the beliefs of the Project, but the goal of Indigenous and black people finding their identity through their traditional practices is a worthy one — especially worthy when it is integrated with the Gospel. Pope John Paul II especially was a champion of what we call inculturation, the spreading of the Gospel in Indigenous cultures through the use of Indigenous traditions and practices.

Jesus, it should be noted, was a non-white, non-European whose ancient Jewish society lived in the shadow of a colonial power. Indeed, that Roman power was not as determined to exterminate Jewish religion as the European conquerors of the last half millennium were to eradicate Indigenous religions. Jesus’ mother ironically appeared to the Aztec Juan Diego in garb that more reflected his Indigenous culture than that of the conquerors. Her expression of solidarity was heard quite well by Indigenous peoples across the Americas, but the conquerors largely ignored it.

I wondered how contemplation fit into all of this. Religious practices reflect the human desire to come to God, for God to hear our petitions and receive our sacrifices. Contemplation, however, is a practice of waiting for God to come to us. In contemplation, we let go, as best we can, of our cultural and personal baggage and try to receive God as God is.

Contemplation is the prayer of receptivity. We wait to receive God’s “culture.” This can be understood in one of two ways. First, we might see God as white, brown and black. God is a member of every race. Or, we could say that God is beyond culture, that He transcends all worldly categories. He comes to us as we are, but God Himself has no “culture.”

Something can be said in favour of both of those understandings. Either way, our relationships with God form bridges toward the unity of humanity. God is one, three in one actually. Our coming to God is the human realization of oneness in diversity and of diversity in oneness.

As for Mateus, the head of the Mystic Soul Project, she never says what the magazine’s front cover and the article’s subhead claims she said. The direct quote from her is: “It’s difficult to worship in dominant white spaces with spiritual practices centred in whiteness.” Mateus made no claim about contemplation being rooted in whiteness.

All of this leads me to wonder whether contemplation is the path to overcoming many of the divisions that sunder our world. I don’t say that we should put aside our culturally-tilted spiritual practices, only that we might place a greater emphasis on receptive prayer. If we put a priority on letting go of our attempts to control God and instead let God come to us, we will discover peace, justice and unity.

This, I submit, is the promise of Isaiah. When the Spirit of the Lord brings gifts of wisdom, fortitude, fear of the Lord and others, we will judge not by what our eyes see or by what our ears hear. We will judge with the Spirit’s eyes and ears. The meek of the Earth will receive equity, and the wolf and the lamb will live together.

This dream of opening ourselves to God through contemplation is not a dream for the future, but a dream for today. It is a dream, not of us negotiating the spoils of power, but of our accepting the universal loving power of God. All receive God today, each of us in our own practice of contemplation.

(Glen Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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