This week, ReadTheSpirit welcomes two Christian activists who are breaking down the high barriers that separate people into Christian camps—or that shove people away from Christianity entirely. Their ability to open new portals into Christianity’s spiritual riches comes, in part, because both writers have worked as collaborators of other prophetic figures.
Chris Haw is most famous as Shane Claiborne’s sidekick in their barnstorming Jesus for President tours that crisscrossed America. David Frenette is best known as a younger colleague of Father Thomas Keating, who at age 89 is widely celebrated as a father of modern centering prayer. Neither Haw nor Frenette are household names—yet. But they confidently stand shoulder to shoulder with their more famous mentors.
As these two authors emerge in their own right, both are saying: It’s time to topple the barriers that separate people. The Christian tradition is so deep and vibrant that we need to encourage people to reach freely for the best of the tradition’s spiritual wisdom.
Chris Haw once was associated with America’s most famous seeker-oriented megachurch: Willow Creek, often described as “nondenominational.” In From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, Chris tells how he decided to leave Willow Creek and become a Roman Catholic.
David Frenette was raised without any religious background and found his way, as a young man, in Hinduism and Buddhism. Now an active layperson in the Episcopal Church, Frenette is devoting his life to bringing the centering prayer practices long associated with Catholic monks like Keating to a far wider audience. In The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God, he’s not trying to convert anyone to Catholicism, nor does he teach that the deepest forms of prayer are only available to monks or to the ordained. These gifts of prayer are available to everyone, he says. And, in his books, he shows you how to get started—or to deepen your practice, if you are a veteran.
CHRIS HAW: ‘I carried a lot of anti-ness within me.’
Chris Haw begins by admitting in our ReadTheSpirit interview (and in his new book) that he has been guilty of manning the old barricades. In our interview, Chris says in part:
“When we identify ourselves as Protestants, we’re identifying with this movement that historically said: We are protesting what the Catholics are doing until they change X, Y or Z. Of course, I never thought much about that history until I began to spend time with Catholics. Then, I realized that I actually carried a lot of this anti-ness within me. Finally, I came to realize: I don’t believe in this Protestant-Catholic feud anymore.”
Chris is remarkably gracious in describing the many benefits of his years at Willow Creek, but now he clearly is rejecting Willow Creek’s approach to Christianity. In his new book, Chris argues that people who come to Willow Creek are mistaken in claiming that it is a nondenominational church. Here is how he puts it at one point in our interview:
“I have come to realize there is no such thing as nondenominationalism, no matter what Willow Creek and others may claim. Willow Creek reaches out to people who are sick of the traditions and hierarchies that they have seen around them. But it’s a mistake to think that we can escape into some sort of neutral Christian philosophy. Willow Creek claims that’s what they’re giving people: a nondenominational Christianity. But it’s really evangelical Protestant Christianity posing as neutrality.”
CHRIS HAW: Relaxing into worship
Many newly converted Catholics—especially evangelicals who migrate all the way to Roman Catholicism—talk like Chris Haw about the wonderment they enjoy in “coming home” to a church with traditions that reach back 2,000 years. Chris talks about that, too, but there is one striking difference in what Chris describes.
Chris says he loves the experience of relaxing into the liturgies of the Catholic church. That may sound like a strange word to use in praising the Mass and other Catholic liturgies. In fact, many Catholics—especially inactive Catholics—complain about the relative passivity of Catholic worship, when compared with evangelical and Pentecostal worship.
But, in his odyssey away from Willow Creek to Catholicism, Chris Haw says the Catholic Church helped him to realize that he didn’t have to turn every worship service into an emotional performance. In our interview, Chris says: “It was a breath of fresh air to feel that I didn’t need to express this outward emotional experience in worship every week. As a Catholic, worship now becomes more about relaxing and letting the liturgy shape me.”
Chris also has rejected the seeker-church willingness to rebaptize Christians—a practice also rejected by most mainline Christian traditions. One baptism is enough, most Christian leaders in longstanding denominations agree. Seeker churches and some other evangelical and Pentecostal churches baptize again—in some cases again and again.
“This gets to be ridiculous. People think they are taking charge of their own faith, so they start to think that they should get baptized about every five minutes,” Chris says in our interview. One baptism should be enough, he now argues. That reflects the real and timeless power within some of the long-standing traditions in mainline Christianity, he says.
DAVID FRENETTE: ‘Contemplative Research and Development’
David Frenette’s message echoes Chris Haw in several ways. On the surface, their new books are quite different. Chris Haw’s new book is about his personal journey from one denomination to another. David Frenette’s book barely mentions specific denominations. Instead, he has written a detailed guidebook to leaping into the deep end of centering prayer.
But, David’s book echoes Chris’s realization that Christian wisdom is more about “relaxing” than strenuously trying to promote the faith in outwardly emotional ways. In fact, David describes the life-changing practice of centering prayer as becoming still enough and aware enough to recognize that one does not need to circle the globe to find God. And, lest you wonder whether David Frenette is charting his own new course away from Keating’s core message, the book contains a Foreword from Keating that fully endorses what Frenette is writing. Keating’s Foreword says, in part:
“This book is an example of how God continues to enlighten practitioners of centering prayer, opening up new depths of meaning and new aspects of the practice that encourage long-time practitioners to penetrate the mystery of God’s infinite love and ultimately to be transformed into it. Although he is an accomplished teacher, advisor and spiritual director, this book shows that David’s primary spiritual gift is in bringing forth new dimensions and nuances of contemplative practice that are solidly rooted in the revelation of Christ that all Christian practices point to and flow from. This is an extremely important endeavor, for a spiritual tradition stagnates unless it continues to breathe new life into itself with practices and resources appropriate for longtime practitioners, new generations of seekers, and changing social conditions. David’s long experience … trained him for this work, which might be called ‘contemplative research and development.”
DAVID FRENETTE: Rediscovering ‘our true home in God’
While Chris Haw and David Frenette both are important barrier breakers—ultimately, they describe a yearning for home. In David’s interview with ReadTheSpirit, he talks about how centering prayer really is a process of settling fully into an expanded awareness that we already are at home with God. In other words: God is not a distant, hidden treasure—past barricades we must breach in an arduous quest. Nor can anyone control or own or rope off God from others. We always are at home with God—if we only have our senses and spirit attuned to realize this truth. In the interview, David puts it this way:
“Coming home or realizing that we are home—that’s a wonderful image that lies at the heart of the contemplative life. Unfortunately, we seem to be alienated from our true home in God—our true home in the deepest sense of who we are as men and women created in the image of God. We are distracted in so many ways in our daily lives. These days, there is so much technology stimulating us, drawing our attention. Yet, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves—that’s also one of the great teachings of the contemplative life.
We don’t have to search for God—rather, we allow ourselves to be loved by God. When we quietly sit and pray at the start of the day, even for 20 minutes, we are brought into an awareness of the divine presence. As we cultivate this, we remain aware of this presence throughout our day. We discover that we don’t have to be in a monastery or a church to be at home with God. We can be at home with God while driving a car, working at a desk or doing dishes in the evening. What we are talking about is the awareness that: Wherever we are, home is possible.”
Read our interviews:
First, with Chris Haw about his journey From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart.
Second, with David Frenette about The Path of Centering Prayer.
Here is our interview with Chris Haw.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.