The Rev. James Krueger is founder of Mons Nubifer Sanctus in Delhi, New York, a center for studying contemplative Christian life. He writes regularly at the center’s website. The Rev. Will Brown interviewed Fr. Krueger about his path to the contemplative life and what he wants to convey to other pilgrims.
|20 Minutes with James Krueger|
Tell me about your spiritual journey. Where are you today, and how did you come to be there?
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, my mother being a Roman Catholic convert to my father’s Presbyterianism. We attended church, a bland service with a great organist and some nice liturgical moments at Christmas and Easter. My first job was there; I remember sneaking away to enjoy quiet time in the sanctuary.
Being inclined to creativity and not academics, I never performed well in school. At age 17 I was removed from my school and placed in an institution for troubled adolescents. The next 18 months were lost. While fishing my cat’s toy out from under the refrigerator I pulled out a book on healing prayer by the Indian Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. It sparked in me a real yearning for spiritual healing and the conviction that this is what was needed if my life was to be saved.
Later, a Roman Catholic teacher at college whom I much admired helped me to begin searching my own tradition. I discovered there a spirituality as compelling as the Eastern religions I was by then in the habit of studying. I had gone to church up until my late teens and no one told me about the Desert Fathers or the Cloud of Unknowing (or any of the saints).
So at age 26 I entered a Zen monastery where I studied, both in residence and out, for about seven years. The next step in training would have been to pass through the ceremony called, in the Japanese, Jukai by which one becomes Buddhist. I had already gone through such a ceremony — baptism — and belonged to Christ, so I drifted away from Zen. By this time I had discovered Christian monasticism and made an Episcopal monastery my spiritual home. Though becoming a monk in this community would not have been a good long-term fit, I was there as often as possible.
A suggestion of Holy Orders planted a seed in my ear and, in a nutshell, I was ordained to the priesthood in the summer of 2014 with the vision of a ministry devoted to contemplative formation geared to people living and working in secular situations. A board of directors was gathered and Mons Nubifer Sanctus was formed. I began running retreats in my wife’s old farmhouse, and am now serving as interim priest-in-charge at Saint James Lake Delaware with the generous blessing of the parish to run programs at this extraordinary place.
What should the name Mons Nubifer Sanctus connote?
Latin for “Holy Cloud-Bearing Mountain,” the name signifies the Holy Mountain of Exodus, the meeting place of God and man. The cloud of God’s presence descended and rested on the mountain, and Moses ascended the mountain and entered the cloud, there to commune with God (Ex. 24:18). There is a hermeneutical tradition running through the long history of Christian spirituality that reads this and similar passages, especially those about the Transfiguration, as expressing the essence of contemplative prayer.
What’s the difference between meditation and contemplation?
In meditation one normally focuses on an object, such as a passage of Scripture, an image (mental or physical), a bodily sensation, and so on. Contemplation, though the word is often used today in the sense of “thinking about” something, is without object. In contemplation one empties oneself of all images, forms, thoughts, and intellectualizations and there, in this bareness, in this “cloud of unknowing,” beholds God. The word contemplation derives from the Latin contemplatio, which means “to behold.” Contemplation is direct encounter, immediate and unmediated. Contemplative prayer, then, is characterized by a pre-verbal, pre-rational intimacy with God.
To what extent can there be legitimate cross-pollination between Christianity and non-Christian traditions? How did your experience of Buddhism form you?
My training under Buddhist teachers and in that monastic environment has continued and will continue to inform, serve, and teach me. This should not be of much concern; all of us have had teachers and mentors in life who have done us a great service by giving us, for however long, their self, their love, and their discipline. Many people enter the Church having been formed and disciplined in the armed forces, for example, and this discipline can serve them well in a Christian context. It may make them spectacular liturgists, self-disciplined pastors, loyal and obedient to superiors, able to stand strong through challenging times, skilled at motivating others. But the Church is not the military, nor is it Zen Buddhism. One must search the tradition and the Scriptures, and be searched by the Spirit, in order to discern what can be carried over from any formational experience outside the Church, even from within, and what needs to be discarded. The past ten years have been a process of doing this: of searching the Christian tradition, especially its contemplative traditions, of praying and practicing and being a full member of the Church with its sacramental life.
You have said that the contemplative life must not be opposed to the active life, yet one frequently encounters at the beginning of Christian mystical texts an exhortation from the author to the reader that what follows in the book is not for everyone, but only for those who are pretty far advanced — usually meaning at least those who have had a thorough formation in monasticism. How do you reconcile this tension?
One must have a thorough formation not in monasticism but in the Christian life in general before entering the contemplative life. One must be steeped in the life of the Church — her sacraments, liturgical rites, teachings and doctrines, saints and Scriptures. Only then, and only in the midst of the life of the Church, can there be a truly Christian vocation of contemplation.
Still, a moment of true contemplation can be had at any time in one’s life, perhaps even before one enters the Church. Many people enter the Church precisely because they have had some sort of contemplative, revelatory experience. Others might glimpse it only after a long life of Christian practice. Contemplation is not something that we can force and it is not a possession of either the “active” or the “contemplative” Christian. It is God’s gift of himself to us, a gift that he, in fact, is giving to every single one of us all of the time. We must trust in this. If we do not, we will never be able to withstand a contemplative vocation with all of its long desert paths.
I noticed that Maximus the Confessor’s “Difficulty 10” is listed as a seminal work on the Mons Nubifer Sanctus website. Of course Maximus was a great teacher of Christian spirituality, but he also suffered enormously, and ultimately died, defending some pretty subtle points of orthodox theology — what many today would regard as irrelevant minutia. What’s the connection between doctrine and devotion? Is believing correctly important for the spiritual life?
The Greek New Testament term so often translated into English as belief is pisteuo. This word is not about holding some tyrannical ideology; its meaning is more along the lines of “trust,” as in the saying “I believe in you.” When we say this to another person we are saying that we know, through experience of them as a person, that they are worthy of our confidence. Having faith is right belief. We begin the Christian life with faith, even if it is only a faint glimmer.
Maximus was mutilated for making the point that two wills — divine and human — were operative in Christ; that the human and the divine wills were distinct yet united, working in a symphonia or harmony. In the end he was rather a lone voice on this point. One might wonder why Maximus gave so much to defend what seems on the surface a petty point of doctrine. I believe that Maximus’s authority and conviction on this point, like Athanasius’s authority on the divinity of the Son, not only informed his spiritual life but grew out of it.
What is the greatest spiritual challenge or danger facing contemporary Americans?
Americans are facing a spiritual crisis of epic proportions, and the problems that feed it are complex and difficult to pinpoint. In the end, however, the greatest spiritual dangers facing contemporary Americans are the same dangers that we have faced from the beginning: the desires of the flesh, the pride of life. We mustn’t mistake the seemingly different circumstances around us, the material and scientific progress we have made, as marking a fundamental change in the workings of the human soul. God is God and sin is sin, and this is why the Christian spiritual tradition is perennial.
What advice would you give to the average churchgoer who senses that there is more to the spiritual life than showing up on Sunday, but who might not know where or how to begin?
I would advise such a person to begin by attending other church-related activities that the church, or another Christian organization, might be offering, and to work on perfecting Christian virtue in daily activities, a lifelong task. I would also suggest taking time during the week to practice a personal devotion, such as praying the offices, the rosary, etc. Using traditional forms of prayer is better than trying to wing it, which usually means just getting lost in one’s own fantasies and predispositions. If the desire to go deeper strengthens through this then I would suggest exploring contemplative practice under a spiritual director.
Where do you go to find renewal?
Not to sound trite but the first place I go for renewal is to God in prayer. Without the view of contemplation life would be unbearable, and the more one has this view the more one realizes how cruel life is without it. Similarly, I like to wander in a snowy forest, or fish a mountain stream, or just watch the water pass me by. My wife, too, with all of her natural love, is a place of refuge and renewal. I am refreshed by serving the Liturgy. I go to my confessor and spiritual director for renewal and challenge, and I go on retreat at various monasteries and hermitages. My guitar and piano provide some renewing moments, as do poetry and good friends.