For those burned out on religion, there is a natural tendency to run from tradition and take refuge in a vague and fluid belief system shaped by experience and abstractions. Those who desire a contemplative union with God often begin this search as an escape from the church. As a Recovering Baptist, I understand very well this desire for union and for escape. But the journey can seem like a road full of potholes shrouded in fog. Differentiating between the Holy Spirit's still small voice and an unfortunate gastric reaction to bad Mexican food can be challenging.
I'm convinced there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water. As Thomas Merton points out in New Seeds of Contemplation, "...the truth is the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the church's teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by that authority."
The first step to a contemplative life in Christ is faith. If my faith is important, it will naturally lead me toward understanding Christ, his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. It's a hunger born of humility, searching for relationship with God through relationships with others seeking the same relationship. Faith is fertilized by Christ's teachings which are/should be taught by the church. We have to start somewhere, and there is no other place to start than the church. So, as badly as I hate to admit it, I'll need to find a felon-friendly church when I leave Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp.
Again quoting Merton, "Therefore beware the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has bothered to read any."