Nature Heals

Today’s post is by Leah Rampy

Nature heals. Numerous articles have reported on research documenting various healing properties of nature. Those recovering from surgery heal faster and with fewer relapses when they see a tree instead of a brick wall from their hospital window. Residents in Toronto reported feeling better and having fewer health problems when there were more trees on their street. Gardeners were no doubt affirmed to hear that a strain of bacterium in the soil triggers the release of serotonin that in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. Children who grow up on farms are less likely to develop asthma. The microbes in the soil beneath our feet contribute to our health by way of the foods we eat.

I find these studies fascinating; I love being reminded of the synergies of all living things. Still I wonder what more is possible. I notice that when I come openhearted and fully present to the beauty, complexity, and rawness of the world, I find healing beyond what science has quantified. Fully present, I open my heart to wonder and my spirit soars.

IMG_1984A new study suggests that a sense of wonder promotes loving-kindness and altruism, helps reduce inflammation in our bodies and improves our immune system. Pretty impressive! Yet, I’m speaking of a healing beyond even that. Awe and wonder bring us fully into the Presence of the Sacred; our sense of separateness vanishes as we bathe in this vast ocean of Love.

One of the reasons that I love Shalem’s pilgrimages is the opportunity and encouragement to experience wonder. As we visit sites that are drenched with thousands of years of prayer, hold our intention to be open and available to the Holy, and allow the natural beauty of these places to seep into us, we are ripened for experiencing awe and wonder. We grow ever more deeply toward wholeness and become more fully who we truly are.

While pilgrimages offer the blessings of extended time in nature, they are not the only way toward healing in nature! Moments of awe can be found by lying on your back looking at the vastness of the night sky, knowing that what you can see – as amazing as it is – is only a fraction of a fraction of what’s out there. Take a magnifying glass and really look at the richly and beautifully complex landscapes in a dot of moss. Watch the sunsets. There are a myriad of ways to open our hearts; being fully present in nature is not the only way, but it is a way. We have a choice to take this journey.

Reflect for a moment: what is inviting you? What part of the natural world invokes for you that sense of wonder in the presence of something so vast it transcends understanding? What walk, what vista, what tree or stone helps you know in your very being that the trouble that seemed so important moments ago is not insurmountable? What encompasses your senses so completely that there is no other moment but the present? What invites you to exhale long and deep and whisper, “All is well?”

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,” wrote W. B. Yeats. We can choose daily doses of the magic and wonder of the world; embrace it with open hearts; and let it lead us through Grace to healing and wholeness.


Leah_FBLeah Rampy is a retreat and pilgrimage leader and the former Executive Director of Shalem Institute. She is honored to be one of the leaders for Reclaiming Our Oneness with Creation: Shalem’s contemplative pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland, in June. Leah and Jamie Deering, a Shalem graduate, have designed and will be leading Uniting with Earth’s Rhythm: Shalem’s first pilgrimage in the beautiful Pacific Northwest in September 2016. Leah and her husband David are working to restore the natural habitat on a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley. She blogs about nature and farming and shares photos on Facebook.

Going Deeper Begins With Me

Today’s post is comprised of two audio testimonials from graduates of Shalem’s Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program.

Al Keeney, Episcopal priest and pilgrimage & retreat leader, NY

There were days in my parish ministry when I wondered if there was anything “spiritual” happening in our church community. We often seemed to be caught up in preserving the institution, instead of deepening our relationship with the Holy One and each other. In looking back, I am aware of the Spirit’s quiet nudge to enroll in this program whose subtitle said it all: “going deeper.”

In my first residency, I knew I was in the right place. To a person, we were hungry, for true spiritual community, where we could share our hunger with others and our deep desire to be spiritually grounded leaders. Our gatherings were filled with many occasions of powerful spiritual presence in communal silence. There were incredible seminars that opened our minds and awakened our hearts. There was a real sense of our common life together, one built on trust, where we could be vulnerable, practice deep listening and share seriously with light hearts, joy and a sense of humor. We were living in a spiritual community.

There were many lessons I learned from living out of our spiritual hearts. One of them has been the ground of my work back in parish ministry.

Instead of trying to “change” others, I learned something of the wisdom of the Orthodox St. Seraphim who said: “Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.” I learned that “going deeper” begins with me and then finds its way to others.

Listen to Al Keeney’s testimony here:

Elaine Dent, pastor of an inner city church, PA

Early in my ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was encouraged by a colleague to participate in Shalem’s Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership program.  I thought doing so would be a good idea in order to deepen my relationship to God at the beginning of a new call; what I did not realize was that participating in the clergy program would profoundly shape my life, my spiritual practices and my ministry as a pastor for years to come.  Now, more than a decade later, I am so very, very grateful.

In the clergy program I learned spiritual prayer practices that set free some of my longings to notice God’s presence: attentiveness to the present moment, silence, art, walking, even play—all practices that nurture my soul to this day.  But mostly I learned ways to listen: listen to the Holy One, to my spiritual heart, to others and to the congregation where I serve.  I was challenged to recognize and point out the Spirit’s movement in the life of the congregation, to follow the Spirit’s nudges rather than my own agenda.  I began to recognize times when God’s Spirit calls me and the congregation to take risks.

A wonderful benefit of the clergy program is that it connected me to a community of people who also value contemplative prayer in their lives.  There are many denominational programs and new methods offered to a pastor; it is much, much harder to find people who speak the same language of deep listening to God’s Spirit.

For that reason I continue to participate in Shalem pilgrimages, retreats and clergy days—something that unites me to a worldwide community of many faith traditions, but a community that speaks the same language of listening to the deep peace, love and shalom of God’s Spirit.  I have indeed been blessed and I suspect that my congregation would say the same.

Listen to Elaine Dent’s testimony here:


Are you a clergy member sensing a call to deepen your inner life and bring a contemplative dimension to your congregational setting? Do you know a clergy person who might have such a longing or desire? Shalem’s Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program, Class of 2017, is accepting applications now through April 1st. Learn more.

To hear more testimonials from our graduates, visit the program page, Going Deeper, and click on the ‘Testimonials’ tab

 

Visio Divina and Eyeglass Repair

Today’s post is by Kimberly Borin

The practice of Visio Divina offered me new ways of seeing, through God’s grace and eyeglass repair.  It was another chance to see the spirit of God and to laugh out loud in the way that God speaks to me and encourages me to see in a new way.

In our contemplative group, we had just learned about Visio Divina. Visio Divina, “divine seeing” is an ancient, contemplative prayer practice allowing us to pray through what we “see.”  In being available to sacred icons, or the natural world or life itself, we allow ourselves to be seen by God through the images — as we are open to look at God through what we see. The images and icons serve as a bridge or window to the divine — allowing us to see and be seen in a new way. This beautiful contemplative prayer practice offers us new insights for our lives and allows us to be nourished as we see and are seen by Love.

In our group session, we understood the careful steps to take as we entered into this sacred practice. The icons were elegantly swaddled in richly colored fabrics, with small votive candles all around them.  Chairs had been carefully set up near each icon for those praying and viewing to sit comfortably. We were eager to approach the icons set up around the room. In doing so, we carefully got up from our chairs and walked in silence to the icon that called to us.

I was excited to begin and knew which icon was calling me. I was eager to see the icon “Jesus of the People” as it was different from any icon I had ever seen.  (You can find this magnificent picture here: http://www.bridgebuilding.com/narr/jmjep.html) I got up from my chair, gently moved toward the icon — looking down to take a handout. As I did I saw my eyeglasses gently fall from my head in slow motion, breaking on the floor.

I was shocked as I bent down to gather up the pieces. After I caught my breath, I thought about the irony of the situation, a new way of seeing — the lesson was definitely not lost on me.  I realized that God often spoke to me in ways that got my attention (ready or not).  Thankfully, I also remembered that I had brought a newer pair of glasses that I never wore and realized that I would definitely need them now — divine seeing or not.

After retrieving the new pair of glasses, I sat down in front of the icon. As I looked at the image, I was aware of the reflection of myself. I saw tired eyes, questioning, the colors I love a combination of pink, black, and symbols from other faiths. As I settled down to be quiet and to be willing to see what would be revealed, I sensed the essence of the image, one of non-apologetic power and voice.

As I continued to pray and see, it was as if the image of Jesus in the picture demanded that despite my broken glasses, tiredness, and fears that I claim what belonged to me. I was surprised by the combination of compassion and commandment, which seemed to come through loud and clear — despite my worry and getting used to my new glasses. There was something about the image and my prayer that encouraged me to step into my gifts and move forward with more confidence than I had.  This new way of seeing was a gift.

The next day, I went to see if I could get my eyeglasses repaired.  It was a miracle, as the shop was open on a Saturday. They fixed my glasses for free, cleaned them, tightened up the hinges and returned them to me better than they were before.  While there, the shop owner and I talked about the Visio Divina exercise and the focus of spiritual direction.  I shared with the owner that having my glasses repaired felt like a miracle and a gift of grace. We laughed out loud at the synchronicity of my new “gift” of seeing, which seemed even more like a blessing.

Our practice of Visio Divina allowed me to see a reflection of myself, to learn to claim who I am as a Child of God. The practice allowed me to see in a new way, literally.  I was in awe of how many things came together for the benefit of my vision, all of which I had no control over.  The experience reminded me that, when we choose to be available to see in a new way, we can trust that our vision will be enhanced by the divine in more ways than we could possibly imagine.


kimberlyborin

Dr. Kimberly Borin is a School Counselor, Retreat Leader, and in training to be a Spiritual Director in Nurturing the Call: the Spiritual Guidance Program of the Shalem Institute.  She believes that we can find peace and grace in simple ways, each moment. She has been a teacher and counselor since 1989 and holds a doctorate in Education, a master degree in Educational Leadership and one in School Counseling.  She is an Ananda Yoga Teacher for adults and children and the author of the Laughter Salad series of books. You can learn more about Kimberly at: www.TheEncouragingWorks.com.

tildenecourse_banner_smallWant to improve your spiritual vision and learn to “see” from the spiritual heart? Join Tilden Edwards in his eCourse for Lent: Living From the Spiritual Heart. Starts February 21. Register now!

A Gift of Centering Prayer

Post by Trish Stefanik        

ON SILENT
RETREAT

Stillwater runs
deep.
In the
darkness,
in time,
one might
glimpse infinite
possibility.

Who knows then
what might rise
to the surface,
— right through
the muck —
to tenderly kiss
your face and
announce you
“beloved”?

This past fall I was immersed in two months of study and practice in Centering Prayer, an invitation to sacred surrender and holy receptivity to God’s Presence through regular, intentional periods of silence, in solitude and in community.

The ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, of which I am a part, had invited Fr. Carl Arico of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. to take us through a time of renewal. He had introduced Centering Prayer to the community 25 years ago, and many attribute this experience to the church’s depth of commitment to the inward journey in relation to its outward journey of discipleship.

Our two months culminated with a silent retreat on the fruits of contemplative prayer. As we shared in our closing circle I was moved to tears. I had a visceral sense of profound healing and reconciled existence and being held – all of us – in Love so intimate yet beyond understanding.

The words of Thomas Keating, OCSO, a founder of the Centering Prayer movement, come to mind, “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from God” (Open Mind, Open Heart).

Amen.

So I cherish my quiet time, a daily unambiguous period of silence to let go to the Indwelling Spirit. I need a contemplative prayer practice as much as two people in love or a community committed to grow need time to simply rest in each other’s presence. Day after day, through the ordinariness of showing up true to one’s deepest longing and vulnerable and available to the other, trust is cultivated, self-awareness is sharpened, love deepens, possibility awakens. But it takes time and the willingness to be in this prayerful relationship.

I think many of you would say with me that any human relationship can be mystifying. And a relationship with God is all the more. Seeing myself still and silent with my eyes closed in a chair for 20 minutes can look a bit silly. So I wish you could have been with me during a workshop with Fr. Carl when during a question and answer session, a young woman new to Centering Prayer asked all of us present, quite earnestly, what contemplative prayer might have to do with “real” life. The response from practitioners gathered was nothing less than an enlivening, witnessing rush of the Spirit.

  • I have a greater capacity for love and compassion and joy.
  • It is such a relief that I don’t have to “get it right” – I only need to show up in faith.
  • It’s about something more than me, but I am invited to be a part.
  • What freedom to learn I am not in control – and don’t need to be!
  • Things are clearer now.
  • I find myself more creative.
  • In time I have been softened.
  • I have more courage to face the hard things about myself.
  • I don’t just react to life, I respond.
  • There is more depth to living and to my relationship with God and other people.
  • This way of surrender helps me be more forgiving.
  • I have come to see all of us as a community. We need each other for our own healing and wholeness.
  • It helps me live in the present moment.

What a gift.

IN QUIET PRAYER

I am content to
sit still.
Enough moves.
Listen. Observe
deeply — you know —
from the heart.

Take the time
to be aware and
alive to what is.
Now. Yes, allow
the Spirit within
to percolate.

In the silence
— when I’m open
and honest —
I know God has
better for me
than I can ever
imagine…

to lead me then,
to move, to act,
to love.


TrishTrish Stefanik is a program administrator for Shalem and a contemplative retreat leader living in Washington, DC, after seven years with a study retreat community in a mountain wilderness environment and one year at an ecumenical Benedictine monastery. She is a graduate of Shalem’s Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats program.

On Thursday, March 10, Shalem will honor Father Thomas Keating with our Contemplative Voices Award. Please join us for this special fundraising event. Click for details.

The Gift

Today’s post is by Kimberly Borin

I’d like to share a story with you from my life that speaks about how God uses us and gives us a unique mission, no matter what we have to give. This story has had a life of its own and has been published in books, told in sermons, and shared with students.

The story speaks of how our mere presence can enhance and heal the world through even the tiniest of moments. Sometimes our gift to the world is just a matter of showing up. Sometimes, our gift to the world is our story and knowing that it can offer hope to others.

In 1992, with 14 friends, I rode my bicycle from Seattle to Atlantic City for the American Lung Association. One day in Idaho, I decided to ride alone. My friends and the van that usually followed us were far in front of me.

I was enjoying the day and the ride, when without warning my bike broke down. A closer inspection determined that the tiniest and most essential screw that holds the derailleur together was gone. Without it to help me shift through the gears I could not ride my bike.

I looked around for help and all I could see was a small town on a distant hill – a very long hill that I had just ridden down! So, I began walking, uphill with my broken bike –angry, scared and confused. I was only in Idaho, and I had still thousands of miles to go – this was not good!

I made it to the town and then to a car repair shop, explained that I was a cyclist from New Jersey, riding my bike across the country and that I needed a small screw for the derailleur. Then the mechanic interrupted, “New Jersey? Wait until I tell Fred that you are here. You have to meet him, he will be so glad to know that you are here!

I felt really uneasy and worried and wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into. Here I was alone in the middle of Idaho, no cell phone, no money, a broken bicycle and my friends very far away from me. And this man was talking about some man named “Fred.”

The mechanic decided that the best place to find a screw this tiny was the sewing machine shop. We walked there and I explained my story to the owner, while the mechanic went to tell Fred – whoever he was — that I had arrived. Some 20 or 30 boxes of sewing machine screws later we found one that fit. As the owner walked me back to the automotive shop, she told me that when you are a stranger in a small town with less than 1,000 people word of a new arrival travels fast. Sure enough, as we left the shop, three people walked by. One shouted, “Oh! You must be Kimberly! Fred will be so glad to see you!”

It crossed my mind that perhaps I had entered some science-fiction world, some sort of twilight zone experience where I would be spending the rest of my life – never to see my friends again.

Back at the repair shop we put the sewing machine part into the derailleur and my bicycle worked! I used the shop phone to call my friends and waited for them to pick me up. Moments later, a van pulled up and a frail, elderly man carrying two brown bags of vegetables got out. He walked into the shop and looked at me with wide eyes and a smile and said, “You must be Kimberly!”

As Fred walked towards me, I could see a strange sadness on his face. He offered me the bags of vegetables that he had just picked from his garden and then in a shaking voice with his eyes welling up he said, “I am so glad to see you. I can’t believe that you are actually here.”

Fred asked me where I was from in New Jersey. We were surprised to find out that we were from the same area near Flemington. Oddly enough, Fred had also been good friends with some of my high school teachers, including my driver’s ed teacher and my running coach. Fred then began to tell me his story. He told me that he had left New Jersey about 12 years ago because something very bad had happened and he could not bring himself to return.

All of those years he had been praying for forgiveness. He continued with tears streaming down his face and said, “I prayed that if someone had come to this small town in the middle of Idaho, who was from my home town in New Jersey it would be a miracle and a sign from God that I had been forgiven.”

I was stunned and so was he. We stood for what seemed like an eternity, speechless, then gave each other a big hug. The idea of what had happened was so humbling, unbelievable and truly a miracle.

This story still holds tremendous power for me – it is nourishing, affirming and reminds me that I have a gift to bring. I know that God has a greater purpose for all of us and is using us and our stories everyday in ways that we will never know.

Make no mistake, your story matters. Your story has already offered smiles, a gift of forgiveness and a moment of caring in mysterious ways that helped to heal the world. You and your journey are an inspiration – you can bet on it.

So, today, grant yourself permission to tell your story. Tell your story even if it seems small or insignificant or commonplace. By telling your story you allow yourself and others to be affirmed. You validate who you are and who you are becoming. As you tell your story – you will see how you have been guided to know without a shadow of a doubt that God is using you and that you are a gift to the world.


kimberlyborin

Dr. Kimberly Borin is a School Counselor, Retreat Leader, and in training to be a Spiritual Director in Nurturing the Call: the Spiritual Guidance Program of the Shalem Institute.  She believes that we can find peace and grace in simple ways, each moment. She has been a teacher and counselor since 1989 and holds a doctorate in Education, a master degree in Educational Leadership and one in School Counseling.  She is an Ananda Yoga Teacher for adults and children and the author of the Laughter Salad series of books. You can learn more about Kimberly at: www.TheEncouragingWorks.com.

Minding the Gaps

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey

“We carry our own light and move in love through the dark,
as the seed loves the earth enclosing it.”
-Christina Pacosz

Each season offers gifts all its own. January’s spare beauty seems fitting after the extravagance of the holidays. Trees have shed every outer expression of the living sap within. Icy streams conceal mottled fish resting below. Snow blankets the fields’ ridges, gullies, and rocks. Winter, in her unparalleled way, changes the view. What was once hidden under canopies of green is now revealed, while the things once readily apparent are now veiled.

Winter is a welcome arrival in the cycle of each year, but I sometimes feel frightened during the winter seasons of my life when “spare beauty” actually seems barren and desolate. I wonder where the vitality has gone. I fret; maybe the inner sap is no longer flowing and the creative stream has dried up. Does my life still hold meaning when I feel stuck and frustrated, my efforts coming to naught? I unwisely try to force something seemingly fruitful to happen. I want to bust out the butterfly from its imprisoning cocoon, knowing all the while that life doesn’t work that way. I would kill the still-transforming caterpillar in my violent attempt. I feel out of step with grace, either running ahead or dragging behind.

The phrase “mind the gap” is often painted on subway platforms in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, cautioning travelers to be aware of the gap when stepping between the platform and train. The gaps in life sometimes loom large and ominous. Gaps between present experience and future vision. Gaps between income and the budget. Emotional and physical distances between loved ones. Gaps between the current living situation and a longed-for homecoming. We live in the tension between our desire for greater fullness of life and the sometimes-difficult present realities.

Might we find grace in the gaps? Winter offers her wisdom. When darkness descends early on both our inner and outer landscapes, we are invited to trust the ever-renewing flame within. In lieu of the outer greening, we may find that the view changes, our insight growing sharper and more discerning. The sufficiency within us and available to us becomes more apparent. We might honor and hold the future vision in one hand while blessing our present reality with the other.

Before the birthing, a baby grows slowly and steadily in the dark enclosure of a womb. A seed lies contained in the black soil, dormant and still, but a seed nonetheless. The shape of a flower is already full within its being, future blooming held securely in fertile darkness. Both seed and flower are blessed.

If the landscape seems void and the visions so delayed in their fulfillment, then let us not miss the beauty of dark gaps and liminal spaces in our lives. Stars appear to shine more clearly in the winter sky, Orion’s belt looming large. All five of the brightest planets in our solar system will become visible together during late-January’s nightwatch, an event last occurring in 2005. Nature models the movement between inner rest and outward expression. Winter, both literal and metaphorical, issues an invitation to humbly enter the mysterious rhythm of life, to retire to bed a bit earlier perhaps, to let life’s conundrums rest for a bit without our fretful vigilance. Dreams are given to the quiet sleeper, dreams that nourish tomorrow’s blooming.


Kate-CoffeySavannah Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.

When Earth and Heaven Meet

Today’s post is by Scott Landis

I recently celebrated my 60th birthday with family and friends in Denver, Colorado. Through a series of marvelous coincidences, that I am convinced were orchestrated by God, all members of my immediate family and some of my closest friends were able to gather on the weekend that my husband and I would be in town. A party was planned. A couple of outings to Boulder and nearby points of interest were also part of what quickly became a very full weekend. I had one additional request. I wanted my husband, who is a yoga instructor, to lead a sunrise yoga practice for all those willing to participate.

We gathered mid-morning in the backyard of our host. The sun was already up and warmed us as we sat on the lush green lawn. The autumn air was cool while its gentle breeze reminded us of the dryness typical of the high desert plains of Denver. We began by lighting a candle and burning a braid of sweet grass, a gift from a dear friend who joined us from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Before our smudging ceremony, she told us that the sweet grass is known to the Ojibway Indians as “Mother Earth’s hair,” and it became our connection to the holiness of the ground on which we sat.

We were then guided in a gentle yet invigorating practice complete with downward facing dog, and child’s pose, a warrior sequence, and finally savasana – the corpse pose as our final rest. It was then that it happened. Lying on the grass, I felt a deeper connection to something beyond myself. Was it the pungent smell of sweet grass still alive in my nostrils? Was it the sound of crickets reminding me that I am merely a visitor to their home as I lay still, quiet, in a complete sense of rest? Or was it what in Celtic spirituality is known as a “thin place” where the space between heaven and earth is so narrow – so thin – you can almost see through it?

What I know is that lying there I had the most surreal sense that I was in a liminal space somewhere between life and death, and it mattered not which direction my body would go. It was as if life and death became one – heaven and earth seemed to meet – as an abiding sense of Holy Presence surrounded me in a manner I could not fully comprehend. I remember somehow knowing that this must be, in part, what Divine union is like. Any sense of dualism ceased to exist as even my desire or longing for God seemed to subside. I was completely content – as a state of deep stillness seemed to suspend all sense of time. I felt nothing but peace.

Randy concluded our practice with a prayer while I remained in my deepened state of awareness. I tried to describe my experience to the others in the group. I fumbled for words then almost as much as I am in trying to share the experience now. Suffice it to say that I sensed a deep blessing on this “birthday.” Perhaps I was “born anew,” the experience Jesus offered Nicodemus when he questioned him about eternal life. I’m really not sure. What I believe I experienced is best summed up in a beautiful chant offered years ago by Gerald May – a chant that has become somewhat of a mantra to me, “Changeless and calm, deep mystery. Ever more deeply, rooted in Thee (or me).”

Julian of Norwich, during a time of grave illness, described a series of revelations or “shewings” of the Divine, an experience of “oneing” of union, of being fully present to Presence. I wonder, was I given a small taste of that?

We traveled to Indonesia, to Denver, had dinner with friends, and several parties all in celebration of this special birthday. Each experience I thoroughly enjoyed and will long remember, but this was none other than God’s gift, one I least expected and will forever treasure.


 

Scott CREDO head shotScott Landis is pastor of Mission Hills United Church of Christ in San Diego, California. He is a graduate of Shalem’s Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program and is currently an associate in Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program. Scott is an avid swimmer and yoga practitioner and enjoys incorporating a variety of contemplative practices into the life of his congregation.    

 

Grace in the Struggle

Today’s post is by Carl McColman

I have a confession to make. I’m a natural-born kicker and a screamer.

“Some people embrace the spiritual life with grace and ease,” my first spiritual director, Lin Ludy, told me one day in the mid-1980s. “Others, however, are dragged into heaven kicking and screaming. You, Carl, are a kicker and a screamer.”

She said it with a twinkle in her eyes, a smile on her face, and love soaked into her words. We both laughed. I had been unloading my monthly build-up of spiritual angst on her, fretting over this theological issue or that social concern or whatever personal matter was weighing heavily on my mind.

Lin wasn’t trying to criticize me or silence me. She simply wanted me to take a step back from the sturm und drang of my interior drama. She was gently reminding me that I could let go of my inner turmoil whenever I wanted.

Thirty years later, I still smile when I recall that playful moment in our director-directee relationship. But my smile is a bit rueful, because, well, three decades on, I’m still kickin’ and screamin’.

I love Winnie the Pooh, and when I read Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh I immediately recognized Pooh as a Taoist master. But we are not all Poohs. I’m afraid I’m more of a cross between Eeyore and Piglet, with a dash of Rabbit thrown in. Part pessimist, part scaredy-cat, and all amped up to a breakneck speed. Kicking and screaming. I’m one of those folks who started meditating mainly because I was so eager to find some inner peace. Of course, what I found at first was the monkey mind. But I’ve learned to recognize the luminous glimpses of silent serenity, in between the monkey’s screeches.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer such a lovely insight into the gift of silence:

1. And now the teaching on yoga begins.
2. Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
3. When the mind has settled, we are
established in our essential nature, which
is unbounded consciousness.
4. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed
by the activity of the mind.

(from the Alistair Shearer translation)

“The activity of the mind” — call it the monkey mind, or the “cocktail party” as Martin Laird does, or simply T.S. Eliot’s “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Kenneth Leech noted that contemplatives “explore the waste of their own being,” which takes place “in the midst of chaos and crisis.” Hmmm, perhaps we are all kickers and screamers, on some level?

But there is grace in the struggle — that’s the “unbounded consciousness” that rests within the very heart of our mental and emotional activity. God’s silence is not foreign to us; it indeed is what we are mostly made of. If you could expand an atom to the size of a cathedral, the component parts of the atom — the protons, electrons, and so forth — would be like butterflies dancing in the vast open space of the cathedral’s nave. If a single atom is mostly empty — mostly openness and silence — then that’s true of our bodies, our hearts, our minds and spirits as a whole. We are creatures of stardust and silence, and contemplative practice is simply a way of remembering who we truly are.

Thirty years on, I keep kicking and screaming. The issues may be different, but the angst is the same. Maybe the one thing that has changed is that I no longer need Lin, rest her soul, to point it out to me; I can notice it myself. And when I do notice it, I try to smile, and recall Pooh and Patanjali, and gently remember to look for the grace in the midst of it all. It’s always there, thanks be to God.


CarlMcColman-JS-225x300Carl McColman is an interfaith-friendly contemplative Christian writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. Formed by the teachings of the saints and mystics and ancient practices like lectio divina and silent prayer, his message is simple and timeless: God calls each of us to a joyful, creative life of love and service, and the wisdom of our spiritual heritage shows us the way. His books include Answering the Contemplative Call and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in The Huffington PostPatheos, and Contemplative Journal, as well as on his own blog/website, www.silence.today.

In the Garden

Today’s post is by Kathleen Moloney-Tarr

Lately my thoughts have turned to letting go and being afraid, the prompts for two spiritual journey writing groups. I struggle with these, not because I haven’t been afraid or haven’t let go but because each time I think of possible topics—traveling to Guinea to start a refuge school, starting my own business, taking my weavings to galleries, traveling abroad alone, being pregnant—there no energy rises around the fear I once had. When I consider our children going to college or my release of things I once loved like West African drumming or my professional work, I feel nothing. I can’t go there now. They just don’t resonate with me today. Or yesterday. Or the day before.

I snuggle into my favorite chair in my studio, looking out once again at the oak tree whose lavender bark I have memorized over thirty years or a dozen large hosta plants, all grandchildren of my neighbor’s one small gift. I recall yesterday, a day of sharing and listening as I sat four times with seekers of an intimate connection with Spirit. I heard affirming stories about being afraid of what might happen if a choice is or isn’t made or how hard it is to let go of old patterns of behavior, of what God is calling forth or how even though we want to let go, we hold on to that which has ended.

Now a black snake slithers across the moss outside the tall studio doors. I leave my chair and walk to him. Black snake always opens me to Spirit and transformation. Twenty years ago, as I nervously drove from my house to present a talk about my faith at church, I asked for a sign that all would be well. Immediately a black snake eased across the road in front of my car; I breathed easier. When my beloved cockatiel, Charlie, was buried beside Skip-the-lovebird in our back garden, a black snake circled the graves and the patio, as though honoring death and loss. His presence soothed me, affirmed the value of the cycles of life. Today as I consider fear and letting go, I lean into the extended meaning of this visitor.

He is the second one in two days. As I started to say, yesterday’s stories of being deeply led and affirmed in spite of the pain and suffering strengthened me.

During the last conversation, I spotted a medium sized box turtle strolling across the mulch just a foot from where Mr. Snake slithered today. We immediately walked out to experience the presence of this turtle, only the fourth seen in the garden in decades. The gold patterns on her back must be painted with real gold. Shimmering in the sun, the designs could be Egyptian or Greek. We are silent, witnessing this gift of nature, of Spirit. She draws herself under a hosta and waits for safety. We watch for a few minutes, then return to our chairs to complete our time together. When I am alone again, I go out, pick up Madame Turtle to talk with her, complimenting, wondering, thanking. When I release her, she moves steadily under a sweeping azalea as an afternoon shower cools the air.

Turtle is one of my totems. As a teenager I tended sixteen little turtles plucked from a nearby lake. Small, carved turtles rest on the shelf by my chair, on the edges of our sinks. During some of my darkest days when I could not think or sleep or pray, when I lived in blank nothingness without any images, yes, me the one for whom image matters so much, the first image that came was of a turtle without a shell buried in the mud on the side of a riverbank. That image offered wordless understanding of what was happening as I waited for healing and accepted the unknowing I was in.

I realize it is the turtle’s stillness, her steadiness that I wanted to write about when I sat down in this chair. And then Mr. Snake arrived and echoed the same qualities. Both have a cautious deliberation, a patience born of ancestral wisdom and experience. Each arrives quietly and without the fanfare I add to their presence here in my garden. I spend thirty minutes or so with each one. I wait for them to move as they wait for me to be still. It is a perfect pairing. I am struck by the similarity to a spiritual seeker and the Divine Mystery. I wait for movement, while my stillness is awaited by Spirit. I wait for some way to approach writing of my spiritual journey and yet stillness and silence are what bring the words forward. Fear and loss are significant in my life, yet today it is stillness and slow steady movement that capture me.


Kathleen Moloney-TarrKathleen Moloney-Tarr, a graduate of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program, enjoys the privilege of offering spiritual companionship to those of all faiths who seek contemplative, prayerful space to notice and turn toward the sacred Presence in their lives. Kathleen also writes poetry and personal essays, weaves and knits, and leads workshops such as Writing Your Spiritual Journey.

Do you companion others on their spiritual journeys? Do others see your spiritual commitment and your gift of spiritual companioning? The Spirit may be calling you to Nurture your Call with Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program. Hear audio testimonials from Shalem graduates of Nurturing the Call: Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program by clicking here. The Early Bird/discounted Application deadline for this program is November 30, 2015.

Being Contemplative in the Digital Age: 6 Tips to Nourish Your Prayer Practice

Today’s post is by Carole Crumley (Previously published at Huffington Post Religion)

Prayer is often thought of as speaking to God but prayer doesn’t have to be about speaking. It can be about silence and listening. This practice from the Christian contemplative tradition can serve to help calm the storm of stimuli that is part of living in the digital age.

St. Benedict, a sixth century spiritual leader, advised his monks to “listen with the ear of the heart,” that is, to listen deeply, noticing the many ways God spoke to them in their daily activities as well as through scripture and worship.

There are many ways to pray, many ways to open to God’s living presence and nurture an awareness of the sacred in daily life. Whether you are just beginning on a spiritual path or seeking to deepen your spiritual practice, here are some ways to begin or begin again.

6 Tips on Contemplative Prayer

  1. Establish a daily set-aside time when you can honor your desire to open to God. We recommend 20 minutes of silent prayer time daily. For some that might seem like a long time. For others, it may be way too short. The exact number of minutes is not that important. Start with what is right for you. The important thing is doing it daily.
  2. Create a set-aside place, a space that honors your intent, where you can sit comfortably and uninterrupted for your prayer time. This might be a prayer corner or even a prayer chair. If a chair, just make sure it is different from the one you sit in to watch television, work on your computer or take a nap. A different chair will help you be more alert and attentive in your prayerful listening. You might also place a candle or flower or image in your prayer space, something that helps draw your focus to God’s presence.
  3. Begin with stretching and releasing any physical tensions. We carry the tensions of the day or night in our bodies. Notice the places in your body that are tight or constricted. Stretch into those places, hold for a moment or two, and then relax the tension. Sometimes a gentle body-stretching practice is all that is needed to quiet the mind and prepare the body for opening in prayer.
  4. Notice your breath. Your breath is a spiritual tool that you always have with you. It is your most intimate connection with God. Sense your breath as a living instrument of God’s spirit, ever cleansing and inspiring. At any time or place, you can notice your breath. Is it rapid or slow? Shallow or deep? Just noticing and slowing your breath can quiet the mind and draw you deeper into the heart of God. It is the most fundamental practice in the spiritual life.
  5. Open to God’s living presence, keeping your desire for your own and the world’s fullness in God before you in prayer. No words are needed. Simple, quiet openness and availability are enough. Trust that God’s healing, transforming power is at work whether you know it, you believe it, or not.
  6. Find support for your spiritual life. Support can come in many forms. Listen to music that stirs your soul. Go to a museum and feast your eyes on great art. Walk in nature. Read some of the great classics by contemplative authors. Study the lives of the saints. Find a spiritual director who listens with you to the movement of the Spirit in your life. Attend worship services that nourish your spiritual heart. Seek out others who share a similar desire and join with them for dedicated times of prayer.

We live in a noisy, busy world. Quiet, silent prayer is counter to our culture and yet it offers the missing spiritual resource our souls need. Contemplative prayer is not just for ourselves alone. Eckhart Tolle reminds us that, “To meet everything and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe.”

Contemplative Prayer is a way of being rather than something that we do, a way of being open to God all the time. As you return to your busy day, remember, there are no right ways or wrong ways to pray. You can trust whatever is simplest and feels most natural for you.

How do you sense God is inviting you to pray in the midst of your daily activities? What do you find helpful as you seek to open your mind and awaken your heart to the living Spirit?


caroleCarole Crumley, Shalem’s Director of Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program, is an Episcopal priest with experience in three congregations as well as at the Washington National Cathedral. She is a widely respected leader of ecumenical retreats, groups, and conferences, and a seasoned pilgrimage guide to sacred sites throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Wanting to take some beginning steps into contemplative prayer? Or are you a seasoned contemplative who would like support for your daily practice? Join Carole starting this Sunday in Opening to the Spirit, a 6-week eCourse. Registration ends on Monday, October 19. Sign up today!