Dropping all I’ve carried

cropped featherBy Stephanie Gretchen Burgevin. Stephanie is a writer and retreat leader. She is an associate faculty member of Shalem and a graduate of their Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and leads spiritual and secular programs. Stephanie manages Shalem’s blog. You can see more of her writing at blessedjourneyblog.com.

About a year ago I started to feel restless in my job and knew there was change coming. I could not tell you what direction I was going in, but I knew something different was on my horizon. I was still drawing a regular paycheck so the faith was particularly easy.

Well, on January 1st my job of the past five years was outsourced. I’ve walked that thin line between joy (the opening up to what’s in store for me next) and fear (how will I make my daughter’s last tuition payment?). Over the past month I have done lots of praying about what is next: Holy One, I don’t know what direction you want me to go in. I am willing but have no roadmap here. Do I lead more classes? Do I pick up some more writing/blogging clients? What do I do with these degrees, coursework, and experience?

I’ve been professionally marketing and writing for the past 25+ years and leading classes and programs for the past 15+. So how do I use my gifts now?

This is hard work. Quotes like this one on the Three Intentions website keep showing up, “When all we’ve carried has served its purpose and now we must burn it for warmth and to see what’s next.” I thought, this is where I am.

Then, when I was reading my morning meditation the other day from Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening I again got the message: “Dropping all we carry…Dropping all we have constructed as imperative allows us to be born again into the simplicity of spirit that arises from unencumbered being. It is often overwhelming to imagine changing our entire way of life. Where do we begin? How do we take down a wall that took twenty-five or fifty years to erect? Breath by breath. Little death by little death. Dropping all we carry instant by instant. Trusting that what has done the carrying if freed, will carry us.”

Last summer my fiancé and I started a new plumbing company that is totally focused on service, on taking care of the customer. Well, when my main job went away we talked about me concentrating more on the company. I was thinking more of the same of what I’ve done in life: market, write, blog.

Then he suggested I come help him on a job. I thought, okay, I’ll learn something new and I know it’s a job that’s much easier with two sets of hands. But, I had an appointment later that day to meet with someone who wants me to write a blog for them. Well, the plumbing job was running a little long and I was starting to think about how I could help enough and get to my appointment when the woman called to tell me she couldn’t meet because of a family emergency. As I was talking to her on the phone the feeling that I was just where I need to be washed over me. I never guessed I’d be learning plumbing first hand, but the sense of rightness is palpable. Who knows what my days will look like in six months, a year, two years, but right now, Spirit has surprised me again and I’m “dropping all I’ve carried” for so long, “trusting that what has done the carrying if freed, will carry us.”

As a side note, I hope you can come to see Mark Nepo March 21-22 at Shalem’s Gerald May Seminar in Washington, DC. I’ve never heard him speak in person, but his writings have moved me time and again, and he’ll be sharing from his poetry and writings. I am going and hope to see you there!

God Comes To You In Your Life

2014-01-13 15.28.47By Margot Eyring. Margot is a spiritual director, well-being coach, and Shalem associate faculty member.

“God comes to you in your life,” she said simply, yet profoundly.  Although not spoken in a loud voice, these words, offered by a wise Personal Spiritual Deepening Program (PSDP) participant, have continued to speak to me over the past several months.  The idea was not new, but was spoken authentically and at the right time.  These words came alive…..“God comes to me in my life.  My life, as it is, is the place where God comes to me.  God’s will is in my life.  I can look to my life and see God calling me.”

God continues to work through PSDP in this way; bringing together people who have a hunger to know God and deepen their experience of living in God’s presence.  All of us, participants and leaders, journey with each other for a time.  As we explore issues such as calling, our stories enrich each other’s lives.  Questions like “How do we know God’s will?” “How do we discern God’s voice?” and “How do we know the difference between our voices and God’s desires for us?” can be asked in the safe spaces of our retreats and conversations.  We sit and listen.  We offer ourselves.  And God meets us.

As a spiritual director, well-being coach, and Shalem associate faculty member, I have explored and taught ideas about calling many times.  Even though I know the truth that God has given me a richly textured life, the participant’s words were a gift during a season of struggle where I have been learning to be more fully present to the magnificent life I have been given.  As I practice the disciplines of acceptance, embracing what is, and living enthusiastically into what is mine, the words “God comes to me in my life” continue to resound in my heart.

Participating in PSDP helps renew my commitment to honor what I have been given and to be more fully present to the life that is mine in the context of community. I don’t want to miss the joys of today by living in the uncertain possibilities of tomorrow.  I don’t want to miss the gift of what is by living inappropriately in the past or regretting what was. I continue to be thankful for fellow pilgrims who come together for a season in PSDP and remind me of these realities.

I invite you or someone you know to consider participating in this journey with the Washington, DC 2014 PSDP beginning in March. 

Peace for the Journey

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Savannah Kate Coffey. Kate 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.

I am always so intrigued this time of year by those mysterious Magi who undertook their storied journey to find Jesus. How extraordinary to leave their country, their loved ones, their charts and more familiar stars, to leave their wealth in the keeping of others. There was no guarantee of their return, or that their lives and kingdoms would be intact after so many months on the road. How did they make the choice to follow this particular star wherever it led? Were they in agreement? Did the decision arrive as a gradual dawning or a quick flash of clarity? At some point the moment stands ready, the camels are loaded and they begin.

These pilgrims were dreamers, scholars, and men of awareness. History calls them “wise men.” They were noticers, having seen the rise of the infant king’s star. Benedictine sister Joan Chittister writes that “consciousness commits us. Once we know something must change, we must begin to work to change it.” There is no going back– even just to the moment before the new awareness makes its claim upon us. There is always the option, of course, to ignore the knowing–to shut our eyes tightly against the starlight, plug our ears and hum our own little tune, hoping that somehow this uninvited awareness will mosey on down the road. The crossroads of decision are myriad—relationships, comings, goings, health, vocation, parenthood, graduation, birthing and dying, where and how to live, where and how to pray. There is so much at stake, so much good in staying put, so much that feels like home.

The cost for building kingdoms we are unwilling to leave is very high. In refusing to honor awareness we surrender our own wisdom and courage. Integrity and peace become ever-more elusive when we know the stirrings of change but choose comfort and life-as-usual instead. Peace is the result of cooperating with our own deepest awareness and best understanding at this time, no matter how steep the path before us or how difficult the leaving (or staying) may be. We might call this inner knowing the Holy Spirit. Anxiety, half-heartedness, apathy, and second-guessing are perhaps signs that we need to stop and take notice again of our hearts. Is there an invitation we have refused to acknowledge because of fear or pain or inconvenience? Do we wish that we didn’t know what we now know deep down inside? Do we resent the claim this knowledge makes upon us?

Advent is a season of great movement. We celebrate the courageous journeying of Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, and the wise men. Our personal journeys are no less significant. As we travel amidst our family and friends, end one year and begin the next, and follow new stars rising in the sky, may we honor and greet the moment of decision when it arrives. May we be given the courage to cooperate with our deepest and best understanding of our path. Companioned by the Holy Spirit may we discover anew our own inner wisdom and the beauty of the gifts we bear on behalf of the Beloved. Perhaps we too will be remembered for our manner of traveling through life, for the integrity of our actions, for the peace in our hearts, and for our generosity of spirit.

In Thanks for the Dark and the Light

2013-10-11 20.49.20By Stephanie  Gretchen Burgevin. Stephanie is a writer and retreat leader. She is an associate faculty member of Shalem and a graduate of their Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and leads spiritual and secular programs. Stephanie manages Shalem’s blog and is one of the social media coordinators for the Shalem Institute Facebook page.

In the northern hemisphere we are living with short days and long nights. It seems to me that we, as humans, are quite taken with the power of light and dark. We often fear the dark and are drawn to the light.

The dark represents the unknown, the unexpected, whether it’s at night in the woods or the uncharted territory of our own interior. And, what we don’t know can make us anxious.

We love the light, whether it’s a single candle flame or the sun, it shows us clearly what is before us.

But perhaps we can see this time of darkness as a time to go within, a time for quiet, a time for contemplation.  What could be gestating in the respite time?

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of light and dark that makes them both potent. Without the dark we couldn’t see the stars.

Maybe instead of lamenting the loss of sunshine we can welcome this time and instead of pushing to do more and more, to race from task to task during this advent season, we could pause so our own Light can shine more clearly even through the unknown.

We lost a Light that burned brightly among us when Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday. Although he was fully human, there are few I know of who lived a life based on forgiveness and reconciliation to the extent he did. Through his personal and societal painful times, he became a beacon.

We as humanity need the dark to rest and grow in, but we also need as many Lights, big and small, as possible to help guide us.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for the beacon you were to so many of us.

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.—Eskimo Saying

Waves in a sea of being

Mark NepoGuest blog by Mark Nepo, excerpted from The Magic of Peace in The Endless Practice, a new book in progress. Mark is a poet, philosopher, and a New York Times bestselling author whose many books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He is also a member of Shalem’s 40th Anniversary Honorary Council for Shalem’s 40th Anniversary Prayer Vigil and will be Shalem’s 2014 Gerald May Seminar speaker March 21-22. For more on Mark and his work, visit  www.MarkNepo.com and http://threeintentions.com.

After all these years, I’m beginning to see that tranquility is the depth of being that holds what we think and feel, not the still point after we’ve silenced what we think and feel. Serenity is the depth of being that holds difficulty, not the resting point after we’ve ended difficulty. And peace is the depth of being that holds suffering and doubt, not the raft we climb on to avoid suffering and doubt. This leads us to joy, which is much deeper and larger than any one feeling. Happiness, fear, anxiety, contentment, doubt, regret, unworthiness, anger, despair—all these and more are the waves that rise and fall in the sea of being. Joy is the ocean that holds all feelings.

This spiritual law reveals the truth that though we can quiet our mind and heart, there is no end to what we think and feel. Though we can solve and lessen the difficulties we face, there is no end to difficulty. And though we can endure suffering and engage our doubt, there is no end to suffering and doubt. This would be devastating if not for the living truth of Wholeness. For neither is there an end to tranquility, serenity, and peace. It is important to accept these fundamental notions of reality. Otherwise, we can waste our energy trying to bring an end to things that have no end, rather than develop the inner skills to navigate these timeless currents.

The Spiritual Quest: Letting Go of “How”

2013-10-26 17.20.51

By Stephanie  Gretchen Burgevin. Stephanie is a writer and retreat leader. She is an associate faculty member of Shalem and a graduate of their Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and leads spiritual and secular programs. Stephanie manages Shalem’s blog and is one of the social media coordinators for the Shalem Institute Facebook page.

The future lays heavily about the house these days. My son just started his junior year in high school and my daughter is in her senior year in college. But the question of what to do with life doesn’t just hang around the kids’ hearts. We adults wear it too.

I was reading Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening the other day. He wrote about the struggles of a teenager trying to figure out what to be and the tension between what the self, society, and family think is best.

He writes, “It is not about being a poet or a florist….It is about the true vitality that waits beneath all occupations for us to tap into, if we can discover what we love. If you feel energy and excitement…you are probably near your God-given nature. Joy in what we do is not an added feature; it is a sign of deep health.”

I read this to my son this morning in light of him seriously contemplating how he wants to live his life.

As someone closer to middle age (!), I too contemplate how to live my God-given truth regardless of what my “shoulds” yell, regardless of what society may push. For me it is more of a scraping back of the layers to remember. For the children, perhaps it is more of a parting of the grasses.

Either way, the refrain sings clearly: What is your passion? What makes you feel alive? What is God calling you to do? What seed did Spirit place in you from the beginning?

I can get stuck in the “how.” Sometimes, I find I get in my own way. I end up working so hard at trying to do the fixing myself that I forget about Grace.

As Nepo says, “When  I lose my focus on what really matters, I fall….Without troubling yourself with how, step with your heart into the field of this growth.”

I read this and let it sink in. Yes.

It’s about making the shift from trying to do something to be more ____ (fill in the blank) to just being that way. To stop seeing oneself as working at it and instead be it.

How do you break the habit of not speaking your truth, for example. Then I realize you just step into the place with God, and be someone who speaks your truth.

It’s amazing what can happen when I get out of my own way and Spirit takes over.

What is your experience?

Slowing Down

DSCN1481By Clair Ullmann. The Rev. Clair Ullmann, a Shalem board member, is a priest in the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. She and her husband received together their Masters in Family Systems and Sexuality from the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium and created Marriage: An Adventure in Progress (http://clairullmann.com/).

There are two gears in my body:  fast and stop.  I am trying to find or create some intermediate speeds, but it is very difficult.  I have even tried QiQong to slow me down and to notice the moment.  Even with this, I find I am faster in the movements than everyone else.  I can sit and meditate and get lost in time and space, but once I start moving I get faster and faster.  My son who is about a foot taller than I commented one time, “Mom, for someone with such short legs, how do you walk so fast?”

This past summer I participated in the online prayer sessions that Patience Roberts led in the School of Contemplative Prayer.  One of the sessions was slow walking.  We were supposed to walk slowly, be aware of our breathing, and look intently, see and inhale our surroundings.  I tried and tried and tried.  I continue to try.  There are some things in life that take a long time. Slow walking or slow anything is that for me.

Online prayer is a lifeline for me.  I live in an area where there are not too many people.  In fact, there are more cows than humans.  This means that unless I speak cow language, I don’t have a lot of interaction.  Being a spiritual person and one seeking relationship with others on a spiritual journey, the online prayer courses offered by Shalem are a Godsend.  It is something I can tap into and actively participate.  In this particular course, it was very challenging to stay involved because of all the visitors and activities and travel over the summer. In spite of that I felt this need to reconnect with the course and my fellow pilgrims as we followed Patience’s gentle guidance and support.

I look forward to the next course and all the ones following.  On our pilgrim’s way, we need companions, we need to hear from others, their struggles and wanderings as well as receive support and compassion for ours.  It is so helpful and life-giving to know there are others who also wonder how some people can be so attentive and contemplative.

Each course offers a different aspect of living in the present in contemplation.  Even if you think you know it all and have done it all, go back for a refresher.  I did not think the courses would provide me with new information, but I was wrong.  On a spiritual journey, we are constantly changing, like the ever-flowing river.  We will be different people tomorrow than we are today.  Our emotions are constantly triggered by things of the environment, by things of worldly conflict, whether to get involved or not, by life and death, by sudden illness or accident; the list is never-ending.

For me, my saving grace is to be drawn back into the space of the Divine, back to a space where I can breathe and open my eyes and see the wonder around me.  This helps me remember that I don’t have to be responsible for all that happens in the world.  Slowing down helps me focus more clearly on the things that do matter, like holding my 19-year-old cat or sitting with my husband by the fire and watching the flames, like reading Julian of Norwich or Anne Lamont.  When I take time like this, I realize I really can slow down and just be.  My mind slows down, my heart beat slows down, my breathing slows down.  In fact, my whole body, mind and soul seem to find a place of harmony and rest.

Can I do this while walking? It seems when I stand up my mind is already telling me all these things that need to be done and worried about and looked after.  Yes, I still need practice and practice I will.

I invite you to join me on the next course.  Perhaps we will meet online, perhaps we will find that we have things in common, perhaps we will begin to support one another, perhaps we will be able to laugh at ourselves and one another thereby making our day a day of joy and gratitude.  It is amazing how much can open up from slow walking, slowing down, and opening our senses.

Read more about Shalem’s eCourse offerings here. Currently registering now through Nov. 6 for next courses. Sign up today!

Ordinary and Spiritual Awareness

2013-10-08 18.51.41By Cynthia Bourgeault. One of Shalem’s Honorary Council members for the 40-hour Contemplative Prayer Vigil, Cynthia Bourgeault is a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, who divides her time between solitude at her Maine hermitage and traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path. She is the founding director of both The Contemplative Society and the Aspen Wisdom School and the author of eight books including The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Mystical Hope, and Love is Stronger Than Death.  She has also authored or contributed to numerous articles and courses on the Christian spiritual life. http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html

Those who come back from a near-death experience bring with them a visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away.  Those who fall profoundly in love experience a dying into the other that melts every shred of their own identity, self-definition, caution, and boundaries, until finally there is no “I” anymore—only “you.”  Those who meditate go down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within their own being.

Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation is another level of awareness in us, another whole way of knowing.  Thomas Keating, in his teachings on centering prayer, calls this our “spiritual awareness” and contrasts it with the “ordinary awareness” of our usual, egoic thinking.  The simplest way of describing this other kind of awareness is that while the self-reflexive ego thinks by means of noting differences and drawing distinctions, spiritual awareness “thinks” by an innate perception of kinship, of belonging to the whole.

I realize this way of talking is not easy to understand. It goes against the very grain of our language (which mirrors our usual thinking processes) and thus skitters off into the realm of poetry and mystical utterance.  The Christian contemplative tradition abounds with descriptions of the “spiritual senses”—these more subtle faculties of intuitive perception—but in language that is often so allegorical and dense it obscures more than it reveals.  Let me see if I can describe this same thing in a simpler way, in terms of an experience I came to know only too well during my years in Maine:  sailing in the fog.

On a bright, sunny day you can set your course on a landfall five miles away from you and sail right to it.  But in the fog, you make your way by paying close attention to all the things immediately around you:  the deep roll of the sea swells as you enter open ocean, the pungent scent of spruce boughs, or the livelier tempo of the waves as you approach land.  You find your way by being sensitively and sensuously connected to exactly where you are, by letting “here” reach out and lead you.  You will not learn that in the navigation courses, of course.  But it is part of the local knowledge that all the fishermen and natives use to steer by. You know you belong to a place when you can find your way home by feel.

All in all, this little metaphor is a pretty good analogy of how these two levels of awareness actually work.  If egoic thinking is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are.  It is a way of “thinking” at a much more visceral level of yourself-responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Because of this visceral dimension, some writers speak of spiritual awareness in terms of the heart being “magnetized” by God, responding to a magnetic pull from the center just as the compass needle points to magnetic north.

… [O]ur spiritual awareness seems to be given to us in order to hone in on and not lose touch with that “point or spark of pure truth” at the core of our being, from which both the true compass track of our life and our existential conviction of belonging emanate.  That is what the magnetic pull is all about.  And as we learn gradually to trust it and let it draw us along, we discover that those core fears of the egoic level—that something terrible can happen to us, that we can fall out of God or suffer irreparable harm—do not compute in the deeper waters of our being.

Excerpted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001.

Benediction: Beauty and Contemplative Poetry

ShalemGuest blog by Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP,  who directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations located in the Hecker Center in Washington, DC. He leads ecumenical retreats and workshops in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. An active contemplative and lover of the outdoors, Tom has authored 14 books on a variety of themes in the spiritual life as well as the DVD Yoga Prayer. www.tomryancsp.org. He is also a member of Shalem’s 40th Anniversary Honorary Council for 40-Hour Contemplative Prayer Vigil.

At the end of every summer, I make an eight-day retreat to my sweet spot on the planet, an island in the middle of Lake George in upstate NY owned by my community, the Paulists, since the early 1860s. There’s a cabin among the trees , and the island is embraced on both sides of the lake by the forested mountains of Adirondack State Park.  When the Jesuit missionary explorer Isaac Jogues first descended the lake in a canoe with native Americans, he was so taken by the transcendent beauty of the 32 mile long lake and mountains that he named it Le Lac du Saint Sacrament  (French for: Lake of the Blessed Sacrament). Here is a poem I wrote on my retreat on the island at the end of August.


Sitting at the end of the dock
my first night on the island,
full moon shining like
an elevated host held by
the fingertips of the mountain
with its burley shoulders wrapped
in a dark forest-green cape.

Crickets chant in soft, adoring chorus
and beavers swim by my feet
slapping their tails in acclamation
as tufts of cloud-like incense float by
before the monstrance of the moonlight
with tree tops bowing their heads

in the Spirit-breath
of the late night breeze
while the stars above
glow like benediction candles
over le Lac du Saint Sacrament.

8-20-13, Thomas Ryan, CSP

Ever Present Holy Lessons

2013-09-20 08.55.56By Stephanie Gretchen Burgevin. Stephanie is a writer and retreat leader. She is an associate faculty member of Shalem and a graduate of theirLeading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and leads spiritual and secular programs. Stephanie manages Shalem’s blog and is one of the social media coordinators for the Shalem Institute Facebook page.

What is it about the change of seasons that makes us pause? Is it the awareness of the passage of time?
August in Maryland can often be a hot, sticky, dry time where the grass looks and feels like quills. It is just mid-September and we have been blessed with a string of cool nights and warm, pleasant days. Humidity is low and, without the stickiness, the sky is crystal clear blue.
Is it the beauty that makes me pause, the welcome coolness? I’m not sure, but it brings me to a new awareness of being.
I see the first leaves turning yellow and as I sit on the porch and write a breeze sweeps through the woods and I am shocked by the amount of leaves that release their grip.
Ahh…letting go. A perennial lesson. Release, let go of the things and ways of being that I no longer need, that no longer serves me.
I realize it is not necessarily something I can think my way through. I can’t think my way to letting go, pausing at every action, “Does this serve me?” “Can I release this?” Release is a place of not needing to collect. It is a place of dayenu: even this is enough. A place of realizing the bounty in the moment.
How little energy it takes when we remember we have all we need and we can just be.
Isn’t it truly awesome that the Holy One lays all these reminder lessons all around us for us to access at any time? Ever present, ever supportive.
What makes you pause? What is your experience?