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.

The Grace of Noticing

Today’s blog post is by Trish Stefanik

I don’t have a cell phone.

I have been meaning to get one, over the years, but still have not done so. I know I will – I am not against the motion of technology, and I imagine I will enjoy many an app and ways to ease communication. I imagine, too, the relief of not having to field disbelieving, even angry, expressions and remarks to my not having a smartphone. But for now, I enjoy cultivating the art of noticing.

Just this week walking to and from the Metro I notice a lavish rose flowering in a lot more suited for weeds. I stop to admire the humor and creativity on a signboard outside a coffee shop: an artistic rendering of the Peanuts character Linus hugging a pumpkin and the invitation, “Welcome Great Pumpkin Chai!” Later I see a bundled beauty of a baby in a stroller at peace and oblivious to the urban sights and sounds teeming around her. In the little patch of green in front of an apartment building, a dog leaps and without fanfare (on his part – I am amazed) catches a flying red Frisbee mid-air. I definitely would have missed this moment if I were looking down at a screen.

Then there is the October sun, situated low in the sky and more apt to be blinding this time of year. I have gotten caught, frozen, more than once in its inescapable glare. I take the opportunity to be grateful to simply bask in the light, as if it is God’s Presence manifest in all-embracing radiance. I take the time to feel that from head to toe to heart.

The leaves turn, swirl, and fall gently in a colorful, graceful display of letting go. Flocks of birds zigzag repeatedly across the sky. I’m not sure what this is about, but I delight in the visual melody. I see a sparrow rustle under a tree at the edge of the sidewalk; on a bare limb above another sings. Yes, there is birdsong amidst the typical engine noises, sirens, and shouts! And when the piercing sounds of the city bear me down or stop me short, I offer a prayer for the EMT workers and the situation they are rushing to, or for a stressed-out driver or harried pedestrian.

I especially enjoy noticing the people along my walk. I don’t mean detached, curious observation. I mean to walk slowly enough, and sometimes stop, to offer a friendly greeting. More than polite etiquette, I light up with the kind of smile that comes only from within and is self-offering. I recognize that human being as beautiful to be seen.

My greeting is not always reciprocated but is more often than not. And when this happens, I experience something shining beyond the encounter, like that embracing Presence in the sun. In some mysterious way, taking the time to really pay attention opens a doorway for a holy spirit to work wonders in me and in you and in whatever the situation may be. Not in a Pollyannaish way. Suffering and pain are all too real, and all the more evident as I take the time to be present. In which case, I still have my presence to give.

I am not always paying attention; I do not always connect with my surroundings. My thoughts distract me; I am not a purist. It is laughable how easily I can move from a beautiful moment of connection with the newspaper carrier at the top of the Metro escalator as he offers, “Have a Blessed Day!” to a place of unawareness on the platform as I bury myself in the paper.

Then I remember and look up, back in the present moment. My friend Joseph talks about “the aesthetic nature of living.” Each moment holds the Eternal, if only I awaken in it. I still have plenty of time to get to work and back home. And I come bearing a heart full and grateful.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: Take the time to notice. “Have a Blessed Day!” How are you experiencing your surroundings? What are you seeing and hearing within yourself? What is your response?


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.

What is true, life-giving power?

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffee

I happened to be watching a home shopping channel the other day for various reasons, none of them particularly grand. In the midst of hawking that day’s best value, the host mentioned she had been talking with her daughters about the meaning of mercy. Surprised, I thought, “Huh, what an interesting word to explore with young children.” I began thinking about my seven-year-old son, Gabe, and our adventures in spiritual formation. Feeling expansive, I decided to choose a “word of the month” to explore and discuss together, not unlike a vendor’s Today’s Special Value, perhaps. I guess you just never know where inspiration will crop up.

In honor of summer’s effulgence and the sun’s ever-reliable gift of light, we began with the word “generosity.” There were many life lessons and examples to share, and inspired by this initial success, I decided to be a bit more daring in my choice for September. I chose “power.”

Our world is full of examples of the abuse and misuse of power, but what is true, life-giving power? Could I explain it, not just in the negative but in a positive way that left a meaningful impression on my son’s young life? I researched examples, stories, and quotations looking for a wise and solid definition, eventually defining power as the ability to take action for good. Such a simple definition, though, belies power’s great complexity. Power certainly conveys a sense of dynamism, but it also includes the choice not to act. Power carries a sense of strength, whole-heartedness, clarity, and resolve. But power is also experienced in vulnerability, tenderness, and tears. Power suggests freedom, but we all know epic stories of those who have been imprisoned and deprived while still possessing great personal power and freedom of spirit. True power holds together freedom and responsibility, strength and wisdom.

What about those times when we experience deep vulnerability and we struggle to trust ourselves, feeling afraid and quite disempowered? Gabe reminds me nightly, without fail, to pray about his “scary things,” a list of dangers I memorized long ago. It includes, “tornadoes, twisters, hot lava, hot lava tunnels, whirlpools, volcanoes, earthquakes, and giant robots.” Occasionally, he will add some other perceived threat from his day. I often don’t know how to quell his fear. I tell him that we don’t live near a volcano, earthquakes are very rare, and there’s no such thing as giant robots (at least not rampaging ones!), but that kind of rationality doesn’t soothe his vibrant imagination and the growing awareness that he is vulnerable and the world is indeed full of wildness. I usually just pray that he will be able to feel the powerful spirit living inside him, filling him with confidence that he can handle whatever comes his way.

At this point I immediately find myself asking the question that so many teachers, parents, and leaders must ask—do I really believe this? Do I live with faithful confidence, acting on behalf of myself and others? Truthfully, I probably embody my power in fits and starts rather than in the consistent tenor of my days. The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, suggested that we all undertake a hero’s journey replete with sunshine and shadow, periods of isolation and pain as well as strength and great homecoming. The real question according to Campbell is not one of remaining safe and invulnerable, but “can I say yes to my own adventure?” Can I remain whole-hearted and present in the midst of the dangers of my experience, arriving eventually at a deeper sense of self and of renewed power?

My favorite story about power is obscurely tucked into the narrative of 1 Samuel 25. David and his men are living in a desert wilderness when he asks for kindness and provision from Nabal, a prosperous landowner in the area. Nabal, being a surly sort of chap, disrespects David and refuses his request, upon which David orders every man in his company to strap on his sword. He sets out to avenge his honor, intent on killing Nabal. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, gets word of his plan and she rides her donkey to intercept him and save her household from disaster. She approaches David, appeals to his integrity and reminds him of the bigger picture. She beautifully entreats him to refrain from violence, stating that David’s life is “bound securely, in the bundle of the living.” Some versions translate the Hebrew as, “bound securely in the treasure pouch of God.” Abigail’s power and wisdom calls forth David’s better judgment and destruction is averted.

Human behavior is ever unreliable until rooted in the Divine. Abiding in the divine life ensures both the wisdom and spiritual freedom required to live powerfully and well. In practicing the right use of power, we help others preserve the connection between strength and compassion. Power finds its highest expression in intimacy with the One who is always present, active, and working for good. Fear is allayed as we offer a brave and responsive yes to this lifetime adventure in a wild universe full of possibility and freedom, at once both beautiful and terrifying. Perhaps, at night, when those fearful possibilities approach, we might hear a kind voice saying, “Sleep well. I have given you a powerful spirit and you can handle whatever comes, not because it won’t be scary, or painful, but because your life is held securely in mine as my own special treasure.”

The late Irish author, John O’Donohue, offers these words of blessing in To Bless the Space Between Us for those who hold positions of power. Ultimately, this includes us all, for we are all empowered people, nourished and growing in the divine life.

In your heart may there be a sanctuary

For the stillness where clarity is born.

May your work be infused with passion and creativity

And have the wisdom to balance compassion and challenge.

May your soul find the graciousness

To rise above the fester of small mediocrities.

May your power never become a shell

Wherein your heart would silently atrophy.

May you welcome your own vulnerability

As the ground where healing and truth join.

May integrity of soul be your first ideal,

the Source that will guide and bless your work.

May it be so.


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.

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!

Sit.

Today’s post is by Kimberly Borin

I was praying and filled to the brim with so many ideas, desires, and hopes. I was looking for a new direction, a calling, next steps, and a road map clarifying the journey ahead. In my earnest prayer, I asked, “Lord, what shall I do next?” I sensed a small whisper of an answer. I heard this:

Sit.”

Surely, I must have missed something. Sit? Was this it? I was hoping for something with at least two syllables, something grander, maybe even life changing! I thought perhaps I must have misheard, so I prayed again and again and then again on another day. The answer was always the same, a gentle loving nudge to do nothing else but “Sit.”

And so it was. I began to sit and more importantly notice when I wasn’t sitting. I still tried to explore and try on different versions of sitting. I thought perhaps I was to: sit there, sit with me, sit down and enjoy the ride, sit still, or even, sit down and eat your vegetables. I even tried; sit, stay!, sit with us, sit in the sun, sit down and put your feet up, and sit down and daydream awhile. While many of those options seemed lovely, nothing fit except to “Sit.”

My brother-in-law had even mentioned that he learned to pray by focusing on a word that was revealed in prayer. He was granted a three-syllable word – filled with transformation, new beginnings, and insight. Later, I shared with him my little three-letter word. With head down, I slowly revealed, “All I got was, ‘Sit.’”

My sacred word and spiritual directive began to take on more meaning. It granted me permission to rest, to wait on a decision, and to hold my emotions in check until clarity was given. It helped me to be present to God, to grace, to mercy and even the sound of the world around me. I learned to sit with mystery, my breath, with time, and the sun. I learned to sit on the floor, on the porch, with friends, with children, with those who were sick and those who needed an ear. The sitting taught me about being fully present.

Later, I shared with my spiritual director my little word, and she silently nodded with a knowing smile. I could tell that she trusted the word was more powerful than I was yet to realize. What was interesting about the timing of this was that I had just recovered from a concussion, where I had already spent a fair amount of time lying down. I had also entered into training to be a contemplative prayer retreat leader and would need to understand the power of sitting and how to nourish others in their ability be in silence too.

I began to see that I was not alone in sitting. Rose Mary Dougherty’s book, Discernment, reminded me of the importance of finding this still place and listening. She quoted Rachel Naomi Remen who wrote about “querencia,” a term used in bullfighting. It was about being able to find our safe and quiet place, to remember who we are, and to gather our strength and wisdom for the next step. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. reminded me to “Trust in the slow work of God” by writing, “Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that God’s own hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Rainer Maria Rilke also affirmed this, encouraging us be with and to “live into the questions.” It seems that slowing down, sitting, and surrendering are just what are needed to be available to God and the presence of love.

That little word continues to help me be present and to laugh out loud, especially when I think I have something big to do in the world. I can’t help but smile at my simple directive to sit down, be available to love in the world and breathe. I am still learning to sit and I am still trying to understand the special nudge I received. I find it most helpful when people tell me they are hoping for a big inspirational moment, or a road map of next steps and wonder why they have been given only a simple thing to do.

In those moments, I feel myself nodding silently with a smile on my face. I know that whatever they have been given no matter what size or how many syllables, it will lead to a chance to sit, to be, and to be loved.


kimberlyborin

Dr. Kimberly Borin is a School Counselor, Retreat Leader, and in training to be a Spiritual Director with 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.

Tasting the Holy

Today’s post is by Joyce Anderson Reed

Have you ever showed up for worship on Sunday morning and nothing worked? God didn’t speak to you through the songs you sang. God didn’t speak to you through the Scripture readings. God didn’t speak to you through the sermon. God didn’t show up during the prayer time. The special music during the offertory didn’t touch you. Even the children’s story for all those adorable four- and five-year-olds didn’t penetrate the surface. You hugged a few people, drank some coffee, went home, and thought, “What was that about, God?”

One Sunday like this every once in a while is somewhat expected. But have you ever showed up for worship on Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. . . and nothing worked? You still believed in God. You still knew God was showing up every Sunday because you saw God’s grace played out in other people’s lives. But your conversation with God suddenly seemed paused, while the spiritual journeys of others seemed to flow all around you.

This is what happened to me. For months. It was as if I had sailed a boat into a dense spiritual fog where all sound was muted. It was eerie. I couldn’t trust my senses. Everything I tried in the past didn’t work anymore. I tried praying. I tried praying more. I tried reading my Bible. I tried passages I knew, passages I didn’t know. Whole chapters. One verse. I tried talking to wise people whose spiritual counsel had always given me momentum in the past. They still had wise things to say, but nothing kicked loose. I tried listening to praise music, to hymns, to soothing classical sonatas. I confessed all my known sins and repented. I read theology books as well as Christian inspiration. But finally, I just sat in my chair, by a window, and stared at flowers blooming across the street at my neighbor’s house. Day after day. Puzzled about why God still seemed in the room but was no longer speaking to me. Silence.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Occasionally. Once in a while. God would whisper. The syllables almost swallowed by the fog. Just two words: “Trust me.” That was the extent of the conversation. I’d ask for more. Clarification. A hint. A crumb. Anything! But nothing more came. I was drift in the fog. Wondering if I was hearing voices. Going slightly insane. But I’d show up every Sunday with a smile, pretending all was right with my soul.

One church observance, however, managed to break through my fog every time it happened— the celebration of communion. I could fake my way through the singing, zone out during the prayer time, critique the sermon, and pull off a few hugs during fellowship time to appear spiritually “normal,” but communion snuck through my defenses every time. Those moments of receiving and ingesting the bread and the wine (or grape juice) would lift the fog, just a few seconds, and I would feel the authentic power and love of God. A five second high. Then it was over. “Great,” I thought. “I’ve become a communion junkie.”

But I was also grateful. It wasn’t much. Just a tiny sliver of bread and a sip of juice. But I could count on God to BE there. I savored those moments. Hoarded them. And wondered how long I could spiritually endure until my next hit.

Then came our 10-day residency for Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program. Smack dab in the middle of this residency was a silent Sabbath. It began Friday night at sundown and ended with worship at 11am Sunday morning. Approximately 36 hours of silence. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced silence in community, a community where everyone is intentionally seeking God’s heart all at the same time. It’s indescribable. As the silence extends, deepens, the mystery and majesty of God expands. You could almost taste holy. And for the first time in months, the fog was completely gone.

It was like stepping into a meadow on a clear, bright summer day: golden light everywhere; the type of brilliance where you glimpse everything at a molecular level. Crystal clear. And God was literally showing up in everything I did. Praying. Scripture. Journaling. Dreams. Walks outside. A visit to the chapel. Coloring. Writing a poem. Laughing. Crying. Even eating became sacred. Each bite, each morsel, an opportunity to thank God. My silence was so filled with God that I literally scribbled in my journal one day, “God, please slow down a little. I can’t keep up!”

The worship that broke our community silence was simple and profound, and it included communion. And suddenly, I wondered what this communion would hold. We stood in a circle. I dipped my bread into the wine, and held it a few brief seconds, thanking God for the gift of Jesus. Then I popped it in my mouth.

I really have no adequate words to describe what happened.

It was an explosion of flavor so exquisite and so provocative that I immediately thought, “I’m tasting Jesus.” And at that thought, I fell to the ground, weeping uncontrollably. I couldn’t have remained standing even if I’d wanted to. In my head, over and over, I kept hearing, “Christ in you, the hope of glory. Christ in you, the hope of glory.” It is found in Colossians 1:27. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was still crying, kneeling on the floor. I wondered if this was how Moses felt when he discovered the burning bush. I was being consumed from the inside out by Holy.

Later, the woman next to me in the circle said, “When you fell to the floor, a wave of power hit me.” A woman on the far side of the circle said the same. What was I thinking at this point? I found it truly ironic that I, a Baptist girl since the day I was born, was having some type of sacramental, mystical experience with holy communion. Apparently, with me, God took the Emeril approach and kicked it up a notch: BAM!

The mute button is off. God and I are free-falling, holding hands, spinning wildly through the sky. And since I don’t have a parachute, God laughs and shouts—I almost wince it’s so loud—“TRUST ME!”

I wish I could tell you what the cumulative silence and these communion encounters were all about. Even after deep reflection, I don’t have many clues. One realization is that the celebration of communion is one of the few times in worship where everyone in the community seems to be focused on Jesus with intentionality. Our hearts are re-aligned, renewed, re-membered with the body and blood of Christ. The enigma of God’s incarnation in Jesus is continued through us as we bear witness to the mystery of God.

I have the feeling that my rational, linear, problem-solving self will never fully comprehend what this was all about. It’s as though I had a body/mind/soul cleansing. That’s why God’s voice is so loud. The toxic stuff that used to get in the way . . . is no longer there. And I sense God inviting me back into the silence, but—this time—with an awakened heart.


Joyce Anderson Reed is a member of the 2016 class of Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program.

First Fireflies

Today’s post is by Kimberly Borin

There are serendipitous moments that wake us up to the beauty of life and our connection to all of it. Daisies on the side of the road, the sound of children laughing, a perfect sunrise, or inspirational art can capture our attention and draw us into gratitude. Here, in this place we are fully present to what is and are opened to peace and grace.

fireflies_flickrI recently had a moment just like this. I came upon the first fireflies of the summer season. Seeing their gentle lights took my breath away. I felt like a young girl seeing them for the very first time. The fireflies brought my attention to the present and in that place I was in awe and grateful for the miracles in all of life. Everything in life seemed just right. It was a moment of grace.

Gerald May in his book, Care of Mind, Care of Spirit mentions this sense of appreciation with the present moment. He writes, “This attitude is not a devaluation of our knowledge or abilities, but a simple loving availability of all that we are, just as we are, in the situation as it is, with God’s graceful Spirit blowing where She will.”[i]

This gift of grace even showed up at the pizza parlor. It had been a long day in and outside of the counseling office. I was aware of violence in the world, life-threatening illnesses, effects of divorce, abuse, depression, and my own nagging questions about life. I was tired and in need of comfort. I decided that this called for something healing: a tuna sub with the works.

I headed to the pizza parlor to order my special sub. The submarine sandwich required tuna, Swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers, and of course extra mayonnaise on the bread. While waiting, I asked to sit in the empty dining room usually reserved for the dinner hour. I found a cozy booth in the corner, a quiet refuge from the day, a place to rest.

After sitting down, I looked up and across from me was a portrait of The Last Supper. Jesus stood at the center, welcoming his guests with open arms. I was captivated. I also felt like a guest at the table along with the other doubters, worriers, and people trying to sort it out just like me. I was so thankful for this synchronicity, this image. In that moment, I felt present to all of it: the worries, the world, the tuna sub, Jesus, the quiet of the room and that everything in life seemed just right. It was a moment of grace.

These surprising moments, capture our attention, deepen our gratitude, and remind us of our connection with all of life. These moments exist around us all of the time, it is only a matter of noticing. Sunsets, fireflies, tuna subs, and holy images can bring us to a place of awareness and gratitude, offering us grace. These moments when everything in life seeming just right, can then become our gifts of grace to the world.

[i] Gerald G. May, MD, Care of Mind, Care of Spirit, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), p. 200.


kimberlyborin

Dr. Kimberly Borin is a School Counselor, Retreat Leader, and in training to be a Spiritual Director with 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.

Photos by Jessica Lucia (hand) and Flickr Creative Commons (jar).

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Integral Joy

Today’s post is by Carl McColman

A phrase from the Lakota language, mitakuye oyasin, means “all are related” or “all my relations.” It’s a way of seeing: of recognizing that we exist not as some sort of isolated cells over and against our environment or are communities, but that our existence, our very lives, are indeed integrally bound up together with all other beings, with the world and the cosmos. We are all related. We are all connected.

This in turn reminds me of Julian of Norwich, who wrote “the fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” So not only are we connect to all, but that if we learn how to see, we can behold God in all to which we are connected. In scripture we read, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8).

God is everywhere: in the celestial regions as well as the underworld, and of course everywhere in between. Perhaps this is why we can say with confidence, mitakuye oyasin, all are related: because everything is knit together in the silent presence of God.

What all this means, of course, is that silent prayer or contemplative practice cannot be divorced from the rest of life. Spirituality is not something apart from everything else we do; it is knit into the fabric of our undivided lives, the same way that breathing is. In silence we pay attention to our breath, and then for the rest of the day we continue to breath, whether we attend to it or not.

In contemplation we rest in God’s presence, whether we feel or consciously experience it or not. Likewise, throughout the day we rest in the Divine, regardless of how attentive we may be to this fact. But the invitation is more than just cognitively acknowledging the Divine, but rather to enter into the fullness of joy. Learning to see God means learning to find joy.

Several times the Bible notes that “God is love” — but I think we can make the case that “God is joy” also. St. Paul calls his readers to “rejoice always” (I Thessalonians 5:16), and when he lists the fruit of the Spirit, joy is second only to love (Galatians 5:22). The Greek word here is χαρά, “chara,” meaning joy or delight — it’s related to χάρις, “charis,” the word for grace or gift. As it is God’s nature to love, so it is God’s nature to give, and to exude joy and delight. To gaze into God is to gaze into joy.

Now, in truth, much of life may seem anything but joyful. We suffer, we hurt one another, we encounter disease or abuse and death. Where’s the joy in all that?

I don’t believe God calls us to rejoice in suffering itself, but rather to rejoice in God even in the midst of suffering. That may not “feel” any different — I think joy is something deeper than the mere emotion of gladness, as lovely as that may be. Joy is a calibration of our inner compass. It gives us strength and faith to persevere in times of suffering and to bring light into the dark places of our lives.

Finding joy in beholding God in all means not that life suddenly becomes uniformly pleasant, but that we become conduits of God’s grace in any and every situation we find ourselves. It means trusting that God is present, here and now, regardless of what we may feel or think. Trusting that Divine presence, and learning to see it even in the most painful places, means not that we will never suffer again, but that suffering will never overcome us. For we will always bring the hope of joy with us, wherever we go.

Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related, and we are one in God. When I sit in silence, I pray to the one who brings joy to everyone and every situation. In following my breath, gently and silently, I train myself to more faithfully discern that joyful presence in every time and place.

Of course, I still make mistakes and I still fall down. But the grace is always there, waiting to be seen, to be beheld, to be shared. With every breath we have a new opportunity to share the joy.


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 Post, Patheos, and Contemplative Journal, as well as on his own blog/website, www.silence.today.

Gravy, Not Soup

Today’s post is by Kimberly Borin

Recently, I had the good fortune of being on retreat with the Shalem Institute at the Bon Secours Retreat Center.  During our retreat we were blessed with beautiful, delicious meals, which often included soup!  One day, in the midst of our silent retreat all I could think about was soup.  As I got closer to the soup pot, I could see that there was very little soup.  In addition, there were no more soup bowls or soup spoons.

I felt defeated but I was determined to have soup! I found one of the caterers and asked for a bowl, and pointed to the soup.  She looked at me in an odd way but gladly handed me a bowl.  I went back to the line and started ladling bit by bit whatever soup was left in the pot.  The ladle made quite a bit of noise scraping the bottom and sides of the pot as I determinedly filled my bowl.  I was desperate to get whatever was left.

The person, behind me was quite patient, despite my constant dips of the ladle into the fairly empty pot.  She remained serene even with all of the clanking of my soup seeking gestures.  After I was done I noticed that she put some of this soup all over her turkey.  “Hmmmm, That’s a nice idea,” I thought to myself.

I went back to my table and started eating my salad, eager to eat my soup next.  All of a sudden, it occurred to me that perhaps I had desperately ladled myself a whole bowl of gravy, not soup.  I quickly dismissed the thought, with a silent “That’s ridiculous,” and a shake of the head.  Although I knew that the minute I tried the soup I would realize it was indeed – gravy.

I did try the soup… it was gravy.  I was left to eat the remainder of my salad, in silence, while staring at my bowl of gravy.  I was on the edge of bursting out laughing and knowing that my friends who had watched me loudly excavate for the soup probably felt the same way.

Current class of Shalem's Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats

Current class of Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program

The next day, when we came out of silence, I went to my friend who had been standing next to me in line.  I said, “Oh, I have to tell you something.”  Without hesitation, she said, “Oh, the story about taking a whole bowl of gravy?”  “Yes!”  I replied.  Together we laughed out loud and so did everyone else.  From that day forward everyone in line would point out to me, what was gravy and what was soup.

This little bit of mistaken identity struck me in such a way that I could not forget about the incident.  In between making me laugh, the metaphor helped me see a deeper lesson.

Were there other things in my life that were only gravy and not nourishing like soup?  Were there people, places, things in my life that I was desperately hoping would nourish me, but would not provide what I needed, or what God intended for me?

This beautiful metaphor of gravy not soup, has been nourishing me ever since.  In my contemplative practices I have been noticing moments of consolation and desolation.  I have also been noticing moments of gravy, not soup.  These simple labels have been helping me to see the places that provide the nourishment I need – places God would have me go.  I feel so grateful to have this little moment of soup, of silliness, and of story that helps me to choose nourishment on every level in my life.


kimberlyborinDr. Kimberly Borin is a School Counselor, Retreat Leader, and in training to be a Spiritual Director with 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.