Joy Unspeakable

Today’s post is by Tanya Radford

Black History month for me comes with great joy and great dread. Dread because the month typically consists of the same history and politically correct acknowledgements. No new enlightenment. But great joy as it gives me the opportunity to present something of more depth for conversation, for consideration about my culture, about who I am.

So, it is with this joy that I muse about what it means to be contemplative and African American. I’ve been thinking, praying, and studying this seeming contradiction for some time—only to conclude that there is no contradiction. For people of color, the contemplative is embedded in our DNA.

Before I began my journey at Shalem, it was recommended that I read a book titled Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church. I began reading this beautiful study, and it was like a salve to my yearning soul. The author, Barbara Holmes, filled in the blanks and answered many questions. She discusses the communal nature of worship for African descendent peoples and explains why for me being contemplative is not all about silence but about community, spirited worship in community and silence.

Barbara Holmes begins her study in the church—the center of our community, the place we gather to give strength to each other as we receive strength from one another. The worship experience in the Black church is spiritual nirvana! It is the height of oneness: the prayers, the music, the preached word, the swaying, the shouting, everyone in one accord. There is nothing more powerful than when a people come together to praise and worship God, pray together and experience the supernatural power of the all mighty God! This communal worship informs our silent times, gives a place to bare our souls, reconnects us to the ancestral memory of wholeness, oneness. It is no wonder that the greatest movements in our history are borne out of the church. We need this experience. The goal therefore becomes carrying this experience of God’s presence into the everyday, to tap into that power for clarity and direction.

For me this also begs another look at the icons of our faith. For just as Howard Thurman is recognized as a contemplative, I would suggest that many others should also be named, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., who penned some of his greatest writings out of the solitude of seeking God to find a way to bring the peace of God into unimaginable situations. King then brought his experience of God back to the community to galvanize a people and give them the tools to tap into that strength to face the challenges of each day. He found strength in community and in the silence.

This suggests to me that maybe the definition for being contemplative shouldn’t be too narrow, too exclusive, too restrictive. This way of life is not so much about a practice but more about the approach to all of life. For African descendent people, the oneness of worship in all of its joyful celebration is a necessary part of the solitude of silence. It is a way, one way, our way to the contemplative mind. No contradiction, and certainly just as powerful.

Would you like to read more? Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color explores the unique concerns, issues and experiences of people of color. The essays, told from the viewpoint of the spiritual director, inspire us to explore our own traditions and encourage us to embrace culturally relevant approaches to spiritual direction.

Tanya-RadfordTanya Radford, Shalem’s Special Assistant/Program Administrator, works with Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program and assists with all other programs at Shalem. In addition, she helped produce Shalem’s 40th anniversary video and managed the creation of Shalem’s new web site and database. She has a degree in Media Arts and is a writer, vocalist and student of the word of God.

Contemplative Reawakening

This video clip is an excerpt from Cynthia Bourgeault’s talk at Shalem’s Contemplative Voices Award Benefit in November 2014.

DSC_8461“Contemplation was originally in the Greek and early patristic understandings reserved for a kind of higher or noetic knowing, knowing through the nous, the eye of the heart. Sometimes it takes the form of visionary seeing, images, but more typically it is simply a kind of luminous, situational knowingness that can’t be attributed to any outside source. It becomes part of one’s own being…

…We need to begin to claim the slowly growing collecting reservoir of noetic insight and draw on it consciously in service of the continuing evolution of humanity and the life of the planet.

Contemplative reawakening may have begun on the ground of personal healing and transformation, but it has now found its authentic wingspan in the prophetic and the collective.”

» To hear the rest of her talk, you may purchase access to view the recording.

Cynthia B photoCynthia Bourgeault is a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, who divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine and a demanding schedule 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.

Photos by Susan Etherton

Grace for the New Year

2014-01-02 20.25.03By 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.

It’s that time of year when many of us look at the 12 fresh months stretching out before us and we resolve to do more, do less, be better, grow, accept, or improve in some way. There is something inspiring about the turning of the page. Maybe this year will be different. This is the year we will finally get it right. Each new year seems to offer an enticing combination of motivation, vision, and hope, true conviction that we can change. Embracing change with commitment and zest is essential to the spiritual life, but I sometimes wonder if we walk a fine line in our zeal for improvement, often berating ourselves, others, and life itself for our unmet expectations.

For some of us New Year’s resolutions come every five minutes, never feeling at peace with the works-in-progress that we are. Surely, it is good to improve and there are always things that need to be changed. Culturally, our endless self-evaluations are reinforced by the equally endless number of self-help books offering a formula to overcome every flaw.

I wonder if preoccupation with self-improvement is the flip-side of pride. All this focus on my perceived flaws keeps me turned inward, anxious and immobilized. I am unable to simply live in freedom and joy as a child of God. I miss opportunities to offer whatever I can to the best of my ability. It also places me in Eden right next to Adam and Eve. If I could only grasp this oh-so-elusive “fruit” I would be whole, complete, like God, beautiful, free from all the messy complications of being human. I would transcend the clay of which I am made.

One very wise woman I know has a mantra for navigating life well. In any given situation, she resolves to:

  1. Show up (nothing is ever really possible without presence).
  2. Pay attention (paying attention is necessary to grasp the invitation of each moment).
  3. Speak the truth (choosing right speech and action to the best of one’s understanding).
  4. Don’t be attached to the outcome.

Don’t be attached to the outcome. It is a curious thing to give your very best efforts while being unattached to the outcome, but this advice calls us to act from the motivation of integrity rather than result. It is also a path toward peace since we often can’t control the outcomes of our efforts anyway. When we release right actions into the universe they are free to fly as they will, and others are free to respond as they will. Outcomes are just too unwieldy to control.

I want to add one more piece to my friend’s mantra: Trust grace. Who wants life to be only about their efforts? That’s a scary thing! New Year’s resolutions are about taking stock and resolving to do our very best, but peace comes from trusting that whatever we are able to do, or unable to do, and whether we ever become all we want to be, our lives will be defined by grace–by God’s tenacious determination to bless us. I want my life to be defined by God doing God’s very best for me. May we all embrace the days of 2014 in freedom, and joy–confident that this year will be lived under the authority of grace. May all our resolutions be surpassed by God’s presence to us, truth for us, right action on our behalf, patience with the outcomes, and ever-present favor.

The Simplicity of a Peaceful Holiday

2013-12-20 09.16.43By 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.

I can get myself stressed out from over doing as well as anyone, but somehow I manage to keep the peace for Christmas.

I wasn’t always this way. I could get myself so wrapped around the axel that I’d be cleaning baseboards before I hosted Christmas Eve dinner! Luckily, for me and my family, I gave that up! (Shudder!)

My son and fiancé were talking the other day about how they feel the pressure of the season, getting the “right” gift for someone, getting all regular and then seasonal tasks done. It sounded like a long list of strict to-dos.

They asked me how I wasn’t getting uptight. It’s just Grace (and some work on letting go!).

When I think of why Advent is special to me, it is because of the magic of the season. The place I go to in order to keep it this way is midnight service in the church where I grew up. All the lights would be out except a few candles. It would all be quiet. The church was packed. The anticipation grew as you sat in the dark. You could hear the choir gathering outside the sanctuary. You knew something special was coming. Then, they would start to sing Silent Night a cappella as they passed the candle flame to each worshipper there until the whole church was filled with light and beauty and music. This scene still brings tears to my eyes. I think it’s the blessings of sheer delight of sight and sound, of unity and togetherness, of love for one another, of the hope and joy that that night signifies, and most of all, the palpable sense of the Holy being so strongly among us.

Somehow that is the moment I carry with me during this season of waiting and it keeps me grounded and connected.

It’s a simple story of anticipation and enough preparation to have an open heart and to just show up, of the light emerging from the dark, and then beauty and joy, (and in this case heavenly singing).

Blessings and peace to you and your loved ones this holy-day season.

Gliding into Prayer

Gliding into Prayer  by Tom RyanGuest blog by Tom Ryan. Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, 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. 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.

Glide into Prayer

Every sensory portal is open wide,

and the inner spirit folding in gratitude

for the gentle emanations

of the setting sun slowly baking my skin

for the gurgle of water

licking the rocks at my feet

for the silent embrace

of long, forested mountain arms

for the scintillating scent

of red pine needles overhead

for the exploding wet sweetness

of nectarine juice in my mouth

for the blue, true dream of sky

transforming into pink before my eyes.

Could there be a more pleasing glide into prayer

than on this wave of grateful awe within?

Island 8-26-13

Thomas Ryan, CSP

Contemplative Living and Fallow Time

By 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.

“The time of fallowness is a time of rest, restoration, of filling up and replenishing. It is the moment when the meaning of all things can be searched out, tracked down, made to yield the secret of living. Thank God for the fallow time!”—Howard Thurman

I was at a silent retreat recently. Several people, when asked, said they were here because they felt fractured, exhausted, pulled in so many directions. I’m not sure how far this depleted fragmenting has spread around the world, but I know it is an epidemic in this area.

I went to the retreat that weekend because I have a call to listen to my heart in a new and deeper way. After years of rampant busyness, my heart’s voice is sometimes so soft it can be a struggle to hear it clearly.

What I hear in myself and the other retreatants is a true need for more fallow time. Time to rest, restore, fill up, quiet down, a time to listen deeply. The word retreat comes from the Latin word meaning to ‘pull back.’

Instead of pushing forward, don’t keep at it, pull back, ease up.

I have had to work hard over the years, as I’m sure many of you can relate, to be comfortable and able to do “nothing.” On the retreat my spiritual discipline was to allow the fallow time. I

absorbed each word of a poem

became entranced by the beauty of a milkweed seed

watched ripples on a pond


walked slowly

breathed deeply


When I came home, I found that I could more easily recall those still spaces. I took 30 seconds and sat and watched the gray November morning make the fall colors pop in the woods as the rain fell.

I stood and watched leaves glide by in a small crook of the Patuxent River.

These fallow moments only took half a minute, but they connected me to the Great Silence and restored me for a day.

Blessed be the fallow time. May it restore you and may you carry a piece of it with you.

What is your experience?

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 and

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?

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.

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.

The Hunger for Hearth Time

2013-10-07 18.35.30By Sharon Daloz Parks. She is a teacher and author. She has taught at Harvard Divinity School, the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Seattle University, and she speaks and consults nationally. Her publications include: Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World; Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith; and the co-authored, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. She is a member of Shalem’s 40th Anniversary Honorary Council.

Away from home, I’ve joined a few friends and colleagues for a Board meeting. We are meeting in a gracious, warm and comfortable guesthouse, built to be a gathering place where emerging adults (twenty-somethings) who are motivated by a sense of faith and calling can reflect on their experience and discern next steps. It is named, “The Hearth.”

Indeed, “hearth places” are places where we gather and are gathered.  Hearth places have the power to draw and hold us because they offer an exquisite balance of stability and motion. Such places encourage us to linger longer than we otherwise might. Indoors or out, they invite us into pause, reflection, and conversation that can deepen into contemplation—“a continual condition of prayerful sensitivity to what is really going on” as the Quaker, Douglas Steere, expressed it. Whether we find ourselves lingering by a fireplace, campfire, or an ocean shore, there Spirit invites us to slow to the pace of contemplation and creativity. A deeper dialogue, in solitude or community, claims our attention.

Because dialogue does not mean two people talking, but rather “talking through,” the ongoing dialogue in which we become practiced in “trusting the Spirit” hungers for sustained practices of place and time. The core dialogue of our souls in which we grapple with trust and fear, power and powerlessness, alienation and belonging, hope and despair is not composed on the run in fleeting texts, tweets, sound bites, (or even blogs!). It requires something more like a hearthside conversation. Hearth conversations begin however and end whenever. They allow for silence; there are no awkward pauses. They find their way to the heart of things.

Contemplative living calls for a practice of hearth—hard to come by in our world gone busy. But the hunger for hearth places, hearth time, and hearth-sized conversation persists, and it can be ignored only at the cost of a malnourished life.

The practice of hearth can be recovered in a variety of forms and throughout a wide range of organizations and communities. Spiritual directors at their best create hearth-space, and we know the difference between classrooms, boardrooms, offices, and homes that are at least sometimes willing to run on hearth time and those that cannot or will not

The life and work of the Shalem Institute has been sustained across forty years because it has steadfastly served as a hearth place, meeting the deepest hungers of souls seeking a place, time, and conversation where trusting the Spirit is learned and practiced. We are grateful.