A Constant Steady Force of Peace

Today’s post is by Jamie Deering

Spring offers us evocative reminders of the power and strength in rebirth. Seeds wintering below the surface of soot and soil waiting for love’s signal to sprout. Birds of the air and fish of the sea beginning their long migrations to nesting grounds across testing terrain. My own inner spirit coming out of winter’s drowse to look up and see life teeming all around.

I live on a bay in a tiny alcove of Puget Sound in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula. This area in Washington state offers one of the most diverse, sweeping, explorable landscapes within the U.S. We are known for sitting at the feet of nature rather than inside a church.

As you drive into my hometown, Port Ludlow, there’s a sign that says “A Village in the Woods by the Bay.” Here I get a daily view of nature’s rhythms. It’s a constant steady force of peace in my life that I had no idea awaited me when I moved here three years ago. Coming from the busier metropolis of Tacoma, 60 miles south, I was unaware of the pace of life offered deeper in Northwest terrain.

PL Heron.jpgFrom my dining room chair where I write, I can look up at any moment and there is a different view than the moment before. The water has shifted, the sun is a bit higher. A bird keeping watch from the porch railing, a river otter frolicking with her family, tails flipping over the water’s rim. A constant changing land and seascape that says, “come and be with me.” Calling me to practice an ever-present awareness of God’s presence and space. Big, wide-open space.

It’s not always a gentle, loving message. The sweeping call of nature evokes the vast span of the call of Presence. Sometimes it’s a missive of courage and bravery that incites my own. Watching an eagle’s driving pursuit of a heron and hearing the heron’s screaming cry called me out onto the porch a month ago. The great blue heron was in a race for its life as the eagle gained ground. With talons flaring, the eagle caught up and shackled the heron, plunging it underwater and holding it there time and again. I had never been such a close observer to a fight to the death. The heron stopped struggling, submerged completely as the eagle sat atop it.

Neah Bay 3.jpgSuddenly, two crows began to dive bomb the eagle. They weren’t big, but they were noisy and persistent. Again and again they dived down to heckle the eagle. After several attacks, the eagle released the heron and went after the crows, which were more agile in the air acrobatics. They drew the eagle across the water toward the trees. I kept watch on the water where the heron was floating. I was rooting for the heron; willing it to get up. My husband had joined me on the porch and together we wondered aloud if it were too late. Yet hope kept our eyes on the heron. We spotted tiny movement, though it was hard to discern if it were hope-worthy. Then another and another. Incredulously, after several minutes, the heron rose out of the water and flew across it within inches of its surface to the waiting marina docks. From here it left our view. While this was happening, the crows continued to draw the ire of the eagle and lure it away from the heron.

Bald eagles are coming back from the brink of extinction. If the eagle had succeeded in securing its large lunch, this would have been perhaps a more characteristic playing-out of nature’s birth and death cycle. But on this day, the crows intervened quite deliberately to save the heron’s life. I am still meditating on this. Another day has dawned and I return to gazing in awe, respect, and wonder at the incredible scenes before me of nature’s story being told in the Pacific Northwest. What a joy it will be for me to share my love for this sacred space with Shalem pilgrims this September.

Jamie DeeringJamie Deering is a graduate of Shalem’s Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Groups & Retreats Program and offers contemplative experiences throughout the Pacific Northwest. She relishes life among the salmon, eagle, bear and orca in Port Ludlow, WA, the heart of the land for Shalem’s upcoming Pilgrimage in the Pacific Northwest. A licensed massage therapist, somatic therapy coach, and soon to be spiritual director, Jamie is active in creating a thriving global community.

The Olympic Peninsula, at the northwest edge of the continental United States, offers a rare and unique experience of one of God’s cathedrals. Consider joining Shalem on Uniting with Earth’s Rhythm: A Pilgrimage in the Pacific Northwest, led by Jamie Deering and Leah Rampy, Sept 24 to Oct 1, 2016.


Nature Heals

Today’s post is by Leah Rampy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Challenge to Everyday Life

Today’s post is by Bryan Berghoef

“The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation—to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. Nothing matters now but this adventure.”
~Huston Smith


The alarm went off, and my wife and I sleepily rolled out of bed, roused the children, brewed the coffee, and started the day. A few hastily-made lunches and bowls of cereal later, and the kids were ready to head out the door to school. A regular scene. A snapshot of hundreds of other similar days. OK, some days I hit snooze (or most days!).

We are all traveling somewhere, whether we regularly find ourselves at the airport, on a path through some untamed wilderness, or at the kitchen table. Life’s journey moves us from one place to another, and we are the unwitting (and sometimes unwilling) passengers.

For many of us, amid the routine of daily life, we might begin to imagine that a fabulous journey to a new locale is only a rare occurrence. Perhaps something that happens very infrequently in our lives, maybe only once or twice. Day after day—if we’re fortunate—we wake up in a familiar bed, wash up in a familiar bathroom, look in the same mirror, pour the same bowl of cornflakes.

Routine is a wonderful and comforting thing, like a special blanket or a favorite chair. Without it, we might find ourselves adrift, always trying to find our footing. Yet routine can sneak up on us. It can lull us to sleep about this very rare, precious thing that is our life. A little travel or change of scenery can sometimes snap us out of this sleepy reverie. Yet travel isn’t possible for all of us—whether for financial, physical, or health reasons. Phil Cousineau invites us, in his book, The Art of Pilgrimage, to extend our vision of pilgrimage to something beyond an actual journey to Jerusalem, Mecca, or Machu Picchu.

He invites us to think about unique times or stages in our lives that might hold a special difficulty. Perhaps extended time at the bedside of a loved one in hospice could be seen as a pilgrimage of sorts. Or walking with a child through a health crisis, or a learning challenge. Maybe a short-term job assignment, or an unwelcome task that comes our way could be reframed in this way. Perhaps even just a regular day on the calendar could be reimagined.

This is not to make light of break-out-the-map-and-the-hiking-boots pilgrimages. Those have their place as well. In fact, as I prepare to go on Shalem’s pilgrimage to Iona this coming June, part of my pilgrimage preparation is to cultivate the pilgrim’s mindset of “openness, attentiveness, and responsiveness.” One of the things that happens with travel, inevitably, is that something goes wrong—a flight is delayed and a connection is missed, or a hotel is booked that we were counting on, or we wander off the trailhead and find ourselves off the map. And so we are encouraged to “have a purchase on our surroundings by being centered in ourselves, not somewhere in the outer world.”

The invitation, then, in my daily life, is twofold: 1) Am I centered in myself, and indeed, in something greater than myself? And 2) Am I attentive to the small details that fall my way?

Am I intentional in making time to connect with the Spirit, amid schedule, meetings, and an overly full inbox? Do I see something mundane, such as making breakfast for my kids, as a sort of wonder? Do I notice their delight when I announce we’re having eggs and toast instead of (the usual) cereal? Do I allow that delight to fuel me toward an attentiveness, openness, and enthusiasm about the rest of my day? I tried it out this morning, just to see. I soaked in those smiles a bit longer. I was more patient with slow-dressing children. I paid more attention as I said, “Have a great day today.” And it really did filter into the rest of my day. I have to say, I like this whole idea of “throwing down a challenge to everyday life.”

Look out, Monday, my hiking boots are on, and I’m coming for you.

bryan1Bryan Berghoef is a pastor and writer who helps curate Shalem’s social media content and provides technical support for Shalem’s online courses. He is the author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God, and lives with his family in Holland, Michigan. You can follow Bryan on Facebook and Twitter.

Interested in hitting the path with a group of other pilgrims? Shalem has several upcoming pilgrimage opportunities: Pilgrimage to Assisi: April 17-25 to Assisi, Italy; Iona Pilgrimage: June 2-12 to Iona, Scotland; A Pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest: Sept 24-Oct 1, 2016 to the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State (more info coming soon).

Finding a Thin Place

Today’s post is by Bill Stone

People come to Scotland looking for all sorts of things. When I first moved to Scotland six years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had traveled here twice on vacation and fallen in love with both the people and the place itself. But I also knew that living here would be much different from visiting for a week. There were a lot of unanswered questions floating through my head as I boarded a one-way flight into Edinburgh that August, but I was sure that this was where I was called to be.

Edinburgh-Cows-DSC02743The weeks that followed were a whirlwind of activity as I began a new job, moved into a new home, and obtained (after several failed attempts) a new bank account and mobile phone. In those early and hectic days I would often head up into the hills surrounding the town for some peace and quiet. Here I could rest. Here I could (literally) get a new perspective on things. Here, amidst the gorse bushes and the rowan trees, I had found my thin place—where the boundary between heaven and earth was especially transparent. Hill walking became a habit for me, and I came to regard my time there as sacred.

The Celtic notion of thin places—locations where the divine presence is more readily encountered—is well known. From the hills of the highlands, to the shores of Iona, there are many locations in Britain that feel set-apart in time and space. In the Middle Ages these places became sites of pilgrimage. Inspired by stories of the saints who once lived in and around these sites, pilgrims would come seeking a profound religious experience.

Ian Bradley in Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey suggests that, “the prevailing view in Irish monastic circles about the benefits to be gained from visiting holy places was profoundly skeptical.” As evidence of this he offers a verse attributed to a ninth-century Irish abbot:

Who to Rome goes

Much labour, little profit knows;

For God, on earth though long you’ve sought him,

You’ll miss in Rome unless you’ve brought him.

For some, pilgrimage to a sacred or thin place was—and still today is—a truly moving and spiritually transforming experience. For others, though, their travel amounted to little more than religious tourism. If you did not begin your pilgrimage with the right intentions, you could travel for miles looking high and low for something that would forever remain elusive.

There is a certain cynicism in that rhyme, but there is also the profound insight that you don’t need to go to Rome to encounter God—for the divine presence is already there, within you, and all around you. It’s possible to connect with something greater than yourself not just on a remote isle or in the solitude of the hills. You can approach everyday life with the intention of being truly present and discover thin places right in your own back yard. One of the great benefits of pilgrimage to more distant places like Rome and Iona is that, when you do encounter the holy along the way, you are much more prepared to notice it once you return home. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s much easier to spot.

When I first boarded a plane for Scotland in 2009, I never expected that six years later I would still be here. Here in Edinburgh I find more and more frequently that everywhere I turn there is a new invitation to encounter God. It is easy to feel connected to the past as you walk down the city’s ancient streets. There is a rich history of thinkers, writers, and theologians, and a culture that today still celebrates their contributions. The city is also a place where urban and nature meet—enclosing seven hills within its boundaries. In such a place, with such a vibrant community, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that all of Edinburgh has become a thin place for me.

Edinburgh-Bill StoneBill Stone
is an ordained Presbyterian minister from the United States who has served in the Edinburgh area for the past five years. He and his wife Hayley O’Connor co-lead Shalem’s Young Adult Contemplative Life and Leadership Initiative and have provided leadership for multiple Shalem pilgrimages. He and Hayley, along with Leah Rampy, will be leading Shalem’s young adult pilgrimage to Edinburgh, October 18-24, 2015.

Bill Stone and his wife Hayley are leading a pilgrimage to Edinburgh this October! Today’s chaotic and hurting world urgently needs the inspired leadership of young adults. This pilgrimage to Edinburgh, Scotland, will offer a spacious time for young adult leaders to listen within for the invitation to leadership by walking the ancient hills of this beautiful city and opening to the wisdom of the earth. Space is limited to 12 participants in this inaugural pilgrimage for young professionals. We encourage your early application.
To find out more or to apply, click here.