Soul Assignment

Today’s post is by Susan Rowland. This is a transcript of her audio testimony highlighting her experience in Shalem’s Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program. You may also listen to her tell her story by clicking on the video above. Listen to stories of other graduates here.

My experience with the Shalem program, Leading Contemplative Prayer groups and Retreats, was unique in so many ways.  At the residencies, we were among a circle of talented people, gathered with the intention of deepening their life and leadership in contemplative practice. The breadth and expression of faith was so rich.   Small groups provided a safe opportunity to try out different prayer practices in an open, experiential, supportive space. I will be forever grateful for the emphasis on simple explanations of prayer practices so that the Spirit is “free to move about the cabin” of the gathering.

What made that possible was the Shalem program leadership, modeling something so beautiful and authentic in all that they offered.  I have been to programs where they teach by telling you what to do.  At Shalem, the leaders revealed their personal passion to us through each teaching. Their words and presence were alive – resonating and bouncing off all of our hearts– together, we laughed, we walked, we played with art, we talked a lot over meals.  They truly entered into the community with us.

In the past two years since I graduated from Shalem’s program, those experiences still nourish me. My Shalem book shelf, formed by the rich reading list, is consulted weekly and continues to encourage and inspire me.  I am just finishing my third contemplative group for the year, and I lead a monthly day of silence called Soul Space, I am also on the Board of a rich ministry through The Contemplative Center of Silicon Valley. The mark of Shalem is on each of those endeavors that I am involved in.

Each year, I spend a week of solitude on the coast of Maine.  So many years have been spent there wondering about my “soul assignment.” With such joy, this year was different.  I am amazed to see a dormant dream in my heart for 20 years alive in action and expression.  The balance of clinical life and contemplative ministry is now gratefully present in my daily experience.  Having just finished my group preparation for tomorrow night, the time seemed right to say “Thank You, Shalem” for all you have shared with me that I daily delight in passing on.

susan rowlandSusan Rowland is committed to creating spaces of stillness and quiet for deep listening, and delights in encouraging those interested in developing personal contemplative practices. She has a private practice in Marriage and Family Therapy in San Jose and serves on the board of The Contemplative Center in Silicon Valley.

Is the Spirit drawing you into deeper personal prayer and meditation? Does your experience of this inward deepening enliven your desire for authentic spiritual community? If your answers are yes, then the Spirit may be calling you to create contemplative community by leading groups and retreats. To learn more about Shalem’s 18-month program: Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats, click here.

Photo by Heidi Sandvik


IMG_0560By Stephanie Gretchen Burgevin. Stephanie is a writer and retreat leader. She is an associate faculty member of Shalem and a graduate of their Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and leads spiritual and secular programs. Stephanie manages Shalem’s blog. You can see more of her writing Photo by Stephanie Gretchen Burgevin.

We’ve all heard the saying, when one door shuts God opens a window.

When my job was outsourced at the beginning of the year I was not clear what I was to do next. Where was God leading me? I had a sense that I was supposed to just be, do what I was already doing (writing blogs, working on our plumbing company, etc.). And, I also knew it was not forever, that something was waiting in the wings, but I couldn’t make out what that was.

At the beginning of July, Bryan Berghoef from the Shalem staff will start managing this blog. With this chapter of life closing I am better able to hear what the next step is for me. “Show me” what to do next has been a prayer of mine for months and it’s funny, but I got clear on the next step once I knew I would no longer be managing this blog.

I’ll still write a blog . Please join me at Blessed Journeys Blog where I’ll continue this walk. I’ll also write the occasional blog here. What’s new is that I’ll be completing my coursework as a spiritual director as well as planning more retreats and programs. I want to run and rush into it all, but again, Spirit is cautioning me to go slowly, breathe, take time.

It has been such a blessing to be a part of Shalem’s foray into the world of spiritual blogging (it’s always a blessing to be part of what Shalem is doing!). I thank you all for being on this journey with us and I look forward to our paths crossing again!

In Thanks for the Dark and the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Slowing Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary and Spiritual Awareness

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

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.

Contemplative loss

Dad croppedBy 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 realize I am lucky. I have a great relationship with my dad. He is a loving, supportive man. He is very much a part of my life even though he died three and a half years ago of a stroke, a brain hemorrhage.

His loving presence, his laughter, his feisty passion crop up in my life on a regular basis. At times I’m brought to tears, at others laughter, and consistently gratitude.

There is a contemplative air about this loss. Although he is not physically here anymore, he is very present emotionally and spiritually and that presence evokes the prayer, “Thank you.”

Now, my dad was no saint and there were plenty of trying times but when I see a man of his build, try a new food, do something adventurous, or hear someone say, “Ray,” I am grateful. Thankful for these memories, the characteristics he passed on to me, the loving relationship we had, the laughs and it is a reminder of that of God in my life.

It is another way for God to remind me, “I’m here with you.”

We all have different ways that God speaks to us, makes the Holy clearly present in our daily lives. Sometimes it depends on how open and aware I am being, but at other times, God bops me on the head with it and I, thankfully, can’t help but be aware.

Sometimes it’s a beautiful view, a full moon, music by Hildegard of Bingen, the children I saw playing in the fountain last night in the summer heat, at others it’s the memories of a loved one, lines of a poem, the tone of a singing bowl.

It’s all evidence of the Grace of living, the Grace in death, and how God shows up in many ways in life.

What is your experience?