Walk Lightly

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey

“Hark! How the winds have changed their note!
And with warm whispers call thee out;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
and backward life at last comes on.”
~Henry Vaughan

Summer has returned, both to our Northern Hemisphere and to my life after a protracted season of difficulty. Summer’s approach has been halting, in fits and starts, but the change is real and the days are sunny and hopeful. Winter’s surrender and fecund Spring have given birth to ripe summer beauty. My heart is filled with deep gratitude, wonder, and…fear.

How difficult it can be to enter fully into happiness! I may be as afraid to be happy as I am to suffer. Pain, though unwelcome, feels solid and real. We daily confront the violence of our world, and the losses of our lives. We know pain’s tendency to take up residence in our bodies and spirits. But happiness? Happiness seems kin to the fleeting fireflies, enchanting but rather short-lived.

The Book of Common Prayer implicitly acknowledges this dilemma in a beautiful Compline prayer. It reads in part: “Tend the sick…give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake….” We entreat God to gently care for the sick, weary, dying, suffering, the afflicted, and the joyous. There is as much vulnerability in joy as there is in pain. Our hearts may be broken open just as easily by great delight as by sorrow. We often deny the full experience of happiness thinking it will soften our fall, or we choke the tender blossoming in our need to grasp the beauty.

“It is dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…”

~Aldous Huxley

What freedom of spirit might come from holding all of life’s experience more lightly! This is not to deny the suffering in our world and the intense engagement required, nor is it to refuse joy’s courtship and lovely gifts. My colleague’s wife is a yoga teacher and she encourages her students to move solidly into a posture, but then to soften just a little and find the ease within the position they have taken. We can embrace the gifts of happiness fully and then find the freedom to smile at ourselves when we realize how tight is our grip and how serious our determination.

At a dinner party with dear companions, Jesus sees that his friend Martha is worried about so many things. Only one thing is necessary he says: to simply share presence, offering her open heart (this is perhaps the essence of both prayer and love). He knew the cherished meals together would soon end and the loss would be great. Maybe she knew too. Maybe he whispered as she passed by, tightly clutching an armful of plates, a strained smile upon her face, “Lightly, my darling.” I hope she sat down, just for a few minutes, and fully received the joy and love in her midst. In the shadow of the cross to come I hope she was sustained by those irreplaceable moments of delight. May we be given the grace to wrap our arms around joy and then gently soften our grasp. In all our experience, in both the happiness and the sorrow, we are held in the loving, unitive heart of Reality, held by One who promises to be fully present no matter the season.

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.


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 atblessedjourneyblog.com. 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!

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.

Island Retreat: Contemplative Poetry

Fallow time 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. www.tomryancsp.org. He is also a member of Shalem’s 40th Anniversary Honorary Council for the 40-Hour Contemplative Prayer Vigil.

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


Sitting at the end of the dock

my first night on the island,

full moon shining like

an elevated host held by

 the fingertips of the mountain

with its burley shoulders wrapped

in a dark forest-green cape.

Crickets chant in soft, adoring chorus

and beavers swim by my feet

slapping their tails in acclamation

as tufts of cloud-like incense float by

before the monstrance of the moonlight

with tree tops bowing their heads

in the Spirit-breath

of the late night breeze

while the stars above

glow like benediction candles

over le Lac du Saint Sacrament.

8-20-13, Thomas Ryan, CSP


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.

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  www.MarkNepo.com and http://threeintentions.com.

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

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

The Spiritual Quest: Letting Go of “How”

2013-10-26 17.20.51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read this and let it sink in. Yes.

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

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

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

What is your experience?

Slowing Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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