We all sat in silence to cultivate inner stillness and discovered together the truth of what Thomas Merton, a Benedictine monk and beloved author, said during a conference in India: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.” This practice is at the heart of our gatherings of the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans. We begin this way all over the city every week.
This week brought two unique opportunities to practice inner stillness and experience contemplative community. Both revealed a truth about our mission in the School for Contemplative Living. One came with forty-five people during a talk for our local C. G. Jung Society, and one came with forty hospital employees in a session to introduce meditation.
In the Jung Society meeting the participants had come for a talk: “On the Cusp of Despair and Joy.” They did not know we would begin with five minutes of centering ourselves. But they seemed to be willing participants as I invited them to “bring the mind into the heart,” and to “drop below the usual activity of the rational mind into the place of inner stillness.” Because they were not prepared for such inner work there could have been great resistance. And perhaps there was. But in my spirit there seemed to be a gentle easing into that stillness place among us.
Cultivating inner stillness in a group that large, and actually entering that inner place together when people did not come prepared, is a bit of a miracle. Because things do not always happen that way, we take notice when it does happen in our Quaker meetings for worship. We name that a “gathered meeting,” when a sense of oneness and communion emerges. This experience of communion beyond words is what evolved during those initial minutes before Anna Maria, my co-leader, and I began speaking for the Jung Society.
This communion beyond words also emerged as Kim, my co-leader, and I led the session of meditation introduction in the hospital. One email went out across the hospital system on a Wednesday saying: “Feeling stressed? Seeking peace of mind?” and offering an invitation to come. Then forty people showed up on Thursday during the lunch break at noon, including many nurses. Most of the crowd was giving up their chance to eat. Most of them had not experienced meditation before. Some had tried it alone and given up.
We offered several brief examples of ways to meditate and suggested participants try any way that appealed to them. Each way involved a different form of cultivating inner stillness, with or without a spiritual focus of attention, as they chose. We suggested mindfulness, heartfulness, and meditation with imagery as examples. In just one session of cultivating inner stillness together, there was an amazing sense of communion.
After just five minutes of introduction, and twenty minutes of silent practice, they were reminded they could slip out to eat while others might want to stay and discuss the experience. Amazingly, no one left afterwards. People wanted to discuss their experiences and hear what happened with others. I believe the sense of wordless communion they had experienced with a large group of strangers brought a sense of community among the group members.
I believe this is how it works in creating contemplative community. We begin by practicing inner stillness. That experience of “communion beyond words or concepts” unites a group in ways that transcend artificial differences of belief, religion, race, sexual orientation, or even specific practices used. I also believe the Spirit of God is the great interconnection between us all and is at work drawing us into that place of communion, no matter which practices we use to find that inner stillness in community.
Finally, I believe the ever-presence of God in all places and peoples is why we can discover a gate of heaven anywhere and everywhere. Communion can happen with forty-five strangers in a meeting of the Jung Society, Communion can happen in a meeting with forty strangers in a hospital. Communion can happen wherever two or three are gathered together to practice inner stillness with an open heart. That opening is a place where Spirit loves to be Home.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, now available as a Kindle book.