The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 13

James Taylor photo

The Invisible Web of Divinity[1]

Last night we celebrated my 60th birthday in a James Taylor concert. I found myself mesmerized by the experience of singing treasured songs along with thousands of people. It was a mass choir. The songs were not religious but the messages in them and the singing sure were spiritual.

We sang songs that touch the heart like “Sweet Baby James,” and “Country Road,” and “Fire and Rain.” We also sang songs that portray how much we are part of each other like “Shower the People You Love with Love,” and “Shed a Little Light, Oh Lord.” The lyrics of that one move me every time: “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King, and recognize that there are ties between us, all men and women living on the earth, ties of hope and love, sister and brother hood. That we are bound together….” Standing there singing that message with thousands of people, and knowing the message to be true, you couldn’t help but sense the invisible web of divinity connecting us all. The Spirit was moving right in that “secular” concert.

*

One morning I experienced the invisible web in one of our contemplative groups. I had invited the participants to share personal stories of their own sacred journey. What emerged, after our opening period of silent meditation and sacred yoga postures, was a stream of holy sharing that revealed that web of divinity connecting us all.

One of the stories was of how a woman absorbs the faces of each group member while we share each week. She said those faces stay within her forever. Then in trying times she calls on our faces as a source of comfort. She used the images to remind her of the invisible web of divinity. In one group, she also inwardly sent spiritual comfort towards each person along that same interconnecting web. This was her way of practicing what Quakers call “holding us in the Light.” She was holding us in her heart.

Another lady spoke of treasuring the sharing of sacred things within the group, since she had no other place to freely share her spiritual journey with people who would understand and be interested, without judgment. She was discovering the delight of being interconnected by the invisible web of divinity. The group was becoming what her soul had longed for.

Another lady shared how hard it had been to leave the religious tradition of her first 50 years, and to “wander in the desert with no spiritual community” for over a decade. She shared the joy she was finding as she learned to open herself to the possibility of a spiritual home with other followers. She described the difficulty of letting go of prescribed doctrines which had been drilled into her for decades, without having replacement truths to put in their place.

We agreed with her that the Way of Unknowing, the spiritual path of admitting we have very few answers about the Mystery we call God, can be daunting. We also supported her in the courageous step of locating herself within a spiritual community who walk the path of not-knowing it all. This too revealed the invisible web connecting us all, which is not built by adopting identical doctrines or beliefs.

A group member described how he had found comfort in the liturgy and sacred music of the church for decades. But recently those experiences had not provided much fulfillment. In their place, he was delighted to find that learning the simple act of centering prayer, sitting silently in God’s presence with groups, was offering a deep source of spiritual nourishment. He was not belittling his previous sources of nourishment. He was simply noting that things can change over the course of one’s spiritual journey, and that he was now surprised to be experiencing the invisible web of divinity in the simplicity of silent centering.

So here is my conclusion: I think God has strung a divine web of interconnectedness between the beings She/He has made. This web is not dependent on what we believe. That means the interconnectedness can be experienced anywhere, including very secular settings like a James Taylor concert. Why? So that we can experience the sacred connection wherever we are in this world, wherever there are two or more gathered together. In our contemplative gatherings, we know the connection through silent presence with each other, honest and vulnerable sharing of our spiritual journeys, and even spiritual imaging of each other. In a mystery beyond our understanding, God finds us and we find God as we connect in community. Thanks be to God for this amazing way to come Home through the invisible web of divinity connecting us all!

[1] Somewhere I have read a wonderful phrase about how we are all connected by an “invisible web of divinity.” Barbara Brown Taylor refers to it as “The Luminous Web.”

 

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 12

Lara leading self-compassion meditation

Contemplative communities need servant leaders. This means having no hierarchies. Such leaders are gatherers: people who are willing to invite participants, hold the intention of the group, and believe that everyone there is both learner and teacher. Our leaders expend minimal energy on institutional formation, seeking approval from authorities, organizing administration, or the care-taking of buildings. Gatherers gather, and preserve their energy and focus of attention for guiding and guarding a true community of divine diamonds.

Our contemplative community leaders begin each day with our own personal practice of God’s presence, knowing everything else flows from there. We watch out for the demon of “not measuring up,” and let go of expectations regarding outcomes as best we can. We form some contemplative groups which will dissolve early, (like one hospital-employee group did), and some which will end eventually, (like church groups do when there are no longer interested members). We accept that the cares of this world are always seeking to replace the priority of the one main thing, which is sitting in communion and reverence at the feet of the One who opens the gate of heaven everywhere.

On the other hand, we make bold commitments to keep showing up as long as there are at least a few other seekers who want to gather to practice the presence of God. Contemplative leaders easily share leadership. After all, how much expertise does it really take to call a group into stillness? One person might ring a bell or chime to begin and end. Another person might use a gong sound they downloaded onto their iPhone. Another person might share a brief prayer to begin and end. And another person might just say, “Let’s begin.” Rotating leaders to facilitate the practice each week can lessen the burden on any one person to always be there.

Facilitating contemplative groups can also involve sharing a brief introduction to a practice, so that newcomers have a sense of what’s happening. Leaders keep this introduction as simple as possible so that new people aren’t overwhelmed with instructions or ideas. The same can be true in studies where the facilitator is asking questions for group discussion. There is no long speech made by a leader, and there is a gentle effort to give everyone who wants to share a chance.

The contemplative group leader is seeking to hold the space for the sacred to appear on behalf of the whole group. This means opening our hearts to the needs and experiences of group members. And this involves trusting the Presence of God to show up and lead the group to experience the invisible web of divinity connecting us all. More about that web in the next episode.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 11

Amy and Lenda Faye

In forming our contemplative communities, we explored a vision, (“What is our ideal of how the world should be?”), and a mission, (“What steps shall we take toward accomplishing that vision?”). We began with a vision of the world as a place where centering and serving, or contemplation and action, could be one. We were forming post-Katrina, which meant the needs of the world around us were overwhelming. We knew we needed daily grounding of our service in the presence of God. And that meant far more than throwing a few cursory prayers into the mix.

The vision began with an image of groups of people silently sitting in God’s presence to fill up their inner reservoirs. I told a bit of that story in my book: Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture. In time, the vision included sharing our spiritual journeys to form a sense of community in which people were accepted wherever they were in their journey: high or low, up or down, lost or found, delighted or devastated, etc. From the beginning, people came into our community ready to share intimate details of their life struggles because they felt safe to be themselves without the fear of judgment.

The vision included inner experience of God’s presence as a community, outer sharing of that experience, and encouragement in bringing the presence of God with us as we strode into the world. We had a vision of serving the world from that inner sense of Presence.

To express that vision, we were initially led to a mission of “listening in stillness, serving in joy.” That was a simple way of verbalizing our original vision of contemplation and action as one. We were experiencing the connection between prayer and work, which St. Benedict had called ora et labora with his monks. And we did not want to fall back into the belief that prayer was extraneous to serving the world. The needs around us were too great. We somehow knew we had to combine a daily life of prayer and service to avoid the kind of burnout many of us had already been through.

Later we adopted a motto, “Let Love Rule,” to simplify the broad expression of our mission. We sensed the need to ground our lives and service in the Great Love, and using those words seemed to say what we felt: we had to learn to let Love guide everything we did.

In time, we wanted to be clearer about what we do and how that evolves in our day to day lives. We refocused our mission to say we are “Creating contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for personal transformation and radical engagement with the world.” And later we shifted the last phrase to “compassionate service with the world.” We hoped to reflect how “radical” service meant rooted in God, (not radical in terms of being stupendous). And that led us to realize that rooted in God meant compassionate service. So, you can see how there has been an organic process unfolding as we have found greater clarity in discerning and expressing our mission. Our mission could evolve again.

Wherever you are in your own process of forming a contemplative community, I suggest you consider the following basic steps. Form a concise, common expression of the group’s vision for the world you want to create. Ask yourselves what it would look like if you could really discover the Divine spark among you. Those images will help to form your group vision. Let the vision be as broad and expansive as you desire. A vision like “we want to bring God’s presence to a hurting world” is not too big. The task of your vision can be impossible because you will not achieve it without a Power Greater than yourselves.

Next, ask yourselves what simple steps you feel called to take towards making your vision a reality. That is how you begin to form your mission. If you get too all-encompassing with your mission steps, you will set yourselves up for feeling like failures. Your mission needs to be possible, and preferably practical. If you take these mission steps, in time you will begin to see your vision being realized. And in your own ways your vision and mission could help the rest of us see that “the gate of heaven is everywhere!”

Finally, do not be discouraged if things seem mostly foggy at first. Clarity is hard one over time. And this is a community process, so everyone should have input and plenty of time to continue discerning. Do not be surprised if things follow a different path from what you first imagined. Forming a contemplative community is just like Life in that way. And know that things will keep changing in your vison and mission, just as the participants will keep changing. Through all those evolutions you will need spiritual leaders who patiently help guide the process. Who are those leaders? We will address some qualities of contemplative leaders next time.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 10

marilynannamaria

I want to share a few thoughts about challenges and rewards of serving as a contemplative group leader. Even you, who do not believe you can be a leader, can develop these skills. For in a contemplative group, every single person is a leader/teacher of the group, and each participant helps to create the sacred space we need for transformational sharing. We are truly co-creators. And yet, there are specific attitudes and practices which help us lead.

Holding sacred space in community also includes setting boundaries and limits on the type of sharing in our groups. We know that behaviors like judging, giving advice, and playing the expert kill any sense of real community. So, we admit we are not comfortable with the sharing of pat formulas that are one-dimensional and that keep the sharing at the surface. Contemplative leaders step up within the community to help guard the safe space for the whole group. Here is an example.

A young adult in a contemplative class admitted that she had a hard time managing the flood of thoughts and feelings during her first weeks of practicing centering prayer. She found the courage to reveal some of her discouragement in trying this new prayer form. She did not yet know that everyone has the same struggle, so she was in that challenging place where we think: “I just can’t meditate.”

A senior adult with more experience in that prayer-form wanted to comfort her. But what came out accidentally sounded more like a condescending remark: “You’re young honey. It will get better through the years.” She thought she was helping, but ouch!

Another veteran of centering prayer spoke up to identify with the young woman and said she often feels the same way, that it’s a journey of ups and downs and sometimes of dark nights of the soul. I affirmed the same truth with a story about losing all sense of God’s presence during my wife’s first kidney transplant, just when I needed the presence most. All of us were trying to normalize the young woman’s experience of struggle and to support her. But the first remark accidentally focused on the woman’s age and implied struggle goes away in time. We didn’t want that false belief to disturb her commitment to simply keep practicing without expecting any guaranteed results.

Our leaders seek to hold the sacred space in such a way as to keep people’s reactivity and judgment of themselves or others out of the circle as best we can. However, first words can pop out of any of our mouths without sufficient wisdom. We do not seek perfection in our sharing, but we do not adopt an “anything goes” mentality either.

Once I was kidding a member of the group during a class. I learned afterwards from a peer that I had hurt her feelings without knowing it. I needed to apologize for speaking in a way that had caused hurt, without slipping into defending myself. (I wish I could remember that with my own wife more often!) Contemplative leaders seek to find the space in the middle between being overly serious and being too loose with our words, between setting limits on the insensitive comments of others and stifling the group so that no one feels comfortable with their sharing.

We seek to make it clear in example and boundary-setting that members are not welcome to pass hatred or judgment around the circle. If I need to be forceful about this, I will, though that has barely ever happened in a decade. If I need to speak firmly, I will. The message is simple: “Judging women, people of color, gay/lesbian people, the poor, immigrants, etc. is not welcome in contemplative community.” And this is especially true because all those people make up our groups. White males are in the minority in most of our gatherings. On the other hand, anyone is welcome to share how they struggle with their own prejudices. Such sharing is more likely to be an expression of the vulnerability we seek.

We hold the space open for the sharing of all our humanity so that true communion can arise. Gradually, participants find a safe place to bring their own brokenness and sense of inadequacy, as well as moments of sincere joy. This honest sharing is one of those places where transformation can happen, much like a healthy 12-Step group. And personal transformation is what most contemplatives seek, (in our better moments).

Group practice of God’s presence also supports our individual experiences of those moments when we find the deeper wholeness beneath all brokenness. Looking directly at personal brokenness in a compassionate community can reveal the inner diamond, the shining in the darkness, when we find the courage to reveal such broken places. These are some of the ways we begin to see the Divine Spark shining among us.

Gatherers of contemplative community who hope to see that diamond, must also admit that we need the support of the community. We can’t hide behind a false image of leading, as though we are there just for the other’s sake. Part of the calling to form contemplative community is seeing that our own needs for support do matter and deserve our attention. We leaders have a need for belonging as much as anyone.

In our hearts, we are all seeking a “tribe of beings,”[1] as the Jewish poet and philosopher Mark Nepo says. We need a place where we can belong, and feel safe, and be accepted to be ourselves. We need a place where the people “get us.” We need the shelter of each other.

To be more specific, I need that shelter. I can really grow in such a community and become the True Self I was made to be. In a true community, I just might see the invisible light of heaven shining like a diamond in myself. And I am likely to see it in the faces and lives of the others as they are seeking to become their true selves. Seeing this mutual shining, this radiance glowing from the inner presence of God, is a great gift waiting for those who decide to serve as contemplative leaders.

[1] Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, 59.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 9: Holding Sacred Space in Community

IMG_0050 (2)

I believe Thomas Merton was exactly right that the spark of the Divine, the “pure glory of God,” and the “pure diamond blazing” are in everyone. Because God is in all of us we can also find the gate of heaven when we are gathered in real community. So what is it like to form a community where the practice of the presence of God and the wonder of seeing the diamond in others actually happens?

In our contemplative communities, we prefer to experience being instead of spending our hours thinking and talking about religious beliefs or concepts. We use surrender practices to help us experience being. We begin to find comfort in experiencing the One who is No-Thing, (not a thing), as we share surrender practices in community. First, we practice being and then we speak.

We practice vulnerable sharing of our struggles, challenges, and real selves. We easily tire of church discussions where people say what they think about what some author thinks. Instead we risk stories of doubt, life’s cruelty, and radical brokenness in our lives. Leaders model this in sharing our own failings, heartaches, broken places, and struggles with contemplative practice. We also freely tell of moments that mean everything to us, moments of joy, moments when the Holy has appeared. Honest sharing of our joys and sorrows can open a gate of heaven right in our midst.

In one of our contemplative classes we were reviewing a book on centering by Cynthia Bourgeault.[1] The early discussion had included a lot of meaningful moments and pleasures as people found ways to experience their connection with the Divine through their centering practices. On that particular evening no one had yet ventured into the territory of the dark side of contemplation.

So it only seemed right when Mark gathered his courage and spoke up: “Sometimes life is just cruel. When you have been through many experiences of life’s cruelty you want to keep up your walls of protection. So this business of vulnerably trying to open ourselves to God feels dangerous. How do you know you won’t just end up being hurt?”

Thankfully group wisdom kept anyone from jumping in with false remedies or solutions for coping with life’s cruelty. No one said a contemplative life gets easy over time, (which is definitely not true). We just let Mark’s story be held in silence for a moment. Then someone shared their own experience of losing any sense of God’s presence during a medical crisis. The message was clear: “We are in this together, and contemplative living is not about finding magical solutions that fix all of our problems.”

Leaving room for such honest sharing of our heartaches creates space for the Holy to come among us. The sense of being on this journey together is itself a gate of heaven. Knowing we are not alone, that we are being held in the heart of a community, opens a gate for the Holy One to be felt and known among us. The paradox is that this gate can be discovered through sharing about times when we have not felt the presence of God at all.

[1] Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 8: Silence, by William Thiele

Self-compassion group

One reason Sabbath is so hard for many of us is because we are uncomfortable with silence. Sabbath does not require silence, but cultivating inner stillness is surely enhanced by periods of silence. Practices like eating meditation, walking meditation, yoga, and siting meditation involve refraining from speaking so that we can simply be present. And each of those practices can include awareness of the presence of God within and around us. Remembering the Sabbath has been a way people of faith remember whose we are for thousands of years.

Rachel Naomi Remen writes that “Silence is God’s lap.”[1] And there have been many times when her lap image fit my experience. Many silences are comforting, calming, soothing, reassuring, and consoling, just like sitting in God’s lap. And Sabbath is surely a time for the same. In such a Sabbath, we might find what we are most deeply seeking, a True Home in the lap of God. If we can endure the discomforts of vulnerably being silent, if we can risk facing whatever arises from within, and if we can hold space for the sacred right there in those silences, we just might find our deepest fulfillment in the lap of God.

There are a multitude of silent practices, mini Sabbaths if you will, which can help you locate a gate of heaven. Do not limit yourself to what you think to be traditional contemplative practices, like sitting in silence. Yes, that works for some of us, but there is so much more. Draw, garden, roller skate, nap, (yes, a nap can be dedicated to God as you honor your need for rest), and let your imagination guide you. Remember that Brother Lawrence even practiced God’s presence as he washed dishes. Your job is to experiment until you find what works best for you. Where can you best settle into a silent Sabbath and dedicate your moments to the practice of the presence of God?

Start today. Try a practice in silence right now, as I am about to do. If it does not turn out to be perfect, oh well. Keep practicing. Keep experimenting. Ask others what helps them experience a silent Sabbath time. It could be as simple as lighting a candle and quietly staring at it for a few moments. Silence might be more meaningful for you when alone or in community. If it helps, ask others to practice silence with you. Find your way by starting now. And then begin again.

[1] Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, 164.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 7: Sabbath by William Thiele

Sunset

Sabbath keeping is a wonderful way to hold space for the sacred. Within a period of Sabbath, we can use any number of practices to cultivate our awareness of the presence of God. Recently I was blessed to have twenty-four hours to myself, and I wanted to practice a Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness, which our contemplative groups studied, had a chapter on keeping Sabbath. I felt challenged to spend the whole time in actual Sabbath.

But on that Friday evening I made the mistake of deciding to watch a movie. I actually believed I would see it first and then meditate for the rest of the evening. Six hours later I had watched a stream of back-to-back movies out of compulsion. The image of turning off the television and meditating came repeatedly, like something in me knew what I really longed for. But the screen held power over my original intention. I ended the evening feeling defeated, and set my intention again to use my Saturday as an actual Sabbath.

I awakened and began the day with eating meditation for breakfast, meaning I did nothing else but taste the food. Then I drew with colored pencils, filling in the tiny spaces of a giant picture of a tree in a book called Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford. Then I practiced walking meditation around Bayou St. John near our apartments. Walking slowly offered the opportunity to catch the glistening diamonds in the grass as morning dew sparkled, to feel cool breezes on my face, and to hear a wide variety of sounds, from bird song, to the water lapping against the shore, to the conversation of couples who passed. I was awake, and present, and blessed.

Upon returning to our apartment I engaged in thirty minutes of sitting meditation. By then I was in the rhythm of slowing down and being in my life. The simple presence of God was close at hand, without any dramatic feelings about that. And I remembered what Rabbi Rami had written about learning to trust God throughout the Sabbath, letting God handle the universe while we abstain from doing or accomplishing. I found relief in that, a day for simple being and letting go of any sense of responsibility.

Then I had another opportunity to practice eating meditation with my lunch. There was great pleasure in simply tasting, with nothing else to distract my attention. Then I practiced hatha yoga with the guidance of an online program on mindfulness. I followed the instruction of letting my body guide me in which postures to adopt, and how long to hold each one. Those gentle movements were nourishing, stretching without straining, and they held my attention for most of an hour.

The closing hours of daylight seemed to call for additional walking meditation around the apartment, slowly walking again to feel the footfall and practice mindfulness. Then I shifted back to sitting meditation for thirty minutes, and concluded the day with loving-kindness meditation. My form of practice was to use a phrase which arose in me two years ago: “I fill my heart with loving-kindness to dissolve the suffering in me.” After repeating the phrase silently for some time, a kind of mantra prayer in rhythm with my breath, I shifted to focusing on my wife, my son, and friends who came to mind. With each of them the phrase ended with “to dissolve the suffering in __________,” and I would silently repeat their name.

Spending a Saturday as an actual Sabbath was an unusual gift. After failing on my Friday evening, I was blessed to “succeed” in experiencing a day of Sabbath. I wondered why I have rarely really honored a full day of Sabbath. I wondered about a culture that thinks one day is too long–that really thinks five minutes is too long to give for simple being in God’s presence. And I wondered if I would find a way to practice Sabbath on the following weekend.

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