A Prayer Leveled Us

Open Table volunteers 

Contemplative communities want to stay aware of the invisible web of divinity as we serve. Here is an example of how that happened unexpectedly.

A wonderful group of volunteers came with a meal from Munholland United Methodist Church to join the rest of us in serving our street friends inside Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. They came from a church in a wealthy part of town to a church surrounded by destroyed roads and great poverty. Some of their new cars were made by Mercedes and Lexus. Some of the volunteers were just beginning to have contact with our street friends for the first time in their lives.

For people who spend the day outside, August in New Orleans means bearing the heat until they smell of the street. The mix of aromas from the hot meals and the hot people was, well, a bit like a teen boys’ school locker room. It wasn’t sweet or pretty.

When the food was ready to be served, and the Salvation Army shelter vouchers were ready to be shared, we all gathered to take a moment to be present, to really “be with” each other. The volunteers were invited to stand in a giant circle with our street friends. We all held hands. We looked at each other. I invited everyone to take a few deep breaths of the same cool air, and to notice that the Love of God was there among us and between us. I called on everyone to be aware that “we are the ones who can help each other by creating a loving space right here and now.”

Then we had a brief prayer. Sometimes I lead that prayer. Sometimes the pastor of Mt. Zion leads the prayer. And sometimes one of our street friends agrees to lead the prayer. Something shifted when Patricia , one of our street friends, led us. She who has the darkest skin tone possible, who never says a word from week to week, spontaneously led us in the Lord’s Prayer. It was the first time in ten years of serving with this ministry that someone had led in a prayer that everyone knows.

She started with, “Our Father.” And then a prayer leveled us. Everyone there followed with the words we learned since childhood, “who art in heaven.” And I felt the transformation as we continued. We were no longer separated according to those who have nothing and those who have everything. Suddenly we were one, a room of people who all have a need for the One Who Loves Us So.

Of course, our specific needs were spread across a wide range of our humanity and situations. Maybe some needed God’s help to receive a crust of “daily bread,” while others were more focused on needing God to forgive “our trespasses.” Some might have needed help in forgiving “those who trespass against us,” while others were seeking to want God’s will to “be done.” But in that moment of transformative leveling we were all the one people of God, voicing our needs in one chorus, every voice coming from a cherished child of God.

When oneness happens among all the diverse people of God, I say “a gate of heaven opened.” It’s a modern-day miracle really. People who might usually avoid street people at all costs were somehow drawn to be in one circle, holding sweaty and dirty hands, and saying a common prayer. And street people who would usually fear the disdain or disgust of rich people were somehow willing to hold perfumed hands, and be in prayer together.

Carol is one of the regular meal volunteers from the rich church who has a delicious smile and an obviously warm heart. She edged up to me later and said, “Some of us are beginning to move way out of our comfort zones to talk with people.” I affirmed that. Even those of us who have received every privilege in life can still experience God’s ongoing conversion of our hearts over time. We learn ever so slowly that everybody has suffering of one form or another, so we are not as different as we seem.

Robin Roberts, television anchor for Good Morning America, titled her recent book Everybody’s Got Something. That really says what we experienced. When a prayer leveled us, the truth of that book title became a living reality. We all became the people who have “got something,” some need drawing us into prayer, some tug pulling us down below our outward appearances and smells, into the place where we are all one with the One.

Perhaps you will pause right now and reflect on a time when a need, a prayer, or some experience leveled you. Remember so a gate of heaven can open once again.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 20

Sam and Peyton

Holding space for the Sacred to appear is an art which can be learned through teachers around us. Children make some of the best teachers in this art. Even infants and toddlers can be masters in awakening to the wonder and awe around us.

Once, in the middle of a giant Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles Avenue in 1996, I saw an infant awakening from a nap in his stroller. In that moment he became my teacher.

“The shortest Contemplative I ever saw”


The shortest Contemplative I ever saw

was barely two feet tall,

and became my teacher.

When he awoke from slumber

he was all eyes:

holding the most intent stare.

Gazing out into the Mystery that surrounded him,

he did not bat an eye,

and he was not afraid.

He had nothing to fear

seeing Reality straight up.

As he looked with those intent eyes

he drank in every image

awake, aware,

ever so carefully aware.

And with that most piercing gaze

he seemed to be looking into me too,

into the Deep,

and he would not turn away

and he would not get distracted

and he did not lose focus,

but remained centered

being vision

drinking Everything


one thing at a time

with all his Being.

How I long to learn his art…

Many wise ones

study and pray

many wise years

in hopes of returning to the wisdom of the infant.

I, too, would learn the ways

of my teacher…

the shortest Contemplative

I ever saw.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 19

Self-compassion groups

Today we begin our meditation by dropping a false reason to meditate. Then we will examine a good reason for meditating today, and close with a practice.

This is not about making you a better person, so you can drop that intention right now. There are already far too many self-improvement schemes being sold in our culture, all based in the myth that you are not good enough. They promise to make you a better person if you will only buy the product, get the surgery, use that diet, believe correctly, etc.

Meditation can be turned into the same old message of becoming a “better” person if you will meditate each day. And this is a false motivation for practicing meditation.

In our weekly meditation group for staff at the Ochsner hospital this week, our friend Debbie, a well-respected and dedicated nurse there, shared a reading to begin our 20 minutes of silent meditation, as she often does. The reading really touched me and so I share it here:

Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.*

Now we’re talking! Now we have hit on a true motivation to meditate each day. This commitment to a daily spiritual practice as an act of love is something I can embrace. How about you? I choose to cultivate compassion for myself and others because this is what I believe we all need, especially these days.

In a culture stirred by daily images of hate, when hate has come out of the closet and shown itself openly, when news stations are reveling in growing ratings from all of us who are becoming addicted to the daily news feed, there must be another way to live. And I believe compassion cultivation is that way.

Compassion cultivation is another name for the call to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and being, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Compassion cultivation is not to assuage our guilt for not being “good enough.” Compassion cultivation is an act of love, a choice to live in a way that creates grace, love, acceptance of ALL my brothers and sisters, and the simple desire for us all to be free from our suffering.

I will begin a year-long teacher training program for compassion cultivation created by the staff of the Compassion Institute from Stanford University this fall. I will spend a year with Dr. Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator, and the core faculty for the program. They will help about 50 of us from around the world to learn to teach an eight-week course in compassion cultivation.

But this next year is not about becoming better people, fixing ourselves, or overcoming our imperfections. This year will be dedicated as an act of love, a gift to ourselves and our world. This year will be to learn a specific way to cultivate compassion, to integrate a variety of daily meditations and a growing collection of research data on the benefits of cultivating compassion. I hope to graduate as a certified teacher of Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) by this time next summer. But this challenging path will not be to make me a better person, to fix my broken humanity, or to help me finally get compassion right.

I begin this training journey as I began my meditation this morning: as an act of love, and a gift to myself and the world. I am aligning myself with a calling that began 25 years ago, when I clearly knew I was called to a life of prayer for the world. And I have slowly realized the life of prayer is a life of cultivating compassion by connecting each day with the Source of Love.

Holding space for the Sacred is the heart of my daily meditation. Making room for the Sacred to appear is how I want to live my days. This is not a duty, a guilt, another form of self-improvement. This is a dedication, a choice to live in a certain way, a desire to ground myself in a daily connection to the Source, which helps me stay close to my center during the day. And this is a simple act of love, for myself and the world’s sake.

So when you grow weary of the daily news addiction, when your stomach is tired of the flood of adrenaline that comes from hateful images all day long, when you just can’t take another preacher telling you what a sinner you are and how angry God is with you: Stop.

There is another way. There is another path. And this one is not about becoming a better person. This path is just an act of love.

Begin now, as you are, to open your heart to the Source of compassion, who only wants to flow into you and through you. Decide now to let the Source freely use you as a channel of compassion for the world.

Practice: Take time to draw in a few deep breaths. Then breathe naturally. Be aware of the flow of breath as your chest expands and contracts. Let yourself know the Source is filling you with the Breath of Life, flowing into and through you with this breath. Then, direct the outbreath toward another person as an act of love. Choose someone who needs love and compassion now. Let yourself feel a warm light of compassion around your heart. Direct that warm light toward the one who needs compassion with each outbreath. As you do so, silently say in your heart: “May you be happy, free from suffering, and know peace.” Repeat that quietly several times. See them receiving the gift. Continue being aware of the breath, aware of the warm light flowing into and out from you as long as you like.

Live this way today.

*The quote is an excerpt from “Meditation: Calming the Mind” by Bob Sharples.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 18


Resist the urge to feed on the latest news of who is hating who today. Try walking another path today. Try feeding at another table today. Try feasting…

At the table of the Lord

a silent meal tasted in gratitude

a song of the soul heard in hidden corridors

a breeze across the cheek, noticeable as a lover’s touch

that extra moment of holding in an embrace

the awakening of your own dancing feet

comfort with being powerful, and powerless

a sudden and deep eruption of laughter in your child

I tell you, these are the moments

of communion at the table of the Lord

in which we drink of the very life-blood of divinity

in which we taste Life,

full-bodied life,

The Life

at the table of the Lord.

I tell you,

these are the moments….

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 17

Contemplative Practices Tree

The Contemplative Practices Tree reminds me there are many ways I can hold space for the sacred today. Each practice helps me live near The Center. And the branches of the tree, the practices, keep me rooted in contemplative experiences like solitude, silence, serving, being, community,, and sacred sharing. Crafting a contemplative life involves regular, preferably daily, practices and regular, preferably daily, experiences of the divine Presence.

You might have trouble seeing which practices are forming the branches of my tree, but that’s okay. Because the challenge is to find your own practices, your way.

This morning I began with eating meditation, and moved into walking meditation in nature, (just a few silent steps for listening and seeing the holy in the surroundings). Then I chanted a phrase from the Gospel of Thomas with my drum: “Come into being as you pass away.” Then I took several deep cleansing breaths, drawing breath in through my nose and releasing it out through my mouth, with sound. Then I meditated on my back by counting breaths and finally by holding my attention on the inhaling and exhaling of breath.

Soon I will be on my way to practice sacred yoga with others. Then I will gather in a Circle of Trust with other contemplatives to sit in silence for five minutes, then hear several people voice a poem or sacred reading, then we will listen within for the voice of the Inner Teacher to see what the reading says in our own souls, and then we will take turns sharing whatever has been spoken within us, without commenting on each other’s sharing.

After that group ends, I will drive over to a hospital, walk to the chapel, and sit in silence with several employees of the hospital for twenty minutes. I will practice centering prayer by being aware of my breath and letting go of the thousand thoughts. I will open my heart to the divine Presence with no expectation of anything happening. We will simply be together.

Later I will meet with people individually to share our lives. I hope I will bring my sense of the Presence with me, into the conversations, inviting communion within and between we who share.

In these ways I hope to craft a contemplative life today.

How will you live “your one wild and precious life”* today?


*A quote from the poet, Mary Oliver.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 16


My dreams are trying to teach me how to be a leader. I mean a contemplative leader. And my last two dreams have been speaking as clearly as they can, beings dreams and all. So here is what I think they are saying.

In the first one, I am in a worship service and a woman was trying to sing a solo but her music was inaudible, so she could not find the pitch or melody line. She finally stopped. It was time for the next part of the service, but the pastors were not there to carry on. Something in me felt I was supposed to stand up and speak, but I had no script and did not know what to say. (I have had similar dreams of being led to stand up and share a song without having the music, or a sermon without the sermon).

In the second dream, I am with a group of people standing on a cement slab, which is apparently a space where we are to build a house. There is a foreman kind of man among us who has the skill and know-how to lead us, and we are to be the helpers. It is time to begin, even though we are not sure how to proceed, or what the house will look like, or even what it is for. There is a sense that we are to start building and more will be revealed.

These two dreams have something to teach me about being a contemplative leader, and perhaps they will serve as guides for you too.

Being a contemplative leader begins in vulnerability. We agree to step up and sing but we might not hear the guiding music clearly. We might not know how to proceed. We sometimes have to stop, and so we lead imperfectly. And this is NOT a source of shame. This is just what it is like to step up. Being imperfect in our leading is a given. But we are the ones who step up. And we do so in full human vulnerability.

Next: Being a contemplative leader is about following well, even when we do not see the way ahead. The contemplative leader is a follower first, which means we have to practice trust. And when we step up to lead, we do so as a follower of The Way of Unknowing. That means we do not have things already figured out. We do NOT have the clear vision and plan set to deliver to others in a top-down manner. We might be led to speak up without a script, and so we have to listen within for a Guiding Voice which will lead us all. We might be led to start a project even though we are not sure how things will unfold along the way. We will surely be led to trust and follow a Foreman who is not ourselves.

Next: When a dream group is called together to build a “house,” it seems like an obvious metaphor for building community. In the dream there was a clear sense of being a group of people who were willing and ready to work together. Contemplative leaders work together in community, and we are all following the wisdom of the Foreman. We are equals, each gifted with ability, open to and respecting each other’s gifts, willing to follow The Leader. We are able to be a team of contemplative leaders because of our attitudes of openness, respect, and willingness. (The opposite would be people who are closed, disrespectful, and willful).

Recently, I was in a group in which people were trying to talk over each other, interrupting each other, trying to get their points across, and having side conversations with whoever was next to them so that they could keep talking when someone else had the floor. It seemed to me the group was deteriorating into what we see in the public arena across America, and especially on cable news channels with panels of talkers. Civility is being lost in such gatherings. Contemplative wisdom, grounded in the guidance of the Inner Teacher, is absent. How could the Creator of the galaxies get a word in edge-wise when some people are interrupting each other and others are shutting down? And how could a community experience anything but deterioration with such practices?

There is another way, an old way, a sacred way of being a spiritual community revealed by my dreams. Contemplative leaders are seeking the open gate of heaven everywhere around them, and especially as they build community. And my dreams are at least hinting at the Way before us.

We are being called to practice our leadership with vulnerability and imperfection. We lead with courageous willingness to step up, following The Leader with trust, not knowing the way, listening within for the wise guidance of the Inner Teacher, listening to our peers with respect for their gifts, knowing a spiritual “house” is built together as a community, and openness to how multi-faceted and paradoxical Truth will be revealed through each voice in the community.

Today, I call on all of you contemplative leaders, (including those of you who are too humble to know you are a contemplative leader), to hear my dreams with me and to imperfectly practice your leadership with courage, trust, willingness, following, not-knowing, listening within, listening to the community, respect, togetherness, and openness. No small task. No easy solution. But we can do this together!

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 15

Centering retreat circle

We were breathing the same air.

Another way I experienced the gate of heaven opening this week was in the discovery of our human interconnectedness through breathing the same air.

As the silent retreat group came out of the days of silence, the woman who sat next to me through the three hours of sitting meditation each day said she heard my breath and it helped her to remember to keep breathing in the Spirit-breath herself. And as we opened the day of cultivating compassion with a silent meditation at Angola prison, I heard Mr. S. next to me breathing in and out even as I did.

Noticing this simple reality of breathing in the same air might seem silly. The cynic might say, “What’s the big deal? We all breathe the same air. So what?” But something profound is happening in the sharing of air, of breath, whether we notice this or not. If we open the heart-mind just a bit we can have a spiritual awakening through this discovery.

We are being given the same gift of life in every moment by the same Giver of Life, through the air around us. My poorest neighbor and my richest neighbor are both receiving the same breath I am given. The woman who sat next to me at the silent retreat, who happened to be in her twenty-eighth year of recovery from alcoholism, was receiving that breath. The man on my left at Angola who killed someone twenty years ago, and the man on my right who raped someone thirty-four years ago, were both taking in the same breath as me.

We were all breathing the same air created by The One Who Loves Us So, and none of us are worthy of that breath of life. None of us earned it. That’s just it. Something Marvelous spent eons forming and shaping a tiny green and blue ball in space where beings like us could look up into a galaxy full of stars together, breathing the same air as free gift.

This marvel is not an accident, as some might believe. The mystery is too incredible, the wonder too amazing, that complete strangers are perpetually sharing the same gift of life we call breath because we are so very loved.

That is my story. This week we were breathing the same air, and I was amazed.

Take a few deep breaths right now. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make noise as you exhale. Hear yourself experiencing the gift of life through breath. Keep returning your awareness of the gift through the day today. And see if you can remember Who is offering you the free, unearned gift.

Maybe a hint of gratitude will arise in you too.

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