The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 16

boy-photo

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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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 14

tears

I was in prison today with 25 men and one woman, at Angola to be exact. All around Louisiana there are mothers crying because the sons they raised made a terrible decision in their youth and landed in Angola for the rest of their lives. Today I became friends with some of them.

From the moment we walked through the iron bars and into the classroom filled with men, the day was amazing! Lara Naughton led us in a session of Compassion Cultivation Training, focusing on our common humanity. Preconceptions dissolved, the myth of differences fell away, and the imagination of our separateness transformed into a felt sense of oneness.

I know even more clearly how literally true it is that the gate of heaven is everywhere. Because I now know that a gate of heaven can open at Angola prison, with men who committed felony crimes decades ago. And I know better than ever how that gate opens: by holding space in our hearts for sacred moments to appear.

Keeping our hearts open to each other as humans is a life-long challenge, and a fundamental human practice. And this world will be drowned by the undertow of polarizing hostilities if we do not adopt open-hearted compassion as our first priority, soon.

I am still in a bit of a daze from this trip to prison, one day after spending the past week on a silent retreat. In some ways this transition was a culture shock, but only to the story I had created about what today might be like. Because we really did experience our common humanity in that classroom deep inside a prison, just like others of us did as we gathered for silent meditation at the Rosaryville Spirit Life Center.

Rosaryville

What a contrast of environments, and yet, the gate of heaven opened in both places, and we experienced communion in both places, and we felt our common humanity in both places. The inner experience of oneness as we meditated together was the same at Angola and Rosaryville. Explain that!

Here is what I know from these back-to-back experiences: when human beings open our hearts to Spirit, to compassion, to each other, and to the spirit of life and love within each other–we are transformed into our best selves. We are connected by a Power Greater than any of us could muster on our own. And the spirit of love is set free to knead us like dough and bake us into something wonderful.

The beings at Rosaryville and the beings at Angola practiced meditation together. We sat in silence, and felt the breath, and opened our hearts. The length of time meditating together each day at Rosaryville was longer, and the length of time sharing our common humanity at Angola today was longer. But in both completely different environments I say a gate of heaven opened.

That opening is easy to understand in the serene setting of Rosaryville, but how did that happen in the harsh setting of Angola, with iron bars, and razor wire, and tiny cells? The opening of a gate of heaven happened today because of the opening of our lives to each other. We answered challenging questions with one or two other men like: “Who were you? Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?” We shared childhood joys and sorrows, and even our first favorite snack. And it all began with sitting in silence together, settling into the center of being, together.

That is how strangers became friends today.

That is how a gate of heaven opened in a prison today.

That is how I challenge you and me to spend tomorrow: silently sitting together at the center of being, and then opening our hearts to our common humanity.

Let’s save the world from drowning. I think we know how!

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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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