Go Deeper On Your Spiritual Journey

What Richard Foster and Dallas Willard were to my generation – prime tour guides to the spiritual life – I hope and believe Carl McColman will be for the next generation. If you don’t know about him and his work, you should. — Brian D. McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy and other books

The Latest from Carl McColman:

Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught — and Why That’s Okay

We speak of spirituality as a “journey,” which implies not only a destination toward which we travel, but countless adventures encountered along the way. The journey is the destination—both at once. We may all be trying to get to the heart of God, but there are infinite ways to get there.

Can wisdom collected along the pilgrim path even be captured in words, codified into a book? Probably not. And why do the wisest books refuse to offer glib formulas or step-by-step instructions for happiness or enlightenment? Why are the great spiritual classics mostly just an invitation to keep our eyes, ears—and especially hearts—open?

Because we’re often stumbling on miracles while we’re looking for something else.

Using engaging and disarming stories from his own life, Carl McColman, a leading author of books in spirituality, gently leads readers toward a recognition that although the wisdom of the past is worth reading, hearing or reading others’ experience of God is ultimately no substitute for opening our own eyes, ears, and hearts to God.

Carl McColman’s first gift is his commitment to write about things that matter.  His second gift is his ability to write about them with clarity and warmth, enticing his readers to go places with him that we might otherwise not have gone. In Unteachable Lessons he leads us to the brink of lessons no book can teach, then frees us to go forward to learn them, trusting the God who meets us at every step on the unknown way.” — Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Holy Envy


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ALSO BY CARL McCOLMAN:

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom draws on myth, folklore, poetry, and the tales of Celtic saints and heroes, to explore the spiritual tradition of the Celtic peoples — a tradition rooted in hospitality, love of nature, and a mystical sense of the presence of God. The Celtic way is more important than ever in our increasingly fractured and troubled times. It’s not just for people who have Irish, Scottish or Welsh ancestry — this is a universal wisdom for all people.

An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom is divided into three parts:

Part One: The Celtic Mystery: we begin by exploring the mystery inherent in the Celtic spiritual path with a brief discussion of the three streams of Celtic spirituality and an introduction to core ideas like thin places, holy wells, and “the edge of waiting.”

Part Two: The Celtic Saints: we go deeper by discovering how the faith of the Celtic saints is rooted in the desert spirituality of the early Christian tradition. We look closely at several Celtic saints, including Patrick, Brigid, and Brendan.

Part Three: Walking the Celtic Path: How do we “live” Celtic wisdom in our time? Through ageless values like hospitality, soul-friendship, storytelling, and the quest for the grail, we answer the invitation to make Celtic wisdom our own.


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The Little Book of Christian Mysticism invites you to delve into the writings of the great contemplatives and mystics of the past two thousand years. Featuring over three hundred quotations from great mystics from Biblical times to the present day, The Little Book of Christian Mysticism provides a user-friendly, insightful, and potentially life-changing introduction to the essential teachings of the greatest mystics in the western wisdom traditions, past and present. In this inspirational anthology you’ll find gems of wisdom from Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Howard Thurman, Evelyn Underhill, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, among many others. Readers can use this book to initiate themselves into this visionary and ecstatic spiritual lineage, and they can also use it as a book of daily meditations. Small enough to fit in one’s pocket or handbag, this is truly a user-friendly introduction to this venerable body of wisdom. Together with Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, this completes Carl McColman’s trilogy of books celebrating Christian mysticism for our time.


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Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages celebrates the many types of mystics, visionaries, wisdom keepers, and non-dualists whose spiritual insight and perceptive teachings have illuminated the Christian tradition for the past two thousand years. Looking at 108 mystics from Biblical times to the present day, this user-friendly guide shows how the spiritual masters of the western tradition provide a variety of paths into the transforming heart of God. Everyone needs teachers and companions to guide and nurture us in developing rich interior lives — as we seek to respond to the beatifying, deifying love of God. The mystics, whose legacy includes sublime poetry, fascinating autobiographies, and potentially life-changing teachings, can help anyone find greater love, purpose, and a deeper sense of God’s presence. More than just a history book or an encyclopedia, Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages is a curated celebration of western spiritual wisdom, making it accessible for all seekers today.


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Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality explores the spirituality of Cistercian monasteries, based on Carl’s experience as a Lay Cistercian, under the spiritual guidance of Trappist monks. For centuries the deeply contemplative and mystical spirituality of the monasteries was only accessible to the monks and nuns who devoted their lives to this ancient way of life. But in the years following the Vatican II council, the beautiful spirituality of the Cistercian path, grounded in values such as silence, stability, humility, lifelong conversion, and compassion, has been made available to the entire people of God like never before. In Befriending Silence Carl offers a step-by-step introduction to the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian way, making this deeply spiritual wisdom tradition accessible to anyone who would like to be inspired to find their own closer walk with God. Each chapter of the book includes questions for personal reflection or group discussion, and a spiritual exercise designed to make the wisdom of the Cistercians come alive for the serious seeker.


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Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path invites you to reflect on the steps anyone can take to begin (or deepen) a regular spiritual practice. Informed by the wisdom of the great Christian mystics, this accessible and user-friendly book illustrates how wisdom from the past can be relevant to seekers today. The mystical life is a life of transformation, and this book celebrates how responding to the desire for a closer sense of God’s presence — the “contemplative call” — means entering into a God-centered process that truly can change us forever. Christian author and activist Brian D. McLaren praised the book, saying “What Frommers, Rick Steves, and Lonely Planet are to travel guides for physical locales, Carl McColman is fast becoming for the spiritual journey. There is so much that recommends this delightful guide — Carl’s own depth of experience, his wonderful ability to bring in apt quotations from the great contemplative saints of history, his ability to be both simple and deep without ever becoming simplistic or murky. As I read, I kept thinking of friends with whom I want to share this treasure — a travel guide to an adventurous journey that will last forever.”


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The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality looks at one of the most misunderstood aspects of Christian spirituality: the mystical tradition, a wisdom lineage which stresses the love of God for humanity created in the Divine image and likeness — a tradition of prayer, meditation and contemplation, in which the mystery of Divine Love leads to the splendor of enlightenment, personal and social transformation, and spiritual joy. But what is mysticism, and why is it not more commonly spoken of in Christian circles? In the 20th century an eminent Catholic theologian named Karl Rahner famously said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, author Carl McColman reflects on what Rahner could mean — and how mystical spirituality could be a blessing not just for saints or nuns and monks, but for all Christians, and indeed for anyone interested in profound spiritual transformation. Caroline Myss calls this book “a masterpiece of scholarship and wisdom,” while Anglican author Cynthia Bourgeault calls it “a wise and supportive guidebook for those going deeper on the Christian mystical path… what makes it sing is the authenticity of the author’s own contemplative  journey.”


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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net


The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia celebrates how teaching about the Christian contemplative life is  “encoded” within the pages of one of C. S. Lewis’s most charming books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (in the beloved Narnia series). Lewis built his illuminating story — of a ship sailing through enchanted waters to the very end of the world — around the key elements of the Christian life: baptism, communion, struggling against injustice and temptation, and (as the story progresses) moving into deeper wisdom teachings centered around the experience of silence, the encounter with darkness, and finally, the breathtaking splendor of enlightenment. Eventually the Dawn Treader sails beyond a place where the stars sing, into a luminous world of wonders presided over by Aslan, the Divine Lover. Carl McColman’s The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader helps readers of all ages to discern the often subtle spiritual teachings found within Lewis’s charming (and deceptively simple) story. Popular Catholic author James Martin, SJ, praises this book and its author: “By turns playful, provocative and profound, McColman asks us to ‘become like little children’ in order to understand some very adult lessons.”


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366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore offers the reader a series of daily meditations grounded in Celtic spirituality, written in an inclusive way that can speak to everyone — you don’t have to have Celtic ancestry to enjoy this book. Written in 2004, it represents the culmination of years of study into both Christian and pre-Christian dimensions of Celtic spirituality. The wisdom of the Celts is poetic, mythic, celebratory, and mystical in the best sense of the word. It seamlessly weaves together insights from what the Irish Benedictine monk Seán Ó Duinn calls the “three streams” of neolithic, mythical, and Christian dimensions of wisdom. The result: a truly inclusive, hope-filled, and inspirational series of meditations, rooted in the mysteries of the Spirit, a reverence for nature, and compassion for humanity. This book is written in such a way that it serves beautifully as a daily devotional, but works just as well as an introductory guidebook to Celtic mysticism.


Buy 366 Celt: A Year and a Day of Celtic Wisdom and Lore:
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Order an autographed copy direct from the author at www.mccolman.net

A Lesson on Creativity and Risk-Taking from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Publisher

Today I had a conversation with a friend who is working on a manuscript for a book to be published in the next year or so. We were chatting about the joys and challenges of writing.

I told her a story about Stanley and Rayner Unwin, who were the British publishers of J.R.R. Tolkien, among many other authors. Stanley founded the publishing house George Allen and Unwin in the early 20th century; in 1936 he was approached by J.R.R. Tolkien to publish The Hobbit

The elder Unwin enlisted the aid of his son, who was then 10 years old, to read the manuscript and write a review. The boy wrote a short but favorable assessment of the book, and it was published. After its success, the publisher encouraged Tolkien to write a sequel, but more than fifteen years would pass by before Tolkien presented a manuscript to his publisher.

It was now the early 1950s, and Stanley Unwin was no long actively involved in the daily operations of the publisher, but his son, now a young man in his mid-20s, worked for the family business. Once again, he was tasked with assessing Tolkien’s manuscript for its suitability for publication. The, book, of course, was The Lord of Rings, approximately six times as long as The Hobbit, and written for adults rather than children.

The story goes that Rayner Unwin liked the manuscript, but given its size could not imagine a profitable way to publish it. No matter how he crunched the numbers, it seemed to him that the publisher would lose £1000 (that’s a thousand pounds in 1954 — which in today’s money would be about £27,500 or about $34,000!). Not sure what to do, he reached out to his father for advice.

Surprisingly, his father seemed less interested in the book’s marketability and more in its literary merit. In Stanley Unwin’s words, “If you think this to be a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds.”

Risky Business

We all know how the story goes from there. Clearly Rayner was sufficiently confident that The Lord of the Rings was a work of genius, for he published it in three volumes, and it has gone on to sell over 150 million copies worldwide and is widely regarded as one of the great English-language novels of the 20th century.

But young Rayner Unwin had no way of knowing that when he committed to publishing it in the early 1950s. For all he knew, the book could have bombed and this “work of genius” might have ended up an obscure collector’s item — and a very costly line on his company’s ledger.

It seems to me that there are several lessons that authors might take from the story of the Unwins and their commitment to publishing a work of genius, even at great financial risk.

First, we need to remember that this story is remarkable precisely because it is so unlikely. Publishers are businesses, and like any business they need to turn a profit in order to survive. We can assume that George Allen & Unwin must have been quite successful in order to take a £1000 gamble in the 1950s. Most publishers, then or now, simply wouldn’t take the chance, no matter how good a book is.

Every book published represents a financial invest (read: risk), and if it bombs, it’s simply money lost — and if a publisher has too many turkeys, the entire business could be at risk. This is why editors often seem to be only interested in how well the book will sell. A good editor understands that a truly successful book needs to be a work of art and eminently marketable — not either/or. Like it or not, literary greatness in itself does not pay the bills.

What does this mean for authors? Simply this: it is incumbent upon us authors to balance a book’s immediate marketability with its unquantifiable value as a work of art. We have to be the custodians of its long-term literary value. Our editors and the entire publishing team will help us to hone the book’s title, hook, sales copy, and marketing plan — so they have got our backs when it comes to the money part of the equation. But that means the author has to continually balance making a book marketable with making it a true work of art.

It’s foolish to think that commercial success and artistic merit cannot coexist — Tolkien, the Beatles, J.K. Rowling, and Charles Dickens are just a few examples of artists whose creative genius led to financial glory. By the same token, no creative professional should ever take it upon themselves to reject editorial guidance because their commitment to art will brook no compromise. For every Tolkien there are thousands of authors who are forgotten because their brilliant idea never found an audience. Like it or not, we authors need the machinery of commerce to get our books in the hands of readers — and royalty checks into our banks.

The Ultimate Lesson (at Least for Authors and Other Creative Types)

But here’s the real lesson from the story of Tolkien and the Unwins. If Stanley and Rayner Unwin were willing to risk losing a huge sum of money on “a work of genius,” then shouldn’t we, as authors, do everything humanly possible to make sure our books are true works of art?

And this holds true for all creative professionals: your book, your music, your poetry, your art, your graphic design… whatever you create, you have a choice to just “phone it in,” creating run-0f-the-mill work that some people will like, others will dislike and many will ultimately forget. Or, you have the choice to put everything  you can into your work. Maybe you don’t have a thousand pounds (or thirty thousand dollars) to bet on your “work of genius.” But when you create something, can you put enough of yourself into it, that it would be worth betting half a year’s salary on?

That, to me, is the lesson here. To wrap this up in a contemplative way: The Jewish and Christian traditions say humans are created in the image and likeness of God. What is God, if not the ultimate creator? (We often use the word “Creator” as a synonym for God). Part of being a contemplative is creating the space in your mind and heart to access the limitless creativity of God.

Not all of us are called to be writers or musicians or artists, it is true. But I believe we are all called to be creative in some way.

And like the Unwins, I believe we all need to find ways to be so creative that it’s worth taking a risk for — if not financially, than spiritually, or psychologically. Is your work of art good enough to bet everything on? I’m not saying you should bet everything — but if your work of art isn’t that good, then what can you do to make it that good? I think this is a question every artist, writer, musician, or other creative professional should ask of themselves. I know it’s a question I ask of myself.

Go, then, Image of God — be creative. And be bold and gutsy in doing so.

J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Featured image: Fran and Carl McColman at the grave of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford, England, July 3, 2017. Photo by David Cole of Waymark Ministries.

The Sheer Sound of a Still Small Voice

“God speaks to us in a whisper,” or so said an Episcopal priest I once knew. It was one of his trademark sayings, and the idea was obvious enough: if we want to discern the voice (will) of God in our lives, we had better listen carefully, because it won’t come with any amplification.

While I can’t say so for sure, my hunch is that all this came from a reading of 1 Kings 19. In this passage, Elijah, alone on Mount Horeb after fleeing for his life from the rage of Queen Jezebel, encounters a series of awe-inspiring events—a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire—but each time, we are told, God was not in the particular force of nature. And then, after the fire, in the words of the King James Version, comes a “still small voice.”

The narrative goes on to say that at this point Elijah “wrapped his face in his mantle” and went out from where he had been hiding. Then he hears a voice that speaks to him, asks him a question, and gives him direction about what his next move should be.

A Disjointed Story?

The story as found in the KJV seems a bit disjointed. Elijah hears a voice, steps out from the cave, and thenhears a voice that speaks to him about what he is doing and where he should be going. Is it the same voice? Was God just sort of clearing his throat the first time?

Some light can be shed on this by considering how this same story is rendered in a newer translation, the New Revised Standard Version. There, the Hebrew words that in the 17th century were translated as “still small voice” are rendered as “the sound of sheer silence.” Based on my layman’s knowledge of Hebrew, it makes sense: qol can be translated as “voice,” but also simply as “sound”; daq can mean “thin,” “small,” “fine” or “sheer”; while demamah can mean “whisper,” but also suggests “stillness” or “silence.”

My guess is that four centuries ago, when the scholars of the day were translating the King James Version, the idea that Elijah encountered the sound of sheer silence was probably just a little too out-there for them to grasp. So they opted for “the still small voice,” ignoring the fact that this translation makes the overall narrative seem awkward and repetitious.

Read the NRSV, and it’s much clearer: Elijah, having already encountered the voice of God, retreats into a cave but is called out to where “the Lord is about to pass by.” Then comes the excitement: the wind that could split mountains; the earthquake; and the fire. And then: sheer silence.

It is in hearing the silence that Elijah responds to, and thus is able to hear and respond to, the voice of God.

So what does this mean for you and me?

Obviously, few if any of us will ever be looking for an encounter with God in windstorms, earthquakes, and fire on the mountain. Furthermore, I doubt if you or I or anyone reading this will ever have to run for our lives because a wicked queen is out to get us. But if we decided that our lives are just not very much like Elijah’s, we would be in danger of missing the point. The drama of Elijah’s experience serves as a kind of metaphor or symbol of any troubled life. We all are on the run, in some way. Perhaps we’re running from something like Elijah, or maybe desperately trying to reach something. And while we’re running, we’re going to encounter plenty of times when it seems that the wind is ripping rock apart, or the ground beneath our feet is shaking, or everything seems to be going up in flames.

Moments for Discernment, Moments for Waiting

The author of 1 Kings does not mean for us to assume that God is not present in the chaotic moments of our lives. But there does seem to be a message that such moments may not be the most optimal times for discerning how God’s call is beckoning us forward.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, made a similar point when he suggested that moments of crisis are not the best times for making important decisions. For example, when a marriage hits a rough spot, the temptation to bail out can be powerful. But Ignatius would counsel patience precisely at such a time. Wait until things have calmed down, and then listen for the voice of God. Careful spiritual discernment should be about mindfully weighing options, not putting out fires (or surviving storms and earthquakes).

What’s interesting about the story of Elijah and the sound of sheer silence is that Elijah had a conversation with God when he first arrived on the mountain. And then, after the wind and fire and the silence, he and God have pretty much the exact same exchange. There is some grist for discernment there as well: God’s deep stability is not easily swayed, not by storms or quakes or conflagration. The silence not only empowered Elijah to listen for the word of God, but it enabled him to hear something he already knew.

This silence—that can bring us to the place where we can hear God—is always available to us. It rests after every storm, earthquake, and fire. Indeed, this silence opens up between each and every thought that will ever dance across your mind. The voice of God might come to us as a still small voice, or it might be the equivalent of the fabled “heavenly two-by-four” that God will use if we are particularly resistant to God’s leading. But no matter how subtle or insistent the voice of God might be, it always emerges out of the sound of sheer silence, which makes learning to listen for the silence in our lives a pretty smart idea.

Featured Image: Mount Carmel. Public domain photo by Chadner. Copyright information.

Your Home is Your Abbey; Your Heart is Your Cloister

I met a woman once, many years ago, who taught writing in a prison. She had the inmates read The Rule of Saint Benedict. She encouraged them to use the spirituality and culture of Benedictine monasticism as a way to reflect on their experience of incarceration.

She certainly wasn’t the first — or the last — person to see a correlation between the cloister and correctional facilities. In her fascinating book Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives,  author Jane Brox tells the story of a penitentiary in Philadelphia that was designed with monastic practices in mind.

I am writing these words just days after the World Health Organization declared the spread of the infectious virus COVID-19 a global pandemic. Many schools and businesses are closing; many restaurants are only preparing food for takeout or delivery, and many grocery stores are running out of staple items like bread and canned goods, as members of the public prepare for a period of voluntary self-isolation and social distancing. No one wants to get sick, and a disease with a mortality rate higher than influenza and no vaccine currently available has gotten the attention of many people — not just those who are particularly vulnerable because of age or underlying health issues. Even a robust person who would likely survive a bout of the coronavirus doesn’t want to pass it on to others, particularly those who might not fare so well.

Stay indoors. Limit errands to those that are truly necessary, like quick visits to the grocery store or pharmacy. Use your smartphone or laptop to take classes, participate in public worship, or stay in touch with loved ones. We are all familiar with the technological tools available — at least to those who enjoy a certain level of economic affluence. In other words, we know what to do to remain connected with the world at large, even in the privacy of our own homes.

But whether we are rich or poor, whether we are active users of the internet or those who rarely get online, we all have one thing in common: we are not used to the idea of being confined to our living space, even if voluntarily.

We are not convicted criminals, sentenced to an institution where our freedom is stripped away. We are in home-based quarantines or domestic isolation by our own choice — as conscientious citizens.

But that won’t make it any easier. There’s a reason why terms like “stir-crazy” or “cabin fever” exist. Even if the confinement is of our own choosing, we naturally rebel against any infringement on our movements.

Which is why The Rule of Saint Benedict might be the perfect book to read during a pandemic.

Embracing Your Personal Monastery (or Hermitage)

Many people live alone, which means that their apartments or homes are suddenly becoming “hermitages” — even when they live in the midst of a large city. Others, who share their living space with family or friends, are suddenly in a living situation not unlike that of a small monastery or convent.

Granted, most people do not want to be monks or nuns. But I believe most people want to be happy. And nuns and monks have shown that even a cloistered life can be a happy life.

So if you are feeling just a bit hemmed in by the restrictions you’ve taken on in response to the pandemic, perhaps a bit of advice from St. Benedict will help see you through.

Frankly, even if you are reading this at some point in the future when no one is worried about a pandemic, I believe the wisdom of St. Benedict can still help anyone who, for any reason, is living a confined or stationary life. It’s wisdom that can help us to be at peace with the circumstances of our lives, and to transcend whatever limitations our lives impose upon us, to find a great freedom — within.

Of course, St. Benedict assumes that everyone who comes to live in a monastery or convent is there for spiritual reasons. They want to give their lives to God. Obviously, not everyone who is isolated in today’s world has such spiritual motivation in their heart.

So first, I would like to suggest that it helps to have a spiritual orientation to life.

I know not everyone is a Christian, or even a believer in God. But for the sake of this blog post, I’m going to set those conditions aside. After all, many people who reject a religious belief-system (like Christianity, or theism in general) still adhere to a spiritual approach to life, affirming that life is good, meaningful, and that love and kindness and compassion lead to a happier and  healthier life.

So, no matter what belief-system you do (or don’t) accept, the first key to finding happiness even in an enclosed, cloistered situation, is a commitment to a spiritual orientation to life.

St. Benedict makes it clear that he finds spiritual growth and meaning in relationships — in other people, but also in the cultivation of interior virtues and values such as humility, kindness, generosity, meditation, a strong work ethic, and choosing to see even the most ordinary elements of life as sacred.

In other words, even in the most constricted of life situations, any human being can still devote time and energy and effort to interior growth and development.

The old proverb applies here: bloom where you are planted. A plant has to be healthy and at some level of maturity before it blossoms. So finding happiness and meaning even in the most confined situations means taking responsibility for both growth and health.

I may not be able to choose to go wherever I please, but I can choose to eat a healthy diet, to get enough sleep (or at least rest), and to orient my awareness toward positive thoughts and affirming beliefs and ideas. No one forces us to be cynical — or optimistic. No matter how bad our circumstances or debilitating our life challenges might be, we always have the possibility of making choices that can make things better, even if just one step at a time.

Much of The Rule of Saint Benedict is devoted to prayer — which, once again, may not appeal to those who don’t believe in God. If you not a theist, then think in terms of meditation as an alternative to prayer. If you are a theist, I invite you to have an expansive understanding of prayer that includes meditation.

Benedict makes it clear: daily prayer is as important to spiritual well-being as daily hygiene is to physical health. The take-away is clear: no matter how constrained your life might be, you can find a way to orient yourself toward prayer and/or meditation, even if only for small moments in the day (spoiler alert: I believe people who sincerely pray or meditate every day, even if just for a few minutes at a time, find themselves naturally gravitating toward a more intentional — and lengthy — practice of daily meditation. It will grow naturally, because you will naturally want it to grow).

Prayer and meditation, by themselves, do not guarantee happiness or inner peace. Some people can even find deep interior work to be particularly challenging because it can involve facing our inner wounds and shadows. But if we anchor our prayer and/or meditation in an overall commitment to positive-self care and to life-positive spiritual values, then a daily practice of interior exploration can be profoundly rewarding — and suddenly, the “prison” (or “quarantine”) of our lives simply becomes much less of a problem — or even no problem at all. For when we enter into the spaciousness of prayer or meditation, we are free — even if our physical body is anything but free.

Even in a long blog post like this, I cannot fully exhaust how the kind-hearted and hope-filled spirituality of Saint Benedict can offer an optimistic sense of freedom that stands as a dramatic alternative to the cynicism and anxiety that characterizes so much of life today. If you want to learn more, go to the original source — or even better yet, read a good commentary on the Rule, such as Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister or How to Live by Judith Valente.

A Final Word

I’ve aimed this blog post at someone who may be coming to the wisdom of St. Benedict for the very first time. But I want to finish by saying a word to readers who are familiar with my work, and who share my interest in Christian contemplation and mystical wisdom. I think it’s important to remember that so many of the greatest contemplatives and mystics in the Christian tradition were cloistered nuns or monks. They embraced the highest transformations of consciousness while leaving in the most confined of earthly ways. If it worked for them, it can work for us as well. If your life is shaped by some sort of external limitation — particularly something you cannot change — the path of contemplation and mystical spirituality reminds you that you can still love well, and happily, and perhaps even joyfully. Your external limitations do not need to constrict your inner freedom. You can always find the vastness of divine freedom within — and it can lead you to limitless joy.

And if you have external limitations that can and should be changed — for example, systems of injustice or oppression that harm you — doing this work will not make you passive, but if anything, it will energize your efforts to create a better life circumstance. Set your heart free, and your mind — and body — will follow.

 

Featured image: empty shelves at the Kroger Supermarket in Decatur, GA, March 16, 2020, as the public prepares for an indefinite period of voluntary isolation and social distancing. Photo by Carl McColman.

Advice for Surviving a Pandemic from Julian of Norwich

Anyone who spends time on this blog knows that I love Julian of Norwich; just as John Ruysbroeck was Evelyn Underhill’s favorite mystic, Julian is far and away my favorite. You can read a few of my previous posts about Julian here, here and here.

Today I was prepared to write something about St. Patrick, given that tomorrow is his feast day, but — since we are now dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic, the first global pandemic in a decade (since the H1N1 “Swine Flu” pandemic of 2009-2010) — I thought maybe Julian deserves a bit more attention.

Julian lived from 1342 to approximately 1416; which means that she survived one of the most storied and terrifying pandemics of western history: the Great Pestilence, what we now call “the black death” — during which the bubonic plague ravaged England between 1348 and 1350. It would have come to Norwich when Julian was still a child; her older contemporary in the mystical tradition, Richard Rolle of Hampole, died young around the year 1349; scholars speculate that he may have been a casualty of the plague.

It is believed that approximately one-third of the population of England may have succumbed to the plague — and in Norwich, the death toll may have been even higher, claiming up to one-half of the city’s thirteen thousand inhabitants. And if that first devastating pandemic wasn’t bad enough, England suffered additional outbreaks of the plague at least four more times during Julian’s life.

If you want a detailed — and, frankly, terrifying — description of what the plague was like and the impact it had on medieval European society, read chapter four of Veronica Rolf’s Julian’s Gospel.

Julian herself does not mention the plague in her book of Showings. That, in itself, I find quite remarkable, but there is much about Julian’s own life that remains shrouded in mystery. Even her name is hidden from us; she is called Julian after her parish church in Norwich (it would be as if I were known as “Thomas More” because I’m a member of St. Thomas More Parish). Virtually all the personal details of her life were left unmentioned in her writing; she simply did not see the point of telling her own story.

A number of scholars and writers have done fascinating work speculating about the details of Julian’s life; two of my favorites are the aforementioned Julian’s Gospel and Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm. But ultimately we must be content knowing that for the most part we simply don’t know about Julian’s life — all we have is her brilliant book detailing the spirituality of her “showings” or visions/revelations of divine love.

But while Julian may have chosen not to write directly about her experience surviving multiple outbreaks of the plague, we can still read between the lines and discern some advice from this medieval mystic about how to survive the uncertainty that comes with an infectious disease pandemic. Indeed, I see four ways that Julian speaks to us even here in the 21st century.

  1. Social Distancing is a good thing. While Julian does not write about her life circumstances, a colophon on her book, probably added by an unknown scribe, identifies her as a “recluse” or “anchoress” living in Norwich. In other words, she lived a life of intentional solitude, “anchored” to her parish church (St. Julian’s) by inhabiting an enclosed cell adjacent to the sanctuary. Julian very likely lived in such a hermit-like way for anywhere from 20 to 40 years, which means she probably survived at least two outbreaks of the plague by remaining in spiritual solitude. I don’t this means everyone is meant to be a solitary or a hermit! Clearly, for Julian, this was a religious vocation. But if 21st-century people have a hard time understanding why a healthy woman would have chosen a life of enforced isolation, perhaps “social distancing” is the clue that makes it easy to understand. Keeping a prudent distance from others helps to slow down the spread of the disease — and may well keep you alive.
  2. Keep your distance — but stay connected. Julian never mentions it, but we know from the autobiographical Book of Margery Kempe that Julian, even in solitude, worked as a spiritual director. In other words, she remained in relationship with others, even if behind the safety of a screen. For that matter, going to the trouble to write her book — the first book by a woman in the English language — was another way that she endeavored to keep “in touch” — if not physically, then spiritually. Julian knew that human beings are meant for relationship, and in the challenges of a pandemic, we must be creative about finding ways to keep our relatedness alive and well.
  3. Stay positive. Julian is renowned for her optimism and her faith in both God’s love and Christ’s saving acts. “All shall be well,” she proclaimed, earning her a spot in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotation and a shout-out in the luminous conclusion of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. But Julian’s soundbite is actually the cornerstone of her entire philosophical outlook — and what a positive outlook it was! She speaks repeatedly of not only God’s and Christ’s love, but also their joy, courtesy, and “homeliness” (what we might call their “down-t0-earth-ness.” Despite the fact that we live in a world marred by suffering, sin and death (infectious or otherwise), for Julian there was never a need to despair. Hope is the birthright of all people of faith. It sees us through the ordinary passage of our days, and it also is the beacon of light in difficult times as well.
  4. Pray. Prayer has become a bit of a political hot potato in our culture, since it can be bandied about as a glib or even dismissive response to tragedy — does anyone really believe that “thoughts and prayers” is the only appropriate response to mass shootings? So I was a little hesitant to include this as one of the ways Julian advises us. But in the end it seemed wrong not to mention this, for it’s the truth — Julian filtered everything in her life through a vivid and generous prayer life — and it’s also clear that Julian kept prayer as an integral part of an overall mindfully-lived life. Prayer does not render prudence unnecessary: I pray for God’s protection, and I still lock my doors. Both actually go together well: the locked door is an act of prudence, and the prayer is an act of trust. Without locking the door, prayer is a form of escapism; but without prayer, the locked doors can become an expression of paranoia. Julian, as a woman dedicated to prayer, understood that isolating herself from infectious disease by itself was not enough. She had to balance her prudent actions with the generous gesture of trust. In this way, she was able to preserve both her optimism and her faith.

I hope we can all balance prayer and prudent action to remain both safe and faith-full during this uncertain time when we are not yet sure how dangerous or widespread COVID-19 will prove to be. Let us all pray for good health, for comfort and healing for those afflicted, and for the many women and men who are working hard to develop vaccines and otherwise take measures that will keep all people safe.

Featured image: Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353). The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. ms. 13076 – 13077 fol. 24v. Julian of Norwich image: Stained glass at Norwich Cathedral; photo by Ian-S; used by permission.

Called to the Prayer of Listening to Christ

God saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began. (II Timothy 1:9, NABRE)

God has “called us to a holy life”!

These words from the New Testament were written almost two thousand years ago, and yet they could have been written today — to you, to me, to every person who has ever been baptized into the body of Christ. In the second Vatican Council the Bishops of the Catholic Church described this as the “Universal Call to Holiness.” As a universal call, it’s not just for bishops and priests, for nuns and monks, for people that we may already think of as holy, like Mother Teresa. We are all called to holiness.

The French poet Léon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Fortunately, for every one of us who still draws breath, we have hope, hope that by the grace of God, we might respond to this call, and truly live a holy life.

Of course, we are called to holiness, not according to our works but according to God’s own design and the grace bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus before time began. 

What does the Universal Call to Holiness mean?

The holiness, the sanctity, that you and I are called to, is not something that we can achieve by our own efforts. There is no pulling yourself up by the devotional bootstraps. Holiness is a gift — a gift that God wants to give to each one of us, even though we may not deserve it. God has designed us for holiness, we were created to be living icons of Divine Love, Divine Mercy, and Divine Compassion. And most amazing of all — this design has been in the works since before the beginning of time. 

You and I are expressions of God’s love from all of eternity.

It has been said that all of organic matter — all of physical matter — was originally created from the stars. Physicists tell us that matter is simply “trapped energy” — trapped light, if you will. God created the sun and other stars, and sprayed them across the universe, and the light that they have emitted, over billions of years, has illuminated the fullness of God’s creative activity, from the beginning of time to the present moment. The oxygen, the carbon, the hydrogen, all the elements that support life, all came from the stars. You and I are literally made of stardust. 

The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made. 

And so I invite you to consider with me now, that before God lit the fuse that ignited the big bang — what we might call the first day of creation — before that first day, God already knew us by name, knew that we would be made of stardust, that we would be designed for holiness, and that we would be called to an eternity of every increasing joy welling up in our hearts, through the love that has been given to us through the Holy Spirit.

That’s pretty heady stuff, don’t you think? And if you’re like me, this kind of elevated talk about holiness, and the grace of God, and Divine Compassion, might leave you feeling rather humble. “How can God want or expect me to be holy — I can barely drive to work without losing my temper!”

None of us are perfect — which is the message of this season of Lent, a time when we acknowledge our brokenness, our woundedness, our sinfulness. How can God take somebody as broken and wounded and sinful as me, and say, “I’m calling you to be holy”?

Here’s how: because God made us, God loves us. And therefore, God keeps us. Just like if you noticed a scrape on your new car, you would just take it to the shop to get it repaired; in the same way, God meets our brokenness not with a desire to condemn us, but with a desire to heal us. 

Transfigured in Christ

If I may use bold language, God wants to transfigure us, as surely as God transfigured Jesus on the high holy mountain, as today’s gospel so beautifully remind us.

Jesus’s face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. Apparitions of the great Jewish leaders Moses and Elijah came to speak with him in his splendor. Then the voice of God himself proclaimed that Jesus is his beloved, and we are instructed to listen to him.

Now, you and I are not Jesus, we are not the only begotten Son of God. But the Christian faith holds that all who are baptized — even including all who desire baptism  — are made members of Christ’s Body. There’s an old term that we don’t hear very often, but I think we should bring it back: “The Mystical Body of Christ.” The word mystical means “hidden,” so that means that Christ is hidden — in you, and me, and everyone who seeks to follow his way. He is hidden in our hearts, present in the love that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. So you and I, as members of his mystical body, are called to be transfigured, just like he was.

So even though we are made of stardust, maybe we’re not going to climb the mountain and shine with radiant white light — at least not in a physical sense. That’s okay. Because we are called to shine forth spiritually, the light that we are called to spread is the light of love, the light of compassion, the light of mercy, and the light of forgiveness.

Once again, you may be asking, “But how am I to do this? I’m not very good at being a saint. I wish I were better, but I just have to be honest. My life is really kind of a mess.”

Well, welcome to the club. And by the Grace of God, on that Mountain of Transfiguration, the voice of God did not say we had to get our act together! What did it say? It told us to listen to Christ. That, my friends, is the key: the key to holiness, the key to sanctification, and the key to the life of prayer. Listening to Christ.

So often, we think of prayer in terms of what we say to God: we pray to ask for forgiveness, to express gratitude and thanksgiving, or to intercede for the needs of others or make petitions for our own needs. All of these are beautiful ways to pray — but prayer is more than just us talking to God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in fact, describes the highest form of prayer, contemplative prayer, as wordless adoration of Christ. It is a way of praying that is based not on the poetry of our language or the cleverness of our thoughts, but simply on the love in our hearts. 

In other words, there is a way of praying that invites us to listen to Christ, through the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

Listening for the Grace of God

One of the great blessings of contemplative Christianity is that we have a long tradition, two thousand years, countless generations of men and women who answered that call to holiness, and became saints and mystics — they embody God’s goodness, God’s truth, God’s beauty, and God’s love. What’s the difference between a saint and a mystic? A saint teaches us how to relate to each other — how to love our neighbors as ourselves. A mystic, therefore, teaches us how to relate to God — how to respond, through prayer and meditation and contemplation, to the one who created us, who loves, who redeems us, who sustains us, and who sanctifies us.

Of course, many saints are also mystics and many mystics are also saints. Maybe you can’t be one without being the other.

How do we answer the call to holiness? Let’s listen for the grace of God. Let’s reflect on how God has called us into a life of love, compassion, mercy, and service — but also, a life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Let us pray together, and reflect together on the wisdom of the great saints and mystics and how they teach us how to pray, and most of all, let us support each other as we seek to truly listen for the whisper of Christ’s call to us — through the love of the Holy Spirit that has been poured into our hearts.

Will we be transfigured, like Christ was on that Holy Mountain so long ago? I can’t make any guarantees! But I do believe that when we take the time to be still, and truly listen for God’s call in our lives, we will be changed, and for the better.

N.B. The above reflection was offered to the community of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Gainesville, FL, on March 8, 2020, as part of the parish mission. The readings cited include 2 Timothy 1:8-10 and Matthew 17:1-9. It’s been adapted slightly for publication on this blog.

Contemplation and Vocal Prayer: For a Balanced Spiritual “Diet,” Cultivate Both

A reader of the blog wrote to me with this question:

We had an opportunity last night to attend a presentation on prayer & spiritual warfare. I’m now contemplating the presenter’s heavy use of the prayers of the church in his life of prayer. I am much more comfortable with personal, silent, & contemplative prayer. I’d like your thoughts on the value of the use of the prayers of our church, the saints, church fathers, etc. thanks!

Many people who are drawn to contemplative prayer often find that they begin to feel uncomfortable with traditional “vocal” forms of prayer — particularly rote prayers, what you can find in a book — whether it’s the Liturgy of the Hours or simply an anthology of traditional prayers, drawn from the Bible or from the writings of the saints — such as the Handbook of Prayers or the Peoples’ Prayer Book. If I’m finding spiritual sustenance by learning to relax into silence, then suddenly going back to using a lot of words — especially words originally composed by someone else, who may have lived centuries ago — seems counterintuitive.

Believe it or not, I’m actually rather sympathetic to the preacher that promoted the use of traditional praying. Even though in my writing I am primarily an advocate for contemplative prayer, I think the question of vocal versus contemplative prayer should be seen in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

Sometimes contemplatives will justify letting go of rote prayers by appealing to Saint Paul: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (I Corinthians 13:11). But I don’t think is a very apt analogy. Prayer — whether vocal or meditative or contemplative — is appropriate for the entire lifespan. Children can learn contemplative ways of praying — look at the wonderful book Journey to the Heart: Centering Prayer for Children for inspiration on how to introduce youngsters to the prayer of silence.

Vocal prayer, like centering prayer or other forms of silent prayer, is appropriate for all ages: from toddlers to elders.

Why, then, do some people feel resistance to one or more forms of prayer? Because, just as some contemplatives resist vocal prayer, it’s also commonplace to find people who enjoy vocal prayer but who resist silent prayer, for a variety of reasons.

I think it boils down to temperament. Some of us are naturally drawn to silent ways of praying. Others are much more comfortable with prayer that relies on language — whether humble words of need spoken in times of distress, or eloquent verse that we inherit from the most gifted poets of our tradition. Maybe a few lucky souls are “spiritually ambidextrous,” finding joy in both the words and the silence.

Mystics and Monastics Agree: Both Vocal and Silent Prayer Matter

But once again, no matter what type of prayer you intuitively prefer, I would encourage everyone to hold lightly to a “both/and” approach to balancing vocal prayer and contemplation.

Why? For two reasons. First, many of the great mystics have endorsed vocal prayer, even for advanced contemplatives. They point out that even when such prayers seem to offer us no conscious benefit, we should still pray them, for the Holy Spirit works in our hearts through such prayers — at a level below the threshold of ordinary consciousness.

Consider this bit of advice from The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Ávila:

I am not now discussing whether or no everyone must practice mental or vocal prayer; but I do say that you yourselves require both. For prayer is the duty of religious. If anyone tells you it is dangerous, look upon that person himself as your principal danger and flee from his company. Do not forget this, for it is advice that you may possibly need.

Granted, Teresa is writing to nuns, but I think her advice is sound for all Christians. “Mental prayer” (what we would call meditation and contemplation) and “vocal prayer” are both necessary for a fully-formed spiritual life — and if anyone tells you otherwise, Teresa suggests you stay away from that person!

Speaking of nuns — and monks — they provide the second reason why I recommend integrating both vocal and silent prayer into your spiritual practice.

Nuns and monks have been our most dedicated custodians of silence for centuries now, but they are also, simultaneously, the chief voices in the daily round of liturgical prayer — the Divine Office — that is chanted around the world, a continuing symphony of praise and intercession. Monastics realize that this kind of prayer is formative, generative, and eternal. Let’s unpack each of these.

Vocal prayer is formative. Praying the Daily Office, and other traditional prayers of the Christian tradition, forms our minds and hearts into what it means to be united with Christ. This language of prayer gives us the syntax and vocabulary of life in the Spirit. Formation is not the same thing as “training” — this is more than just a kind of cognitive mapping that prayer offers us. It shapes our souls, the way the potter shapes the clay. It gives us a structure and a trellis which facilitates our ability to grow into spiritual maturity with and in Christ.

Vocal prayer is generativePraying liturgically does more than just tell us who we are; it gives us insight into who God is calling us to be. “What is now proved was once only imagined,” mused William Blake; in other words, the reality that the Spirit calls us to manifest in our lives originally comes to us from the imaginal realm where God’s call can first be received; the beauty of prayers like the Liturgy of the Hours is that it helps us to “imagine” what God has in mind for us, so therefore it not only shapes who we are today, but it beckons us to become what we shall be for all eternity. Which, of course, leads to the third quality of vocal prayer:

Vocal prayer is eternalI’ve written about this before, following the insightful words of a Holy Cross Father who wrote about how the liturgy is “like staring out into eternity.” There is a timelessness about prayer that touches the timelessness encoded in our hearts. Even though we pray in the normal flow of chronological time, spiritually speaking the rhythms and cadences of prayer can remind us that we stand at the crossroads of kronos and kairos — of the time which is the ticking of a cl0ck, intersecting with the radical eternity which is only found in the depth of the present moment. Particularly when we persevere in praying vocally over time, we can discern in the attention we bring to the prayers of the liturgy an ability to receive God’s eternality, even if only “through a glass darkly” as the clock keeps ticking.

A Brief Word About “Spiritual Warfare”

I realize that I am writing primarily about liturgical forms of vocal prayer, which may be different from the kinds of prayer that the authority on spiritual warfare was talking about. He may have been focussing more on shorter prayers that are designed specifically as words invoking a kind of spiritual protection.

I tend to avoid the language and culture of “spiritual warfare” because I find it inherently dualistic. Some people may benefit from this kind of spiritual thinking, particularly if their lives are in crisis; so I don’t mean to just dismiss it. But I think it’s not the most useful way of approaching spirituality over the long haul. Just as we sometimes have to fight on earth, but we do not want to be in perpetual war, there needs to be a recognition that sometimes the best way to respond to evil or abuse is not through fighting, but through compassion and humility.

For anyone who feels a need to use prayer that is anchored in the language of conflict or aggression, I would encourage you to consider that in God’s view of things, reconciliation takes priority over aggression. So while I can see that there might be a limited use for vocal prayer that is designed to triumph over evil, ultimately the most helpful ways of praying are not those dedicated to fighting evil so much as those that confidently trust in God’s goodness. And liturgical forms of prayer may be particularly well suited for this sustainable approach.

“Pray as You Can, Not as You Can’t”

Let me finish with one qualification to all of the above. Remember, I wrote “I would encourage everyone to hold lightly to a ‘both/and’ approach to balancing vocal prayer and contemplation.” I want to finish by underlining this idea of holding both ways of praying lightly.

The renowned monk/spiritual director Abbot James Chapman once advised a directee to “pray as you can, not as you can’t.” I think this is an important principle as well.

Sometimes, people find that they are just hopeless at one or another type of prayer. The thought of practicing centering prayer just fills them with dread. Or a formal prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours feels like an exercise in futility.

If you are under a community rule that commits you to praying a certain way, then you need to work with your spiritual director to find a way to endure it (or, hopefully, restore a sense of joy in it). But if you aren’t under any sort of binding rule, there comes a point when it seems to make more sense to focus on the kind of prayer that does nurture you, rather than to keep flogging the dead horse of a type of prayer that you find simply unpalatable.

While I really think that the best way to sustain a rich practice of Christian prayer is to find a way to integrate both vocal and silent prayer, if someone really can’t stand one form or another, I would much rather they stick to the type of prayer that works for them, than to give up all prayer out of the frustration they are feeling.

Ideally, working with a spiritual director can help anyone to explore different ways of praying and to discover their natural “prayer style.” So naturally anyone who is serious about daily prayer I would encourage to prayerfully consider meeting with a spiritual director.

Always remember: prayer is a response to love. The Bible says “We love because God first loved us,” (I John 4:19) and I believe prayer works in a similar way: we pray because God loves us, and indeed, because God prays through us (Romans 8:26). So at the end of the day, always choose the way of praying that best facilitates your capacity to respond to God’s love.

Celtic Spirituality, Celtic Prayer, and the Promises of the Heart: Three Contemplative Online Courses

It’s March, and that means St. Patrick’s Day is just a few days away!

This year, instead of (or, in addition to) enjoying a pint of green beer, why don’t you observe St. Patrick’s Day by enrolling in a Celtic spirituality e-course through Spirituality and Practice?

These courses are available “on demand” — which means you can sign up, and receive the course materials via e-mail at your convenience. Each course includes a dozen “lessons” that cover informative material about Celtic spirituality, along with meditation prompts and exercises that can help you to more fully integrate the wisdom of the Celts into your own spiritual life.

These courses also make great gifts.

There are two Celtic courses to choose from. The first is a general introduction to Celtic spirituality:

  • Celtic Spirituality: At the Edge of Mystery — Shrouded in legend and imbued with romance, the Celtic lands such as Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have produced a surprising number of saints and spiritual guides, both ancient and contemporary. From the mythic stories of goddesses and heroes, to the holistic mysticism of the earliest Celtic Christians, to the wisdom of modern visionaries, Celtic spirituality has ancient roots yet remains deeply relevant for our time. Celtic wisdom and poetry ​encourages us to recognize the holy all around us, honors and protects the sacred earth, gives inspiration to free our creative voice, and presents a holistic path that links the quest for holiness with ​an ​embodied​​ sense of Divine love. Here is an opportunity to drink from the holy wells of ancient myths and folklore and discover how the blessings of this venerable wisdom tradition can bring us meaning, purpose, and guidance today. To register for this course or to give it as a gift, click here.

The second course explores two particularly beautiful dimensions of Celtic wisdom: poetry and prayer. It works as a sequel to the first course, but also stands alone, so you can take this one first if you choose:

  • Poetry and Prayer of the Celtic Tradition — The traditional Celtic people of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales wove prayers, blessings, poems, and songs into every aspect of their daily lives — using the power of language to blend a rich spirituality of presence and wisdom into the very fabric of their being. Many of these poetic invocations and charming poems were collected by folklorist Alexander Carmichael over 100 years ago and preserved in the book Carmina Gadelica — the “Charms of the Gaels.” ​During our journey into this ancient text of mystical wisdom, we will explore some of the most beautiful and inspiring poetry and prayers from the Carmina Gadelica and reflect on how this ancient Celtic lore can bring light and wisdom to our spiritual lives today. To register for this course or to give it as a gift, click here.

And while we’re at it, I may as well mention a third course I taught through Spirituality and Practice — it’s not a specifically “Celtic” course, but is more expansive/interspiritual in scope:

  • Promises of the Heart — “Follow your heart.” It’s a classic phrase of advice and encouragement, for we know that true wisdom is not just a matter of thinking logical thoughts. It emerges most assuredly from the intuition and insight that only our hearts provide. But what does it really mean to “follow your heart,” and how can the wisdom of the heart truly make a difference in our day-to-day lives? Fortunately, each of the world’s great spiritual traditions has much to say about the blessings of the heart — and the gifts awaiting each of us, deep within. For example, Ecclesiastes says God has put olam (as in tikkun olam — repairing the world) in the human heart. The word olam means timelessness, eternity, the cosmos, the world. We all carry eternity in our hearts! This all-new e-course celebrates the wisdom of the heart by drawing from sources like The Heart Sutra in Buddhism, the poetry of Rumi from the Sufi Muslim tradition, the writings of Christian mystics like Julian of Norwich, and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a Hindu sage. All over the world, great teachers have revealed the promises of the heart — promises we can weave into our own spiritual practice to embody a more joyful and conscious life. To register for this course or to give it as a gift, click here.

If one of these looks inviting to you, I hope you’ll check it out!

Featured Photo: “Ring of Kerry” by Nils Nedel on Unsplash

With Great Reverence and Above Reason: Two Keys to the Mystical Adoration of God

If you talk to an old-school Trappist monk, he’ll tell you that “adoration” is something properly given to God alone.

I learned this the hard way, when in the acknowledgements section of my book Answering the Contemplative Call, I wrote a comment about how much “I adore” my wife. Reading this (in manuscript form), my old monastic mentor Fr. Anthony said, “You can love your wife all you want, but you should only adore God!”

It seemed like semantic word-splitting to me, but I didn’t want to offend the elderly monk, so I searched my inner thesaurus and changed the wording to tell my wife “I cherish you.”

Why is adoration something special we offer to God? Like so many words with spiritual or religious meanings, the secret is in etymology. Adoration comes from a Latin root that means not only “to love” but also “to worship.”

Nowadays, when many Christians and other spiritual seekers tend to stress God’s intimacy rather than God’s majesty, this kind of linguistic hair-splitting may seem arbitrary or silly. But perhaps it can be a helpful reminder that, since God is the Source of all Love, then perhaps there’s something to reserving a type of worship — adoration — strictly for God alone, even while we recognize that all forms of love ultimately have their origin in the Divine Heart.

With all this in the back of my mind, I’d like to share with you a quote I discovered that offers an interesting insight into the spirituality of adoration.

But now see what it is to adore God: it is, in the Christian faith, with great reverence and above reason, to gaze in the spirit upon God, the Eternal Power, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth and all that in them is.

— John Ruysbroeck, The Seven Steps of the Ladder of Spiritual Love

The Anglican contemplative Maggie Ross is well known for her advocacy of beholding as a core expression of contemplative practice, as seen in the title of her 2011 book, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding. The Curé D’Ars famously defined prayer as “I look at God, and God looks at me.” Anyone who’s ever had a lover knows the delirious joy of simply, wordlessly, gazing into the eyes of your beloved. Heaven on earth.

So it’s a delight to reflect on this little quotation from the fourteenth century Flemish mystic, John Ruysbroeck (also spelled “Ruusbroec”), whom Evelyn Underhill called “one of the greatest of Christian contemplatives.” Ruysbroeck equates adoration with beholding, by highlighting the humbly central role that simple gazing plays in contemplative prayer. He goes on to explain the heart of this contemplative beholding, using two concepts: reverence and reason.

“With great reverence” — in other words, such gazing is not lazy or indifferent — “and above reason” — which is to say, contemplative beholding is an expression of metanoia, that place “beyond the mind” where Divine nonduality may be apprehended intuitively but not “thought about” discursively.

So with great reverence, and beyond all ordinary reasons, we are invited, in love, to simply be present to the already-present presence of God. God gazes upon us, and we return the gaze. Love inspires love, and love meets Love. This mutual gaze: this is the heart of adoration.

In our gazing we do not seek to find God, but rather relax into the fact that God has already found us. And there we may cherish and relish, in a single moment within which all eternity unfolds, the boundless silence of union with Divine Love.

So cherish all your earthly loves: do so joyfully and exultantly. And recognize that the very love you cherish comes to you, lavishly and infinitely, from the One whom you are invited to adore, in the wordless silence of contemplative beholding.

“The Settling of the Mind Into Silence” — How a Definition of Yoga also Defines All Forms of Contemplation

The first four lines of the ancient text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, offer a basic definition of yoga — that might surprise many westerners who are used to thinking of yoga primarily as a form of physical discipline. But the kind of yoga practiced at your local gym or yoga center is simply one type of yoga — Hatha Yoga. Yoga is a much more broad term for spiritual discipline, just as “prayer” is a much broader term than Centering Prayer or charismatic prayer or liturgical prayer.

The word yoga itself can be translated to mean union. It appears to have originated from a proto-Indo-European root word that means “to join” — the same ancient root that gave us the English word yoke. Which makes sense: a yoke “unites” one or more animals together, with the will of the farmer or driver. So it also has a sense of discipline or control to it.

Just as a yoke provides discipline or control to a farm animal, so does yoga cover all the disciplines designed to “control” or foster the spiritual growth of the yogi. One of these disciplines, of course, is the kind of physical care that Hatha Yoga provides. But The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali provides an important early definition of yoga, which suggests that the most essential meaning of this word has to do not only with the health of the body, but also the contemplative heart of the mind.

Consider these three different translations of the first four verses of the Yoga Sutras. Of course, the most important verse is the second.

OM. What follows are instructions on Unity.
Unity obtains when the activities of mind have ceased.
The witness then abides in its true nature.
Otherwise, the witness is identified with the activities of mind and is just another thought-form itself.
(translated by Bart Marshall)

Marshall translates the word “yoga” as “unity.” In essence, his transition tells us that yoga becomes manifest when mental activity ceases.

Now, another version:

Now, the teaching of Yoga.
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.
(translated by Chip Hartranft)

And finally, my personal favorite; although it’s a bit of a paraphrase, it retains the essential meaning and offers such a beautiful definition.

And now the teaching on yoga begins.
Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.
Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.
(translated by Alistair Shearer, available in hardback or Kindle versions)

Yoga — Union (with God), or spiritual discipline — is the settling of the mind into silence.

If we look at Patanjali’s actual Sanskrit, verse four contains only four words: YOGAS CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH. Yoga is self-explanatory; Citta (chitta) means “mind” or “consciousness,” Vrtti literally means “whirlpool” but carries the connotation of change, dynamics, or disturbance; and nirodhah implies restraint or settling.

Yoga is the restraint of the whirlpool of consciousness: the settling of the mind into silence.

Why This Matters

So why am I paying so much attention to this? Especially for Christians and others who do not practice any form of Hindu spirituality, why do I think this matters so much?

Remember, yoga is related to yoke. Now, consider this quote from Jesus:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Could it be that the “yoke” Jesus calls “easy” is simply this: the settling of the mind into silence?

In Eastern Orthodox spirituality, there is a common image for the practice of the Jesus Prayer: the settling of the mind into the heart. The idea is that we can prayerfully allow our consciousness to sink from the normal, linguistic/thought-centric awareness of the mind, into the vast, pre-verbal (and post-verbal) silence at the base of the heart: the silence between every heartbeat, the blank page on which the heartbeats are “written.” The Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart, is our heart-centered prayer at a level “too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Perhaps this settling of the mind into the heart is another way of describing the settling of the mind into silence — the silence between and beneath every heartbeat.

I realize that I am allowing my intuition to make giant leaps that might not stand up very well under scholarly scrutiny. But I am writing not as an academic, but as a practitioner. My own experience with silent forms of prayer help me to trust that “settling the mind into silence” is not only a definition for yoga, but a definition for contemplation — in whatever form it takes; including Christian contemplation, Christian contemplative prayer.

“Silence is praise,” says the author of Psalm 65, at least in the original Hebrew; it often gets mistranslated when rendered into English. If silence is praise, silence is a way of worshipping God, a way of expressing love for God. Silence is a salutary “form” of prayer. If silence is a way of praying, then settling into silence is a way of preparing to pray. Whether we rely on a sacred prayer word, or a repetitive use of the name of Jesus, or a Bible verse, or a short prayer like the Jesus prayer — or whether by grace we are able to be present to silence merely by following the rhythm of our own breath — whatever “method” of silent prayer is really not that important. What is important is the silence itself. The silence is Christ’s yoke, Christ’s yoga. And while it may be tricky to lean to gently let go of the “whirlpool” of our mind’s thoughts and images and feelings, to rest in the silence itself is a light and gentle task. Truly, Christ’s yoke is easy.

Featured Photo by Dave Contreras on Unsplash

Have We Given Up on “Happily Ever After”?

First, an admission: I have a guilty pleasure in costume dramas, especially the kind that show up on PBS. From Downton Abbey to Lark Rise to Candleford to Victoria to the endless adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I love to let my feminine side come out to play whenever a show set in the past comes along.

Like many PBS fans, I’ve enjoyed the recent series Sanditon, based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen. And — apparently like many other fans — I was bitterly disappointed by the show’s decidedly tragic ending.

If you keep reading, there will be spoilers — and not only for Sanditon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A Soap Opera by the Sea

Sanditon tells the story of a farmer’s daughter, Charlotte, who visits the seaside village of Sanditon where an enterprising man named Tom Parker is hard at work transforming the town into a resort, hoping to lure the aristocracy and other posh Londoners to make Sanditon their favorite beach getaway. Naturally, we meet an assortment of characters, with a variety of storylines all revolving around either love and romance (this is Jane Austen, after all), or the financial and social challenges of creating a truly world-class resort.

The first episode pretty much exhausts Austen’s unfinished manuscript, so the remainder of the eight-episode series features the story as envisioned by writer Andrew Davies. This pairing of a nineteenth century literary master with a twenty-first century screenwriter makes for some interesting bedfellows — incest, human trafficking, and racism are among the topics explored with a frankness that seems more common to our age than to Austen’s (not that such things didn’t exist, mind you, but that they weren’t discussed in polite company).

Against this backdrop, several romantic relationships and possible-relationships get explored. Will Charlotte end up with the moody and mysterious Sidney Parker, or the humble yet kindhearted foreman, James Stringer? Will the Caribbean heiress Georgiana Lambe ever escape the clutches of her overprotective guardian to find happiness with her spendthrift beaux Otis? And what about poor Lord Babington, who keeps pursuing the narcissistic Lady Denham who only has eyes for her rakish stepbrother? And will Tom and Sidney’s jovial brother Arthur finally shake off his clinging hypochondriac sister and just come out of the closet, for heaven’s sake?

So that’s the setup. And pretty much for everyone involved, it ends badly.

Okay, Arthur made the pragmatic choice of staying an eternal bachelor, which was probably pretty realistic for the time. And Denham finally says yes to Babington after he assures her that he just wants the chance to make her happy — a case of a male savior complex if there ever was one, but that seems doomed to failure since there’s no indication that Denham would be anything but beastly once she got bored with him.

From there it just gets worse. Georgiana, stung into submission when it is revealed that Otis had a gambling addiction, is left at the end of the series bitter and lonely. As for Sidney, he enters into an unhappy engagement in order to raise money for his brother after a disastrous fire threatens to bankrupt Sanditon. And since that fire also claimed the life of Stringer’s abusive father, it left him nobly sacrificing an opportunity to better himself in London, just so he can rebuild what his father destroyed. As for Charlotte? After most of the series artfully played off her flirtatious friendship with Stringer against a tempestuous interaction with Sidney, she decides late in the game that Sidney is the one, but once he dashes her hopes because he’d rather marry for money than for love, she leaves town sobbing — after barely bothering to say goodbye to the self-martyring Stringer.

The whole thing is just a big fat downer.

The Question is, “Why?”

Now, I suppose one could argue that Davies was leaving everything open for a possible second season, which apparently won’t happen thanks the cruel calculus of low ratings. And I think some critics and viewers have appreciated the fact that it doesn’t end all neatly tied up in a bow — with, presumably, Charlotte left tied down in a marriage that will eventually grow stale. There’s a bit of gender-swapping here, in that it’s the boy, not the girl, who gets stuck in a loveless marriage (or should I say boys, if my prediction about Babington is correct). But I think if the author is just trying to be postmodern in how he tells his story, he’s done a poor job compared to other films or shows (Educating Rita leaps to mind as a great story that ends without a kiss, and that’s 40 years old).

But I think what’s really going on is that there is a trend that maybe started with the critically acclaimed 2016 musical La La Land: that it’s just not cool to believe in “happily ever after” any more. Such is the cynicism of our age.

If you haven’t seen La La Land, it’s the story of two aspiring young professionals in Los Angeles: Jazz pianist Sebastian and actress Mia, who meet, and fall in love against the beauty and romance of Los Angeles — and who fall out of love, just on the verge of their careers taking off. Mia eventually makes it as an A-list actress, and the movie ends with her and her husband sneaking into a Jazz nightclub to hear Sebastian perform. The ex-lovers’ eyes momentarily lock, but then she slips away.

At least La La Land suggests that if love won’t work out, you can always find your joy in your career (or, presumably for Mia, with your next romance). But that movie bugged me for the simple reason that if I’m going to suspend disbelief enough to groove with dozens of aspiring dancers shutting down a freeway to do their choreographed flash mob, then I know this is a fantasy — a mythic story rather than an attempt at verisimilitude. And myth does more than just entertain — it charts out our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And the myth of La La Land seems to be that two high-functioning creative types cannot sustainably love one another.

Stories are Myths — They Show Us Who We Are

We love our fairytales to end with “they lived happily after” not because we are all sexist or heteronormative or classist. We want happy endings because we all want to create happy lives for ourselves and our loved ones. Myths are not cages that lock us into a patriarchal prison; they are stages that help us to envision all that is possible and to make it real.

And movies like La La Land or television shows like Sanditon, with their carefully crafted endings that undermine, rather than aspire to, any message of “happily ever after,” seem to be saying that it’s no longer possible to have happy endings.

If happy endings are embedded in sexism or classism or homophobia, then sure, I think that needs to deconstructed. But dismantling how social privilege gets enforced through our myths and stories does not require us to abandon our aspiration for happiness, for joy, for love.

I think this also points to why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was so controversial among fans, even though the critics loved it. Fans rightly understood that this is mythic entertainment, not “great literature” (whatever that is). And watching two hours of the bad guys killing more and more of the good guys, while the main hero of the entire story arc is stuck having a self-pity tantrum, is not good myth (I don’t think it made for good cinema or literature, either).

Everyone knows that not every story ends happily (that’s why there’s such a thing as tragedy in literature). But tragedy still has a mythic function in that it offers us a sense of meaning in what might have been. La La Land is hardly a tragedy; it just chooses a poignant longing over  happiness, as it obeys our secular dogma that career matters more than relationships. As for Sanditon, it’s more nihilistic in its mythic messaging. It ends with a marriage that seems doomed and an engagement that most certainly is doomed, while all the various other characters represent an assortment of unhappy or unfulfilled souls. This isn’t tragedy, it’s a sneak peak into hell.

Call me old fashioned or naive, but I think our myths reveal our soul, and in today’s world, the most impactful myths come to us through television or the cinema. Whether it’s the endless conflict where every-fight-gets-bigger-than-the-last-one of superhero movies, the subtle (or not-so-subtle) put-down humor of shows like Friends or The Big Bang Theory, or the can’t-trust-anybody angst of shows like Riverdale or Star Trek: Discovery, it seems that too many of our cultural myths just keep getting darker and more chaotic.

To each his own. But this is why I like watching old movies and old TV shows — not to mention exploring the great myths of the ancient Celts or the mythic consciousness embodied in the teachings of the mystics.. I’ll take my myths — and my entertainment — with equal measures hope and meaning, thank you very much.

Featured photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.