Elements of a Contemplative Reformation, Essay #3: “Listening for Withness: Engaging Silence in a Multi-ethnic and Multi-racial Reality”

Elements of a Contemplative Reformation

Essay #3: “Listening for Withness: Engaging Silence

in a Multi-ethnic and Multi-racial Reality”


Stuart Higginbotham


Some two weeks ago, 40 wonderful people gathered at St. Mary’s Retreat and Conference Center in Sewanee, Tennessee for a time of deep reflection.  Over three days, we shared silence and conversation as we explored the intersection of contemplative practice and compassionate action.  While at the New Contemplatives Exchange in Snowmass last August, this was a particular focus point that resonated with me and others.  When I returned, I started making calls to dear friends to wonder what the Spirit might be inviting us to explore here.  The Spirit swirled with a planning group of colleagues who imagined the Sewanee Contemplative Exchange.

With a short timeframe in Sewanee, it was necessary to have a lens or framework through which we could peer more closely at this vital juncture of silence and embodiment, of prayer and justice.  Lerita Coleman Brown elegantly led us in a meaningful day of listening and wondering on the images and writings of Howard Thurman.  It was powerful to hear Thurman’s own voice in recordings as our hearts opened wider.

Following on the Monday space with Thurman’s writings, we ventured on Tuesday on a pilgrimage to the historic site of the Highlander Folk School, some thirty minutes down the road in Monteagle.  One lone building stands there: the library.  In this room, conversations that shaped the Civil Rights Movement took root and blossomed.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Septima Clark, John Lewis, Pete Seeger, and others came together, inspired by Myles Horton’s vision to pray, listen, wonder, converse, and muster.  We soaked up that space, I took a chair out and sat by a tree to look.  To pay attention.

Image may contain: tree, house, sky, grass, plant, outdoor and nature

On Tuesday evening, we gathered back at St. Mary’s and spoke from the heart with warm lamps giving just enough light to make out each other’s faces.  We spoke of hurt, of stifling stories, confusion, and frustrations.  We shared hopes and dreams, wonders and ideas.  We named things that needed claimed, and we offered things that we needed to yield so that the Spirit had more room to move in our lives.  It was a holy space for me, as I sat next to dear friends and new colleagues, paying attention to how the Spirit was at work.


I recently looked up a definition of “contemplation” on the internet, and I read this: “the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time.”[1]  I wonder if this is the image that rises in your mind when you think of this word.  What image do you see when you first “think” of contemplative prayer?

One of the topics of our conversation at the Sewanee Contemplative Exchange was the complex nature of what we mean by silence.  This is a vital conversation for us in the church—and world today—as we continue to lean into this call that we hear from the Spirit of Christ to share in this contemplative reformation, this needed expansion of consciousness in a world full of constriction and fear.

What do we mean by silence when we explore contemplative practice?  How do we understand the role or purpose or experience of silence given, on one hand, the multi-ethnic and racial richness of our world and, on the other hand, the enormous challenges we face in a political climate saturated with fear and anxiety.  Given the crucial dynamic of silence within contemplative practice, it is important to spend time reflecting more deeply.  We must be careful of assumptions.

I remember a recent conversation with a planning team in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.  A small group was gathered to focus our attention on the spiritual foundations of the incredibly rich and developing work of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing.  The director of the center shared her experience of pressure, frustration, and burnout given the constant attention needed in our current climate.  With news of threats, death, oppression, and racial strain, those who are speaking hope into that pain become worn thin.  She shared with us the hope that we can more intently ground the racial reconciliation work in an ethos of spiritual practice and prayer—dare I say in a contemplative posture.

As our conversations progressed through the morning, many of us kept returning to the need for silence, for a space of deep listening that might strengthen our awareness of God’s presence in all life so that our compassionate embodiment might be nourished by the Spirit of Christ given the impossibility of any human carrying this weight on her own.  After a while, one of the working group, a remarkable African-American female priest, shared how she wrestles with silence and what she perceived as a myopic focus within contemplative conversations.

She shared with us that, in the African-American community (recognizing that this is not monolithic but rather lends itself to a helpful conversation) there is much more focus on movement, dance, and charismatic acts of prayer such as speaking in tongues.  Simply sitting in silence does not speak to the heart within a culture rooted in and drawn to dance and movement.  I knew at that moment we had hit on something very important within the broader conversations with contemplative studies and practice.

How do we understand the purpose of silence within our multi-ethnic and multi-racial world?  What do we mean by silence?

Perhaps it is helpful to lay out the possible tension as follows: one must be very careful in an invitation for others to “be silent” that we recognize the way many minority communities have “been silenced.”  For me, these two recent experiences have made this tension quite clear.  At Sewanee, we spoke from our hearts about the complexities we face, and we yearned for a way to appreciate the diversity of contemplative practices, the many ways in which the Spirit of Christ manifests Herself in the desire for a greater consciousness of our union with God.  At Absalom Jones, the conversation was even more focused as we recognized the importance of being aware of cultural assumptions.

When we speak of silence, it is important to note that we are not speaking merely of the absence of noise.  Nor are we speaking only of one particular and culturally-informed posture of sitting still with legs crossed, arms gently in the lap, and eyes closed.  We cannot restrict our understanding of silence only to these superficial expressions, because what we are speaking of is far more transformative and even revolutionary in our modern culture.

For a while now, I have used a resource from The Contemplative Mind in Society called the Tree of Contemplative Practices.[2]  This helpful resource presents a picture of diverse manifestations of contemplative practices, all of which are grounded in the core dynamics of communion and connection on one hand and awareness on the other.  These two foci are essential in understanding what we mean by contemplative practices: how are we more aware of our communion and connection with God, the Source of our life, and all of humanity and creation?

Bruno Barnhart reflects on our call to a deeper awareness of our union in the foundational book The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity.  This “unitive reality,” as he describes, is a growing awareness within us that finds its root in the New Testament encounter itself and proceeds through the truth of Baptismal identity, the koinonia or communion between the disciples, our own engagement in the texts, and our Eucharistic participation in the “actualization of the new koinonia.”[3]  Hence, we see this deeper truth of awareness and communion presented visually in the Tree of Contemplative Practices.  Silent meditation is found there, as are embodied practices of prayer.

Given this framework of awareness and communion that is essential in understanding what we mean by contemplative practice, perhaps the purpose or role of silence becomes clearer.  Rather than being merely the absence of noise or one cultural expression, silence is a posture of attunement that aligns us with this greater awareness of our union with God—and thusly involves a turning away from our egoic tendencies and fixation on the persistent illusion of separateness that leads to objectification and commodification.

In contemplative practice, we are invited to become more present to the deeper, truer nature of reality.  As Richard Rohr describes

To become more present, we must reach into a deep spaciousness; then we can speak with more intelligence and clarity, with a little less ego, and with less of our agenda in the way.  I hope we can say ego is not bad.  It is necessary.  The only problem is that our culture teaches that ego is the only game in town.  We take it a little too seriously and take the private ego as if it is full reality.  The nature of the ego is that it tries to fix, name, control, and insure everything for itself.  We want predictability.  But that fixes us in the past.  What was, is, so we are trapped in repeating it and nothing new happens.[4]

         Put another way, a posture of silence is a posture of release and consent, not to the forces of oppression and objectification that plague our world but to our own over-reliance on our egoic fixation.  It is a posture in which we can become more aware of our own union with God—and thusly our union with one another—so that we experience a heart-transformation that opens us up to the Spirit’s dreams for our lives and the world.  In the preceding essay in this series on the Elements of a Contemplative Reformation, “A Tale of Two Postures: Grasping and Self-Emptying,” I laid out imagery around the dynamics of greed and grasping that I think are at the heart of this tension within us.[5]  When we silence those egoic tendencies, our heart is transformed and we live more authentically, grounded in God’s desire for us.  John Main’s image is both beautiful and helpful:

A marvelous thing then happens.  With this growing sense of wonder at God’s power within us there comes an ever-deepening awareness of the harmony, the creative wholeness that we possess, and we begin to feel that we know ourselves for the first time.  But the truly transcendent nature of this discovery is that we do not begin to appreciate our own personal harmony alone, but we begin to experience it as a new capacity for true empathy, a capacity to be at peace with others, and indeed at peace with the whole of creation.[6]

In this way, silence remains at the heart of what it means to practice contemplative prayer, yet we learn that silence entails far more than merely keeping quiet within any one cultural framework.  Contemplative practice calls for a fully embodied trust in the Spirit’s guidance and a recognition of our own propensity for egoic grasping.  To return to the previous definition of “contemplation,” we begin to “look thoughtfully” at our own tendencies for grasping, but more importantly past that: to the deeper desire of God’s own heart that we come to a greater awareness of our union.  We come to rest more fully in this heart space as we listen for the “withness” of existence: how we are one with God and one another.  Silence remains essential, and (not yet or but) the prepositions affixed to silence become vitally important.  We are invited to ask ourselves “what am I called to be silent of, or with, or from?”  In this space, we realize we each have much spiritual work to do.  What are you called to be silent from?  What egoic tendencies are you invited to silence?

In my own life and practice, I resonate deeply with the particular school or lineage where Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation hold hands and dance.  The contributions of Contemplative Outreach and the World Community for Christian Meditation have been profound.  I have found this particular practice of silent meditation challenging, because I recognize my own particular tendency toward productivity and success, hallmarks of my own identity of being a white man in today’s world.  Given the assumptions within our broader Western culture, I do believe that a practice of silent meditation–a contemplative practice that invites a rootedness in the spaciousness beyond our tendency to categorize and our over-reliance on out thinking mind–is extraordinarily powerful and challenging.  Here, contemplative prayer is most definitely not a “spa day” or mere relaxation; rather, it is a cultivation and discipline that prepares the soil of our soul so that the fruits of the Spirit of Christ can grow.

As I become more aware of my own life’s circumstances, both my shortcomings and my privilege, a practice of silent meditation challenges me to consent to the Spirit’s movement.  My own desires for control and power are laid bare, and I am invited to rest in the grace of God that helps me see the persistent echo in our world that we are separate from one another and that we live in a zero-sum world.  My soul’s desire opens up in curiosity like a child waiting to hear another story from a grandfather.  I experience a nimbleness, a willingness to be moved rather than an urge to move something or someone.

In these moments, I think of our daughter sitting with my grandfather on the porch swing, rocking and sharing laughter and being loved.

Daddar and Evelyn on swing

Looking back on her life—and mine—those moments of awareness of how I was loved shaped my desire to share such a love with others.  She knew in her bones that she was loved, and she knew that her great-grandfather loved each and every child, grandchild, and great-grandchild he had.  All were loved, and all were invited to love one another.

This Divine Love is well worth looking thoughtfully at for a long time, and it is well worth sharing as well!


[1] Yahoo search engine.

[2] http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree

[3] Bruno Barnhart, The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity (Rhinebeck, New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2018), 79.

[4] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014), 63.

[5] https://contemplativereformation.wordpress.com/2017/12/11/a-contemplative-reformation-essay-2-a-tale-of-two-postures-greed-and-self-emptying/

[6] John Main, Word into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 12.

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