The Need for an “Alphabet and Vocabulary of the Spirit”
I returned yesterday from helping lead a retreat at Kanuga, a wonderful space for reflection, rest, and growth. At this year’s Lansing Lee Conference, we delved deeply into conversations around civil discourse and justice, and we grounded ourselves in contemplative practices. Particularly with the Welcoming Practice, a body-oriented practice connected with Centering Prayer, we wondered ways in which we are pinched or stressed, ways in which we experience fear and resistance. When we encounter an “other,” a person, idea, or thought that challenges our perceptions or assumptions, how do we respond?
I offered to the group that, at the end of the day, the fear we may feel in such situations of discomfort is rooted in an over-fixation or over-dependency in what Thomas Keating calls our emotional programs for happiness: a preoccupation with security, affection, and power/control. When I am pinched and become fearful, I am invited to look inward and discern if my sense of power has been challenged—as a privileged white man to name it out loud.
The conversations we shared challenged me to consider how I am responsible for risking my own security, affection, and power for the sake of reconciliation and compassion. I was made freshly aware of how privileged I am to be the rector of Grace Episcopal Church, to be a white man, to have the education I have, etc. (I have a lot of etc. by the way, and it’s important to name that).
In my morning meditation, I shared with the group an important image, taken from Beverly Lanzetta’s work Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology. I highly recommend this book to you, for the way it encourages a deeper engagement with contemplative practice and compassionate embodiment. Lanzetta draws on the life of St. Teresa of Avila, a saint and mystic who challenged the institutional rigidity of her own time by remaining grounded in a contemplative posture, that is a deeper awareness of God’s presence in her life. As Lanzetta says,
Learning to see the world through the eyes of the mystical and becoming fluent in its language were essential to her maturity and empowerment. No less true for our times, we require education in the divine pedagogy and benefit from access to the alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit.
This image continues to challenge me in my vocation as a parish priest as I take seriously the reality of a peculiar spiritual illiteracy that plagues an institutional church far too focused on program maintenance than soul development.
While there at Kanuga, I wondered what it might be like to morph a planned “book club” into a space that fosters such an “access to the alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit.” How could I take advantage of my own privilege—to put it one way—to invite others into a deepening conversation? I continue to believe that what is called for now in the traditional parish church is a contemplative reformation, a widening and deepening of our individual and collective awareness of the presence of God in our lives. Such an awareness, “the eyes of the mystical,” for Teresa, reorients us and challenges us to live ever more fully into God’s dream for the world.
So, where do we start? To begin, I am inviting folks to our home on April 7 to share in such a Gathering. We need more than a book club. We need a type of intentional conversation—a school even. I think of the rich work done with the Center for Action and Contemplation and with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and I continue to imagine ways to translate this ethos, this experience, into a parish community.
When we gather in April 7, I will introduce us to a possible way to engage with the books we are reading. We forget that books are actually the expressions of men and women whose own lives are filled with seeking and wondering, wrestling and growth. We will be encouraged to name who are our conversation partners are. Which people have we pulled near us as we continue to study our texts and practice our faith? Are we aware of blind spots in our conversation partners? Do we notice a lack of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ+ persons? Do we have poets, artists, and musicians have conversation partners? I have learned that I must be very intentional about surrounding myself with a diversity of voices—some of which may actually contradict each other. Even the contradictions tell me something about the complex reality of life, and the paradoxes I encounter may break open long-confusing verses of Scripture. Who do we understand Jesus to be? What images do we have for God? How does the Spirit stir our heart and challenge us to “respect the dignity of every human being,” as our Baptismal Covenant says?
We need a Gathering, and I wonder what it would be like to share these conversation partners with each other? We will look at Richard Rohr’s new book Universal Christ, and I have no doubt that Rohr’s images will provoke a wonderful conversation; however, how much more rich would it be to lay Rohr’s images alongside Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited , Black Elk Speaks, and Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart? What insights may be broken up with these as conversation partners?
So, you are invited to share in this Gathering on April 7, at 5 pm at our home. You need only call the parish office to RSVP. They will give you the address then. We will see where we meet next, on May 19, as we keep wondering together.
I really hope to see you.
 Beverly Lanzetta, Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 27.