A Book Launch…and so Much More

My heart is full of gratitude.  It is just full.

Last weekend a small group traveled to the Wisdom Ways Center in St. Paul, MN, to celebrate the launch of the new book Contemplation and Community: A Gathering of Fresh Voices for a Living Tradition.

We stayed on the second floor of the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, of Carondelet, an incredible community whose history is full of compassion and prayer.  Together, we quickly grounded ourselves together on our floor, sitting around a table to share meals and stories.

Open table, open hearts…

While on paper we gathered to host a panel and lead a retreat, the ten of us truly gathered to be together, to open our hearts and learn from one another, to imagine the possibilities of spiritual community.  We laughed, we sat and shared silence, we wondered how the Spirit was guiding our hearts.  With so much pain in the world, together we caught glimpses of hope.

The amazing group… Back Row L to R me, Bo Karen Lee, Mark Kutolowski, Phileena Heuertz. Middle Row Brenda Bertrand, Tom Bushlack, Leonard McMahon, Jessie Smith, Mark Longhurst. Front Row Barbara Lund, adwoa Lewis-Wilson (Photo by Wisdom Ways Center)

I have never really been a part of a retreat experience like this, where each one of us had the opportunity to share from our hearts.  It was like wonderful jazz, with each one of us weaving our own creativity, authenticity, joy, and perspective into a larger piece of music that the Spirit was writing before our eyes.  When it came time for me to write down a word, a symbol of my intention in that space, HOPE flowed from my heart to my page.

I sat and received wisdom and compassion from my brothers and sisters from around the US: seminary professors, military chaplains, friends creating homestead spaces for living in nature, friends holding presence in hospital administration, compassionate activists, oblate in monastic orders, graduate students, pastors, friends working for denominational boards in DC.  So many gifts.  The Spirit is never exhausted!

We each shared how we are seeking to ground ourselves, our lives and our vocations, in this deeper awareness of God’s indwelling presence.

Look for hope…always look for hope.

On Friday, we had the gift–the privilege–of traveling with Jim Bear and Bob Akhisa (Klanderud), as they opened their hearts to share the story of the Dakota People.  On our three stops together, my heart was opened more and more to truth–and how easy it is for me as a white man to fail to notice the truth in front of my eyes.

Site of Creation…and later site of forced internment for the Dakota People.
Listening deeply to the stories. (Photo by Phileena)


We heard the deep story of creation, about the first footprints pressed into the soil.  At the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, this sacred space is where the Dakota People imagine Creation taking root.  We learned about the compassion of the Creator–and the potential for violence by those who came steeped in greed and power who failed to see the humanity in the face before them.  As I stopped to place my fist full of tobacco next to this small tree, where so many had died in an internment camp, I wanted to catch the light slipping around the shadows.

Book launch group photo under tree
The start of a day’s journey (photo by Phileena Heuertz)
Jim Bear and Bob Akhisa Grandmother trees
Jim Bear and Bob Akhisa, our Mohican and Dakota guides and teachers.  Such gratitude… (Photo by Phileena Heuertz)

Here, Jim Bear and Bob introduce us to the four grandmother trees that were transplanted here as cuttings after the original grandmother trees were cut down to make way for a highway development.  I couldn’t help but wonder how much it would have cost to put a curve in the road and a place for folks to park and walk to the original grandmother trees.  To learn from them.  To make space for them.

But here the cuttings now grow, over a decade old.  Their branches will soon interweave with one another, creating a canopy under which people already come to place offerings, signs and tokens of their prayers and intentions.

One of the trees was smaller than the other, and Jim Bear told us not to worry.  He and Bob have cared for her for a decade.  While she is smaller, she is the first to bud in Spring and the first to send out acorns in the Fall.  She’s small, but she’s fierce.  (She was my favorite).

Jim Bear and Bob Akhisa
Jim Bear and Bob, sharing the story of Pilot Knob Hill, a sacred burial site (Photo by Phileena Heuertz)

Our last stop was the most painful for me.  We traveled to Pilot Knob Hill, Oheyawahe ‘the hill much visited’ and a sacred burial ground for the Dakota People. On the ground is a medicine wheel, made of black, red, yellow, and white rock.  Jim Bear and Bob told the story of how this sacred place of sky burial was almost lost entirely to a condominium development.  See, on the other side of the fifteen foot-wide road, there lies a large and immaculately kept cemetery for others.  No one would dare consider leveling that side to build million-dollar condos, but on this side of Pilot Knob Hill… My heart broke.

As we stood there in the breeze and sun, they shared how developers removed some thirty feet of soil as filler for highway projects, unearthing the bones of countless ancestors in the process.  The bones were pitched into a wooden shack while the digging and bulldozing continued until community partners had the courage to stop it. Now it is protected and is being restored to the beautiful prairie it truly is.  But the memory…

My heart broke, and the Spirit swirled in with a deeper realization of what they taught us: Mitakuye Oyasin.  We are all related.


Toasting life and friends, with Barbara Lund, Dir. of Wisdom Ways Center

This is barely a glimpse of what we encountered.  And, it is only a glimpse from my eyes and heart.  The beautiful thing is, each and every one of my friends can share from their own as well–indeed that is the point: that we are being called to share from our hearts so that, together, we can co-create and nurture a more beautiful community of the Spirit.

On paper, we came to launch a book and share conversation, but in reality something much more profound was launched–an even deeper resolve to live from a contemplative grounding.


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