Elements of a Contemplative Reformation: Fall Workshop Notes

Contemplative Reformation Fall Workshops


Saturday, September 15: 9 am to 2 pm.  To begin, we will focus on the importance of contemplative practices, grounding ourselves in silence and an openness to the Spirit’s presence within our spiritual hearts.  It is essential that we delve more deeply into the contemplative tradition within Christianity as we recognize the pressures we face in the world today.  By anchoring ourselves in dedicated times of silence, resting in God’s presence, we encounter what Tilden Edwards and others describe as a “spaciousness” in which we encounter our true selves, beyond our ego-grasping mind.  Tilden himself will join us via video conference to share conversations and reflections on the importance of silence and contemplative practice.

[The following are my notes from the first workshop.  References to The Cloud of Unknowing and John Cassian’s Conferences are from my library editions.  I have tried to include chapters, etc. for easy reference.  I will also insert the videos to make them easy to reference.]

Session One:

Where did this idea come from?

What is our hope or goal in this series of workshops, all orbiting around this theme of “Elements of a Contemplative Reformation?”

– The New Contemplatives Exchange gathering at St. Benedict’s Monastery, in Snowmass, CO, August 2017.
– Fr. Thomas Keating had an idea to invite twenty younger contemplative scholars and practitioners from around the world, through the networks of
o Contemplative Outreach- his work,
o The Center for Action and Contemplation-with Fr. Richard Rohr
o The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation- with Tilden Edwards and Margaret Benefiel
o The World Community for Christian Meditation, with Fr. Laurence Freeman, the WCCM has centers in 100 countries around the world.
– We met over five days there in Snowmass, collaborating from these four networks, as well as other connections, from six countries. Priests, pastors, professors, activists, organizers, community developers.

– We asked ourselves focused questions around “what comes next” or “what is the Spirit inviting us to explore?” The elders or founders recognized that they each had grown in these four communities, over the past forty years, and we now reflected on what fruit was being borne.

– We asked ourselves what we thought the role or importance of contemplative practice was for each of our contexts—and for the future of the broader Church (understood both in terms of the traditional institutional church and new embodiments and expressions of Christian community and development).

– Video from Snowmass from the website for the World Community for Christian Meditation, http://www.wccm.org. [We will only watch around the first 8 minutes or so of this…to get an introduction.]


– There were three key focus points that we identified over our time together that continue to foster dialogue and cooperation. Both in upcoming conferences and with a forthcoming book from Crossroad Publishing that is exploring twelve of our particular contexts and the questions we are asking/exploring around contemplative studies and practice.

– These three focus points are very important for us to identify:

1. The phenomenology of contemplative experience.

o What are our experiences? How do our experiences inform us? How are we recognizing our over-dependence on rational foundations, mental constructs, systematic frameworks (success/accomplishment models).
o How are we conscious of our experiences of transformation?
o How are we delving into this contemplative posture given the social pressures we face, the injustices, both personal/interpersonal/ and ecological?
o How can we articulate this? How do we need to focus more on the development of language and images within communities?

2. The formation of a network that supports and encourages this contemplative lineage and tradition. As Fr. Thomas said, much of his initial thought or inspiration was that this is the age of partnerships, working to connect these different contexts.
For example: some colleagues are in the academy, others are in the monastery, and I am in the parish. So, I ask questions such as, “how can I take what they are exploring and translate it into the particular pressures and context of my resource-sized parish?” In a particular example: “How can I take the richness of this contemplative lineage and embody it in a Bicentennial Capital Campaign here at Grace?”

3. A greater awareness of the role or dynamic of immersion and infusion. These two elements are key for understanding the formational experience of contemplative studies.
– Infusion: those focused, deep, concentrated events, gatherings, experiences that are, in a profound way, moments of direct transmission of the lineage or tradition. Think of a retreat type space. Even this could be a great example of an infusion moment.
– Immersion: these are the longer-term formative experiences or spaces that seek to promote the development of consciousness. I think here of the role of parish communities and the responsibility we have for inculcating this groundedness of our practice of prayer. I also think of seminaries and the important role they have. I also think of families! This might surprise you—perhaps not. Families are essential—in whatever configuration—to step into these immersion spaces for formational development.

In this vein, here lies the hope of this particular series of workshops:

– All centered on this theme or focus of “Elements of a Contemplative Reformation.” Recognizing the particular pressures of Christian parishes and communities and wondering if we aren’t being invited into a time of focused, deep, reflective work around contemplative practice.
– Moving from a success/accomplishment/program-maintenance model to one that is explicitly grounded in practices of prayer, silence, and collaboration and trust in the Spirit’s movement.

A central, grounding image from Tilden’s book Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: (pg. 6)

Within us there is the capacity for touching reality more directly than the thinking mind. It is activated when we’re willing to let go of the thoughts that come through our mind and to sit in the spacious openness that appears between and behind them.

So, we recognize this capacity for a greater awareness…
We recognize the essential nature of this spaciousness….
We recognize the call/invitation/challenge we have in “letting go” and “sitting” in this experience of spaciousness.

These are all crucial aspects to note in our experience, in our lives.
So, herein lies the hope of this three-fold series of workshops:

Practice: looking deeply at the importance of developing a practice of contemplative prayer. What Tilden will reflect on in a few minutes, in terms of the movement and integration of our rational cognitive minds and our spiritual heart.

Posture: looking deeply at how our practice of prayer affects/transforms our posture—how this stance provides us a prayerful nimbleness to respond (not react) to the pressures we face in our particular contexts. We ask questions such as “why do so many people who are fighting against social injustices burn out?”

Promise: how this contemplative posture grounds our hearts…nurtures us…and infuses us with a sense of hope. The Peace that passes all understanding. How are we able to live into our Baptismal call? As we say in The Episcopal Church, grounded in the Scriptures, “to grow into the full stature of Christ.” There again, this image of stature and posture…and growth.
I think this arc, or this trajectory, holds enormous potential for us as we recognize the particular pressures and anxieties in the world around us—within our lives.
So today, we are going to begin by looking deeply at Contemplative Practice. We’ll start here.

We do this by first recognizing the truth of the liturgical axiom: Lex Orandi Lex Credendi: “The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief” or put more familiarly, “the way we pray shapes the way we believe and live in the world”. Our prayers, our practice, shapes us…transforms us… This Benedictine notion of conversion of life.

We recognize the patterns we have in life, the habits we have.
We recognize the loops we get caught in…the fixation we have on our thoughts, and our obsession or over-reliance on what Fr. Thomas calls our “programs for emotional happiness:”

– Safety and security
– Affection and esteem
– Power and control

We recognize that we get stuck—in our personal lives, in our families, in systems, churches, culture.

Having a disciplined practice of contemplative prayer orients our heats toward a deeper attunement with God’s indwelling presence in our lives. And, out of that attunement, we live and embody God’s grace, the compassion of Christ, in the Holy Spirit.

We will come back in Session Two to this theme, but it is important to note the crucial elements of dispossession and simplicity that are hallmarks of a contemplative practice. We will look at this more.

We may ask if there are essential qualities of contemplative practice.

To that end, I think Louis Komjathy’s new book Introducing Contemplative Studies is very helpful.
In this work, he outlines what he sees as the essential characteristics of contemplative practice:
– Attentiveness
– Awareness
– Interiority
– Presence
– Silence
– Transformation
– A deepened sense of meaning and purpose.
He also notes key characteristics such as:
– Compassion
– Wisdom
• He argues that “Rather than understand this solely in terms of specific techniques or disciplines, we may recognize that it primarily involves a particular orientation, process, and mode.” (Komjathy, 55). See the way he outlines the posture or stance of Contemplative Studies.
And, he also says, in a way that I think is powerful: “While accepting this general viewpoint, I believe that formal meditation practice is an essential and informing commitment in Contemplative Studies.”

So, practice is essential for us to explore.
So, let’s focus in here, if we can, and dig in bit deeper into our own experiences: again, looking at this crucial focus point of “the phenomenology of contemplative experience” we explored at Snowmass. Bringing it back into our lives, into our embodied experience.

A bit of table conversation:

With this question:

At this moment in your life, what is the particular contemplative practice that nurtures your soul?

Or, put another way, share what is meaningful—and challenging—about your commitment to having a daily contemplative practice.

Journal or write for 5 minutes, then share together for 10.
I have put you in groups of four to make conversation go more easily.

Group discussion:
What insights did you gain from your group?
Afternoon Session 2

This afternoon, I want to dig more deeply into one particular practice that has been deeply formative—and challenging to me.

My prior understanding or image of a specific contemplative practice really orbited around Centering Prayer.
Many people are familiar with this particular practice, coming from the collaboration of Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Meninger, with the development of Contemplative Outreach.

My heart has really resonated with Christian Meditation, as taught in the tradition carried forth by John Main and now Laurence Freeman.
I’m not telling you to switch—please hear me! If you are nurtured by Centering Prayer, keep on. Please. Perhaps by learning a bit more about the practice of Christian Meditation, it will make your own practice even richer. And, it’s important to know about the richness of this practice, as we dig even deeper into the importance of cultivating a practice.

Fascinating story of the origin of these two practices:
[brief account: ] Mid 1970s on…

Laurence Freeman has become a very important teacher and guide for me, as have colleagues from around the world with the World Community for Christian Meditation.
We are working now on an international conference next Fall that will explore the dynamics of Christian meditation and Christian community…

Here is Fr. Laurence reflecting on one of the key aspects of Christian meditation practice: attention. Here, he really lays out key points in the practice of meditation. One important point: “You love what you pay attention to.” Notice this as you watch the video reflection.

[Play Laurence Freeman Attention video]


So, what is Christian meditation, and why is it important?

It is good to start with John Cassian, born c. 365 died c. 435.
A monk and founder of a community for monks and nuns.
He himself studied in Egypt at the feet of the great early monastics in the Christian tradition. These Egyptian monastics were very crucial for his development.

Cassian understood that we need a method or practice to ground ourselves and further nurture our development.

He wrote The Conferences which are of the utmost importance for understanding the development of Christian spirituality.

Pg. 131.

Recognition of our tendency as Christians to wander…to become distracted (as Fr. Laurence described).

And in this exchange of dialogues in the Conferences, Cassian lays out this formula, which is foundational for our understanding.

Pg. 132.

“Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue.”

So, Cassian advises his monks and nuns to practice a mantra, a repetitive phrase.
This teaching has been vitally important for the development of Christian practice in the Eastern Orthodox Church, with “The Jesus Prayer:” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. In some variety of this form.

Some people shortening it down to “Jesus. Mercy.” We hear…
And, some just “Jesus.”

We see in The Cloud of Unknowing as well the advice to use a “device” as the author calls it. A technique. This particular work, written anonymously in England in the latter half of the 14th century. Some believe by a Carthusian, a particularly austere order.

Recognizing again the tendency humans have for distraction. This is a recurring theme: we of course know the hymn “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
“Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.”

Starting with our human condition and offering a practice by which we can be opened to this space of transformation.

I love what Simon Tugwell writes in the introduction: that the Christian contemplative tradition teaches the importance of “a certain mental clarity and seriousness” that is “required if we are to situate the mystery correctly and not swoon prematurely and inadvisedly into an O Altitudo.” (Introduction, xiv). (a height of spiritual exhaltation).

In the Cloud, our practice teaches us that we do not arrive at an awareness of God through our own faculties.
“The author of The Cloud believes that the possibility of our contemplative union with God resides, not in our faculties, but in the mysterious and elusive depth of our own souls, which even we ourselves cannot comprehend.” (Introduction, xix).

So, the author of The Cloud also offers this “device” or practice for us to anchor ourselves…so that our hearts may be opened to this deeper awareness of God’s presence—of our union with God.

Again, it goes back to what Laurence mentioned around attention:
This image of “you love what you pay attention to.”

From The Cloud:
Pg. 129—Chapter 5

And our practice is our attention, a device through which our attention is honed.

Pg. 133—Chapter 7

This “exercise” he describes… and the images he uses of wrapping up our intent.
Simplicity—does not mean easy.

Pg. 195—Chapter 39
Again this single, simple word envelopes our desire, our attention.

Now, what I think John Main did that was brilliant was to take this ancient contemplative lineage, this practice-orientation that nurtures the opening of our hearts to a deeper awareness of our unity with God… Take this and bring it into our contemporary world and emphasize the need for a community.

With this core question for us to consider:
What is our practice of Christian Meditation actually doing?

This Benedictine ethos of community is essential: how we can experience union with one another and, thusly, understand even more our union with God.

John Main recommended, and Laurence still does, for those who do not have a mantra, a prayer word, to use maranatha.
Aramaic for “Come, Lord.” Again, grounding us in our desire, our attention.

Four steady syllables, which align themselves beautifully with our breath. Ma-Ra-Na-Tha. But, another may rise up in you, as it did in me.

Main described this degree and importance of attention:

Word into Silence, 14

The image of a harmonic is a powerful one for us to consider.
The vibration—whether audible or held in our hearts—that echoes…resonates…

The images he offers are powerful:
– Harmonic
– Resonate
– Radar
– Wholeness
– Rearranges….this is very interesting…

How does our practice rearrange us? What does this bring up for us?

And, to return to a question we engaged at Snowmass, can we claim that a contemplative practice is essential for the broader Church, given the pressures we face?

Main speaks to this boldly: calling us to recognize the call of Christ upon our lives:

WOS 30

Recognize our distraction and our fixation on superficial, on the success/accomplishment mentality, again on Fr. Thomas’s image of our emotional programs for happiness:
– Safety and security
– Affection and esteem
– Power and control

And, how we are bombarded by distraction…

Main’s words hit home:

Way of Unknowing, 6
So, perhaps we can soak this up a bit and reflect on this question:
This image of a harmonic and what is being rearranged in you through your contemplative practice? What have you experienced as being rearranged in your life through your contemplative practice?
We will just have silent reflection on this one, with the hope that these notes that you make lead you to further reflect on this…looking toward next month’s time together as we look at how our practice informs and shapes our posture.

So, let’s sit and soak for five minutes…and then we’ll see what questions we have before we break until next month.



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