Quiet Day, Anyone?

Recently I led a Quiet Day at a local retreat center on Howard Thurman who was mentor and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  What is a Quiet Day you might ask?  I describe it as a weekend silent retreat packed into a single day.  It provides each person in attendance an opportunity to disconnect from the world for a few hours, power down the electronic devices and get off the grid.  A Quiet Day allows for calming the inner chatter and just basking in the stillness that lies below it in our minds.  Actually I’ve noticed that most environments especially natural settings possess quiet, stillness, and serenity until we introduce noise into them.  A certain joy always emanates from the peace nestling in such places.

In preparation for the Quiet Day, I learned some new things about Howard Thurman and what brought peace and joy to his heart.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Thurman was an extraordinary mystic, theologian and preacher and his life and writings offer a number of suggestions about how to live in a world of turmoil yet keep a certain awe, peace and hope in one’s heart. I want to share a few examples from his life here.

Howard Thurman found great peace outside in nature.  He grew up in Daytona Beach so as a young boy he often heard the rush of the ocean, the tides washing against the rocks as well as the sea gulls adding a song each morning. There was something calming in the sound of the sea and he felt a certain serenity as he gazed at and rowed across the Halifax River near his childhood home.

Thurman also spoke of a favorite oak tree.  He gained great wisdom from just observing the tree.  He noticed that when big wind and rain storms came off the ocean, the tree limbs and branches would swing and sway in the storm, but the tree never toppled over.  There was something about having a strong foundation and deep roots that kept it upright even though tossed and turned in a storm.  Thurman knew the tree represented something about his center, a sense he possessed that as external events might appear chaotic, he could remain rooted and not be subject to the whims of life.  Thurman also talked to the oak tree.  He felt like the tree somehow listened deeply and carried some of his burdens for him.  Sometimes he felt if he sat below the tree in quiet, he heard an answer to some burning question or issue he lay before it.

Thurman’s experiences remind me of my own many years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA as a college student.  I moved into a duplex my senior year that was located not far from the ocean.  I too, could hear the ocean at night and there was a definite calmness that was brought on by listening to the ocean.  In addition, I found a special large rock that I sat on and gazed out into the sea.  I would go there and share my joys, sorrows and even ask some questions of the vast ocean.  It’s the one thing I missed most after I graduated and left California.

Thurman was a lover of silence and stillness.  He observed that we need to stop the traffic in our minds sometimes just so we can get a grip on what is going in our lives, to better understand the people that we are, and determine what we want.  He advocated silence for everyone but especially for those who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.  He felt that each one of us needs a sanctuary, a place to go where we could garner peace as well as inner strength.  For Thurman taking some time for silence was the human equivalent of refueling ourselves.  Thurman and Gandhi both (they met in 1936) felt that the vitality needed to change one’s circumstances whether they be personal or on a larger social scale came from feeding one’s spirit just like we drink and eat to feed our bodies.  That nurturing of spirit comes through stopping and being quiet as often as we can.  Some people might label this kind of lifestyle “contemplative living,” or a life of living in the present (practicing mindfulness ) and in the Presence.

Is there some aspect of nature that calms you?  Perhaps it is the sound of running water or the birds singing or the tapping of a woodpecker.  Maybe the wind gushing through the singing pine trees, or watching snowflakes gently kiss the ground gives you a sense of inner peace.  How has nature befriended or nurtured you?  Do you have a special tree, rock, lake, stream, park, garden, or place you can go to take your cares to?  Could playing calm music while you complete daily chores like getting ready for school, cooking or cleaning or driving to work create a more serene atmosphere?

I am certain Howard Thurman would be delighted to know that a Quiet Day was held to listen to a few of his meditations, walk around in nature and have contact with the stillness in our minds.  In fact, I am certain if he were still alive, the mere idea of a Quiet Day would make his heart sing.  Perhaps in the midst of the political turmoil dancing all around or during the doldrums of February, the deep days of winter, you might create a “quiet day” in your own home, allowing the songs of the birds to be your music, a crackling fire to provide you with beauty and healthy snacks to nourish your body.  I suspect like Howard Thurman, a day of quiet will kindle some deep peace and joy in your heart.

HT-Meditations of the Heart

“…And a Happy New Year”

The “And a Happy New Year” tune reverberates in my mind almost like an ear worm.   “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”  Time passes quickly. During the month of January, it always seems like New Year’s Eve and Day were just yesterday when in fact they were a few weeks ago.  I remember sitting on the couch staring at the television bleary-eyed from watching nearly nine hours of college football.  Exuberant but clearly exhausted, I willed myself to stay awake until the perennial ball (or peach in Atlanta) drop.  I’m never certain why I engage in this ritual.  I’m either hypnotized or a victim of too many years of conditioning so I feel compelled to toast even with a non-alcoholic beverage and kiss someone at midnight.

Yet the ebullience of starting a new year, the excitement emerging from the awareness that I can erase the board and begin again slowly dissipates.  Typically, as I return to work or my daily routine, and later in January or as the February doldrums approach I notice that the thrill is gone.  I ask myself how I can make the merriment and excitement of my New Year’s celebration continue after the holidays; after recovering from staying up so late and eating too much artichoke dip, mini-quiches or from large holiday spreads filled with turkey, lobster mac and cheese, or lemon layered cake?  I want to keep the exhilaration of the new year yet I cannot make being happy a New Year’s resolution although I have tried to in the past.  Since I love making lists, I decided to create one to kickstart a year in which I maintain the peace and joy.  I want to share a few items that involve a little letting go and a little adding to.

1)  Letting go of my time urgency perfectionism would certainly alleviate nearly all of the anxiety that builds each time I run out of the house for an appointment or as a project deadline approaches.  Releasing the tendency to watch the clock would lessen my impatience with stop lights, slower drivers, and anyone who appears to obstruct my frantic path.  Likewise relinquishing my proclivity toward self-judgment might rid me of some of the shame I pile onto my heart anytime I make a mistake.  Mistakes are gifts serving as guideposts to where I want to be.  Now I understand that real perfection is more about wholeness–embracing shrubs with their dead leaves, cherishing well worn dishes, and ignoring a spot or two on the rugs.  The shift truly involves a change in my perceptions,  a re-focusing of my attention.

2)  The next thing to pop in my mind was the question, “What made me happy as a child?”  I loved to lay on the couch and read a good book with a green apple in hand.  In my childhood home the brown fabric couch in the living room sat between two mahogany brown end tables each with a standard gold lamp crowned with an off white lamp shade.  The couch with its worn out cushions wasn’t particularly comfortable but it sufficed.  Now I recline on a lovely forest green chaise lounge that sits next to a large cathedral window allowing the sun to shine on my face.  Great fiction and non-fiction allows me to escape into other worlds and munching on a green apple during pounding rain, singing winds or lightly falling snow affords me an opportunity to exhale and just be.

I also remember the adage, “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  I don’t want to discount the health benefits of eating apples.  I am certain there are many.  However, I wonder if the sheer joy of doing something that made my heart sing kept the dis-ease at bay.  I suspect the obvious connections between joy and harmony, wholeness and health remain exiled to a back corner of my mind.  But a good book and a green apple are still my antidote to illness and I plan to make reading a welcomed habit throughout the year.

3)  I also love to sit outside in the wind no matter what season.  For me, nature is calming to my spirit; restorative, and offers a gentle serenity.  Warm summer breezes, or a crisp, frosty but not biting cold wind is what I yearn for.  Next time I notice the branches swaying, I’m grabbing a coat and heading out the door.

4)  Warren and I paused from the holiday rush and watched the PIXAR movie—Inside Out.  I was awed by the advancement of technology with the combination of animation and almost real life characters.  A fabulous movie in its storyline and presentation I felt a surge of energy afterwards.  Stopping to watch a movie is what Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan describe in The Artist Way as an artist’s date.  Watching this imaginative movie filled the well that had been depleted by Christmas shopping, meal preparation and far too much entertaining.  I think each of us needs to fill up more often—we wouldn’t think to drive a car without refilling the gas tank.  Even plants and trees pause their growth to re-energize during the winter.  I must make time to restore myself regularly instead of pushing, pushing, pushing.

5)  I plan to allow the creative spirit of mine to flow like a river–sewing new fashions, crochet-edge stitching fleece blankets for family and friends who are struggling or are ill.  I’ve even decided to hire a sewing consultant who can assist with those pesky sewing problems that permit unfinished sewing projects to clutter up my closet.  Clearly I need balance to what I perceive to be the drudgery of washing dirty dishes and clothes, picking of the house, and paying bills.

So what are you going to make your year a happy one that continues until next December?  Perhaps as you pause, listen deeply and more often to your heart, it will whisper to you what it desires and guide you to how you might maintain the peace and joy until 2017 and beyond.

Recovering the Joy of Christmas

How do you feel about the holidays?  When I was a little girl, I could hardly wait for Christmas.  The entire season seemed to be filled with anticipation and wonder.  Everywhere twinkling lights, sparkling Christmas trees, and joyful singing set the season apart. People felt different, nicer and Christmas marked the time when my immediate family gathered with extended kin.  Granny Coleman from Arkansas or Aunt Marye and her family might appear for a special visit.  On Christmas Eve, my brothers and me would jump in our beds early hoping that Santa Claus might know and bring our presents sooner.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited.  I tossed and turned still unsure if I would discover some gift I wanted under the Christmas tree.  Regardless, Christmas brought a very special day filled with Mass, a few presents, lots of food, and phone calls and visits with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m not certain when I lost the wonder and joy of Christmas and the holiday season.  I suspect it began to dissipate with my discovery of the myth of Santa Claus and the realization of my role in producing the Christmas cheer.  As the oldest daughter, I was expected to help shop for and wrap presents, decorate the tree and assist in the preparation of Christmas breakfast and dinner.  I didn’t mind helping Mom but after about twenty or more years of the annual grind, I began to feel resentful.  My innocent little heart initially overflowing with genuine joy and silent serenity turned into a cranky, exhausted version of that child self wishing that Christmas came once every five years.

The holidays are difficult for many of us and for a variety of reasons.  The season often triggers sadness or resentment because of the unpleasant undertones of households we grew up in—maybe mom couldn’t cope or did so by taking more than a few sips from that bottle she hid under the sink.  Or perhaps an absent father suddenly appeared on Christmas Eve only to remind us of how much we missed him.  Maybe Christmas elicits unhappy feelings because Mom and Dad divorced, or one of them began ill, passed away or in some way was unavailable to share the fabricated happy family moments we see in the annual Christmas specials on television.

One woman described recently in a listening prayer group why she loves Christmas so much and how she decorates every available spot in her house.  “Christmas was the only time we could be happy in our home.  The remainder of the year was a holy hell characterized by abuse and dysfunction.  So at Christmas I could escape into a fog of temporary happiness if only for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.”

I hear many stories about holiday experiences as I sit with individuals in spiritual direction.  In between sibling arguments or total breakdowns in communication among family members, we are barraged with relentless commercials urging us to buy presents when what most of us truly desire is love and connection. So how do we stay in tune with the peace and joy in our hearts at this time of the year?

I’ve struggled to abandon my bah humbug attitude in favor of some unbridled joy.  Even I am tired of being a scrooge so I decided to create a new script.  What I’ve been inspired to do this year is to make a list of things—activities or experiences that would ignite the inner joy that I know already exists within me.  Here is my of my short list of action items that I plan to execute for more holiday cheer:

  1. Drink some hot chocolate or tea in front of a fire.  Who cares if it is 00 or 850 or even if I have a fireplace (there is always one at some restaurant during winter or I can find a TV station with one).  There is something soothing and delightful about pausing to have a cup of tea or hot chocolate and look into a blazing fire.  Even the smoldering embers offer a gentle luminosity that warms me from the inside out.
  2. Holiday music, anyone?  Yes, I get sick of Christmas music.  Some radio stations blast more than I can take, and my honey, Warren loves to play it from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  If I cannot escape hearing it, at least I can choose to listen to my favorite artists singing my favorite Christmas songs.  From Nat King Cole singing the classic, The Christmas Song to a more recent Christmas tunes by KEM or Susan Boyle, playing my Christmas favorites comfort me in my selected cooking tasks and gift wrapping.  My all time favorite is the Messiah—it sparks a serene, compassionate mood while also allowing me to feel like I am conducting a major orchestra.  I’ll also throw in some spontaneous dancing in the living room, kitchen, or in front of the bathroom mirror.  I love to dance to “The Mistletoe Jam” sung by Luther Van Dross which triggers fun, happy memories when I “danced with my hands in the air like I didn’t care.”  No, I don’t need extra egg nog to pull this off but if it helps and you don’t get too carried away, I say, “Go for it!”
  3. One of my greatest joys is to contact a friend, relative or even an old roommate just to check in.  I recently called Rose, who is now 95 year old.  We started a book group, The Boulder Briarpath Literary Society in Boulder, CO nearly 25 years ago and she still attends.  I could hear the smile in her voice, the genuine gratitude coming through a semi-chocked up, clearing of the throat sentiment because she was so touched that I took the time to call and chat for a few minutes. I plan to call her again.
  4. I also plan to bake some cookies or brownies to give away.  Surprising a neighbor or anyone with a batch of brownies, sharing a meal with a someone who lost a parent or family member recently—these things bring me joy.  Baking is my thing but when short on time I’ve picked up some baked goods at the local grocery store.  Sharing food or drink with others keeps me from having the holiday doldrums because it’s not about the food really, it’s the connection.
  5. Finally, I intend to take some leisurely walks.  These walks are not for exercise or to achieve any fitness goal.  It’s more like a meandering down the street so I can inhale some fresh air, capture the holiday decorations, and marvel at how branches of leafless, naked trees look as if they are inviting me for a hug.  I notice it every winter; trees with branches extended nonverbally saying,  “ Hey, I see you. Come here.  Let me give you a hug.”  And when I’ve hugged a tree, I feel an energy pulsating within— it’s almost electric.  I also wave at my neighbors that I rarely see in our “crazy busy” world.

I am determined to shake the bah humbug funk.  I will not get sucked into holiday stress.  I am pacing myself so I can en-joy the holiday baking. I want to feel the happiness that the season is meant to inspire.  This holiday season what I want to focus on is the connection—the bond that keeps Warren and I together for whatever time we have, and similarly the links that I desire to maintain with family and friends.  For me, Christmas is not about the gifts but the connection.

So what can you do this season to remember, to capture the excitement and wonder that you felt as a very young child?  What experiences will help you to uncover the peace and joy in your heart this holiday season?

Gentle Weeding

Several weeks ago my husband Warren and I decided to jump in the car and drive to the local home improvement store. Ostensibly we were looking for stones for a raised bed he was about to build for me so I could grow some summer annuals. Once there we noticed they were having a sale on herbs and flowers and we each chose our favorites. Warren dived for the hot peppers; poblanos, cayenne, habaneros, while I chose tangerine and sunshine colored bell pepper plants. We both picked tomatoes although I stuck mostly to the lemon looking grape tomatoes that cost so much in the grocery store.

Next I eyed the herbs. One of the delights of summer is to step outside the kitchen door and quickly snip the ones I want for a breakfast or dinner dish. Despite the fact that I grow most of my herbs from seeds, this year I didn’t want to wait on the cilantro, dill, and Italian parsley. I also knew I was running out of time for dill and cilantro which tend to wilt in the hot Georgia sun and humidity by late June. After carefully examining our pickings for bugs and dead leaves we piled them into a whiskey barrel that I chose for growing tomatoes in my container garden and headed home.
The slowly setting sun allowed me to savor every moment of each gorgeous spring day. The winter of 2014 was long and hard for everyone everywhere so a week of warm weather brought a deep gladness to my heart. As Warren poured in new organic soil into my large pots, I feverishly tore off plastic wrapping and opened out roots to set in the fresh dirt. Watering the plants in, Warren called me over to look at the flags he placed to mark out where the new raised bed would be located along side of the house. It was difficult for me to envision so I let him know that I trusted him with the landscape design. I yearned for some well tilled soil and seeds so I could “play” with which flowers would flourish in my new space.
After a series of major afternoon thunderstorms the following week, I crept through the patio where my vegetable container garden began to take shape. As I examined the flowers for bugs and other chewing insects, I noticed some weeds growing into the large irises that Warren planted near our bedroom window. I had scrutinized these plants regularly since their fall planting. At first the irises seemed to just stand there, semi-erect watching the falling leaves dying all around them. Soon they even slumped over, laying in the soil as rain and snow and snow and rain, like big boots trampled them into the ground. As steady and warmer temperatures followed the deep cold, as if on cue the irises gathered some inner energy to once again stand even straighter and taller like soldiers saluting. I wondered once again about the power of spring energy, a power so great that plants emerge through rock.
Yet the weeds appeared as strong as the irises, budding and thriving right along side of and into them. As a master gardener, Warren often reminded me that a weed is just a flower in the wrong place. For me these “flowers” were definitely in an undesirable spot and they were about to choke my precious irises. As I pulled the first weed with its tall stem and pillar of yellow flowers, I observed that I would have to tug on it gently otherwise I would pull out the well rooted iris along with the weed. Then it hit me. Sometimes gently weeding works better than finding a shovel or trowel and jerking the weeds out of the soil. And this process of gentle weeding worked even better than the commercial weed killers which were likely to kill the irises as well.
Slowly and gently weeding these irises prompted me to ponder my life and the lives of others. Didn’t I need to do some gentle weeding this summer and fall? Were there some clothes and other items that I wasn’t using that needed to be removed and given to someone who would wear them? Then I thought about some bad habits, compulsions and recurrent behaviors that I could begin to let go of. Complaining and talking too much immediately came to mind. When I am around people who complain all of the time, it doesn’t look or feel good. I knew I needed to start focusing on what worked instead of what wasn’t working. And TMI (too much information) is never good. There also might be some people that needed some gentle weeding out of my life. Oh I always feel guilty when I think this way. But I’ve learned that toxic people along with their kin, “energy vampires” can quickly drain my energy. When I talk with people who always see the glass half empty and are not making any attempts to fill up the other half, I know I need to minimize the time I spend with them.
There is something healing about the practice of gentleness but that is a topic for another blog. Undoubtably, taking the gentle approach to people and situations in my life seems better than using a sledge hammer or heavy pesticide. I would much rather be awakened gently than to have someone frighten me with a loud voice or noise to wake up me up.
Is there something or someone you need to gently weed out of your life? Is some obstacle keeping you from growing and thriving like a beautiful summer flower or a succulent gorgeous tomato or cucumber? Maybe you have an addiction to television or social media when you know that time and energy could be used in a more constructively manner? What weeds need to be gently removed from your life so you can feel Peace in your heart?

Can’t Get Enough of Howard Thurman

HT-Meditations of the Heart

I think I have Howard Thurmanitis.  Yes, my last post was about him and I made up that name. But after giving two workshops on his writings in the span of three days, one at a conference devoted to his life and work, it fits.  I love talking and writing about Howard Thurman, about his love for nature, stillness and silence.  I resonate with the fact that as a young boy he was a contemplative and a mystic.  He felt called to something deeper and he followed that call throughout his life.  In some ways it feels like a betrayal of sorts, expressing love for a man other than my husband.  Yet my guilt is lessened by the fact that Howard Thurman has been dead for more than three decades.  He continues to speak to me, though, through his writings, his lectures, his sermons, his love for the Sacred everywhere.  His quest for a profound experience of the Presence, of connection to all living things acts as a role model for me as a spiritual pilgrim stumbling along what sometimes feels like as an unknown path.  On occasion I sense that I am wandering away from the Peace in my heart and at other times I march steadily toward it.  Thurman’s writings, lectures and sermons feel like worthy companions to take along the way.

I remember wandering around in my mind pondering what I could write about.  In order to complete my spiritual direction training at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation I needed a subject for my final project.  Fulfilling the requirements could involve a creative work, like building a labyrinth, composing sacred poetry or planning a silent retreat.  Another option was to write about someone, a mystic or spiritual person.  I wanted to research and write about a specific person, someone I could get to know intimately, to learn about how his or her spirituality unfolded.

I enjoyed reading about many of the mystics especially St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but they felt so ancient and far away.  I also knew there were more contemporary figures like Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill.  Yet most mystics were typically nuns or monks, basically religious who lived in community.  I was curious if there were “ordinary mystics” as Marsha Sinetar refers to them in her book, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness, regular people who communicated about their everyday mystical experiences.  Was there anyone out there who wasn’t living in a religious community but seemed to have contact with a Presence they couldn’t logically explain?  Were people having “peak experiences” as William Maslow labeled them?  Was there anyone listening to or following his or her heart?

I frequently experience mystical moments in the quiet of the morning or when I awake from a nap.  Sometimes a feeling of Oneness engulfs me when I view a gorgeous sunset or a vista of mountains.  When I find myself in the “thin space” as it is sometimes referred to—that place where heaven and earth appear to merge if only for a moment—my connection to a larger whole is palpable.  For a split second, I feel like the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once.

I continued to badger my spiritual comrades about ordinary mystics until a pastoral counselor friend asked if I had heard of Howard Thurman.  Given all of the spiritual material I’d read over the years and for my spiritual guidance program I was embarrassed to discover that he was unknown to me.  After perusing his autobiography, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, I learned he had written over 20 books, served as a spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.  and was a “godfather” of sorts to the Civil Rights movement.  I was crestfallen to learned that he died in 1981.  I could have met him several times had I known about his existence earlier.

As a boy, Howard Thurman lived near the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida and as he listened to it, he felt a Presence that held and embraced him.  In addition he became attached to a tall, solid oak tree in his backyard.  Thurman noticed that when the storms came off the ocean, while many trees toppled, the old oak tree stood firm.  Like the tree, Thurman sensed there was something inside of him, strong as that oak tree that could withstand the tempest and storms of his life.

My favorite Thurman books besides his autobiography include Jesus and the DisinheritedMeditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment, and Deep is the Hunger.  Clearly there are many more books, articles, lectures, and sermons on a variety of topics ranging from building and sustaining a beloved community to listening for the “genuine” in one’s self, in others, and in the world.  I especially savor his meditations and work that emphasize the power of silence and stillness and the gift of pausing more frequently to obtain spiritual renewal.  Here is one of his meditations:

How Good to Center Down!

How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere thicket passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;

A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are.

The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives?—what are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings?  Where are we trying to go?  Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?  For what end do we make sacrifices?  Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?

What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?  Over and over the questions beat upon the waiting moment.

As we listen, floating up through all of the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind—

A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.

It moves directly to the core of our being.  Our questions are answered,

Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round

With the peace of the Eternal in our step.  How good it is to center down!

(from Meditations of the Heart, p. 28)

Sometimes just reading one of Thurman’s meditations renews the Peace in my heart.  Google him, view one of his videos and see if his commanding voice does the same for you.

Have you ever come away from a “mystical or peak experience “ with a greater sense of Peace, a sense that Someone or Something loves and cares for you?  Have you ever found yourself out in nature—listening to the ocean crashing against the rocks or the chirping birds in early morning or felt awe at the sight of the green leaves of tall trees against the backdrop of a blue sky?  Just for a moment were you touched by a Oneness with everything that gave you a deep Peace and abiding Joy?  Next time you have an opportunity to pause and be present— to feel that sense of unity with everyone and everything, grab it.  See if it might lead you to uncovering more of the peace and joy in your heart.

Contemplative Spirituality for Everyday People

HT-Jesus&Disinherited

Last summer in a meeting with some fellow Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation graduates in Atlanta, we prayed and pondered about ways to expose more people to the gifts of contemplative spirituality. Our prayer centered on the impression that most major spiritually oriented events, whether speakers, workshops or retreats, are expensive. Hence, many everyday people whose yearnings for spiritual deepening echo our own simply cannot afford to participate. How could we share the gifts of contemplative spirituality we’d received from programs like Shalem with more people, our congregations, our worship services and bible studies or even our workplaces? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and offices created more opportunities to pause and bask in the loving Presence of our Creator?

I turned to my spiritual and ancestral mentor, Howard Thurman, mystic, theologian, and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared this same sentiment. He wanted to introduce masses of people to the wonder, peace, and joy of contemplative experience and he wrote about this desire and other topics in Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman found it both intriguing and inspirational that Jesus chose to conduct his ministry with everyday people, the poor and outcast like himself, and not with the aristocracy or even middle classes of Jewish and Roman society.

Jesus and the Disinherited became a favorite of Dr. King’s and whenever he marched he carried this classic book. Thurman encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Civil Rights movement to utilize contemplative spiritual practices. In particular, he stressed the importance for marchers to examine and cultivate their inner lives before being thrust out into nonviolent confrontation.

A strong advocate of seizing moments of Presence—whether in nature, walking down the street or sitting in church—Thurman also knew that introducing silence into a worship service would be a mighty challenge in the 1940’s and 1950’s. So he wrote meditations (Meditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment—see recommendations) for this very purpose. What better way to ease people into a contemplative practice than by anchoring them with a written piece that orients them to the Presence? Stressing the necessity for silent contemplative prayer, he circulated the meditations for that time in the service when members could quiet their hearts and hear the messages always abiding in the Presence.

Yet the questions linger. How do we feed those who hunger for spiritual connection, for stillness, for peace? Where and in what ways can we insert openings for moments of quiet reflection, communion with nature, and tranquility of mind that engender a contemplative atmosphere and expand the awareness of Presence?

A few years ago my former pastor asked me to conduct bible study when she needed to travel. I prayed and sought to present relevant topics such as, “In God We Trust?” “Practicing Forgiveness,” and “Putting God on the ‘To Do List’.” However, I also felt guided to begin each session with a short meditation by Howard Thurman or Henri Nouwen or Mother Teresa, followed by two to three minutes of silence. Everyone loved it and asked for more. Likewise after organizing a faculty/staff retreat at a local monastery, several people inquired about how to maintain at work the inner peace they obtained. Out of this desire emerged a “Friends of Silence” group on campus so faculty/staff of all spiritual persuasions could sit together for 20 minutes each week.

Now as I reflect on those actions and the work of Howard Thurman, I wonder what each of us can do to nurture the contemplative longings of the everyday people we live, work, or worship with each day. What more might you and I do every day?

Would reading or listening to some meditations or lectures by Howard Thurman bring more peace to your heart?  Look him up on the web and read more about his life and writings by borrowing or purchasing one of the many books he wrote—listen to the wisdom in his audio recordings and YouTube clips that are sure to awaken the Peace and Joy in your heart.

“Surrounded by all of the memories and the dreams and the hopes and the desires of so great a host of witnesses, we still ourselves in the presence of God, gathering together all of the things that are needful for our peace. The mood of thanksgiving overwhelms us when we remember how good and great is our fortune, even as we are mindful of the ways that are hard and difficult for so many whose names are known to us and whose pictures are vividly in our minds. It is so great a privilege to experience the watering of one’s roots at a time of such dryness in the world.”

Howard Thurman The Centering Moment

A version of this article was previously published in the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation e-Newsletter, October, 2014.

Silence is like Fertilizer for the Soul

As I emerge out of a long, dreary, and frightfully cold winter even for warmer climates my thoughts turn to spring and the reminder that flower and vegetable gardens are on the horizon.  Today I prune the roses and the warmth of the sun shifts my thoughts to providing them with an offering of fertilizer to stimulate their new growth.  Pouring a special solution of vitamins, minerals and disease prevention around the roots of each bush, I sense that souls are like gardens and the adage, “Silence is like fertilizer for the soul” returns to my mind.

I made this statement to someone recently who immediately wanted to tweet it. The idea came from my own practice of Silence one early morning and I realized it was an apt description about what silence does for me.  I can always tell when my soul is well-nourished.  My spirit expresses great gratitude through felt expressions of peace and joy.  I am not speaking of an ecstatic response to some external event like the jubilation that comes with buying a new car, acquiring a new job or the excitement of an anticipated wedding day.  Typically, that kind of euphoria soon dissipates as ecstasy becomes anxiety.  Worry sets in as I think about the cost of car maintenance, insurance, and gas or all of the details of planning a wedding day.  Yet Silence for me morphs into an uncontrolled sense of joy emanating from within. Bubbling up like a natural spring out of the ground swell of my being, I smile for no apparent reason.  I suspect many people want to know how silence nurtures the soul and what needs a soul has.  Yet I notice that most people support their bodies and minds and either resist or aren’t aware of, or don’t consider feeding their souls.

Everyone seems to be on the health and fitness bandwagon.  Well, maybe not everyone since obesity rates for all ages are still on the rise.  And there are so many ways to take care of my body.  I frequently hear about walk/runs, neighborhood fitness centers, local gyms, special programs for women, people rushing to yoga and tai chi classes.  And when there’s even an entire clothing industry of body wear to accompany our increased focus on fitness, I know there’s a movement underfoot.  My husband, Walter even requested tai chi pants for Christmas a few years ago.

Then there are sports drinks.  I walked into Whole Foods the other day and stood paralyzed in front an entire aisle devoted to sports and energy drinks.  There were innumerable possibilities to choose from in nearly every flavor—actually some flavors I‘ve never heard of.  And water has been elevated to a new level.  I can have it in any flavor, with or without vitamins, alkaline, or from some rare spring.  Or people sit pitchers of filtered water in the refrigerator or use a special filter connected to the kitchen faucet. Growing up in California we always had an Arrowhead water cooler in the house and my mother even cooked with its water.  She too, a native of Hot Springs, AR grew up drinking spring water.

I also grew up with supplements as Mom became a Shaklee dealer just so she could keep us supplied with vitamins.  The growth in this industry is so vast that there are entire stores just devoted to supplements.  I see or read about vitamins and herbs that either weren’t discovered or certainly weren’t previously marketed to regular folks but are now common parlance (e.g., acidophilus,  folic acid, and COq10).  So it appears that everyone I know from newborns to those who are terminally ill take supplements.

Then there is nutritious food.  I loved vegetables as a child and that desire for them continues. However, as a child, I don’t remember seeing kale, swiss chard, butternut squash, or arugula gracing our dinner table on a regular basis. Walter, now a master gardener and site leader for a large local community garden brings home more leafy greens than we can properly digest.  I am grateful for all of the organic vegetables including rattle snake beans (a little sweeter than a Kentucky Wonder), three different kinds of lettuces, beets, Yukon gold and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, bell peppers, and brussels sprouts.

Clearly, I know how to take care of my body.  It’s unclear though if I take care of my mind with similar enthusiasm.  I often wonder why I fill it with news of disasters and gossip about celebrities that pervade the television and radio.  I listen to audiobooks just to escape the overstimulation of my brain brought on by a television screen that contains too much action.  Sometimes there are four talking heads, action on another split screen and a crawl at the bottom. Admittedly, I have friends who devour books especially during the summer months when the living seems less frenetic.  On occasion we entertain dinner guests and find a good old discussion makes my intellect very happy.  Attending theater and dance productions, poetry readings, art openings, fabulous films also provide ways to stimulate my mind but I notice that they also nourish my soul.  An excellent musical gives me a thrill for many days and makes my heart sing.  With some plays and movies, the acting is so good that my soul tingles.

Ah…finally back to the soul.  I wondered what most people did to take care of their souls.  I posed the question to a group of friends last week. “So what have you done for your soul lately?” and besides the blank looks I received, they remarked, “Do you mean when is the last time I attended church?”  No, not exactly although many people feel fed by some form of communal worship.  Maybe a walk through a beautiful garden or arboretum, a hike on a mountain trail, a bike ride or taking in a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or a simple pause from all of the doing so the soul can just be is what came to mind.  Seeing or creating beautiful art also moves me in a way that feels like my soul is being watered.

So what does the garden of the soul need to grow? It needs water (sorrow) to rinse away the soot of life and it requires sun (encouragement and affirmation).  Weeding (set-backs and letting go of unnecessary people or things) is essential as well.  But fertilizer is that extra component that helps growing things like flowers, trees, and vegetables develop even stronger root structures and bear larger flowers or vegetables.  Thus, like the flowers and vegetables in my garden, I know my soul needs more. Just like my plants need some nitrogen or magnesium, the soul needs a boost, some extra nutrients to enrich it.

I believe the best food for the soul is stillness and silence.  Often I engage the stillness which is all around when I observe the flowers along the walk, stop to listen to the birds chirp, lie on patio chaise or hammock and watch the clouds slowly move across the sky, take in a gorgeous multi-color sunset or stand before vistas of mountains.  What also helps is to turn off the iPod, shut down the tweets, get off of Facebook, turn off the phone, radio, television and take a few moments to pause.  When I shut it all down, that’s when I hear my soul whisper, “Thank you.  I need this time to exhale.”

In order for our souls to flourish, like our bodies and minds, we don’t necessarily have to be “doing” anything in church or any place else.  Actually I think our souls desire regular attention in the form of a contemplation that may not necessitate more than pausing from time-to-time to acknowledge its existence.

Early mornings even before I check my smart phone or go outside where the stillness awaits me to admire the roses, zinnias, cosmos, rattle snake beans, or basil, I try to feed my soul with 10-20 minutes of Silence.  Afterwards I begin the day and all that awaits me grounded and well-nourished. I also try to stop throughout the day to pause and give my soul some quick nourishment with a minute of silence. In fact there are times when I try to build up a reserve so on ridiculously busy days, I have some peace and joy to lean into.   And I know that the Peace and Joy that often bubbles up after Silence is the way my soul chooses to say, “Thank you.  I love the quiet.  I yearn to be fed too.  I am ready to expand you—to enhance your inner sanctum.”

Do you think a few moments of silence, of soaking in the stillness around you will feed your soul today?  Would some Silence help you to unearth the Peace in your heart?