Prospectus for a Small Contemplative Community

When I was a young man, I took a class at the Shalem Institute on leading contemplative prayer groups. I’ve had several opportunities to lead groups devoted to meditation and/or contemplative prayer over the years, and I’ve always enjoyed participating in that kind of a communal setting. The other evening I had a conversation with my friend Phil who is the associate minister for spiritual development at a Protestant church near me. As part of his ministry there, he leads a wonderful group that meets weekly to engage in communal lectio divina — over the course of 90 minutes the group reads together the lessons and the Psalm from the common lectionary for the coming Sunday, and then each person reflects on which of the lessons they feel drawn to, which word or phrase in that lesson seems to be speaking to them, and what their sense of God’s call is for them in the lesson. Their time together is completed with 20 minutes of shared silence.

My friend mentioned that while the group is thriving, there seems to be a growing need for more interaction among the members, particularly in regard to their spiritual practice. He thought that this could signal the need for a new, or at least differently formatted, group, to meet in addition to the lectio group.

This conversation resonated with me because it touched a dream I’ve had for a while: to create a group that met regularly, either weekly or bi-weekly, that would combine shared silence, communal prayer, and the study and reflection of the writings of the mystics. Basically, such a group would be an experiment exploring this question: can lay Christians in our time support one another in their contemplative practice, drawing on the wisdom of the mystics of old? I think the answer to such a question must be ‘yes’ or else I wouldn’t be thinking about this at all. But as to how such a small group would work—that’s the interesting question.

It seems to me that such a group would almost have to be ecumenical in nature, for no one parish or congregation could provide enough people to make such a group viable. The reality is, most people drawn to contemplative spirituality are not necessarily drawn to a small group setting for interpersonal spiritual growth — and vice versa. To find 10-15 people who would want to read the mystics, and engage in a practice of daily prayer, and who would commit to meet 2-4 times a month with others engaged in a similar practice, I think it would be necessary to draw on the entire spectrum of Christian communities.

I know that the emergents in Cobb County (northwest of Atlanta) have a book discussion group called the “Group of Unknowing” that meets regularly. I haven’t participated in that simply because of the distance (from where I work to where they meet is about 45 miles). I’m curious to hear from anyone who reads this blog who might be involved in a centering prayer group, or some other small-group forum dedicated to the practice of contemplative Christian spirituality. I’m also curious to know if folks from the Decatur and East/Northeast regions of Atlanta would be interested in helping to create such a forum. I can’t commit to something like this indefinitely (people who know me will testify that when I get involved in a book project, other commitments tend to take a backseat!), but I think setting up a group that met for three to six months might be really valuable for all its participants.

Any thoughts?

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  • http://www.monasticponderings.blogspot.com Amy

    Carl: Though I am too far away to participate in your group (I hail from Delaware) I want to share with you that here we do have such a group. It isn’t as closely knit as the group you have in mind, as it is a mixture of Christians and non-Christians. But it is successful in that we meet regularly to discuss the spiritual realities in our lives. The group meets here at the Caterina Benincasa Monastery (www.benincasaop.org) for several hours of spiritual discussions. It’s marvelous because though each person respects the other’s beliefs, the conversation sparks numerous insights and discussions. We leave feeling inspired and nutured.

    The Benincasa community also has a daily shared community Lectio. But as this is a monastic community, such an activity is easier to maintain.

    If you could find individuals willing to start such a project, I think the very energy you create would keep the members coming back. At least, that is my experience here in Benincasa.

  • Al Jordan

    I would be extremely interested participating in formation of such a group. I’m a reader of your blog, live in Lawrenceville and recently retired as a clinical social worker and school administrator. I’ve had an interest in Christian mysticism and contemplative prayer for as long as I can remember. I do centering prayer and meditation on my own but would appreciate a communal context in which to practice. I also write about spirituality (nothing published) and have led a few workshops. My reading list includes many of the same people you have referenced in your material. I grew up Protestant, moved to the Episcopal Church as a young man, later went through a period in the Charismatic movement, came back to my roots and have since become Catholic. I’m really not denominational but sacramental and contemplative in my Christian expression. But I also incorporate into my spirituality the perennial wisdom found in many traditions and have written a roughly 80 page monograph on “A Layman Revisions His Christian Faith: From Belief to Presence.” Enough said, but I would welcome an opportunity to share in Lectio, contemplative prayer and dialogue.

  • Chris

    First thought: Wow, I think I need this.

    Second thought: Wait, my plate is full already.

    Third thought: Maybe the reality of the second thought means the first thought is all the more true!

    Keep me posted.

  • http://marshmk.wordpress.com Mike

    Carl, I really like your idea and think that these types of groups are in some ways key to the life of the church. I have tried to establish these groups in two parishes though not with the level of commitment you describe. In my first parish we had two groups that met weekly. One was a book reading and discussion group. The other group did lectio divina with the upcoming Sunday gospel. The lectio led into a 20-30 minute period of silence. These two groups began with members from our Episcopal parish but soon grew to be ecumenical. There was considerable overlap in the two groups’ membership though not total. Both groups were expected to participate in regular contemplative prayer outside th4e group setting. We began both groups with the question, “How is your prayer?” (http://interruptingthesilence.com/2009/02/17/how-is-your-prayer/). Everyone was expected though not required to offer a few minutes reflection on their prayer over the past week – as a means of support, encouragement, and accountability. I left that parish about five years ago. The two groups are continuing and doing well.

    In my current parish there was not as great a familiarity with contemplative practice though there is an increasing openness and interest to this practice. I think you would agree that the mystical tradition and contemplation lie at the heart of our Tradition but seem to have been lost, forgotten, or ignored. That has been my focus with this second parish – to teach and recover that Tradition as authentic and relevant today. I am leading a group of about 12 from our parish. We meet every two weeks for 90 minutes. The first 75 minutes are teaching and discussion of a book followed by 15 minutes of silence. I have in mind a progression of readings that hopefully will form them in the mystical and desert traditions with a strong emphasis on Eastern Orthodoxy. I have discovered that there is not much theological foundation or ability to reflect theologically, though there is great desire and interest. In general, a failure of adult formation.

    Thanks for this post. I look forward to reading more of your experience and learning new ideas to incorporate in my parish.

    Peace, Mike+

  • http://meredithgould.blogspot.com Meredith Gould

    While it’s different from what you propose, you might be interested in checking out what The Virtual Abbey is doing via Twitter (@Virtual_Abbey), FB, and on our blog (http://www.thevirtualabbey.com).

    An ecumenical community that prays the Daily Office via Twitter, a number of us place ourselves within the mystic tradition. In fact, a member of our community alerted me to your fine blog!

    One thing you might find interesting: developmental stages and issues that emerge in “real life” communities seem to emerge, albeit at a slightly swifter pace, in virtual community.

    Pax max…

  • http://thepollinatrix.blogspot.com The Pollinatrix

    This is a wonderful idea. The contemplative group I participate in begins with a Taize song, a prayer from Philip Newell’s Celtic Benedictions, followed by twenty minutes of silence. Adding study would be a lovely way to bring it to a greater fullness.

    I was once part of a women’s group that used Richard Foster’s Devotional Classics for study. It was a wonderful resource.

  • http://acatholicwomansplace.blogspot.com claire

    I very much like your idea. I live very far from Atlanta (Puerto Rico & France). I’m involved in a prayer group, a CLC community, and Ignatian spirituality. I will begin Lectio Divina for the first time with Abbey of the Arts this Lent. I also belong to the Virtual Abbey.
    I think your ‘prospectus’ is really worth considering for you, of course, but also for me and the various communities to which I belong. I would love to come across one where I live or, if need be, help create one some day.
    Many thanks for this, Carl. It’s dream-provoking :-)

  • Harmony Isle

    I particularly like the idea of what Amy describes, and I would like to hear more about how the spiritual discussions are structured. I would love the opportunity to grow in conversation with other contemplatives and contemplative-curious folks–the idea occurred to me about a year ago, but I wasn’t sure anyone would be interested because there seems to be such an emphasis on private prayer and contemplation. I’ve recently thought of trying to start a regular meeting at work for interdenominational centering payer and meditation (I work in a large organization), as I struggle with being disciplined enough for solitary silent prayer practice.

    As a friend of the Order of Saint Anthony I attend weekly meetings of the Order, which have an educational focus. We start the meeting with vespers and rotate through activities including instruction and practice of various contemplative prayer forms, book reading and discussions (for lent we’re studying Cooper’s _God is a Verb_), study and contemplation of divine love poetry, and instruction on other topics (right now we’re covering Celtic Christianity).

    The Episcopal parish of Epiphany just west of Decatur has two weekly centering prayer meetings (I haven’t attended these) and the associate rector there, Cynthia Hizer, has a strong interest in contemplative spirituality. I think there would also be some interest from Episcopal parishioners at St. Pat’s on the northeast side in participating in such meetings.

    Carl, if there is enough interest, it might be practical to coordinate a few groups around the Atlanta area, to better accommodate scheduling, geography, and interests. Perhaps the groups, depending on meeting format and if large enough could permit participation on a “drop-in” basis, if some are able and interested in meeting more frequently than others. Each group could have more than one member who could act as facilitator at any given meeting. There could be plenary meetings of all the groups a couple times per year.

    Looking forward to hearing more.

  • Paula

    Wow! This is an intriguing idea!!
    Living in Canton- I’m not sure that I could make an every week group on your side of town but if it was somewhere a little closer than Conyers like DeKalb- I could probably do a bi-monthly group or even one Sat. morning a month group. I’m usually over visiting my grandparents/great aunt anyway so I could work out my visit for those days instead. I keep meaning to check out the Cobb one as well.

  • suzanne

    Carl, have always wanted to attend that Shalem class on leading contemplative groups, but living in California has always made it difficult and expensive.
    Having been a student of Cynthia Bourgeault’s (retreats plus her “Wisdom” schools, and having attended and worked toward following the teachings of Fr. Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr, J. Philip Newell, and others, a few years ago, I decided to begin a “contemplative” group at my parish. We are called “Anam Cara”. I submitted a 15 page prospectus to our Associate Priest at that time, as the group I envisioned had an “inner” work component. I’m not sure if that is exactly the right word for it, but the group I envisioned would focus on a praxis, now and again, as best we could, using tools such as The Welcoming Prayer as taught by the contemplaltive Outreach folk, and having weeks where we use the process described in Bourgeaul’ts Centering Prayer book on watching our thoughts, which is called the witness, in Bourgeault’s books (of course this practice is in many books and is known by various names. We’ve worked with many other practices, as well.
    We do not teach a particular method of contemplative prayer. As Fr. Keating often says, “There are no meditation police”, thus the group, consisting of 12 members at this time have vaious prayer forms in use. Some use the Jesus Prayer, others Centering Prayer, Others a breath prayer, some use a rosary, some use John Main’s Christian Meditation method.
    Thing is, that weekly, we do a small study on something that I have worked up from various readings from the Oliver Clement book, or other teachings from the desert elders, or teachings from the Celtic Tradtion (a member of our group just died, thus I’m bringing in a teaching from the Celtic tradition on death from Esther De Waal.
    We meet weekly, and the first Wednesday of the month, is an open morning with no written reflection, and we just “check in” with one another as to where we are on our spiritual walks, and with our practices, and look to see the places where we recognize the meeting of our inner and outer lives (of course, they always meet, we just sometimes “miss the meeting”!)
    Since this topic and theme is a love of mine, I have continued in this way for three years now, the group NOT being a “drop-in” group, as it is very cohesive at this point, much trust developed, it is confidential, and we meet for only one hour.
    We begin with short chants, some from Rev.David Keller. episcopal Priest, some of mine. We sit in silent prayer for 25 minutes, and close that period with “All Shall Be Well”, tune from Rev. Keller.
    Anything typed up and brought into the group is put on a one page sheet, though it can be front and back. We sit in a circle and go around the circle each reading a short paragraph, and when done, we offer reflections, comments, other ideas, and so forth.
    We close our time togther, standing in a circle around our candles, saying together the benediction “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us, so be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.”
    The group is exceedling popular. Noone drops the group, unless one moves!
    On a simpler note, there is a perfectly useful and worthy example of how to run a contemplative group in the back of Fr. Thomas Keating’s book “Open Mind, Open Heart” (get the new 2007 edition).
    Wonderful thing you are planning Carl, how I apprecitate your excellent offerings.
    Good Hopes, Suzanne

  • http://www.songsofpeace.net Stefan Andre Waligur

    Thanks for the conversation. My name is Stefan Andre Waligur. For the past 10 years I have , each year, spent time in the community of Taize in France. Since that time I have been working, praying for a community like Tiaze here in the U.S. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who feels called to begin a new ecumenical contemplative community like Taize; a community which offers a simple , beautiful daily sung prayer and a deep welcome to seekers. I believe there is a need for such a new community here in the U.S.
    In April I take monastic vows.
    June 1 – 4 we’ll hold a Pilgrimage of Peace . Details at
    http://www.pecometh.org
    Peace,
    Stefan

  • Gary Snead

    Is this something compatible with, or that could be done as a part of, what goes on at the International House of Prayer, started in Kansas City, but also active in Atlanta now?
    Is there a particular reason the silence time is usually at the end, instead of perhaps at the beginning, like, as I understand it, the Quaker meetings do?
    I like Chris’s summary of the quandary.
    A great variety of resources offered here, thanks all.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    International House of Prayer: is that the same as the 24/7 and Boiler Room movements? If so, and if they’re in Atlanta then I would love to be in touch with them — Gary, do you have contact information?

  • http://www.monasticponderings.blogspot.com Amy

    Harmony: The group that meets with us here at the Benincasa monastery is calls itslef the “Spirit Group.” They each follow their own spiritual path and enjoy spiritual activities outside our monthly meetings. Each person is serious about the “journey” and brings to the group his/her own spiritual insights and experiences since the last month. Some have gone on pilgrimages, the latest to meet John of God in Brazil. The format is casual. The conversation is brilliant and full of energy.

    Within our own Benincasa community, we do a daily half hour shared Lectio, based on the scripture readings of the day. As a monastic community, we have time for personal prayer and bring our thoughts to the sharing.

    Lectio is a tremendously fruitful activity. In my own lived experience of monasticism, it is even more powerful when shared. I encourage anyone who can start such a group, no matter how small or loosely organized, to “go for it!”

  • Pingback: More Thoughts for a Small Contemplative Community « The Website of Unknowing

  • http://www.umilta.net Julia Bolton Holloway

    Years ago, in my Anglican convent, I was giving talks on the Friends of God to Hastings’ Quaker Meeting, and a Jewish woman theologian and a Catholic woman theologian, both studying at King’s College, London, when we decided we could call ourselves ‘Godfriends’ and there were no denominational boundaries between us. Then my convent’s chapel and cloister were bulldozed by our bishop and we were sent away. Someone taught me html and so began the Umilta webiste with its sub-website, ‘Global Hermitage’, http://www.umilta.net/cloister.html, to which even an Argentinian priest monk contributed a fine Rule for Hermits. We used to e-mail weekly. We next became a blog. I’ve wondered if we could do Skype conference calls. But really the gestating of silence is best, and with it the creating of a library on contemplatives. To which all are invited. It ìs in a cemetery in Florence, rather like Julian’s anchohold in a graveyard in Norwich. Which marvellously concentrates the mind.

  • Gary Snead

    1. yes, 24/7 movement, as mentioned with base, or start, in Kansas City, MO, with a site in Atlanta, http://www.ihop-atlanta.com/
    2. Don’t know about Boiler Room movement
    3. still would like thoughts about placement of silence vs. Quaker meeting style; perhaps to allow the contemplation to sink in, rather than waiting for what bubbles up?
    4. In Saturday’s Mpls Star Tribune, Variety section page E3, about a visit to MN by the Rev. Anthony Muheria, bishop of the Diocese of Kitui in Kenya, by Jeff Strickler at jstrickler@startribune.com
    5. That article also mentioned a Lenten series of free phone seminars coordinated by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, register at http://www.sacredawakeningseries.com. Theme is “How can we live a truly sacred life?” It starts Ash Wednesday and goes 40 days, different speaker @ day. Ordained clergy, 2 rabbis, a Choctaw Nation representative, Buddhist monk, a practitioner of ‘yoga trance dance’ and others. There are live presentation times with Q & A @ the end, but each will also be recorded.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks for all this great information, Gary. Boiler Rooms are the “neo-monastic” component to the 24/7 movement. You can learn more about them in this book: Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing.

  • http://www.communityofpeace.us Stefan Andre Waligur

    This is an invitation to come to a contemplative gathering – a Pilgrimage of Peace April 1 – 4 in the Shenandoah Valley. http://www.campoverlook.org
    Spread the Word!
    Blessings,
    Stefan

  • http://www.fteleaders.org James Goodmann

    Carl,
    Thanks for your post and request, as well as for the BIG BOOK…a good source. I have participated in Centering Prayer groups in the Atlanta/Decatur area for three years now and my own work with FTE commits me to leading small conversations (in congregations) that involve telling the truth of our lives aloud and having it heard into sacred, appreciative space. I think that the way of the mystics has more than a little to do with what guides those conversations, the which are definitely informed by Parker Palmer, Otto Scharmer (“Theory U”) and others. I would have an at-least short-term interest in such a group as their writings inform a presence to life, a presence to the church, overall, that is only too necessary now when the usual paths of thinking ONLY as institution or toward survival as the best sign of life is too prevalent. As someone suggested to our organization recently, such a mindset does not facilitate our seeing our calling in this time.


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