For the past four decades, the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C. has been a leading light in the Christian contemplative movement in this country and around the world, serving clergy, spiritual directors, lay people, and individuals seeking to open themselves more fully to God’s presence and call in their work and lives.
Now, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Shalem Institute is launching a 40-hour Contemplative Prayer Vigil — an intentional time of silent prayer open to all — Sunday, October 13th at 7 pm EDT through the 15th at 11 am EDT. Joined by such luminaries as Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Parker Palmer, Joanna Macy and others, the live and virtual Vigil hopes to “circle the world in prayer,” by spanning continents and time zones, and drawing thousands of people from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and North America. Participation in the Vigil is free and open to spiritual seekers and practitioners of all faiths who are inspired by such a global call for contemplative prayer.
We spoke with Shalem’s Executive Director Leah Rampy and its Founder Tilden Edwards recently about the inspiration for the vigil, as well as their thoughts on the past, present and future of contemplative Christianity, four decades after the founding of the renowned Institute.
What inspired the 40-hour contemplative prayer vigil and how does one get involved?
Leah Rampy: The idea for the vigil began with a small group imagining how we might honor Shalem’s 40th anniversary. Instead of planning a big celebration, we felt that a vigil would be a good way to honor the past and look to the future. We felt that expressing gratitude for what has been given and listening deeply for what is invited would be an important practice both individually and institutionally.
We invite anyone who’s interested to join the prayer vigil. Simply go to our website at Shalem.org and sign up by “lighting” a candle on the map. You can choose the length of time that is right for you to pray; you can decide where to pray — in your home, with friends or faith community, or with a group of us who’ll be gathering in Maryland. You are free to choose the form of prayer or meditation that’s right for you — sitting, slow walking, centering prayer; any way of silencing the mind and being fully open to the Holy.
This event coincides with the 40th Anniversary of the Shalem Institute. How would you describe the Shalem Institute today, in 2013?
LR: Our 40th anniversary tagline is “Trusting the Spirit” and that intention is as strong today as it has been throughout Shalem’s four decades. Our charism of a radical willingness to trust God ensures that we are almost always operating beyond the edge of our understanding. We do our best to notice and respond to the Spirit’s invitation even when we’re not clear where that may lead us. It’s only as we look back that we catch a glimpse of how the Spirit was moving in ways beyond our imagination and capability! This makes for an organization that feels vibrant with possibility.
Last year we felt that there was an invitation in the phrase “deep and wide.” Shalem’s call and mission have always been about nurturing spiritual depth. The nudging seemed to be about reaffirming that call to spiritual deepening AND to expand our support for contemplative practices to those around the world who are searching for what we can offer. We continue to live into that invitation and to be delighted with how that is manifesting.
Looking back for a moment, how has the contemplative spirituality movement changed since you began the Institute four decades ago? What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen over the years?
Tilden Edwards: Forty years ago there really was no such movement. Contemplative spirituality as a foundational way of seeing and practice for centuries had been ensconced mostly within institutional Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican religious communities or in Society of Friends (Quaker) Meetings. Shalem was perhaps the first contemplative center that was not based in these communities, but rather was an ecumenical organization with lay and clergy leadership, offering opportunities to anyone who were drawn to probe Christian contemplative tradition and practices.
We also were open to learning from the contemplative heart of other religious traditions, as were a number of leading Roman Catholic Jesuit and Cistercian authors around the time of Shalem’s beginnings.
Over these 40 years we’ve seen a flowering of contemplative interest in churches, educational institutions and in the society more broadly. Underlying this evolution has been a growing hunger for the support of an intentional life-long spiritual journey, one that moves toward a deeper realization of intimate divine presence and of inclusive mutual belonging. In the early years this often was seen more as a private personal quest, but over time it became clear that contemplative grounding changes the way one sees and intensifies the way one cares for the world.
Other contemplatively oriented study and practice centers have emerged over these years that complement the growing number of groups and classes within churches and other religious institutions. I think contemplative spirituality increasingly is recognized as a school of Christian spirituality with a long and profound historical lineage.
Many more Protestants and Evangelicals are comfortable today with the term Spiritual Director, even claiming to see one regularly themselves. What is your definition of Spiritual Direction, and who might benefit from meeting with a Spiritual Director? Why might a spiritual director be particularly important or helpful to Christians today?
TE: Authentic spiritual directors belong to a long Christian lineage of spiritually caring and experienced people to whom others are drawn to listen for the movements of the Spirit in their lives over time. If the director is contemplatively oriented, she or he will seek to be openly and humbly present to the living Spirit for the sake of this person who has come to them.
It’s no accident that the ministry of spiritual direction has exploded today across most all denominational boundaries, including Jewish ones. Shalem started one of the first programs for the enrichment of spiritual directors in 1978; today there are a great many more of them. Behind this exponential growth I think are a number of realities that cry out for someone with whom to probe one’s spiritual lives over time:
1) A changing social and religious culture where many people are freshly open to questing deeper into their authentic relationship with the mysterious, intimate divine Wellspring of their lives, and its implications for how they live and what they do.
2) An increasing social awareness of one’s psychological development as a lifetime affair, which leads to a sense of one’s spiritual development also being a lifetime affair. The Early Church Fathers’ view of the purpose of human life being to move from the image of God in which we were born into the full likeness of God for which we were made, a life-time process, increasingly resonates with many people.
3) Contemplative practices have led people to realize that we all have a faculty of deep “knowing” in us, the open spiritual heart, which is different than the thinking mind’s way of knowing reality. Contemplatively grounded spiritual direction is a special opportunity to listen together “heart to heart.” No other established relationship in our culture is designed to do that on a steadily intentional and regular basis.
What are some of the greatest gifts the contemplative movement has offered the tradition over the years? And which of these gifts seem especially important today?
TE: Perhaps the greatest gift of the contemplative movement is the way its understanding and practices can draw people to their spiritual hearts, where by grace they realize the inclusive belonging of everyone and everything within an ineffable, intimate, transforming Loving Light. Contemplative awareness offers a common human meeting ground, a common open beginning point, a common guiding Wellspring, that exist before our mind’s conditionings and before our ego’s fears and boundaries rise.
We’re given hope for a way of living from inside a larger frame than our thinking minds and egos alone can provide, and in the process freeing the mind and functional ego to be gifted vessels of the spiritual heart’s inclusive awareness. As this “way” is lived out and offered in our different religious and social contexts, there’s more room for the Spirit to show our common belonging and our common need to care for one another and the earth.
For Christians, this larger frame allows us to read scripture and tradition in fresh ways. My own sense is that Jesus invites us to share that larger frame known in our spiritual hearts, as he knew it with the graced spiritual eye of his heart.
Looking forward now, what do you think the future holds for the contemplative movement? How do you see it growing, changing, forming in the next several decades?
Leah Rampy: As a part of our 40-hour Contemplative Prayer Vigil, we’ve been blessed to have a number of contemplative luminaries and organizations serving on our Honorary Council. When I reflect on the enthusiasm, support and rich conversations with Council members, I sense a greater opening for collaboration among contemplative leaders. It isn’t at all clear to me how this will shape itself, but I sense that there is renewal, expansion and magnification of efforts in the contemplative movement. I find that extremely hopeful.
I also think that young adults in particular are helping to break down denominational barriers, insisting on interspiritual sharing and communities. This offers exciting possibilities for a more diverse and rich contemplative movement.
It’s possible that different streams of the contemplative movement could find ways to bring contemplative grounding to the various sectors of our lives such as the work place, families, schools, health care, social and political arenas. One could imagine how sharing the fruits of contemplative leadership among these different domains could add vitality and inspiration to the entire movement.
Do you think the internet and specifically social media has helped or hurt contemplative spirituality and communities of practice? Do you have any practices you’d recommend for engaging the internet in healthy and grounded ways?
LR: It’s interesting; we discussed a very similar question last week in a tweet chat! My sense is that social media can support or diminish our contemplative practice, depending on the intention we bring to our exchanges. For example Shalem has a Facebook page where we share a contemplative quote and a beautiful picture each day; we have heard from many people that these posts are a welcome reminder to pause, take a breath, to sink into the spiritual heart. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations are another example; they are a blessing to so many!
However it’s also true that “rapid fire” exchanges via social media can invite us to respond from our ego rather than the spiritual heart. And certainly we need to guard against being pulled into email and social media to a degree that leaves little time for anything else. Too much exchange can cheapen the insights offered since they are so quickly replaced by the “next thing” without ample time to sink in to the heart.
One exciting opportunity that the web provides is the creation of spiritual community that is not limited by geography. Over the years we’ve heard from a number of contemplatives who feel that they are “one of a kind” in their communities and they are lonely. This past year we’ve offered an Online School of Contemplative Prayer series that features a virtual spiritual community; we’ve been gratified to hear how rich and deep this online community is for many participants. As one of our Board members put it, “I guess you could say that the Spirit has always been virtual.”
How do you see Christian contemplatives intersecting with other contemplative movements globally? Is Shalem doing anything specifically to extend their reach more globally?
LR: I think that Christian contemplatives have always found themselves at home with the mystical core of other traditions. The common longing for deeper, direct experience of the Holy provides a basis for shared learning and respect. Throughout the years Shalem has been enriched by the contemplative wisdom of other faith traditions. Since we were not formed by a particular denomination, we have always welcomed other contemplative traditions to share the journey.
We have been intentional about reaching out more globally. About six years ago we were asked by a group of clergy and lay leaders in South Korea to support their understanding of contemplative practice. We have collaborated with that group ever since and today they are offering contemplative prayer practices and leadership that have touched over 6,000 Koreans, by their estimate.
Graduates of our long-term leadership programs are offering contemplative prayer groups and retreats and bringing contemplative practices to communities in South Africa, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Austria, Mexico—the list goes on. In January 2014 we will travel to Cuba during Christian Unity week and will have the opportunity to lead contemplative prayers with seminary students and prison chaplains. We have often been surprised by where the Spirit is taking this work, but we are ready to go where the seeds have been planted. This is another reason why circling the world in prayer is such an important expression of our gratitude for 40 years and an expression of what seems invited now.