Last weekend, I attended a conference in Rockville, Maryland – where it was sunny and hot, nearly 90 degrees! – hosted by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. As their website says, “Shalem is grounded in Christian contemplative spirituality yet draws on the wisdom of many religious traditions.” I would guess, simply based on observation, that the vast majority of the 150+ attendees to this conference are Christians, but they practice Christianity in a way that is a bit different than how you and I usually practice it.
I attended this conference in order to fulfill a requirement for my current Doctor of Ministry “independent study” course. I designed this course a few months ago, in consultation with my supervising professor, in order to propel me forward into the Professional Project which will be the culmination, the capstone, of my doctoral work. According to the seminary’s instructions, my independent study was to include an “immersion experience” which would connect to this Professional Project and, at the same time, would stretch me in some meaningful, significant ways. Last weekend’s Shalem conference did exactly that.
The conference’s title was “The Passion of the Mystics,” and the presenter, an author from New Mexico named Mirabai Starr, told the stories of many medieval Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others who wrote about their experiences of close, personal relationship with God. We learned about how St. John of the Cross wrote about the “dark night of the soul” as a positive opportunity of finding God’s presence in the midst of difficulty. We heard about Rumi, a well-known Muslim poet, who wrote about the paradoxical nature of love. We talked about desiring God and how that desire is crucial to our human experience. We read from Teresa of Avila, a 16th Century Christian who explained that our desire for God is reciprocated by God: God desires to be in relationship with us as well. We learned about Julian of Norwich, another Christian woman from the 14th Century who believed that God desires to “one” us to himself. (Think of “one” as a verb: something like “unite,” but deeper and more holy.)
Lately, I have been reading many books in the contemplative Christian tradition. I chose several of these for my independent study reading list. I’ve been reading authors like Gerald May (in whose memory this conference is held each year), Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. My exposure to this ancient-yet-current tradition is shaping my life in ways that I don’t yet fully understand, but I hope to explore these ideas further in my Professional Project, which I hope will take place later this summer and into the fall.
Here are several takeaways which I wrote down at the Shalem conference:
- We are not just people; we are souls. If we see all people as souls, then the duality of “good guys vs. bad guys” can disappear. We can love our enemies, as Jesus taught us.
- We are made to yearn for union with God, and that yearning is exactly what God desires for us.
- How do I know if an experience with God is authentic? Just ask: did that expand my heart for love for God?
- God is Love, Lover, and Beloved. (This is a truth that both Christian and Muslim mystics recognize. In the Christian way of thinking about the Trinity, we can equate Love with God the Holy Spirit, Lover with God the Father, and Beloved with God the Son.)
- To be a contemplative means to be fully available to the present moment.
- We are trained to run away from pain, sorrow, or loss. But being present to what is happening can open space for God’s grace to take root in our lives. Being open in this way connects us to all humanity, because our pain is often very similar to the pain of other people – even strangers and enemies.
I don’t expect all of these ideas to make perfect sense; they barely make sense to me. But I share these thoughts with you to give you a taste of what I have been experiencing lately. There is a great sense of peace and fulfillment when we encounter God in a contemplative way.
My reading list is longer because of this conference. My ideas for the upcoming Professional Project (more on that soon!) are richer because of this conference. Most of all, my sense of amazement at the nearness of God, the love of God, and the reality of God is stronger because of this conference.
Please feel free to talk with me if you have any questions or comments. I welcome your feedback!