Category Archives: contemplative

Contemplatives Go Mainstream

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

——Pope Francis Address to Congress

pope rolling storeI am sure that the address of Pope Francis was viewed  by millions of people, as well as  witnessed by a joint session of the US Congress. In it he affirmed four Americans of great note. Among them was Thomas Merton whom he identified as a contemplative. Such an affirmation will cause people to be curious about contemplative life. Praise God for this man and his willingness to share his bold beliefs with the world. We contemplatives are now part of the mainstream media.



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Living Contemplatives

If we want to live as Monks, we must try to understand what the monastic life really is. We must try reach the springs from which that life flows. We must have some notion of our spiritual roots, that we may better able to sink them deep into the soil.

—-Thomas Merton

merton by the fireplaceThese are the opening words to Thomas Merton’s Introduction to Monastic Spiritually. Though the book was written for young men who were entering into a monastic vocation, it speaks to all of us who seek to live as contemplatives where we are planted. Merton points out three very important directions that all contemplative seekers must follow:

  • He urges us to reach the springs from which such a life flows. There is not one among us who does not have a deep driving desire to discover the “God spring” that is at our grasp. God promises never to leave or forsake us and I believe He means it. Therefore, I will continue to have an outstretched hand toward that goal.
  • We are called to discover our spiritual roots. Merton seems to imply that the key to this discovery is in the search. As we search and find our spring we realize we are created in the image and likeness of God, and we were created with great promise and gifted by God with the ability to live a productive, God honoring life.
  • Growth is then attained by sinking our roots deeply into our spiritual soil. Our roots are continually watered by the spring from which our life flows. The depth of the roots of any tree determines its ability to stand against the wind. So with us, we must be able to withstand the winds of adversity that come our way in the Christian journey.

These three steps propel us in our journeys to, and with, God. The spring waters and the roots grow in their depth and breath. The result is that we are living contemplatives that seek the face of God.

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Some Advice About Living

It was said of Abba Theodore of Pherme that three things he held to be fundamental were: poverty, asceticism, flight

from men.

He also said, ‘The man who remains standing when he repents, has not kept the commandment.’

—–Sayings of the Desert

The advice from the monk is to have your life characterized by some fundamental attitudes that lead us closer to God. He goes on to tell us that true repentance is manifested in outward humility. The words poverty and asceticism can be summed up by just saying that we are called to a life of simplicity. This type of simplicity allows us to put God first in our lives. Such a simplicity keeps us away from many temptations. Those that live the simple life are generous, compassionate and without greed or envy. The expression “flight from men “can be summed up by saying, put aside the things of the world and spend time with God. This life is designed to keep us constantly distracted and occupied with the things of the world. Such a state of affairs gives us little time for the things of God. We all want to get to a place where we find peace and harmony with ourselves and the rest of the world. That was the Abba’s goal and ours, too.

Striving towards that simplicity demands repentance, not just a casual confession, but true repentance. That repentance is one of depth and conviction, and it brings about conversion. Such a conversion will affect us greatly.  There are too many professing Christians who can simply “remain standing” surrounded by their sin. All of us are called to a repentance and conversion of heart that brings us to our knees, helpless without the grace of God.

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My Tribe

For the past several years I have been affiliated with The School for Contemplative Living in New Orleans. The following article was written by William Thiele who is the founder and director of the school. I share it with his permission. IB

“What Wisdom Lineage and tribe of beings do I belong to?”

Mark Nepo asks these questions in his recent book: Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred.[1] He got me to thinking this morning. The following are some initial responses.



For me, the contemplative tradition of the Christian faith, sprinkled with wisdom from other traditions, is my Wisdom Lineage. This arises easily. I am drawn to wisdom higher than rational thought, deeper than my own superficial reflections on life. I am drawn to wisdom which challenges my thinking mind, which can’t really wrap itself around wisdom. I remember how Richard Rohr contrasted contemplative mind and the dualistic mind in his book The Naked Now and in his sharing while in New Orleans in 2011. My dualistic mind is always analyzing reality into parts so it can feel in control. My Wisdom Lineage arises from the contemplative mind and its spacious vision, which transcends any specific religious tradition. Yet I have been schooled primarily in how that wisdom comes through the stream of Christianity.

This contemplative mind is like the mind of God manifesting itself. Sometimes it arises within me and sometimes it comes to me through my tribe: authors I read and people I know. This Wisdom Lineage comes through people who act as a kind of mouthpiece for the Divine. They are the mystics, saints, and contemplatives in every generation who craft their lives around practicing the presence of God. Their practice tends to lead toward personal transformation and radical engagement with the world.

In thinking of my “tribe of beings,” I look at the men in my men’s group from the Mankind Project, the ecumenical people of my United Methodist church, and the ecumenical and interspiritual participants in the School for Contemplative Living groups. Some of the traits of my tribe include people who are real/honest/truth-tellers, humble, reverent, non-judgmental, welcoming, seekers of personal transformation, lovers, and engaged in serving the world.

People in my tribe are real human beings, meaning we have plenty of weaknesses and imperfections. We struggle with our humanity. Sometimes, in graced moments, we find the courage to see and say our own imperfections to others. This is our honesty at work.

We are truth-tellers who are seeking our own growth and transformation. We do not have a license to belittle another and call that just being honest. Our truth and honesty is about ourselves. We seek our growth by telling truth about ourselves.

Sometimes we even trust a Magician-energy inside us in hopes that our truth-telling will lead to our own transformation. We want to be all we can be, which means being our true selves. We also depend on each other to help us find the truth about life and ourselves, since many false beliefs can disguise themselves as truth. Truth-telling brings our darkness to light so we can coruscate: shine with the glory of God.

In really graced moments the people in my tribe also accept ourselves just as we are. This is our practice of humility. In my experience we cannot do this alone. We need each other’s compassion to find self-compassion. We need acceptance from others to experience acceptance of ourselves. This is our practice of humility: self-acceptance grounded in others’ acceptance.

The people in my tribe are non-judgmental lovers. They have visited the country of judging themselves and feeling judged by others many times. In the end this path was not life-giving. So the people in my tribe learn to recognize their judgments, and name them, without being controlled by them. In my tribe we see that all judgments come back to ourselves and point to areas we need to work on in ourselves. Judgments become a mirror.

The people in my tribe are lovers. They choose a life of love over a life of violence. The real test for the lover is about self-love. This is the basis for all love of others. And self-love is not a product we can manufacture alone. We can’t create it by just trying harder. Self-love has its origins in the Great Love. And that love is manifested through imperfect human beings, along with master lovers like dogs and cats. In my tribe we help each other find self-love through our loving acceptance of each other. Compassion is our intention and practice.

My tribe welcomes others into the community. We are inclusive. We actively seek out people who are not clones of ourselves. This means people of color, other religions, no religiousness, the LGBT community, etc. We do have boundaries in my tribe however. The one group we will usually exclude is those committed to excluding others. This is a weird paradox among us: we will not accept judgmentalism among us. Such people are simply not safe to be around. They tend to fragment community or create artificial community. Only they are not welcome in my tribe.

My tribe tends to practice reverence. They are reverent in their attitudes toward God, at least a lot of the time. They cultivate reverence in their attitudes toward other beings and the whole natural world. They are seeing the sacred all around them, in everyone they meet, and welcoming those sacred beings into their lives.

Finally, the people in my tribe actively engage in service of the world. We set our intention to find a mission and seek to live that mission in the world. We look for people to serve in accordance with our own giftedness and calling. Paradoxically, we often find that others serve/guide/teach us. My people actively engage in giving and receiving with other people in the world. Does that sound like anyone you know? If you look in the mirror, do you see that this tribe is you?

My tribe fills my life to the brim,

William Thiele

[1] Nepo, Mark, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred, (New York: Atria, 2013), 59.

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Filed under Christian Living, contemplative, Missional Living, Monasticism, Prayer

Divine Union

Liturgy of Saint James. Russian Orthodox Churc...

Franciscan Friar and contemplative Richard Rhor asserts the following: “Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of all religion.” In that very short statement we can find the heart of our faith walk. Our world is busy chasing many goals and movements to find the perfect way to “do church,” and it stares us in the face. Religion is union with the divine. That union is not found in a series of rules that seek to bring us to a state of personal perfection but in quiet steps that bring us closer to God.

This union with the Divine has to start with prayer that carries us away from the ordinary and allows us to reach for the Divine. Perhaps the best start would be a time of silence when we offer ourselves to God, and remain still long enough for Him to respond.

Union with the Divine is found in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In this Holy Mystery, the Divine comes to us. Countless hours are spent looking for God, and without a doubt, He is present in the sacrament. Do not neglect the concept of frequent communion that is so forcefully expressed by Methodist founder John Wesley for in the practice of this Holy Mystery we find Divine union.

Jesus cries to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. “ Let us make coming to union with the Divine the driving force of our lives.

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Living Flame of Love

O living flame of love that tenderly wounds my soul in its deepest center! Since now you are not oppressive, now consummate! if it be your will: tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!


English: Saint John of the Cross, portrait

O sweet cautery, O delightful wound! O gentle hand! O delicate touch that tastes of eternal life and pays every debt! In killing you changed death to life.


O lamps of fire! in whose splendors the deep caverns of feeling, once obscure and blind, now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely, both warmth and light to their Beloved.


How gently and lovingly you wake in my heart, where in secret you dwell alone; and in your sweet breathing, filled with good and glory, how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

——- John of the Cross

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by Becket

In previous posts, I wrote about monastic chant, how it’s different from traditional music in both rhythm and melody. It’s almost mystical in modality and polyrhythm – yet also in its simplicity. In chant there is no point and counterpoint; there are no harmonies. There is one melody and all the monastic brothers must chant it in unison.

Chant could be a powerful uniting factor within the brotherhood – if the brothers allowed it to be so.

English: Choir stalls in the church Nice to se...

Choir Stalls

I remember, once, I got into a terrible argument with Brother Simon. We were in the bell tower right before prayer. We had been ringing the bells, summoning our other brother monks to come to the church to pray. It was our evening prayer service then, Vespers, at 5:30pm. I had said something terrible to him and he yelled back at me. I deserved it, and worse, although I didn’t think so at the time. Yet the bells kept on ringing.

As their clangor resounded across the acres of forest and solitude and silence that encompassed the monastery, my brother monks were lining up in the cloister. They were standing in two rows. Then they walked from the abbey to the church along the sidewalk. Together they entered through a side door, together they walked along the side of the church, together they came around to the back and dipped their fingers in the baptismal font, and together they blessed themselves. The only sound was the shuffling of their shoes that echoed as though in a cave. And all the while, Brother Simon and I were stewing in the bell tower because of our argument. But when it was time, we silenced the bells and we joined our brothers. Together we entered the monastic choir stalls, together we opened our books, and together we chanted our invocation to prayer.

Yes we stood side by side. I was angry then that Brother Simon was beside me. Perhaps he felt the same. Our place in choir was out of our hands. Brother Simon had entered the monastery a few weeks ahead of me, so he was technically my elder brother. By monastic rules, I had no other choice: I had to stand beside him in choir. “Why must I stand beside someone I loathe instead of love?” I asked myself. “Why couldn’t I be placed beside Brother Cyril?” Brother Cyril was also Brother Simon’s junior by a two weeks but he was my elder by a week, right in between Brother Simon and me. But that would not happen because the monastic choir director, Father Adam, set Brother Cyril on the other side of the church, in Choir One, while setting Brother Simon and me in Choir Two. I thought that being beside Brother Cyril would have been better. I didn’t realize that that would have been an easy solution to a hard problem.

And the problem wasn’t my argument with my brother. Rather it was the mountain of my pride – my need to be right.

So Brother Simon and I were stuck together, even though we had gotten into a terrible fight and did not like one another right then. Even our presence seemed to irritate one another. I remember I used to feel that way when I was nine years old, about one of my siblings, my brother or one of my sisters. And here I was again, now in my mid-20s feeling as helplessly angry as I had in my childhood.

But the purpose of monastic chant only works if the monks know how to sing together. As I wrote earlier, monastic chant is meant to be sung in unison. All the brothers must sing together, on the same note, in the same rhythm. Without unison, there is only disunity and discord.

So my brother monks and I started to chant the first psalm. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Boy, was I in the depths of my own solipsistic whimsy at that moment – which wasn’t deep at all but incredibly shallow. My problem wasn’t that Brother Simon had bothered me, or that I had bothered him. Rather, I needed to be taken out of my own depths, which wasn’t all that deep – I needed to be yanked from the war raging in the shallow end of my ego. And our chant – the prayer of our brotherhood – had begun to do that.

You see: to remain chanting in unison, I had to listen to the brother beside me – I had to hear his note, I had to hear his rhythm, and I had to match both and remain with his chanting.

So in doing that, I also heard Brother Simon chanting: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” Hearing this gave the words of the psalm an entirely new meaning. Now it wasn’t merely me calling out to God from the depths of a difficult place; but my brother was doing the same.

Nevertheless, the interior war of my ego – my desire to be right – would try to dismiss the fact that my brother was feeling exactly the way I felt.

The monks finished chanting the psalm and we moved on to the next. With my brother monks I chanted, “God listens to the prayers of the humble of heart.” Yes, I chanted this but so did Brother Simon. He and I were chanting in unison, yet I did not feel united with him: I felt better than him while I was working out in my mind how I could win our argument. I wasn’t being humble, even though I was chanting to God about true humility in prayer.

It was right then that I began to change. And I don’t believe that I was changing myself, but that I was being changed from the inside out.

As Brother Simon and I chanted in unison, I began to see that the humility of our brotherhood was in the harmony of our togetherness. The profundity of monastic chant is that its unison is absolutely nothing without harmony – the harmony of friendship, the harmony of brotherliness, the harmony of children of God struggling to be better men.

We chanted psalm after psalm, and canticle after canticle. We stood beside one another, we sat beside one another, we listened together to the Scriptures being read, and we prayed together to God – which is the principle purpose of being in a religion. It’s not about being right in an argument. It’s about trusting together that no human eye can see, no human ear can hear, and no human heart can know what God has ready for those who love in sincerity of heart – love God and love one another.

After prayer, later that night, I had no choice: Despite how I felt, despite some silly fear of being wrong or changing or seeming weak, I had to go to Brother Simon, and I had to say simply, “I’m really sorry for hurting you.”

For me, the monastic choir stalls were a glimpse of what heaven might be like: It might not simply be eternal mercy and justice and peace: It might also be me standing beside a brother I’ve so often failed to love.

I had the pleasure of meeting Becket while I was doing some personal soul-searching at St. Joseph Abbey. At the time he was a professing monk who had not taken his final vows. He has since left the monastery to become the personal assistant of the writer Anne Rice. In a recent conversation he has given me permission to reprint his story as he is posting it on Facebook. I hope you find these installments as fascinating as I do

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Not There Yet

A brother went to Abba Mateos and said to him, ‘How is it that the monks of Scetis did more than the scriptures required in loving their enemies more than themselves?’ Abba Mateos said to him, ’As for me I have not yet managed to love those who love me as I love myself.’

——Abba Mateos of the desert

The Christian journey is a long series of “not there yet” experiences. Too often we are prodded along by people that have very high views of their own spiritual worth. These high minded ones are often sources of discouragement to us, but we must always remember that we, and they, have not yet attained perfection. Our lives are a saga of moving toward God but always being fully aware of our sinful nature. Life is about forgiving ourselves and our neighbors as God forgives us. Somehow we must summon the level of mercy that God pours out on us, and understand that it is applicable to all. In that spirit we can love and forgive, not as inferiors or superiors to anyone, but as equals to all.

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Stop Looking at Yourself

Sketch by myself with effects applied.

“In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in Him and to do whatever He wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of His reality which is all around us in the things and people we live with.”

Thomas Merton- from “No Man is an Island


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Who am I ?

Abba Poeman said to Abba Joseph, ’Tell me how to become a monk.’ He said, ‘If you want to find rest here below, (earth) and hereafter,(heaven) in all circumstances say, who am I? — and do not judge anyone.’

St. Anthony's Monastery  in Egypt—— sayings of the Desert

Do not judge anyone. That very small statement is one of the most difficult tasks of any follower of Christ. Our very nature is about judging and discerning, and when we act on that nature we can be very harsh toward those who are the recipients of our judgment. The wise old man says, “Who am I?” This a simple and yet very profound statement that has monumental consequences. Evaluated correctly the Abba was saying, I am not God. We all need to accept the simple fact of our own inability to know what is best for the world, and turn to God for His guidance.

Your journey, when it is focused on you and God, can be radically changed. We are no longer threatened by the sin and confusion that surrounds us, but we are strengthened by the spirit that lives within us. A good first step to getting there would be let God judge – NOT YOU!

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