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Stillness, Silence & Simplicity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

As I slowly and deliberately near the top of the climb, I am surrounded by emptiness. At this height the world is far away, and with the exception of a turkey vulture circling below me, all is small and still. At this height the wind envelopes everything, howling with such steadiness it becomes a blanket of white noise, producing a deep and profound silence. At this height the vastness, the void, the sheer expanse of space is overwhelming and in that moment simplicity reigns, for I can only focus on is what is in front of me: handhold, foot hold, pull up, the jingle of gear, the rope every so gently reminding me that it is there, the smell of chalk and sweat, rock dust faint in my nostrils. Whatever worries or thoughts or motives I brought with me to the base of the climb have been given over to this still, simple silence.
It is there that a clarity emerges, ever so fleetingly, it exists in a place beyond words. I am united with something impossibly expansive, a deeper self, a self in unity with this Ultimate Reality. Time slows into the moment and the sense of clarity begins to feel like eternity itself, as if all things flow through, into and out of this moment.

I once had a maroon t-shirt with the image of a imposing mountain face embossed with the words: “Somewhere between the bottom and the top is the reason that we climb.” The longer I climb, the more I appreciate the truth this shirt proclaimed. For the uninitiated, climbing may look like little more than a way to seek thrills, to tick off summits from a list. But the more one climbs, the more the joy comes from moments like the one described above. In the process, I would even go far as to say the joy really starts to come in the midst of the monotony of it.

The author approaching the south summit of Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. Photo credit: Chris Peterson

Yes, believe it or not, climbing can become mundane. Imagine obsessing over subtle shifts in the texture of a rock face, checking and re-checking gear, the act of belaying (holding the rope with a friction device so the climber climbing does not fall to the ground) is often a practice in tedium, and this goes on for hours on end. But it is in that very monotony — as opposed to the “mountain top” experiences — that one can uncover these fleeting moments of clarity.

If this seems counter intuitive, think of the way the world is currently obsessed with “experience” — particularly the spectacular kind. Cruise through just about any social media feed and it is ripe with curated posts and selfies that feel almost like an arms race towards who had the greatest experience! This happens in the spiritual world as well: the perfectly lighted yoga studio, the wellness trips to beautiful destinations. Even in the church there has been a push for experience: the best praise band, the perfect background for slides, the “right” website, making sure the greeters are properly trained. There is a particular kind of seeking that seems to be looking for God in the profoundly extraordinary and miraculous.

The summit experience, when I began climbing, fit the bill as profoundly extraordinary and I undoubtedly chased after them for a while. After nearly 28 years of spending time in the mountains, I can honestly say that summits are now just a part of the journey, no longer the goal in themselves. The real transformation has come through being patient with the process and resting in stillness, silence, and simplicity. And if climbing has taught me anything, it’s that stillness, silence, and simplicity are best when they are internal states of being. In other words stillness does not need to be still, silence does not need to be silent, and simplicity can be found in even the most complex of tasks.

This isn’t a perfect parallel for the church, but there are similarities. For one, focusing on “experience” will only get a person so far. And if there is no one around ready to invite people past “experience,” someone with some familiarity with stillness, simplicity ,and silence, then the community will not get very far.

The good news is that one does not need to perch themselves hundreds of feet above the ground to discover stillness, simplicity, and silence. In fact, although I may have first uncovered fleeting moments of clarity in the mountains, it is through contemplative practice, through intentionally being present to God, that I am able to deepen those moments and expand those moments and to let those moments continue to transform and work through me towards a unity with the divine.

Amid the rampant anxiety of the mainline church at the moment, we need the counter-intuitive. There is a reflex in the face of dwindling membership numbers to be more attractional, getting caught up in providing an experience, to do anything to just get people through the doors. Maybe thats the starting place, maybe not, but if the church can not provide a pathway towards that deeper experience, in stillness, silence, and simplicity, then it will almost certainly fail, for those fleeting moments of clarity that come through practice and embracing the process and letting go into the undefinable vastness of God are where real transformation happens. Are you embracing stillness even when its dancing, silence even when its loud, and simplicity even when its nuanced and paradoxical? Where in the impossible expanse of God do you let go and rest into the still, simple silence?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

Bringing Contemplative Practices to the Congregation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Molly Hatchell

My sense of call has centered around bringing the vitality of the Christian contemplative renewal movement to meet the needs of our Presbyterian congregations. This movement is spreading across boundaries of denominational affiliations and geographical regions. It emphasizes the importance of cultivating a relationship with God so people can notice God at work in their lives and respond with a spiritual heart.

The relational aspect helps people to move away from a transactional response to God grounded on fear and duty towards an intimate, joyful, and grateful response to God. A deeper understanding of God’s love is realized. This experience, in turn, guides people in their outpouring of love, not only towards God, but towards others as well.

One pathway for integrating aspects of the contemplative movement into a congregation is to lead weekly contemplative prayer groups using the ancient Christian prayer form of lectio divina. During lectio, we hear the word of God through scripture, silently meditate, reflect, and share how we experienced God during the prayer. This prayer form has been particularly appreciated by Presbyterians new to contemplative practices because of its emphasis on praying with scripture.

I’m encouraged by the reception of the lectio groups I’ve been involved in.1 Many lifelong Presbyterians were not familiar with this type of “spiritual conversation” and were more accustomed to describing what they knew about God rather than how they experienced God. Yet they reported positive experiences:

“This is life-changing.”
“This is transformative.”
“You have taught us how to listen to God.”
“This is the first time my husband has attended church for years and he wants to keep coming,” and
“I really appreciate the connection we have with each other.”

The pastors of the churches also expressed value: “This is an area where the church is flourishing,” and “Through the contemplative prayer group, you’ve reached people I could not have reached.” The success of these groups are tied to the pastor’s support for this “new” type of ministry and the church’s discernment that it meets the current congregational needs.

Another way to bring the beneficial aspects of the movement to the congregation is by helping church leaders to experience the practices. When my colleagues who are pastors and church leaders expressed a desire to worship with privacy, yet in community, we started an ecumenical lectio group for leaders. The six-week commitment was renewed through seven months. The leaders expressed a growing sense of God’s companionship in their ministry.

The sense of God’s companionship in ministry aids a preacher’s development of an effective sermon. Backstory Preaching, an educational program for new or experienced preachers, emphasizes the spirituality in sermon preparation and hosts a weekly lectio divina online group for the upcoming lectionary.

Recently I led a clergy retreat on contemplative prayer where leaders enthusiastically swapped stories on how they see contemplative practices inviting new ways to worship together. Many of the seminarians at the Presbyterian seminary where I work are already familiar with the contemplative movement and eager to share the practices with their future congregations. It will be interesting to watch the ways the Holy Spirit will move in communities to help us deepen our faith.

The late Thomas Keating, one of the architects of the Christian contemplative renewal movement, expressed the mission of the church as the need to help one another “to bring into society, into whatever society you are in, an awakening of the great love of God for each human being and God’s desire to enter into a personal relationship with each of us.” I hope each of us can experience this awakening and guide others, in whatever way we are called, to understand God’s desire for relationship.

1My groups are modeled after the contemplative prayer groups designed by Tilden Edwards, an early leader of the Christian Contemplative Renewal Movement.


Molly Hatchell is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with a ministry focused on spiritual formation. She is certified by Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation in Contemplative Group Leadership and by Contemplative Outreach as a Commissioned Presenter of Centering Prayer Workshops. Molly serves as a spiritual director at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and as a leader of contemplative prayer groups and retreats in Central Texas.

Silence and the Oppressed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Therese Taylor-Stinson

People of color have engaged in contemplation since the beginning of time, though the term used in a broad sense for spiritual practice is relatively new. The Desert Ammas and Abbas were people of color from the Middle East who fled to the deserts to escape the empire and are not only known as among the first contemplatives but also the first psychologists, as they tested the limits of their human condition in the desert. Contemplation is defined as deep, prolonged thoughtfulness. A contemplative, then, is one whose life is devoted primarily to prayerful pondering, and there are two broad forms of contemplative prayer — apophatic and kataphatic.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

Apophatic prayer — noted as a higher form of communion with God by a 14th century anonymous monk called “the cloud” for his foundational book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing — is a willing surrender into mystery: that which cannot be fully known and is closer to the true nature of God. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of the unknown. Apophatic prayer has no content but is full of intention, such as with a practice called centering prayer.

Fourth century Roman Catholic Bishop Gregory of Nyssa wrote about “apophatic” ways of being. Gregory was born in Cappadocia (present day Turkey) and held his bishop’s dominion in Nyssa — both in the Middle East. So, Gregory was likely a brown person as well, whose central argument is that God as an infinite being cannot actually be comprehended by us finite humans. God is not a white dude with a long white beard who sits on a cloud and grants wishes, and wants your sports team to win. God is something transcendent and alien whose thoughts we cannot properly grasp or explain.

Kataphatic prayer, on the other hand, has content; it uses words, images, symbols, and ideas. Ignatian prayer, such as lectio divina, the daily examen, and the Ignatian process for discernment is mostly kataphatic. Other forms of kataphatic prayer may be writing, music, dance, and other art forms.

Medieval Spanish priest (now saint, as was Gregory) Ignatius of Loyola, a spiritual director, was a prominent figure in the Roman Catholic “counter-reformation,” during the same period or starting a little before the Protestant reformation. His most influential work was Spiritual Exercises, still used by many today. His prayer was “Soul of Christ, make me holy.” And he wrote of himself in Spiritual Exercises, “Without seeing any vision, he understood and knew many things, as well spiritual things as things of the faith.” So, Ignatius too knew apophatic ways of being with God, but his Spiritual Exercises was full of kataphatic prayer forms to assist in ushering oneself, as well as others, into the presence of mystery.

In both Gregory, whom begins with unknowing, and Ignatius, whom engages the mind, I see both an apophatic and kataphatic approach that leads to a fully embodied intention for the Holy. Gregory writes, “We know some things that God is not, but we are incapable of understanding what God is. However, we can observe God’s ‘energies’ projected into the material world by God’s creation of the universe and God’s grace or love entering it. It is just as in human works of art, where the mind can in a sense see the author in the ordered structure that is before it, inasmuch as he has left his artistry in his work. But notice that what we see here is merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work, not the substance of the craftsman. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of the substance but of the wisdom of Him Who has done all things wisely.”

As an example of a practical application of Gregory’s apophatic theology, he argues that slavery and poverty are unethical. The idea is that humans have a unique value that requires respect, because they alone are made “in the image of” the unknowable and unworldly God. Poverty and slavery are inconsistent with the dignity and respect due the image of God in all people. *[Referenced from an anonymous source.]

So, that brings me to the pervasive idea among white contemplatives who dominate the ideas of modern-day contemplation that for the most part, African Americans and other people of color don’t practice contemplative prayer, which they view as predominantly silence. Silence certainly has its place, but as the writer of Ecclesiastes notes in chapter 3:1, everything has its time: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” One of the few recognized black mystics, Howard Thurman, wrote, “Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you.”

This is an idea the oppressed understand well. In their contemplation, there may be seasons for silence, but there are also seasons and reasons for shouting, dancing, expressive emotion, and even protest, ushering in the presence of God to guide and protect; leaning on that God for constant direction; releasing toxic emotions.

For example, the enslaved taken from Africa across the Middle Passage and brought into chattel slavery were silenced from the time of their capture and separation from all others whom spoke their language and shared their customs. To be silenced is to cause trauma. On the slave ships, they ushered in the presence of God and community through the “moan” — the name given it by the slaveholders. The enslaved became one in their suffering by joining together in their sighs and groans of pain too deep for words. Their separation and silencing continued when they reached land, were warehoused, and sold to slave masters, separated from their children, spouses, and other relatives. Again silenced, they found ways to communicate their suffering and garner support through music, dance, and shouting, as they secretly met in the hush hollows, the abandoned shacks in the woods, and suppressed their sounds by shouting into barrels or pots, and sharing in each others suffering by turning the day’s suffering into song that was joined in a call and response by the others present. They were silenced. Their narrative was not known, but God knew, along with those gathered with them in subversion.

Albert Rabateau tells a story in his book Slave Religion through a third person about the silencing of the enslaved and their knowledge and faith in a Supreme Being. The observer notes how, though the enslaved could not read, they had ways of knowing God, and when they were finally introduced to the Bible, they already knew who God was! The observer also notes that some of the enslaved believed the Bible should not be read until after one has gained that inward knowing.

The oppressed around the world — mostly people of color — have been silenced from control of their own narratives, while the dominate culture dictates a narrative to be both disseminated to the world and absorbed by the oppressed that centers whiteness and devalues the lives and culture of people of color across the globe, leaving them silenced, oppressed, and struggling to know and to value their own heritage.

Silence may be needed in some cases among the dominant culture in order to allow the narrative of the oppressed to emerge; in order for them to come face-to-face with their own complicity in silencing people of color in order to enjoy the privileges of dominance. However, silence is not the only way to encounter God. Silence is not the only way to embrace Mystery. Silence is not the only way to deep pondering and profound prayer. Silence for the oppressed should be embraced on their own terms and their more kataphatic ways of being and prayer embraced more fully by contemplatives of every culture, unless it remains a tool to keep the narrative of the oppressed untold.


Therese Taylor-Stinson is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the PCUSA. After serving as chair of the COM Care Team, Therese was tapped to serve as National Capital Presbytery’s moderator for an extended 3-year term. During her year as vice moderator, she co-founded and organized the Racial Awareness Festival, now going into its fourth year. Therese also organized a Confronting Racism Task Force for NCP in 2017. She now serves as Liaison for Race and Reconciliation, with a team of six members, under NCP’s Mission Coordinating Committee. Therese is a retired Fed, having served 32 years, leaving as a senior program analyst and the expert at the time in Federal Regulatory Activity. Therese has a private spiritual direction practice, which she began 14 years ago, and she is the Founding Managing Member of the Spiritual Directors of Color (SDC) Network, Ltd. Therese was recognized in 2018 as a Collaborative Bridge Builder by Grace and Race, Inc., and as Author of the Year in the area of social awareness by the Indie Author Legacy Awards for her second edited work for the SDC Network, entitled Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Stories of Contemplation and Justice. Therese celebrates 40 years with her husband, Bernard, on September 8, and they have one daughter and two granddaughters.

The Possibility of a Contemplative Reformation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Stuart Higginbotham

​The day-to-day life of a parish priest can often be a surreal experience. Sometimes, I find myself moving from preparing for a funeral with a grieving family, to calendar planning, to liturgical details for Christmas six months from now, to reviewing monthly budgets, to hosting a community opioid crisis group, to addressing a dogwood tree that was mowed down on the edge of the parking lot after a centering prayer group.

The days are long, as are the memories of valued customs and a typical discomfort and resistance in departing well-journeyed patterns and routines. Add to this the complexity of the larger dynamic of the decline in attendance and interest that spans any denominational constructs, and the spiritual and emotional weight bears down on weary shoulders.

As I scan bookshelves, I see methods and frameworks that offer programs for myriad issues and stresses. There is an understandable desire for some answer, some relief to the pressure we feel in traditional congregations. While I celebrate well-developed plans for Christian education, for example, something in my soul resists relying too heavily on a program-maintenance model in congregational ministry.

​For the past several years, I have been curious about the possibility of a contemplative reformation within the traditional, institutional church. Rather than rely on corporate models and cultural assumptions so often laden with a consumeristic mindset, I feel led to delve more deeply into the fullness of the prayerful tradition we have been given. What role does prayer play in engaging the tensions we feel in traditional parish churches? How do we understand the presence of the Spirit of Christ as guiding us? What does it feel like to trust in this Spirit’s movement?

​In the broader Christian contemplative tradition, we understand that the presence of God is the foundational element of our lives. Our practice of prayer does not seek to bring God closer to us or us to God, per se; rather, we seek to become more aware of this indwelling presence in our lives. As St. Catherine of Siena described, “just as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean in the fish, so are our souls in you and you in our souls, O God.” It is a matter of cultivating an awareness that enables our hearts to be further transformed.

​This contemplative grounding is essential for how I understand parish ministry because it challenges me to consider whether I am trusting in the movement of the Spirit or in my own cleverness and egoistic persistence (and need for success and accomplishment). Rather than seeing contemplative practice — such a cultivation of attunement with the Spirit’s abiding presence within our spiritual heart — as something offered in side retreats for “those who are into that sort of thing,” how does such a practice of waking the spiritual heart reform the very way we understand Christian community within long-standing congregations?

​For me, it boils down to what I understand as the trajectory of transformation: the movement from a deeper awareness of God’s indwelling presence in our lives to a reorientation of the way we live in the broader world. In liturgical studies, we claim lex orandi, lex credendi, that the way we pray shapes the way we believe and thusly live in the world. Our practice of prayer reorients us; therefore, a practice of prayer that nurtures an awareness of the indwelling Spirit of Christ leads us to trust that the Spirit is indeed at work in the life of our community — all communities. Our anxieties and fears are reframed.
​We become less anxious about maintaining programs and more curious about what the Spirit is up to in our midst — and how we can share in that movement. Our ears become more sensitive to listening for what the Spirit is saying. Our eyes become sharper to catch glimpses of God that offer us hope in the midst of stress. Our spiritual hearts become even more spacious to respond with compassion to those who are in need. Perhaps we say, “Come, Holy Spirit” with a bit more enthusiasm!


The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia. He is the co-editor of Contemplation and Community: A Gathering of Fresh Voices for a Living Tradition. His vocation explores the intersection of contemplative practice, spiritual leadership, and congregational development, and he has worked and studied with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation for many years. His writings and resources can be found at www.contemplativereformation.com.

Intent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Intent. All prayer starts with intent.

In the beginning the intent might be a selfish desire to get something or achieve something. The intent might be to satisfy an elder or even a loved one. The intent might be to look good in public amongst peers; the intent might be to show off, as Jesus accused the scribes and the Pharisees of doing.
If one prays enough though, those original intents can begin to melt away. There is another intent that begins to emerge. At first, it is quiet and subtle, buried deep below the surface. It might start with the thought that one should not ask for things in prayer; it might be a desire to pray in solitude even if one has only ever prayed in public; it might come in a moment of seeking prayer apart from the person that has always been present before.

Over time this shift becomes greater. One might feel a need to pray, but is unable to find words; one might feel a necessity for silence; one might find themselves unable to make it through a day without stopping and giving themselves to something larger than themselves, deeper than their own capacity of experience.

Over time, one may begin to deeply understand that the intent of prayer is to simply be present to God.

I have come to appreciate this through the help of contemplatives like Gerald May, Thomas Keating, and Tilden Edwards. And as I have come to appreciate this, I have started to realize that with this intent, nearly all things can become prayer. That an intent to be in the simple presence of God is something that can guide one’s whole being,. One’s life can be intent to be present to God. When a person is intentionally present to God, simply and in still, patient awareness of the freely given Love of God, there exists the capacity to be transformed into the hands and feet of God, to exist as the body of Christ in the world.

One of the hopes of the NEXT Chuch blog this month is to share with the mainline church lessons garnered from contemplative practice. This lesson of intent is powerful. It is simple, yet in it is the capacity to “be reformed.”

What is your intent in worship? What is your intent with mission and outreach? What is your intent with leadership? What is your intent with stewardship? What is your intent as a congregation? The contemplatives offer a simple answer: to be present to God.

And even more than that, what if worship on Sunday morning was an intentional space to practice this intention? To practice it so one can live it out the rest of the week? What if the intent of worship was to practice presence in and awareness of God so that in the rest of one’s life they can more confidently live into this intent? In this scenario worship is not an end in itself; it is a means to God becoming actualized in more places. It is a means to God’s love in one’s community beyond the walls of the church.

Contemplation, then, is not something a person does for themselves; rather, it is something that is done for the community, for the world, because contemplation is the practice of letting God in, and by letting God in, God goes out.

It is with the intent to be present to God and to deepen awareness of God that the Love of God becomes manifest.

What is your intent?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

Opening the Door with Yoga

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sarah Pfeil

Yoga, like grace, arrived in my life when I needed it the most. I had gone through an arduous cancer journey and my spirit seemed broken. After my first yoga class, I knew I had found a way to regain a new sense of being, of wholeness.

The yoga path I am speaking of is a spiritual toolbox which includes all practices of yoga; ethics, breathing techniques, postures, mindfulness, and meditation. Through my practice of yoga, I integrated all aspects of myself into a personal relationship with God. However, the actual practice of yoga can take each person in a different direction. It is not necessary to subscribe to any particular religious beliefs in order to follow the yoga path. The yoga path can lead to a deeper understanding of God, to greater contentment, or to a stronger and healthier body. This is completely a personal matter and how a practitioner chooses to use yoga is up to them.

The heart of yoga is the cultivation of equanimity in mind and body, so the spiritual heart center can wake to the present moment of being alive and sink into the deep and sustaining relationship with God. We integrate all aspects of ourselves into relationship with God. The foundation of yoga, the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas, are the ethical precepts or core values of yoga. These ethics are about avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty and embracing those behaviors that promote love. The practice of the yamas and niyamas guides us into right relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, creation, and the Divine Spirit.

The practice of the physical postures strengthens our bodies. As physically embodied beings this vessel/body is where God has chosen to call home. Through yoga we appreciate and listen to our bodies. We release tension in our bodies and create openings for the Holy Spirit to move within us.

In every major religious tradition, the Spirit of God is the source of our life-giving breath. In yoga the focus is on mindful breathing. Yoga recognizes the breath as our life force. When we breath mindfully we remember that the breath of life that God breaths into us is the same breath that we share with all living creatures. We notice that with mindful breathing, our bodies relax, energy is flowing within us and we begin to feel a sense of peace on the inside. Our spiritual heart center softens and opens. The peace on the inside flows out to others as radiance and joyful light.

The practice of yoga is designed to move us into stillness and surrender. We develop awareness to notice thoughts as they arise and let them dissipate before we get entangled in them. As we witness our thoughts, the tight control of the ego-mind loosens. We create space in our minds to slip behind thoughts and surrender into the stillness. In this stillness we meet God.

The practice of yoga healed me…. physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I became a Kripalu yoga teacher and had my own yoga studio. The biggest blessing of my studio was watching students allow their Divine within to radiate out. Minds quiet, the heart opens, change happens, and grace flows. Yoga is a contemplative practice and is an opportunity to remember lost aspects of our own Christian tradition. Namaste.


Sarah Pfeil is currently taking part in an 18-month spiritual formation program with the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. The program teaches leadership of contemplative prayer groups and retreat leadership. Sarah is a Kripalu Certified yoga teacher and a former Yoga Studio Owner. Sarah has a master’s degree in finance and spent 30 years as an executive in Health care Management and Consulting.

The Gift of Contemplative Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Kevin Hershey

If I was to summarize the gift that I think contemplative practice has to offer to the Christian faith, it would be that contemplation is what allows my discipleship to truly be a way of life, rather than a series of activities or events that I engage in, or a set of beliefs that I articulate. Traditional Church offers opportunities to learn about our beliefs and chances to live out our faith in particular times and places (e.g. Adult ed., Sunday morning worship, mission events, fun community gatherings). Contemplation moves beyond expressions of faith that are bound by time and place. It is about practicing a constant awareness to what is around me, and where God is in it. It includes everything from my capacity to see everyone I encounter as both “guest and guide” (as those from the Northumbria Community say), to how my body feels at that moment, to an awareness of my thoughts, feelings, and reactions to anything and everything that I experience around me. It maintains an open curiosity about everything I am present to and what (if anything) God could be trying to show me through my awareness. Walking through life in this way of contemplation, then, becomes an expression of Paul’s praying without ceasing.

Mindfulness, as I understand it, carries this same sense of awareness to one’s surroundings and self.
Where I think contemplation deepens this is that it moves us beyond awareness of what’s happening around and within us, and into connecting with all that we are becoming present to. As I become more aware, contemplation then asks me to consider how I am connected to it all. Once I am aware of the sights and smells and beauty of nature around me, how am I connected as part of God’s common Creation? Beyond awareness of the pains and pleasures in my body, how do I experience awe and gratitude for how God has formed me? As I am increasingly present to another’s thoughts and feelings, and my reactions and responses to them, how can I express a sense of connection with that person as a fellow child of God? If mindfulness is a way of practicing a deeper sense of awareness about all things, then I think contemplation is the extension of this awareness into actively connecting with God, others, creation, and self. Contemplation is mindfulness-in-community.

When I do well with contemplation (which is a lifelong, up-and-down practice for me), I am aware of how I am constantly walking together with God, serving God by being present to others, receiving God’s guidance and love through the world around me… it all becomes a way of life from the time I get up, until the time I go to bed. It is part of what I carry with me to my job, to interactions with friends, family members, and strangers, as well as those I’m annoyed by, angry at, or hurt by. It becomes part of the most spiritual things I do, like walking in the wood or meditating, and I find it in every-day things like watching TV and playing Barbie with my girls. Any sense of separation between “holy” times and “ordinary” times of life gets blurred and, at its best, disappears. All time becomes holy time when I become aware of and connected to the Holy in it.

This is, I think, the most significant lesson that contemplative Christianity has to teach the mainline church. There is nothing inherently more sacred about worshiping God in a sanctuary on Sunday morning than there is worshiping God by going to the beach with one’s family. There is nothing more missional about taking a group on a trip to rebuild homes in another country, than there is in noticing someone who is painfully lonely and stopping to talk with them while you’re out on your daily walk. These are all acts of God’s love. Doing them one way engages our Christian living as a series of events, bound to particular times, spaces, and groups, that we hope carries something of the sacred into the rest of our lives. Christian contemplation is the practice of seeing the sacred in all of life, and connecting ourselves and others in the Christ’s love. A contemplative life, then, becomes prayer without ceasing, mission without ceasing, worship without ceasing, love without ceasing. Through contemplation, we awaken to our discipleship.


Kevin Hershey is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and a former therapist, specializing in Contextual Therapy with couples and families. He is a New Monastic, a Contemplative, a Friend of the Northumbria Community, and is always at work becoming what Brother Wayne Teasdale and Dr. Christine Paintner call a “monk in the world.” In 2015, he founded Companions on the Way, a new monastic community which focuses on looking at how Jesus teaches us to be in relationship with one another, and practices this way of relating in the world. It draws its identity as a “School of Love” from the language of Brian McLaren, and is part of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities Initiative of the PC(USA).

Finding Home

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Paula Estornell, PhD

Everyone has a story to tell. This is my story of finding home.

I got the travel bug when I was 10. It was my turn to fly with to Spain to visit our relatives. (My older siblings had already gone.) The sights, sounds and smells of Spain were strange and captivating. So were the people and the slow-paced, fun-loving way of life. It was a wonderful experience and for the last 40 years I have been thrilled to discover new people and places across much of the United States and many countries. I’ve lived in the north east, north west, mid-west and southern parts of the United States as well as Europe.

I love newness and adventure and never stayed in one place for more than a few years. Too much stagnation makes me restless. In my early years, I was searching for excitement. In my later years, I began looking for home. A place to connect with the landscape and people and rhythm of an area. A place to belong. But a sense of home has eluded me. Even after I moved back to the town where I grew up, where I had family and old friends, married, and had a child. It wasn’t until I discovered, rather unexpectedly, a deeper connection with God and then with others that I felt a true sense of home.

I had grown up without religion in my life and no real concept of God. My tough single mother had left the church disillusioned by the patriarchy and lack of women’s voices. I came upon religion rather accidentally when, soon after returning from two years abroad in the US Peace Corps, I looked in the yellow pages of the phone book to see what community organizations I could join. I wanted to reconnect with Americans and make friends. Unitarian Universalist sounded intriguing and worldly so I went to a service. The exposure to the teachings of major world religions, open-mindedness, freedom of expression, and social justice appealed to me and I stayed an active member for almost 20 years. The faith fed my mind and provided a wonderful community of people to connect with.

When our daughter arrived, we needed to leave our small lovely UU Church in search of a church with a vibrant children’s program. We started attending a local Christian church and there I discovered more than a nice community of kids for our daughter. I found a church library and a deeper understanding of God.

Since I knew very little about mainstream Christianity, I wanted to read a little about the faith and about Jesus to better understand what was being said during Sunday services. Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault changed my understanding of God and Jesus and changed my life as I continued to read books she referenced and others from that church library. Until then, what little sense I had of God and Christianity was that they provided moral guidance for people and those morals were subject to cultural influences. Cynthia and other authors wrote about the indwelling of the light of God in everyone and of a mystical Jesus who launched a radical peace movement and love movement across the Middle East and beyond. Thomas Keating provided centering prayer practices from his Contemplative Outreach organization that guided people to sit quietly each day to hear the voice of God. These Christian spiritual teachings and practices fed my heart.

I’ve now read over 200 books and articles on spirituality and Christianity and am active in local Centering Prayer and Wisdom gatherings and also a student at Shalem Institute in Washington DC. The impact of this reading, community building, and prayer practice has been profound. My restlessness has disappeared, and been replaced with a great sense of peace and gratitude and awe. I no longer search for home because I found it deep inside and in all the people I encounter who carry the light of God within. I still cherish teachings of other faiths and remain active in interfaith dialogue and activities through local organizations. My sense of home is in a loving God, the Divine Spirit that I feel and know is alive in me and in all creation.


Paula Estornell is a wife, mother and travel enthusiast. Paula has worked for many years promoting sustainable community development in academia, government and private sector. She is training to be a spiritual retreat leader and travel guide.

An Opportunity to Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Mark Greiner

Please take a moment to notice your breathing.

For a full minute, simply enjoy breathing. What do you notice? Before reading further, what you do notice about your own breaths?

Is the breathing more slow or more fast? Is it deep into your belly or more in your chest? What sounds come with your breathing? Is there any congestion, or are you breathing freely? While noticing your breathing, do any emotions arise? Do the qualities of our breathing shift as we pay attention?

Our physical body speaks all the time, and we can listen.

I’m an acupuncturist as well as a pastor. As an acupuncturist, I help people listen to their own bodies. Our bodies speak, responding to the food we eat, what we drink, how we move, and more. Listening to our bodies helps us become skillful. As we become aware of what give us life, we can cultivate those qualities. Daily, we are our own primary care physicians.

“Mindfulness” is a wonderful set of awareness practices. (For an excellent guide, see Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh.) We can also have more than mind-fulness. We can have bodyfulness – a rich and ongoing awareness of our physical selves.

We are, all at the same time, body AND mind AND spirit.

The Gospel of John proclaims of Jesus: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) What an amazing affirmation of our bodies. Not only did God delight in making creation, God entered creation in Jesus’ flesh!

Of any faith tradition, ours especially is about the flesh, about being embodied. Embodied faith flowers beautifully in both an outer journey and an inner journey.

All the time Jesus cared about people’s concrete, physical needs: being hungry or thirsty or needing a safe haven or healing. Following Jesus means embodying care in very tangible ways. The outer journey is about cultivating and safeguarding others’ well-being.

The inner journey cultivates and safeguards our own well-being. Jesus embraced the whole of his own humanity in body, mind, and spirit. So can we. We are minds, and more than minds. We are enfleshed temples of the Holy Spirit.

The inner and outer journeys are one in prayer. Jesus modelled regularly withdrawing to pray. As our own life in God deepens, we can become aware of more and more. Investing time in solitude increases our intimacy with ourselves, with God, and our capacity for intimacy with other people.

So we return to the simplest prayer of all: our breath. It’s said that the names root names of God are breathing itself. Jesus related to God as Abba (“daddy”). Breathing through the mouth, “Ab” is like the sound if an inhalation. “Ba” is an exhalation.

Let us breathe, and know God.


Pastor Mark Greiner focuses on healing and spirituality. Along with 25 years serving Presbyterian congregations, he sees patients as an acupuncture intern at the Maryland University of Integrative Health in Laurel, MD. His wife works with the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, and they have a daughter in college.

More than Mindfulness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Michael McNamara

Since contemplation can be a bit of a slippery term, I would like to try and define Christian contemplative practice as accurately as one can. It refers to a long practiced, deeply rooted Christian tradition that goes at least as far back as the first time Jesus went off by himself to pray (although its not like he was the first person to do that, so it rooted in something even more ancient than the Christian church). At its most basic level, Christian contemplative practice could be understood as meditation or silent prayer — but it has a far more robust history and practice than that.

Contemplative practice has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. There are thousands of years of Christian writers exploring and putting language to their contemplative experiences of God, people like Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Kelly, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Anthony de Mello, Tilden Edwards, Richard Rohr, and Cynthia Bourgeault. There are also various formal and teachable modes of practice including lectio divina, psalm chanting, labyrinth walking, icon meditation, and centering prayer that have been handed down and developed over generations. Christian contemplative practice reveals a non-duality to the world that uncovers a unity with God. Put plainly, Christian contemplative practice could be summarized as: intent to simply be present to God in stillness.

Over the past year, as I have been establishing foundations for a new worshipping community centered in contemplative practice, I have been meeting with folks across the religious/spiritual spectrum and a few things have emerged.

  1. There is clearly a longing for a deeper experience of life.
  2. There is a growing mistrust of the Church, particularly among millennials.
  3. There are burgeoning movements around mindfulness, yoga, and more general wellness, something for the sake of simplicity I will refer to (maybe unfairly) as secular spirituality since many (but certainly not all) practitioners in these emerging fields often go to great lengths to remain firmly secular.

It could be easy to worry about these developments, particularly when coupled with declining religious engagement, but I have seen reason for hope. If anything I believe there is an opportunity.

It starts with the fact that secular spirituality movements have offered a wonderful gift: through practices that grew out of ancient faith traditions more and more people are getting a glimpse of a “loving stirring” to the “naked being of God” (as put by the anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing). Folks are experiencing something larger than themselves, a wordless formless expanse that resonates deeply.

Rarely, though, do the practitioners of secular spirituality have the language or infrastructure to help people more deeply engage in these experiences. Not all who experience these transcendent moments will seek to go deeper, but many will. The more rational approaches of secular spirituality — rooted in language that seeks scientific proof of its efficacy, language that speaks to the rational mind, words that tend to dwell in neuro-biological space — are not particularly useful in helping people encounter and embrace the paradoxes explored by the poetic and mythic language of faith and mysticism. As a result practicers are often left with beautiful experiences but lack ways to engage that experience beyond the rational mind.

This is where the Church can help. It can mentor and walk with those seeking a deeper spiritual journey. The Church can dig deep into its past and offer a robust framework for those looking to engage more deeply in these spiritual realms of the heart mind and soul. Church can offer language and a treasure trove of diverse experiences that can act as guides and way points for the journey deeper into God. The Church is also practiced in community building and can help form covenant communities of accountability around practice, a central element of Christian contemplative practice over the millennia.

The beauty of this is it is not just that the Church has something to offer in terms of experience and tradition and practice, but that it can also learn from those engaging in spirituality beyond the walls of a church. This month’s posts will explore both sides of this, from the secular side and the religious side, and will sometimes appear to be in paradoxical opposition to itself (just like good contemplative practice!). Hopefully these posts will get you to thinking, asking questions and seeking to dig a little bit deeper in this rich and abundant resource, a gift really, gift to the Church.

If we go back to our plain definition — intent to simply be present to God in stillness — in that simple presence exists amazing transformation. In that simple stillness we can trust that the “NEXT Church” will emerge out of the infinite love imbibed in creation by God.


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.