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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.

New Life

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 Kirstin Melone

The smell of cacao is hard to explain, but it strikes the nose with a pungent and earthy flavor. As I walk into the meditation space, I notice the candles, soft pillows, and loose fabric hanging from the ceiling, serving as a wall between the kitchen and seating area. Bodies are pushing their way in from the cold Leipzig air. They bend to take off their shoes. And then my nose is hit with a new smell of sweaty feet… got to love yogis.

As the group moves through the fabric and takes their seat, greetings are passed and warm embraces exchanged. We prepare for our cacao ceremony with Ian, a young New Englander who now lives in Berlin. He spent some time studying in the far east, discovering the monastic way of life, and now travels around teaching. He wears loose harem pants, a mala, and his fuzzy beard coils like a snake at the tip. His guru top knot completes the look.

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection.

The cacao is scooped by ladle into our mugs brought from home and then passed around the circle to their proper owner. We get comfortable in our individual cushions and cover our lower extremities with blankets.

My eyes wander to those around the circle… a unit of bright-eyed, new-age followers. Hair is natural. Make-up is absent for the most part. Clothes are properly sourced. Shoes are worn and leathery. Feathered earrings, nose rings, and tattoos adorn the bodies.

As a teacher of yoga and meditation, I have become accustomed to these settings, but as a student of religion, I am hesitant… Not even a year prior, I had dropped out of a divinity program at one of the most prestigious seminaries. I had abandoned my hopes of becoming a pastor, and was still currently looking for how I should take my path alongside the church.

But how did I get here? To such a familiar setting… a small group if you will of like-minded individuals participating in an ancient tradition. Though the clothes and personas seemed different, the attention and following was so similar. Instead of a bible study or a prayer circle, these individuals wanted to chant and meditate. Instead of speaking in tongues of the Holy Spirit, they wanted to writhe with the force of Kali surging through their limbs. Instead of honoring the cup representing Christ’s blood shed for our sins, they wanted to honor the mighty healing powers of the cacao plant.

Yes, Christianity and Hinduism follow separate teachings and figures, but the thought kept creeping upon my psyche… How was this any different from what I had left behind?

I am torn by my love for religion. I relish in the ancient stories, the mysticism, and the questions of the universe. As a young Protestant, I had spiritual envy for the prayer mat of Islam, the yoga mat of Hinduism, and the altar of Catholicism. I craved a sacred space and a physical practice, something to stretch my body and mind. But I didn’t want to convert. I wanted to work with the community in which I was raised – to learn from my elders and pass on the faith. As the Church grew, I wanted to grow with it and shape it.

But the Christian world is not ready for change or to be challenged. And although many in yoga, meditation, & mindfulness world may not identify as Hindus or Buddhists, are they ready to be challenged? Are they ready to have their leaders called out? Are they ready to face their own limitations?

The modern world claims to be secular, to be science-based, to be open-minded… to have no time for religion. But generally, these are also the same people parading around with talk about crystals, energy-healing, and past-life regression? So why is it that those who criticize religion for being strict and limiting, have merely created their own form of ideological imprisonment?

We need to belong and we need to be part of a group of like-minded individuals that support and strengthen us, but when did we stop calling out what we know is crazy? When did we start failing to hold one another accountable – and to acknowledge when reality is being usurped.

In a time when we are more polarized than ever, when we cling to our groups – we cannot be afraid to challenge those closest to us. We have to continue to speak up and to ask questions. Humans have evolved and created narratives that shaped how we see the world. But we cannot forget that there have also been moments in history when those narratives have needed to die in order for something new to grow… for resurrection of life from death.


Kirsten Melone has always been interested in mind-body discoveries, from dancing as a child to practicing yoga in her 20s. Her hope is to better understand how to help individuals access their fullest potential as human beings. As a lover of stories, art, and nature, she seeks to embody the wisdom of ancient contemplative practices in an over-stimulated world. As a certified Yoga Teacher through Yoga Alliance, Kirsten makes herself available to anyone who is curious about going further into their practice or spiritual musings. She is currently working through a two-year certification program in Spiritual Companionship at the Shalem Institute of Washington, DC.

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.

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.

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.

Diversity, Acceptance, and the Need for Reconciliation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jason Brian Santos

For as long as I can remember, the topic of diversity within community has never been a serious point of conversation in my home. Coming from a bi-racial family, navigating the challenges of diversity was a fact of life. Growing up, our holiday dinners and birthday celebrations were always an interesting blend of Filipino culture and Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced Americana. While the food was amazing, our feasts were always accompanied by a myriad of obvious cultural differences and unspoken customs. Inevitably, at times tensions arose; sometimes we figured it out and sometimes we didn’t. Consequently, for most of my life, I just assumed real diversity always came with challenges.

Though I would still maintain that viewpoint today, I had an experience in 2005 that changed my thinking about what happens when a bunch of diverse people come together in Christian community. I was working on an independent study course for my M.Div on the topic of young adult spirituality and the Taizé community. My project included a research trip to Taizé, the small village located in the Burgundy region of France, which is home to over 110 brothers – not to mention over 100,000 spiritual seekers who make pilgrimages to the community every year.

For this vastly diverse group of pilgrims, Taizé has become their “spiritual home.” It doesn’t matter where they are from, what language they speak, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, how much money they make or what religious tradition they’re from – in Taizé, everyone is welcomed and accepted for who they are. Each pilgrim is shown genuine hospitality, a 1,500 year-old hallmark of western monasticism.

In Taizé, all pilgrims pray together three times a day in the Church of Reconciliation using sung prayers written in dozens of languages. They study Scripture in diverse groups, which guarantees an assortment of different perspectives on the passage. They work alongside one another preparing food, distributing meals, and cleaning up. They clean bathrooms together and pick up trash alongside one another. Every pilgrim is expected to participate in the communal practices established by the community: the brothers understand that it is in their very participation that these young adults experience genuine acceptance, which in time opens a path towards reconciliation with one another.

These pilgrims aren’t just tolerating diversity in Taizé for the sake of political correctness; they authentically celebrate it as part of what makes the community feel like a living example of God’s Kingdom on earth. In fact, in my research on why young adults make pilgrimages to Taizé, one of the key themes that surfaced was the “feeling of acceptance.” At the core of this feeling, pilgrims experience a tangible sense of reconciliation. This should come as no surprise, considering that reconciliation has been the doctrine undergirding the Taizé Community since its humble beginnings in 1940.

For the late Brother Roger, the founder and first prior of Taizé, reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel. Whether it was offering Jewish refugees sanctuary or caring for German prisoners after the war, the brothers have always sought to be a sign of reconciliation. Even more, as more young Europeans began making pilgrimages to Taizé in the 50s and 60s, the brothers realized they needed to adapt their sacred French liturgies in order to truly welcome the pilgrims into their daily prayers. Latin soon became the primary language used in their sung chants, because it functioned as a universal language belonging to no particular country, nation, or people. Over the course of the next decade, chants in other languages were integrated into Taizé’s prayer book, and the prayers as we now know them gradually emerged. Still today, the sung prayers of the community function as a sign of acceptance and reconciliation.

Come to think of it, it’s rather ironic that these pilgrims find such acceptance in one of the most diverse environments they will likely experience in their lives. Maybe the central reason why is because they are never asked to put aside who they are, as if diversity is a hindrance to reconciliation; instead, through the rhythm of Taizé’s communal practices, the pilgrims are invited to take their gaze off of their own particularities and focus it on what draws them together and unites them – their identity in Christ Jesus. It’s through Christ that we bear witness to the magnitude of God’s reconciliation with all of creation and in Christ, that we are accepted and claimed as children of God.


Jason Brian Santos is the Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation (Christian education, children, youth, college, young adult, camps and conference ministries) at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. He also serves as the National Director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries. He is an ordained teaching elder in the PCUSA and holds a Ph.D. in practical theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Community Called Taizé (IVP, 2008) and Sustaining the Pilgrimage (IVP Academic, forthcoming). He currently resides in Louisville, KY with his wife, Shannon and his two sons, Judah and Silas (aka Tutu). In his spare time, he plays and designs board games.