Spiritual Practice: Contemplative Activism

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a “Gravity” conference in Nebraska. Gravity puts on conferences for “contemplative activists.” When I try to explain this to people the first reaction is, “Contemplative Activist, isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Let me tell you how Gravity started. Chris and Phileena Heuertz worked overseas with marginalized populations like sex-trafficked women and girls. They noticed over time that their co-workers burned out every few years. They decided to try to figure out how to make this kind of activism more sustainable.

To that end, they interviewed Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and Mother Theresa. All three said that in order to sustain good works, you must have a discipline of contemplative prayer practices from which to strengthen your soul.

The retreat I went to was called a Grounding Retreat where these contemplative practices were taught. It was held at a Benedictine Monastery.

The retreat was wonderful! Each session we learned at least one practice and then tried it and debriefed it. On the Gravity Website, you can explore all these practices. I’ll list a few here: Silence, Solitude, Stillness, Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Breath Prayer, and the Examen.

For me, the take-home was threefold:

First, I had already used many of these practices, but none of them had become regular disciplines in my life except my monthly retreats to the Mercy Center in Auburn, California which was greatly curtailed during the pandemic. I also added yoga to my exercise routine, which I first tried at this retreat. I’ve also enjoyed meditation and lectio apps.

Second, as a writer, I was between books when I arrived at the retreat – without a clue about what I wanted to write next. Almost the second I walked onto the property; an idea downloaded into my brain and The Retreat was born. It’s a fictional book that takes you on a personal retreat. Phileena even wrote an editorial review for me.

Third, this is very personal: in my former job, I was at these kinds of retreat centers at least twice a year. One of the saddest parts of leaving that work was having to give up those retreats. The last day of the retreat I sat by a little lake and asked God why I was there. Was it just to beef up my personal practices? Was it for a new book idea? He reminded me of the sense of loss I’d felt when leaving that job, thinking I’d never be at a retreat like this again. And God simply said, “I love you enough to make this happen because I know it’s important to you.” That made me cry. It was as if God was saying, “I’ve got you!”

If you’re an activist, especially if you are working in a job that exposes you to soul-draining work, it is important to restore your soul with contemplative practices. But all of us will do well to add these practices to our lives. To help us do good, better.

I started this blog to bring easy onramp spiritual practices to folks. I hope you explore it to find some that you might enjoy.

Do you have any favorite contemplative practices? What has worked for you or what would you like to try?


Spiritual Practice: Sitting in Unlikely Thin Places

I don’t think of heaven as a place far away, with harp playing angels on fluffy white clouds. Nope. Heaven to me is another dimension, just out of sight, a hairsbreadth away and occasionally, it breaks through: through us, through nature, through worship, and through hard places where people feel in desperate need.

These places are called THIN places. Places where the presence of heaven is THICK, where you can feel God. I often feel it in old churches and retreat centers where decades of prayer have saturated the walls with peace. But those aren’t the only places.

The first time I noticed such a place, outside of church, was at a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting I was asked to attend for a class. I shouldn’t have been surprised that God was so THICK in that room Jesus was always present to the desperate. He always answered the requests of those who knew their need. I had the urge to take off my shoes in that NA meeting. It felt like holy ground.

I had the same urge standing in the old growth redwoods near Santa Cruz. It was unearthly quiet under those giant sentinels. The years-deep carpet of duff makes it a hushed place. My neck ached as I tried to see the top of the trees that were growing there before heaven came to earth that first time in the form of Jesus. It was like standing in a cathedral…holy. My feet wanted out of my shoes.

In the past decade, I’ve found thin places while sitting with my friends from the LGBTQIA community. I find them when I hear of their faith despite fifty years of being told that God couldn’t love them. I hear of their self-hatred and trying desperately to pray away their very selves until they realized that kind of praying didn’t work. When these friends trust me enough to be honest about how hard it is to trust me, it feels THICK. It’s a THIN place. My toes long for freedom.

I see thin places when I sit with parents of these children who have told them, through their tears, how they have denied their true identities to the point of longing for death. I have seen the hearts of broken parents, not knowing what to do, but desperately wanting to do right by their children.  We hold hands and cry over churches that won’t let their kids in. Or with parents, who are pastors, and their choice to stand with their gay children means losing their jobs. It feels THIN. It feels THICK. God is very real in those conversations.

So, if you see me sitting in Starbucks, barefoot and handing a Kleenex to a friend, pray for me: Pray I will listen well. That I will love well. That I will hold the space for God to be with us. Because God wants to heal the desperately hurting. God always has. God always will.

Where have you felt the THIN places of God?