Wednesday, 6 September 2017

New Contemplative Leaders Exchange

From August 14-18, I had the extraordinary privilege of participating in a gathering of contemplative scholars and practitioners from seven countries, meeting at St Benedict's Cistercian Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

This is the chapel in the retreat centre where we spent much of our time.

And here it is in context - in a protected valley populated by deer, chipmunks, humming birds and a monastic community of silent prayer (photo by Vladimir Volrab).

We had been gathered at the invitation of four teachers recognised as being at the forefront of the Western Christian contemplative renewal: the Cistercian Thomas Keating (Contemplative Outreach), Benedictine Laurence Freeman (World Community for Christian Meditation), Franciscan Richard Rohr (Center for Action and Contemplation), and Rev. Tilden Edwards (Shalem Institute).

In 2016, these four 'founders' had met together for the first time and, united by their shared commitment to the Christian contemplative tradition and concern for the healing of our world, they resolved to gather a group of younger leaders from their respective communities for what was called the 'New Contemplative Leaders Exchange'. I was participating at the invitation of Laurence Freeman, and I formed part of the WCCM group which comprised five members in total - Karen from the USA, Leonardo from Brazil, Vladimir from the Czech Republic and Sicco from the Netherlands.

It was an amazing privilege to be part of this conversation, the point of which wasn't so much to come up with an 'action plan', but to get to know one another, to share from the resources of our different traditions and communities, and to be open to listen to what might be being called forth and how we might participate with each other.

One important insight to emerge, I think, was the sense that whereas the contemplative renewal had been pioneered by our four founders, each developing his own approach and community, the next phase of the contemplative movement would be more cross-communal and collaborative. It was deeply encouraging to meet with others who are exploring how the contemplative gift and way of life might be opened up for the healing of the world, and participants were involved in such varied callings as offering contemplation for activists, ecological awareness, contemplation in parish life, contemplative theology, inter-spiritual practice, contemplation and justice, and contemplation in daily life.

Others who participated have written some of their reflections on the time, particularly Phileena Heueurtz from Gravity: Center for Contemplative Activism [] and Stuart Higginbotham, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia [].

Here are some of us walking from the retreat centre towards the monastery for Mass - the monastery hidden in the trees on the left side of the picture (photo by Vladimir Volrab).

There was much interest in the life of our Benedictus community and what we are discovering about being a contemplative church. Personally, I came away nourished and deepened in my own meditation practice, as well as strongly confirmed in my calling to Benedictus and our life together.

Although we left without a concrete plan for what is 'next' for the Contemplative Leaders Exchange, we all had the sense that we are at the beginning of something - that we will continue to be in touch, and that in the Spirit's good time, what is emerging will become clearer.

I am so grateful for the gift of this time and the opportunity to form friendships across the world. One of our participants, Mark Kutolowski from Metanoia of Vermont, put it this way:

'I left feeling incredibly humbled by the deep trust of these four contemplative elders - trust in the Holy Spirit's work in our generation and in the world. In our group I saw people who have committed their lives to building on the founders' insights, and who seek to bring the gifts of contemplation to effect bodily transformation and profound social change. I feel great joy in being part of a community of love who experiences contemplation as central to the Christian story, and is ready to support the larger body of Christ in growing in prayerful intimacy with God'.


Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Winter of Listening

This is a stanza from David Whyte's poem, 'The Winter of Listening'.

All those years
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

Last Friday, we were in Sydney for The Art of Meditation and Dadirri - the conversation between Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr and Laurence Freeman.

Speaking of dadirri, Miriam-Rose expressed something very similar to Whyte. She describes dadirri as the kind of listening and awareness that nourishes the soul, heals wounds, generates belonging and connectedness, appreciation and gratitude. It is both a practice and a state of being.

This Wednesday, I spent my retreat time in the Botanic Gardens. Despite it being busier than usual (school holidays), I found a quiet path to walk around the edge of the gardens and found myself almost immediately quietened too. I am always slightly astonished at how deeply nourishing it is to take this time and to discover again this incredible gift so ready at hand. All we need to do to receive it is to let ourselves pay attention, slow down, open our eyes to the beauty of the world.

It was a frosty, cold morning; the sky was that clear winter blue and the light and shadow fell strongly on the trees and their extraordinary, multi-coloured bark.

I saw a pair of wood ducks fly into the trees. At first I thought the sound I could hear was a baby kookaburra trying his vocal chords, but then realised it was the female wood duck calling in a constant 'laughing' kind of sound. I wondered if they were checking out nesting sites for the spring.

And as I was getting towards the end, there was this little soul - looking like his tail was starting to turn blue.

The blessing of listening.


Friday, 30 June 2017


Next Friday I will have the privilege of being part of a conversation between Laurence Freeman and Aboriginal elder Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr in Sydney. The idea is to explore the connections between Christian contemplation and 'dadirri' - which Miriam-Rose has described as 'inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness'. Miriam-Rose speaks of practising dadirri particularly when she is in nature - when she sits on a riverbank or walks through trees.

The sense of dadirri was present for me this Wednesday. The morning was foggy and cold, but I was drawn to walk on Black Mountain. We'd heard recently of a walk starting half-way up the mountain and I went looking for it.

Well, I don't think I found the one I'd been told of, but I entered instead upon another one - Lakeview Walk - which headed back quite steeply down the hill.

Despite spending most of my life in Canberra, I haven't spent much time on Black Mountain. I was struck by how much it felt at the centre of things. The sound of traffic on the roads below was constant, but that noise had the effect of making the silence of the bush in the foggy, still morning seem very 'loud'. As if this mountain is a monumental, still centre around which our busy lives swirl.

The view was big - across to Mount Painter to the west, and across the Arboretum and the lake to the south and east.

I sat for quite a while on a (cold) rock at the edge of the path, overlooking the lake. I felt as though I began to participate in the stillness of the place. Two crows appeared - and one jumped into a small bush quite close to me, deliberately breaking off a stick in its beak. They were gathering nesting material - but I'd never before seen one 'harvest' a stick from a bush. Later, a dark little wallaby went past - I don't think he even knew I was there.

Allowed to be and allowing to be. 'There is no need of words', says Miriam-Rose. 'A big part of dadirri is listening'.


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Margaret River

Last week I was in Margaret River in Western Australia, giving some talks at the Perth Anglican diocese clergy school. I arrived before the conference started and so was able to have a 'Wednesday Retreat' on Monday morning, before we got underway.

It seemed important to connect to the place we were and introduce myself to it. So I walked through the little town - full of cafes and providore type shops - and headed for the river itself.

There was a 'rain garden' just before the river - trees, bushland and water grasses, designed to clean the polluted run-off from the road before it entered the river itself. Some of the shapes were stunning.

And then I came to the river itself.

My Mum's side of the family is from WA - but from the wheat-belt. The south-west of WA is renowned for its beautiful tall forests, and even in the short walk off the highway I came across some extraordinary Marri trees with stunning bark.

It was a greyish morning, but the reflections of the forest in the water were amazing.

And this too, is a reflection!

The question of 'country' is a fascinating thing. The more I become aware of the significance of this notion in Aboriginal culture, the more I wonder about my own sense of 'country'. And I realised that, although it is so beautiful, this Margaret River country does not feel like home to me - the forest and water feel a little dark and enclosing. I am more at home on the high plains and open fields.

But it was a privilege to visit the country of the Wadandi people and to enjoy its beauty and mystery.


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Lady Poverty

This week, I've been much struck by this passage from Christian Wiman's, My Bright Abyss.

'The endless, useless urge to look on life comprehensively, to take a bird's-eye view of ourselves and judge the dimensions of what we have or have not done: this is life as landscape, or life as resume. But life is incremental, and though a worthwhile life is a gathering together of all that one is, good and bad, successful and not, the paradox is that we can never really see this one thing that all of our increments (and decrements, I suppose) add up to. "Early we receive a call", writes Czeslaw Milosz, "yet it remains incomprehensible,/ and only late do we discover how obedient we were"'.

What resonates for me particularly is that 'endless, useless urge to look on life comprehensively'. I am so often seeking to know what it all means, or will mean in the end. And yet I know that the deeper knowing of the whole comes not from this 'bird's-eye', observer's view, but through participation. And truly to participate, to be present beyond self-consciousness, demands the surrender of that 'observation point'.

St Francis speaks, I am told, of embracing 'lady poverty' - embracing the void of unknowing, the loss of the 'I' who sees, becoming 'poor' in this radical way of self-dispossession. In the same way, John Main speaks of saying your mantra and being content to say your mantra - so becoming the eye that sees but does not see itself.

Yesterday in spiritual direction, and this morning on retreat, I practised this embrace - feeling still my resistance, and yet also drawn to this deeper embrace of no-thingness.

The trees are yielding themselves in the loss of their leaves - unable to do anything but enact trust that life breaks through on the other side of death, of winter. Embracing Lady Poverty ... on a winter's morning.


Wednesday, 24 May 2017


It rained last night and the morning looked rinsed and sparkling. There were clouds around and a reasonable breeze, but it was sunny when I arrived at Lake Ginninderra and the raindrops glistened on the leaves of the trees.

I was struck immediately by a sense of the vivid presence of the life around me - a glossy feathered magpie stood in the middle of the car park singing, a small green shrub caught the light and the breeze spoke through the casuarinas. I was struck also by the many different species of tree in the small area of John Knight Park - perhaps the variety seems more obvious in autumn, as each tree turns (or not) in its own way - a plane tree, a sweet-smelling poplar, and then the bright yellow leaves showing up against the white-barked gums.

I tried to photograph the flurries of leaves falling, but ended up with a fair bit of indeterminate grass. But I had a little more luck with the moorhen on the rock, and the reflection of leaves in the water.

Then I made my way to the Benedictus island, where we celebrated Easter. A favourite spot for my retreat mornings is coming to be the 'back' of the island, in among the casuarinas, looking out across the water. It's sheltered a bit from the breeze, and from passing traffic. And it's amazing that, so close to the town centre, so close to the busy bike path and park, there is this tucked away place where the water birds forage in the lee of the island, the occasional water rat swims by, and the trees carry on their hidden life.

To be more fully present to all these presences is to begin to experience being part of a larger whole, to know myself (in Mary Oliver's words) a member of 'the family of things'.

I thought about the talks I'm preparing for a clergy conference where (inevitably) the theme touches on the question of the future of the church. Sitting contemplating the world like this I sense the invitation for the church is to let go self-concern. It's not about us. It's about simple availability for love's sake. The busy anxious church will not serve the deepest needs of our world, in fact will not even 'see' the world it purports to want to serve. Learning to see though - it's an invitation that is both gift and task.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

May Days

We have been having the most beautiful May days - crisp, sunny, still.

It's a while since I posted, but most weeks I have been managing my retreat mornings (well, quite a few anyway!). It's just that I haven't done so well with reflecting on them on the blog. But - as when any practice gets ragged - what is there to do, but begin again?

Here an image from earlier in the season - when I spent time in the Aranda bushland during Lent.

Today, though, it was the Botanic Gardens that called. On arrival, as usual, the space stilled me and filled me with gratitude for the time and the beauty of things. The banksias are flowering and magnificent.

The colours are almost impossible to believe, as is the intricacy and delicacy of each flower.

I was struck too by the clarity of the light across the woodlands. Light and shadow were in sharp relief, and the dew sparkled on the leaves.

I thought a bit about the relationship between shadow and light - both part of things, helping define each other. Seeing it in a landscape is one thing, of course. Embracing the shadow with equanimity in our lives and the lives of those we care about is something else again.

But touching, immersed in mystery, I sat and prayed and was renewed.


Saturday, 11 March 2017

Ash Wednesday

I am ten days late with this, but wanted still to share the images that struck me on Ash Wednesday this year, at the beginning of our Lenten journey.

We are using the ABM (Anglican Board of Mission) resource, Into the Desert, for our daily Lenten readings. It's a wonderful set of reflections, written by our friend Celia, and arises from her experience of desert dwelling (both geographically and spiritually). But it's made me wonder also about Lent in the city - and how to pay attention to that which comes through the cracks and fissures of our tidy suburban setting.

On Ash Wednesday, I set out from home seeking to attend not primarily to what strikes me as beautiful in our neighbourhood, but simply to what is there. To let the whole of it in.

Before I'd left our unit complex, I came across this little scene which seemed to confirm my intent - a neighbourhood cat searching through the rubbish. Busted!!

There's a strip of open space - a 'waste land', I'm tempted to call it - behind the houses across the road from us. I took photos of the rubbish bins by the garages, and the satellite dishes on the roofs, and these too.

I don't feel I have anything very wise to say about this. When you pay attention to anything, there's beauty to be seen. But - it's undeniable that on the 'back' side, so to speak, of these well manicured suburban streets and homes, there's a degree of ugliness and unkemptness. And I wonder about a form of life that produces this as a seemingly necessary by-product, and what it says about the state of our common soul.

I wonder about keeping a holy Lent here, about being in and with this landscape and inviting it to teach me.

'Into the 'burbs', we might call it!