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The Imprint of God’s Fingers

by Bill Dietrich

“It is not you who shapes God, it is God who shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist Who does all things in due season. Offer God your heart, soft and tractable, And keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, Lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of God’s fingers.”

These words, attributed to the second-century bishop Irenaeus and long used in Shalem programs, express much of what we understand about contemplative spiritual formation: it is foremost about God’s work in us. Our role is to be supple, yielding, willing for and responsive to God’s creative action. This is a radically counter-cultural proposition. We don’t make it happen. It can’t be controlled or forced, and it evolves in God’s time, not ours. We get impatient with the slow work of God and want, often with good intentions, to make progress (as if we really knew what that meant). Or we get fearful and simply attempt to control what we don’t know since, as Evelyn Underhill once wrote, “… mystery is horrible to us.” And so we can easily “grow hard” and willfully resist or ignore God’s ongoing formation of our hearts. Echoing Irenaeus’ wisdom, twentieth-century Quaker Thomas Kelly counseled, “Don’t grit your teeth and clench your fists and say, ‘I will! I will!’ Relax. Take hands off. Submit yourself to God. Learn to live in the passive voice-a hard saying for Americans-and let life be willed through you.”

This understanding of formation-its invitations and challenges-is true both of individuals and of communities and organizations. At Shalem we have long struggled with questions of how we balance the practicalities and realities of life as an institution with our desire to be willing and responsive to God’s action in us. Recently we’ve been focusing on these questions more intentionally as we consider Shalem’s place in the current spiritual landscape and what the future might hold. I’d like to share with you some of our process and the clarities-and unknowings-that we’ve come to thus far.

Over the past several months, Shalem’s board and staff have been praying and reflecting together on our vision, mission, and values, what we name as our unique charism: that essential shape that God has fashioned us to be. We’ve also sought to discern how God continues to mold our programs-the particular expression of our mission that God is calling forth now and into the future. While this process is still unfolding, we do have some clarity that our mission continues to be about nurturing contemplative living and leadership, supporting contemplative awareness in our world. This contemplative dimension, while sometimes hard to define and describe, seems nevertheless essential-that distinctive quality God has given us to offer to the world.

We are clear that our roots are in the contemplative Christian tradition, which calls us to a broadly ecumenical stance. We continue also to find enrichment in the contemplative wisdom of other faith traditions, which deepens our understanding both of those traditions and our own. And we can see now that, after more than 30 years of nurturing the spiritual life of people from all over the country and world, we are beyond being a small local organization based near Washington, D.C., but can now claim a national identity with a large constituency across the country and even around the globe.

We have a sense of the continued rightness of our present core offerings, our four long-term extension programs that provide in-depth, transformational deepening and support for contemplative living and for particular forms of spiritual leadership: spiritual directors, prayer group and retreat leaders, and congregational clergy. We feel called to explore how we might support other forms of leadership, such as those engaged in social activism and organizational leadership, and how we might offer what we have learned about contemplative awareness across faith traditions to further the cause of interfaith dialogue and understanding.

We also are praying to know the ways in which we’ve allowed ourselves to “grow hard”-whether there are some programs we need to let go. We want to be sure we are not offering programs simply because we’ve offered them in the past. Among other things, this has led us to focus on those short-term programs in the Baltimore-Washington region. These programs are the legacy of how Shalem started in the 1970s-small groups gathered around a candle exploring ways of being present to God in prayer. Many, myself included, came to Shalem through these programs and fondly recall those experiences. In the years since, however, churches and other organizations have begun offering similar programs (often through leaders nurtured at Shalem), and we have seen the number and attendance at our own programs diminish. At the same time, we have seen a large and growing response to our regional gatherings, which, while encouraging, requires considerable time and resources to support.

In response to what we have noticed, we will take the 2007-08 program year as a sabbatical time to allow space to discern what is called for in all of our shorter programs. One result of this decision is that, for our Mid-Atlantic region, our promotional material over the next year will be different and our offerings fewer and more focused on complementing our extension programs. We will continue to offer regional gatherings, meeting in Burlingame, California, and Indianapolis in the coming program year.

We also will continue to look for ways we might support our extension program graduates in addition to the Shalem Society begun last year. In particular we are exploring how we might celebrate and lift up the good work of the growing Shalem community, which has come into being after three decades of nurturing contemplative awareness.

We invite your prayers for our discernment in the time ahead. Please let us know of any reflections or insights that might help inform our process. And we pray that Shalem will continue to let God’s life be willed through all we do.

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