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Leading From Within The Living Presence: The Essence Of Contemplative Leadership

by Carole Crumley

In this series, we have tried to describe contemplative leadership. We have talked about creativity, compassion, and collaboration and there could be many other words that we might name as qualities of contemplative leadership. For me, all of these qualities rise from the realm of presence, our open presence to Divine Presence. As we seek to open more fully to the Living Presence, our contemplative leadership is supported and nurtured by personal spiritual practices, including a daily discipline of prayer/meditation/open presence for God.

This article describes some practices that have been access points to the Divine Presence, both for me personally and in the life of our Shalem community. These may be new or familiar, make sense to you or not. Remember always that your own experience is what is most important. God’s way with each of us is different.

Access to Presence Through The Lives Of Others

Down through the ages, there have been both men and women on every continent, in every age, whose lives reveal the magnificence of an intimate, alive relationship with the Divine Source of Life. I began to discover some of them shortly after my ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in 1977.

The ordination took place on the cusp of controversy. Just a few months previously, the Church had ended years of deliberation and conflict by voting to ordain women. For me, the service of ordination was followed immediately by the mystifying wilderness of trying to figure out what it all meant, including some of the particulars related to the role: what to wear, what to be called, where to work, how to work and communicate with those who had so profoundly disagreed with the decision of the Church. In hindsight, these worries seem rather silly. In that moment, the concerns mattered to me, and there seemed to be no roadmap.

I began searching for role models, and to my delight, discovered a long lineage of contemplatively-oriented women spiritual leaders: Bridgit of Kildare, Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and so many others. In fact, there is a treasure trove of stories detailing women’s leadership that transformed the communities they lived in, challenged the status quo, influenced the politics of their times and reformed the religious traditions of their faith communities.

Over the years, the witness of women spiritual leaders has continued to be a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship for me. Even more than that, as I meditate on their lives, I have felt their ongoing presence and spiritual energy, assisting and encouraging me in opening to the Holy in my living and leadership.

A few years ago, our staff discovered the work of Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, whose innovative icons depict the lives of the saints as well as others whose lives of holiness have shone brightly. Included are many from our past 20th century: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, Evelyn Underhill, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, just to name a few. To have walked the earth at the same time as any one of these is to be lifted up by the grace of their humanity and be blessed.

Shalem bought several of Lentz’s images, and on various occasions, we place them in our meeting room, surrounding our circle of prayer and leadership with their witness. While we pray in their presence, we can sense their encouragement and presence while we seek to know God’s way for us. They are present to us. Not just as role models. Not so we can try to imitate their lives or duplicate their actions. No. Their spiritual energies are present and available to us in this moment. We draw on the heart-qualities of their lives and spirits as we are open to them.

Another way this is expressed comes to us from Latin America. In certain Latino communities, a funeral practice has developed to honor the lives of those lost due to violence in their countries. As part of the ceremony, the names of those who have died are read. After each name is called out, the gathered community shouts out “Presente!” (“You are here!”) This affirmation of presence reinforces the community’s capacity for hope and resilience, strengthens the faith of those who remain in the struggle for freedom. When I describe this practice to my friends, they all said, “Please do that for me at my funeral. When my name is spoken, shout up to the rooftops, ‘Presente!’”

The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament extends the contemplative awareness of our mutual indwelling with one another and God in this way. The writer says this spiritual friendship with those who have gone before is mutual and claims that there is a “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us and cheers us on in the journey that is before us. The scripture implies that this cheering-on is not something that just happened in the past. The cheering throng of witnesses is a living reality, always present to us, whether we realize it or not, believe it or not. We are always part of a larger community, both visible and invisible. The encouraging energy of this invisible community is profoundly participating in and available to us in our leadership. Our meditation and prayer opens us to this reality.

Access to Presence Through Sacred Icons

In Shalem retreats, we include in our circle of prayer several traditional classical icons, images that have been prayed with for centuries by the Christian faithful, (primarily through the Greek and other Eastern Orthodox traditions). These images seek to reveal what is unseen, representing the spiritual realm beyond the visible world. They intend to make present the spiritual reality they represent, drawing us deeper into the mystery of God’s Spirit beyond the image.

Possibly the oldest icon image is of the Sinai Christ, which has lived in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert since the sixth century. When we pray with this image, we begin to realize our oneness with the Divine energy it presents. Meister Eckhart, 14th century mystical theologian, expressed it this way: “God’s eye and my eye are the same eye.” Praying with the Christ icon reveals the inner truth of our mutual indwelling, where God sees the world through our eyes, loves the world through us. Tilden Edwards says that when praying with an icon: “You may find yourself becoming the icon, realizing yourself to be an image of God, though whom the world is loved into the fullness of being.”

Praying with a classical icon is a way of schooling our eyes to let every visible sight potentially become an icon for us. Everything in creation, every person, tree, stone, animal, etc. may become a transparency for God’s presence. As we are available to that Presence, it will inform and transform our awareness and leadership.

Praying with the classical icons, and all of creation, opens us to the intimate presence of the heavenly realm. The images of holy people remind us of the living reality of their presence. The Latino community claims the presence of those who have gone before. In their own way, each of these practices invites us to be “Presente!” When we are present, we realize that all is held in divine Presence. In our contemplative leadership, we are invited to open to all that “is, and was and ever shall be.” When present to this Presence, we are transformed through a different way of knowing, into a different way of seeing, living and leading.

Leading from Within the Living Presence

The 13th century Sufi mystic Jelalludin Rumi describes a field that is “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.”  In that place of openness and possibility, there is a meeting. “I will meet you there,” Rumi wrote centuries ago. In other words, his spiritual energies meet ours, a convergence of energies, past, present and future, all in the present moment. This realm of possibility is out beyond boundaries, preconceptions, identities, historical ways of acting, out where there are no how-to’s, no should’s, no ideas of what to do next.

This field is so full of presence, Rumi says, that “when the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.” The field offers an expansive opening to the Allness of God. Our open presence to the fullness of Divine Presence disposes us to receive the gift of knowing God, not as an object but as the vast, intimate subject of our lives. The gift of that intimate knowing transforms our lives. In that knowing, we could say that we share something of the mind and heart of Christ—something of his consciousness. Our deep identity in God takes us into the reconciling, transforming, healing, cleansing mind and heart of Christ.

Our daily meditation/prayer practice supports our open presence to the wholeness of Divine Presence and gives space for the guidance available in the moment. In the pristine beginning of that moment, there is simple open Presence, no words, no thoughts, no nothing, only Presence. In the seeming absence, there is fullness of life, a “world too full to talk about.”

Contemplative leadership assumes being deeply connected to the flow of God’s Spirit, trusting that God’s Spirit is alive in us and around us—available, wanting, willing to guide and lead. It trusts that God’s Spirit is for us, not against us and that it is always for good and for love. As contemplative leaders, our lives and actions are grounded in God so that all that we do is oriented toward letting God guide in the moment. We are never fully left on our own to figure things out. We live and lead from a place of unknowing, offering our simple, trusting, open, courageous presence. We lead from within the living Presence, willing for God-knows-what to show up.

This is a radical stance. Gerald May described his sense of what it means to live and lead from this stance. “It means to live in conscious love with the here-and-now Divine, to trust God’s love no matter what, to know that God flows through us all continually, to believe that God so intimately pervades us and all creation that we can never, ever be really abandoned. It is to realize that the actual presence of Christ speaks to me through your mouth, sees you with my eyes; that there is no place, no creature, and no thing on earth or in the heavens that is not filled with Divine Presence.”  May describes this Spirit-filled life and leadership as a “magnificent freedom” that “fosters creativity, flexibility, willingness to laugh or cry, to be still and to dance, to be moved in any way and to whatever end the Spirit of God chooses.”

We see this freedom expressed in many places in the Bible. For example, in the Gospel of John (3:5-8), Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the realm of God-presence, you must be born again, born of the Spirit. Nicodemus understands what it is to be born of the flesh, but this Spirit-birth mystifies him. Then Jesus goes on to describe the nature of God’s Spirit. It’s like the wind, he says. You can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going. It blows where it will. Then he says that if you are born of God’s Spirit, you, too, will be as free as the wind. We might interpret that to mean as flexible as the branches on a tree, as light as a gentle breeze, as unattached and willing to move, flow, and go with the flow of God’s movement wherever it leads. This is the kind of stance and way of being that we want to witness to in our leadership.

Access to Presence Through Our Breath

This word for wind used in John’s Gospel and by other biblical writers is the same word that describes the Spirit-breath of God that moved over creation in the first verse of Genesis, calling forth the created realm. It is the same Spirit-breath that God breathed into the human form giving it life. It is the same breath of God that brought to life the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley of death. And it is the same Spirit-filled breath that the Risen One breathed into his disciples, offering them the gift of the Holy Spirit. We might say that our breath is our most intimate connection with God’s life-giving breath.

Noticing our breath, with a desire for our deep being in God, is the most fundamental practice in the spiritual life. The simplicity of this practice may seem shocking. Yet our breath is accessible, always available, and can be an internal spiritual helper for quieting the mind and opening to God’s loving presence. All we need to do is notice our breath.

Our lives are filled with busyness, stress, noise. The simplest way to release the tensions on the surface of our minds and bodies is to slow down the breath. This slower way of breathing creates room for the Holy Spirit to get through to us, through all of the anxieties, agendas and attachments of our days. Wherever we are, we can simply begin by noticing our breath, practice slowing the breath, letting our breath take us into a deeper, more open, attentive presence.

In this practice, we begin to realize again and again that we are filled with the opening, expansive realm of God’s presence. Gradually, in this little practice of noticing and slowing the breath, we are drawn deeper into the heart of God’s loving presence. Our breath invites our whole self to be wide open, willing for God’s radiant wholeness, wanting what God wants for our lives and our world. With Thomas Merton we might then say simply: “What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”

The Gift of Contemplative Leadership

I began by saying that what is most important in this exploration is your own experience. Presence simply is. It is a field beyond our imagining. We cannot think our way into it. At times, we open to it spontaneously, naturally, when nothing extra may be needed. However, spiritual practices can take us to the threshold of this expansive loving Presence, where God’s Spirit in its own time and way can draw us deeper into love.

Our open presence to the One Loving Presence, leading from within that Presence, is the invitation of contemplative leadership. Then by the grace of God, and with our own open-hearted willingness, we may be carried further into not-knowing. With our interior compass oriented toward the Divine Spiritual Leader, we can trust we will be given enough-knowing for the next step.

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