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Mystery Taking Shape: Creativity and Contemplative Leadership

by Ann Dean

The most visible creators I know are those whose medium is life itself…

Their medium is being. 

~Frederick Franck

Contemplation is often defined as simple open presence, continually renewed immediacy, and direct awareness of what is. These are good phrases that describe our intent. Yet when we take the adjective “contemplative” and put it with something else, in this case “leadership,” does anything change? I think it does. The noun “leadership” takes on new definition. It is reinvented from the inside out; we become active, co-creative agents of another Mind.

God’s vision breaks through and finds expression because the divine Wellspring is flooding the territory. Our inner and outer realities are in alignment. Suddenly the realm of God is at hand in the situation of the moment, being realized through alternative, creative Spirit-led leadership. This is sacred activism. Authentic, contemplative leadership is always embracing hope because it is co-creating with the Source of all hope. Hope is on the prowl—ever-creating, offering and nourishing seeds of possibility through us that will one day bring wholeness and harmony, peace and justice to all creation. God’s dream of shalom comes closer as we respond. The question is, do I, do you, believe it? Does it fit our experience?

My own heart kneels in awe and utter humility. And isn’t awe itself a creative pathway of transformation? Sudden, new beginnings grip the heart. There is a fresh falling in love with patterns of possibilities for this time of planetary peril. That falling touches a deeper power that can become a force for repairing the world.

It is wondrous, and sometimes terrifying, too, that the Birther, the Beloved Creating Energy of the Universe, trusts us to share this creative work. In Christianity, this is part of what is meant by putting on the mind of Christ. Put another way: we are sharing the mind of the Cosmic Christ—the one through whom and for whom the whole Universe has been created, the one in whom all things are held together.

Creativity is original, always originating, birthing the new. When new vision is given, the mind awakens to new pathways and is ever-alert to the present moment. The will and the work flow from a new center as well as new depths of being. That inner being bursts into the world as becoming. I saw it recently, at the end of a Shalem staff retreat. After a day of silence, walking in the wind and praying by the pond, the time came for sharing glimpses of new corporate vision. Of course there was synchronicity.

There is nothing so bright as a person, or a community of persons, on fire with new vision and a specific call to justice and healing. Whatever the piece of God’s dream that foments in the enlarged soul, it expresses itself with amazing force. Buildings go up, money flows, healing happens. Drug addicts recover, rivers get saved, political decisions are reversed, the homeless get jobs, Muslims and Jews worship together. As teacher and cosmologist Brian Swimme says, “The consciousness that learns it is at the origin point of the universe is itself an origin of the universe.”

We are made to express the divine mind of the Holy One, the insights and guidance of unitive, contemplative awareness, according to our gifts and calling in the immediacy of the present moment. That is radical creativity, rooted in holy Wisdom. It shimmers with the vision of shalom and co-creates with the Beloved in the healing of the world. That is why creativity is a core component of contemplative leadership.

Contemplative leadership is dependent on a deep desire for spaciousness, flexibility, and openness to the True Leader, the Spirit. To be a contemplative leader, one must be intentionally living at the center so that leadership flows from within. I think this is what Frederick Franck means when he says the medium is being.

Emerging from a deep awareness of multiple dimensions of reality, contemplative leadership becomes social artistry: imaginative, free, and illuminating. Prayerful and discerning, creative contemplative leadership is the agent of present-moment possibilities for shalom.

Creativity and Darkness

Pondering creativity as a quality of contemplative leadership, I think it makes sense to begin at the beginning, in the reality of the unknown shapeless mystery of darkness.  Darkness is a dimension of reality to which we normally have an aversion. Yet darkness and creativity are deeply interconnected.

The Hebrew Scriptures open with that connection:

In the beginning…

        Earth was formless and empty, darkness

        was over the surface of the deep, and

        the Spirit of God was hovering… (Genesis 1:1-2)

The biblical story of creation describes a Divine Presence “hovering” like a great mother bird over a formless, chaotic void. Yahweh’s spirit was the animating force creating form, breathing life into it. The Genesis story emphasizes the endlessly blossoming possibilities of darkness. In the beginning, empty darkness held the fullness of potential. “Darkness was over the surface of the deep.”

This is the mystical heart of cosmology. Holy creativity requires darkness. In the contemplative tradition it is the apophatic way. It is the way of befriending depth, of going home to the place of deepest mystery and truth—into the dark, away from the light. New beginnings emerge there, but they first require letting go of old forms, detachment from what is known or familiar, and waiting in the empty, dark womb for the knowledge of unknowing.

Out of silent darkness, the Hovering One formed creation and all that came into being sparkled with divine energies. Rene Magritte’s painting, “La Grande Famille,” depicts so beautifully that Ineffable Mystery materializing into a multitude of ever-evolving forms, a cosmic family of interconnected forms.

Darkness and creativity go together. I learned about the science of this when studying cosmology at the University of Creation Spirituality. If you take any space—for example, when you cup your hands together—and remove all the atomic and subatomic particles, as well as the radiation energy of invisible particles of light, nothing remains but a vacuum, or emptiness. Yet quantum physicists have investigated that vacuum and shown that there, precisely there in that emptiness, new particles come into existence.

Can you imagine anything more hopeful? Dark emptiness is an originating place of fecundity, the source of new life. So far, we have no way of measuring the creative energies in dark emptiness. Nor can we predict the new life that will be created, but it is apparent that there are no limits to the possibilities. As the ancient mystic Empedocles said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” No limits and no boundaries.  The mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it this way,

Ah, not to be cut off

            Not through the slightest partition

            Shut out from the law of the stars.

            The inner—what is it?

            If not intensified sky

            Hurled through with birds and deep

            With the winds of homecoming.

Meister Eckhart speaks of dwelling with Unnamable Mystery as nowhere and nothing. In the mystical tradition, it is often named the dark night of the soul, the “oscura noche” John of the Cross described. Psychologically, the dark night can be confused with depression because there is confusion and lack of control as one flounders in emptiness, or negativity. Certainly there is vulnerability. But I believe that much of the negativity today is not depression. Rather, it is the dark, obscure night of Mystery in which the Creating One’s originating power is manifesting in hidden ways. It is evident in many of the people I have the privilege to companion on retreats, in spiritual direction and counseling. Lured by the Beloved to trust in the deep, hidden silence of darkness, the autonomous self, which an era of individualism has promoted, can be transformed. A unitive, creative consciousness emerges. That consciousness is the ground of creative contemplative leadership.

Practices for Creative Contemplative Leadership

A friend told me about meeting a humble Benedictine sister visiting from Mexico City, who said that to pray “Our Father…” is to pray knowing that we are all sisters and brothers sharing one house. That house, she explained, is our Mother Earth and our house is coming apart through floods and other devastating results of climate change. Neil Douglas-Klotz, reflecting on the many-layered meanings of that Aramaic prayer, invites us to pray:

    O Birther!  Father-Mother of the Cosmos…

    In the roar and the whisper,

    in the breeze and the whirlwind, we

    hear your Name.

    Radiant One: You shine within us,

    outside us—even darkness shines when

    we remember…

    Create your reign of unity now!

I often call this prayer to mind and center my trust in God as a cosmic Birther at the beginning of my quiet meditation time—or as a beginning orientation for any practice.

Let me share another practice that has been meaningful to me and that you might wish to try. In a dedicated, quiet time, I let my mind become empty, go dark, encouraged by the words from Psalm 139, “even darkness is not dark to You.” Willing to trust that it is good to let go of all thoughts and images, and hoping for the creative energies of God to birth something new in me, I wait in the silent darkness. T.S. Eliot’s words from “East Coker” come to mind:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

            Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,

            The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed

            With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of

            Darkness on darkness

After a while, if it seems right, if something does emerge that shimmers with divine creative energy, I may pull out a journal of black paper and use chalk to draw an image or word that seems given and wants to be noticed and engaged. This frees the right side of the brain for some imaginative exploration.  Nothing has to happen, but it is possible that, as Eliot says later in the poem, “the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

A different kind of practice that nourishes my creative spirit is praying with an image. A recurring image for me is of a watered garden, from Isaiah 58. To be an unfailing spring of water would fulfill my deepest longing to be unfailingly linked to the divine Wellspring. To be a watered garden would be to have a life with many areas of service, all dependent on, and continually relating to, the Source of Living Water. The medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen experienced that ever-watering Source this way: “I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life. I am the yearning for good.”

Since the living water of God’s empowering love yearns for good and is faithful and trustworthy, what I am really praying for, of course, is my own availability for a creative contemplative stance in the garden of life. I pray to be receptive and responsive in my being and in my leadership.

Embracing Creativity in Leadership

Some would argue, “I’m not a leader!” I think we need to expand our understanding of leadership. Everyone is a leader at the point of his or her gifts. I am a leader at the point of my gifts and a follower at the point of yours. You are a leader at the point of your gifts and a follower at the point of mine. This is the key to a creative, growing, life-giving community. And community is essential for evoking, confirming and celebrating every person’s gifts; most of all, for realizing that every person is a gift.  All are needed.  All are to be nurtured and celebrated.

Leadership may be momentary or ongoing. Creative, contemplative leadership may take the form of a question or pause, as is so often experienced in spiritual direction. It may take the form of a new idea or different direction, as in leading a retreat or any meeting. Or it may be simply offering a different way of being together to listen for wisdom.

The invitation, and the challenge, on this hinge of history, is to offer an alternative kind of leadership, contemplative leadership. This is a relational form of leadership that is fluid and strong, yet not dominating or controlling. It is wide open to the movement of the ever-creative Spirit. How could our leadership be truly transformative if it is not grounded in a unitive consciousness, the realm of ultimate creativity?

We can embrace the full potential of creativity by letting go of grasping agendas; valuing silence; welcoming fears; and encouraging imagination. Peter Senge, MIT guru of corporate process and business planning, writes of the necessity of letting go and listening for wisdom. He calls it “presencing.” Probably every one of us has had the experience of being guided by the presence of wisdom in the moment, making one or more of these suggestions, then being surprised at suddenly being in a position of “leadership” because our authority is intuitively recognized by others. Another Author, the true Leader, is present and active, co-creating.

How could contemplative leadership, then, be anything but creative? It is rooted in the living presence of Love. Love is such an over-worked word these days that it has been trivialized, even in religious circles. The love of God is a powerful force of generativity, a majestic creative will for genesis. I think the poet Rilke had the right idea: we should conceive of God not as an object but as a direction. In any case, God’s radiant love is all about relationship, seeking to be known, responded to, and realized. It is incarnational and everywhere. The entire world is a burning bush of God’s energies. One way of seeing Jesus’ life is that it was the catalyst that released creative powers in his followers.

Rivers, humans, plants, planets—all living beings are part of a single sacred community. The whole Universe sings a symphony that expresses and seeks ever more fully the wholeness for which the Divine Artist longs. It is an ever-changing symphony because it is alive. Creation is ever-creating. It is not static because love is not static. “From the beginning until now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth.”  (Rom. 8:12)

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, called love a “sacred reserve of energy… like the blood of spiritual evolution.” Though there was a moment of origin in the Source for every living thing, the Universe is pulsating with new possibility in every present moment. Our First Love calls us to co-creating those possibilities with compassion, totally redefining the secular norms of power.

Creativity, at the deepest level, is holiness. Therein lies our hope that humankind and Earth will move forward together in a mutually enhancing way, with the Radiant One whose dreams emerge from the sacred dark. It is our task, and our unutterable joy, to further those divine dreams through our creative, contemplative leadership.

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