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Opening to God: Receiving Nurture for Contemplative Leadership

Article by Liz Ward

“In God we live and move and have our being.”

Acts 17:28

Voices on television, computers and in newspapers expose us to heartbreaking tragedies all over the world; taking in even a tiny fraction of the pain and suffering of creation can seem overwhelming. We see images of pain and suffering on an hourly basis just by opening our newspapers, turning on our televisions, or clicking on our computers or smart phones. We hear stories of hardship, injustice, and atrocities that can numb our hearts and close our awareness. We watch the melting of icecaps, the pollution of oil spills, the effects of drought and famine, civil unrest, and many other changes endangering our intimately interconnected web of creation. It can be hard to believe in a loving God given the inexplicable pain and suffering we can witness on a daily basis today.

Suffering does not describe the fullness of Reality, however. There is a Goodness intricately interwoven in the fabric of creation, and as Spirit-led contemplative leaders, we are invited to open to this Goodness as well as to the pain and mystery of suffering. One way to open more fully is to be intentional about noticing the life-giving gifts that flow in and through our suffering world and that sustain and nurture our contemplative leadership. One of the greatest gifts for Spirit-led leadership is contemplative awareness, the consciousness that it is God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

Although we can’t control the deepening of this gifted awareness, we can open ourselves to receive it more fully. We can be more alert and attentive to God’s mysterious, yet abiding Presence, and be more sensitive to the graced shifts in our inner landscapes. We can let the inspired contemplative awareness of others deepen our faith and strengthen our resolve as contemplative leaders.

The Mysterious Gift of Contemplative Awareness

The contemplative awareness by which we live and move in God can open us to vast, yet intimate wisdom and mysterious guidance that can ground and nourish our contemplative leadership. It affirms the reality of the invisible Mystery holding and permeating the visible world we can see, hear, touch, and experience directly. This contemplative awareness of living in God can deepen our consciousness of the ocean of Holy Life constantly flowing in and through creation. It can ground our Spirit-led contemplative leadership in this mysterious flow of God’s liberating love. This deep and wide awareness invites contemplative leaders to open more fully to the Beloved’s life-giving spiritual gifts—as well as to the Gracious Giver of these gifts, who is the greatest Gift of all.

Painters, poets, and writers were among the first to awaken me to the gift of contemplative awareness. Their heightened sensitivity to the presence of God in all of life informed and affirmed the twists and turns in my own gifted awareness of living in God. Meditating on their creative works offered images and words for the graced shifts in my inner landscape. Their witness has encouraged, guided and strengthened my contemplative leadership.

For example, the French impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh was awake to this larger Presence, and his painting Starry Night suggests a visual image of God’s dynamic life freely flowing through all of creation. The swirling blue, yellow, and green lines filling the night sky hint at a vibrant Life that permeates not only the sky but also the trees, shrubs, mountains, and village below. This image invokes a powerful, pulsing Life that brightens the dark night and sheds light on the church and homes below. It suggests that, in the midst of the silent stillness of the dark night, the world is alive with a mighty Beauty it would be a shame for us to miss.

Van Gogh’s images are a visual expression of the gift of contemplative awareness that it is God in whom “we live and move and have our being.” These words from scripture can live in our hearts and be woven into our beings in different ways at different times. They can inspire, challenge, and comfort when they serve as living words expanding our contemplative awareness and deepening our lives as contemplative leaders. They seem to offer a consciousness that is right in the moment.

Images such as Van Gogh’s inspire me to notice that we live and move in a wealth of wisdom, love, peace, forgiveness, joy, hope, patience, faithfulness, strength, beauty, creativity, and truth. They invite me to remember that these life-giving gifts are intricately interwoven in the flow of creation and are mysteriously available when I am inwardly present, open, and free enough to receive them. These gifts are only a breath away, as close as our skin, as active as our blood, as alive as our heartbeat. They are so close, in fact, that they are hard to see and perceive; they are easy to miss. Still, like the air we breathe and the water flowing through our bodies, these transforming gifts are present, and our persistent invitation as contemplative leaders is to open our minds, expand our awareness, and free our hearts so we can awaken to their graced presence.

Yet, even when we are centered, open, and present, these gifts may not come, and when we are distracted, anxious, sad, or angry, they may come unbidden as a nourishing surprise. We do not control their arrival, no matter how much we would like to do so. They emerge from the mystery of grace and humble as well as confound.

Growing our Contemplative Awareness

Although we cannot control the gifts of the Spirit, we can be alert and attentive to notice and receive them. We can become sleuths of the inner life who notice our inner blocks and obstacles to contemplative awareness. We can invite greater awareness and take our resistances to prayer for transformation. For example, we may so desire a particular outcome during a distressing time that we miss the more subtle yet sustaining gifts we are given. We can let expectations or impatience blind us to the gifts supporting and transforming us from within. We may understandably just want the situation to change, but in being so attached to a particular outcome, we may miss the graced patience, hope, perseverance, faithfulness, or creativity that may be given instead. It is possible, however, to widen our awareness beyond the stress and turmoil caused by disappointing events. We can notice the subtle inner shifts and look for the life-giving grace that sustains during challenging times.

We can begin to apprehend this aspect of God’s mysterious grace when we reflect on our experiences of being gifted in unexpected ways. Perhaps we received a surprising ability to love or forgive, expressed a wisdom we didn’t know we had, acknowledged a truth we had long denied, were more patient than we could have imagined, were touched by an unexpected joy, or were held in a loving peace in the midst of pain or suffering. These experiences can give us awareness of not being confined by our limits; of living in a mysterious, invisible world much larger, more active, and more profound than previously imagined. They can grow our trust in God and Spirit-led leadership.

Expanding our Contemplative Awareness

Again, poetic and artistic voices can express and deepen our awareness of the dynamic fabric of grace flowing through all of creation. Their penetrating visions can freshen our eyes, expand our vision, open our hearts, and grow our trust. When we can have the “willing suspension of disbelief” suggested by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when we can momentarily let go of our doubts, fears, and judgments and be prayerfully present to their voices, we can open ourselves to receive a surprising grace of our own. We can allow their contemplative awareness to inspire and inform our contemplative leadership.

Inspired voices can touch hidden depths in our beings and awaken us to new life. With God’s grace, we can allow their co-creative words and images, like the words of scripture, to live in us and subtly shift and transform our inner landscapes. We can allow their words and images to gently guide us into a deeper awareness of God who seems so ready to gift us when we acknowledge our limits. We can allow their words and images to open us to receive the wisdom, love, peace, forgiveness, joy, hope, patience, faithfulness, strength, beauty, or truth we don’t have on our own, but may need in the moment to be Spirit-led, contemplative leaders. They can help us experience God as well as learn about God.

For example, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins shares his contemplative awareness that creation is held in the penetrating love of God. In his prophetic poem “God’s Grandeur,” he boldly states that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” In 1918 he believed that despite the way life had become “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” during the industrial revolution, there lived “the dearest freshness deep down things” in the abundance of the natural world. He felt that the scripture of creation could remind us of this larger Holy Life permeating our world and tenderly holding us in a faithful, loving embrace.

The English poet William Wordsworth describes his contemplative awareness of this life-giving Spirit permeating all of creation in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” While walking to and through the dramatic ruins of this ancient abbey with his beloved sister Dorothy, Wordsworth is graced with a deep awareness. He hears the “still, sad music of humanity” in a way that is powerful enough to “chasten and subdue” but not harsh and grating enough to completely overwhelm. He is aware of the destructive forces in life; he sees with his own eyes the crumbling monastic ruin of a once magnificent source of social support and living faith. He clearly sees the painful losses that result from ego conflicts over power, wealth, prestige, and control.

Still, at the same time he is also profoundly aware of “a presence that disturbs [him] with the joy of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused” in the fabric of creation. Like the English anchoress, Julian of Norwich, he is graced with an awareness of the intricate interweaving of pain and promise in life. In the face of destruction, he can also sense “a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things.” He is somehow empty enough and open enough to be blessed by this heightened awareness of a Gracious Life that is larger, more pervasive, and more powerful than the destructive forces he also sees.

Perhaps the safety and faithful love of his devoted sister Dorothy helped to free him to receive this profound blessing. Perhaps his long sensitivity to the hidden depths in both the beauty and destruction of the natural world prepared him for this gifted awareness. Perhaps the long history of prayer at Tintern Abbey, a place where “prayer had been valid,” still permeated the atmosphere and enlivened his senses. Perhaps the fact that the destruction occurred in the past rather than in the midst of his own life made it easier to see a larger Reality. Although we can make “hints and guesses” at what may have helped to open him to this wisdom, ultimately the answer seems to lie in the unpredictable mystery of grace.

Another voice full of contemplative awareness is revealed in Herman Hesse’s short novel, Siddhartha. Hesse uses the changes in the way Siddhartha listens to a river to show the growth of contemplative awareness in his spiritual journey. At first Siddhartha only notices a “beautiful river.” Later, after he moves from despair and wanting to drown in the river, he wants to learn from it. He observes that the “water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same yet every moment it was new.”

As Siddhartha learns to listen more deeply, he hears the longing, woe, and insatiable desire flowing in the river. This is not the end, however. He continues to listen and hears the intricate interweaving of joy and sorrow in the unity of creation. He realizes that “the music of life” is a “great song of a thousand voices” sounding as one powerful, liberating word and sees himself as part of this one great flowing Unity.

This non-dualistic sense of belonging in the inclusive flow of God’s Life is one of the many gifts that can be given to contemplative leaders. This contemplative awareness does not erase suffering, challenges and struggles, but over time it can soften our sharp and fearful edges like the smoothing of a stone in the ocean. Over time, we may feel less like a stone that is separate and alone and more like a sponge floating in the ocean of God’s vast, unitive Life. Then the ocean of God’s loving, liberating Life can flow in, around, and through us and our contemplative leadership more fully and freely. When this happens, even for a moment, it is a gift beyond compare.

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