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Wider Than the Sea

As I pondered and prayed about my experience in Shalem’s new Heart Longings program, a familiar hymn came to mind, and the melody would not go away. As I listened to the tune in my head, I realized it provided the answer as to what I wanted to share about my experience.

The hymn with Frederick William Faber’s words begins “There’s a wideness to God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” The verses describe welcome, grace and healing – all the things I was seeking at the start of the pandemic although I could not have named them at the time.

There is a wideness to participating in a Shalem program, and it is, indeed, wider than the sea.

In March 2020, when we began our lockdown in the United States, I had only recently experienced my first encounter with Shalem. My husband and I had attended an overnight regional gathering at a retreat center in Alabama and both came away with a feeling of spiritual renewal that we had been missing.

Fast forward several weeks and suddenly I found myself at home and at the beginning of a long journey where I experienced alternating feelings of isolation, withdrawal, fear, loneliness and ultimately self-discovery.

As the weeks of the shutdown continued, I explored remote offerings from several churches in the area and took advantage of the wide reach of the Internet that included programs from seminaries, universities and several contemplative organizations. But something was still missing, and so my searching continued. I discovered fairly quickly that this was my own journey to navigate and that I had no idea where to begin. I was fortunate to connect with a spiritual director who has become a steady guide for me.

A major step on my journey happened last September when I enrolled in a three-day workshop presented by Shalem on Group Spiritual Direction. The first two days brought me great peace and a feeling of community. I realized that those were the feelings that had been missing – meeting and speaking with like-minded people; being challenged to stretch and grow while simultaneously being heard and supported. I was so happy and excited but still had no clear idea where my path forward led. On the morning of the third and last day of the program, an email arrived in my inbox with an answer: Shalem was going to be offering a new eight-month program entitled “Heart Longings,” which was described as an invitation to the contemplative path. Prayers answered!

There is a wideness to participating in a Shalem program, and it is, indeed, wider than the sea.

The program began with an online retreat, and every month we gathered for three hours of contemplative practice, learning, prayerful listening, and sharing. Each of the monthly gatherings invited us to move more deeply into issues of our day such as earth awareness, justice and activism balanced with lessons learned from mystics, music and art.

The wideness began during the first retreat when I met people from many different denominations and traditions, living across both the United States and Canada. I continued to learn more from each encounter within small groups that introduced me to new people with a wide range of experiences and journeys. We were all seeking to learn from each other and grow as contemplatives during a time of unprecedented change and unparalleled noise in our society.

We each met every month with a spiritual director and also in small spiritual direction groups where we learned and practiced deep listening.

As we closed with our final gathering at the beginning of June, the sentiments expressed by many were how Heart Longings had helped us stay “grounded in the storm.” We had connected as a community of encouragement, learning and support with a common language and shared experiences. In the contemplative way, we honored our differing experiences and opinions and sought to be open, willing and receptive to the wide movement of the Spirit.

We had become the wideness of God’s love and mercy together. I am grateful to have had this amazing growth experience and to have become a member of an expanded faith community!

There is a wideness to participating in a Shalem program, and it is, indeed, wider than the sea.

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