Fifty Years of Longing

Fifty years ago, Tilden Edwards gathered a small group of people who longed to go deeper in prayer, seeking to recover the Christian contemplative tradition. As they met and prayed, they discovered that God longed for them as much as they longed for God. They were drawn deep into the heart of God.

As they continued to meet and pray, they realized the recovery of this contemplative thread was not just for their own personal transformation but also for the life of the church and the needs of the world. They felt moved to share their experience with others. They also felt led to engage with their own faith traditions, which had, outside of religious/monastic communities, largely lost the contemplative thread. Tilden was working on a doctorate focusing on spiritual guidance, and he felt drawn to nurture the call to this ministry among those who might not even know they were called to it, both for the sake of individuals and for the vital formative grounding of faith communities. Thus, the Spiritual Guidance Program, Shalem’s first long-term program, was born.

From this humble, vulnerable, trusting beginning, seeds took root and grew. Other long-term programs eventually blossomed: Personal Spiritual Deepening, Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats, Clergy Leadership, Group Spiritual Direction, Soul of the Executive, Young Adult Life and Leadership, and Soul of Leadership. Shalem pilgrimages sprang up, as well. Carole Crumley felt moved to design a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, which Tilden co-led with her, and, over the years, pilgrimages to Iona, Ireland, the Middle East, New Mexico, Scotland, Cuba, Paris, the Pacific Northwest, Newfoundland, the Camino, and Avila followed. Shalem Korea was born, and began to work with program staff to offer versions of these same programs in Korea. Shorter programs complemented the long-term programs: prayer groups, retreats, the Gerald May Seminar, the Contemplative Voices Award, the Group Spiritual Direction Workshop, and online courses. The Shalem Society, a contemplative community of long-term program graduates, was born. Tilden, Jerry May, Rose Mary Dougherty, and others wrote books that shared the message of what they were discovering.

My own introduction to Shalem came almost forty years ago, when, following my own longing to go deeper, I attended a workshop on spiritual guidance led by Tilden and Jerry May and then enrolled in the Spiritual Guidance Program a year later. The Spirit drew me deep into God’s heart. And I discovered contemplative community. I was hooked. Shalem programs continued to nurture me over the years, and I returned in 2015 to serve as Executive Director for an organization that had deeply nourished my soul.

Together with the board, we discerned a strategic plan that would bring more spiritually grounded diversity into Shalem’s leadership, both on the board and in programs. We initiated a major fundraising campaign to provide scholarships and program development, to make our programs more accessible to younger people and to BIPOC.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, we wondered if Shalem would survive. Contemplative community depended on in-person programs, pilgrimages, and prayer groups, we thought. Our experience led us to believe that, while a light introduction to the contemplative life could be had in an online course, the deeper experience of God, of contemplative community, was only possible in person. But as we prayed and discerned together, we were led to ask, “Has the Holy Spirit stopped working just because we can’t meet in person?” and “No!” came as the resounding answer. God still longs for us. People still long for God. So, through much experimentation, through many ups and downs, we offered our Shalem programs and pilgrimages on Zoom. To our surprise, our enrollment increased by 50%. The crisis of the pandemic upended our assumptions and allowed fresh experimentation, both in program design and in our commitment to spiritually-grounded Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We inititated a new visioning process, culminating in Vision 2025, in which we incorporated learnings from the pandemic as we envisioned our future.

To celebrate how God has met us again and again over the past 50 years, we are honoring our 50th anniversary with a 50-hour prayer vigil, a book launch for Soul Food, a book launch for Tilden’s memoir, Life Woven in Sacred Time, a 50th anniversary video, and a special 50th anniversary Contemplative Voices Award, with two awardees instead of our usual one: Cole Arthur Riley and Jim Finley.  

Over the past 50 years, Shalem has sought to respond to the longing for spiritual depth. Through ups and downs, through experimentation and stumbling, amazing fruit has grown and been made manifest in lives transformed and callings revealed. As we enter the next 50 years, we seek to continue to listen to God’s longing and the longing of those around us. While the longing for going deeper in God’s love has not changed in 50 years, the world we live in has changed enormously, and contemplative grounding is needed to help us through challenges we could have never imagined at that first prayer circle in 1973. What, we wonder, does God have in store for us next?

September 09, 2023 by Margaret Benefiel 3 Comments
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Merrill Carrington
Merrill Carrington
10 months ago

What a splendid distillation of these astonishing fifty years at Shalem!
Thank you for each and every carefully chosen, prayed over word, Margaret —
and for your own sustaining contemplative leadership.

9 months ago

Forever grateful for my time with Shalem in 2003-5. To BE with Gerald May and Tilden and Rose Mary – to be with them as I was in recovery from trauma… what gift and grace….


Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.


In 2025, Shalem will be a dynamic and inclusive community, empowered by the Spirit, where seekers engage in transformation of themselves, their communities, and the world through spiritual growth, deep connection, and courageous action.