All posts by Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

Cynthia Bourgeault: The Heart of Silence (Part One)

Cynthia Bourgeault has embraced silence and the contemplative life from a variety of perspectives: as a child in Quaker schools, as an Episcopal priest, as a student of the Gurdjieff “Fourth Way” and of centering prayer working with Fr. Thomas Keating, and now as a teacher both in her own Wisdom Schools and as part of the Living School. She is also the author of numerous books and a widely sought-after speaker and retreat leader. Joining us via Skype from Tucson shortly before she led a retreat, she offers a wide-ranging, insightful conversation on topics ranging from mysticism to inner transformation to the practical ways to develop contemplative culture in an ordinary neighborhood church — and why the local parish may not be the ideal environment for fostering deep interior work.

This is part one of a two-part interview.

Encountering Silence talks to Cynthia Bourgeault

When people gather in silence, a deeper kind of  collective, synergistic, numinous knowing unfolds. And that’s the only knowing that’s worth a damn, particularly when you’re working with the infinite. — Cynthia Bourgeault

Cynthia shares how her love for silence originated with her early education in Quaker schools, where she recognized silence as a “liturgical expression and mode of divine communion.” There she discovered silence not merely as the absence of noise, but as a sacred container of presence.  For her, after a long meandering journey from Christian Science to Episcopal ordination, she became (in her words) a “Trappist junkie” as she began to study centering prayer with Fr. Thomas Keating, which for her meant a coming home to the silence she had learned to love as a child.

You can’t do infinite truth in a dialogical, debating mode. — Cynthia Bourgeault

She offers keen insight into the dynamic interplay not only between silence and religion, but also silence as a medium by which we can experience inner transformation — a rewiring of our inner “operating system” as we move from the dualistic consciousness that is encoded in our language to the radical nonduality that only contemplative silence can reveal. With insights into the relationship between silence and philosophy, silence and psychology (including the ways in which western psychology misunderstands silence), and how monastic practices have encoded rich tools for using silence as a way to access nondual seeing, Bourgeault offers a rich and compelling statement for how silence is literally crucial for human growth, development, wellness, and knowing.

Centering Prayer, in complete alignment with the radically surrendered heart of Christ, offers Christians a way to jump into the deep luminous river of silence, and to know in a different way… it’s a 100% Christian experience of the deeper waters of silence.” — Cynthia Bourgeault

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Silence for me is like the air I breathe; it’s not a place I go to, it’s not a thing to be worshiped in and of itself; it’s a pathway in to something that emerges through it and in it. — Cynthia Bourgeault

Episode 58: Encountering the Heart of Silence: A Conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault (Part One)
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Guest: The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD
Date Recorded: February 25, 2019

Martin Laird: Silent Land, Luminous Ocean (Part Three)

Our conversation with contemplative author Martin Laird concludes with this episode.

“In a spiritual path there are no ‘outcomes assessments’.” — Martin Laird

After recording an interview with just Carl and Kevin, Fr. Martin graciously agreed to an additional recording session with all three of us. Today’s episode features that second conversation, including Cassidy. Fr. Martin deepens and clarifies some of his thoughts on issues already discussed, including discerning the distinctions between secular mindfulness practices and Christian contemplative practices.

“Simply being aware of thoughts as they go by — yes, that’s fine. But who is doing the ‘aware-ing’?” — Martin Laird

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this conversation with Martin Laird:

“This whole business of silence is B.S.-proof. It’s not a contemplative mascara… The attraction to things spiritual, the attaction to silence, to contemplative practices or disciplines, can actually be a defense against what contemplation will make you face.” — Martin Laird

Episode 57: Silent Land, Luminous Ocean: A Conversation with Martin Laird (Part Three)
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Carl McColman, Cassidy Hall
Guest: Fr. Martin Laird, OSA
Date Recorded: February 25, 2019

“A self ‘unselfed’ of self is free, is fully created, and becomes a vehicle of compassion because it has overcome the sense of a separate self.” — Martin Laird

Martin Laird: Silent Land, Luminous Ocean (Part Two)

Our conversation with contemplative author Martin Laird continues with this episode. To hear part one, click here.

“What I mean by ‘Contemplative’ is ultimately overcoming the illusion of separation of God, and that illusion is sustained and maintained by inner noise in our head. And everything about our culture keeps our attention riveted there.” — Martin Laird

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

“Life itself is too wild to be tamed by the social constructs that we try to shoehorn it into.” — Martin Laird

Episode 56: Silent Land, Luminous Ocean: A Conversation with Martin Laird (Part Two)
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Carl McColman
Guest: Fr. Martin Laird, OSA
Date Recorded: February 18, 2019

“In deepest silence the self is ‘unselfed’ of self… Silence ‘unothers’ the other.” — Martin Laird

 

Martin Laird: Silent Land, Luminous Ocean (Part One)

Martin Laird is the author of three highly-regarded books on Christian contemplative spirituality: Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of ContemplationA Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation, and An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation.

He is an Augustinian friar, and Professor of Early Christian Studies at Villanova University. He is also the author of an academic monograph, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith. Father Martin lectures and leads retreats widely through the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. His books are deeply grounded in the Christian tradition and yet are accessible guides to how silence integrates into prayer and everyday life.

Fr. Martin joined Carl and Kevin for a conversation over Skype, and a week later spoke with us again, this time with Cassidy joining us as well. Thanks to his generosity, this is our longest interview yet, and we hope our listeners will find insight and meaning in this thoughtful and perceptive conversation on silence and the spiritual life.

The ‘silent land’ is you. — Martin Laird

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 55: Silent Land, Luminous Ocean: A Conversation with Martin Laird (Part One)
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Carl McColman
Guest: Fr. Martin Laird, OSA
Date Recorded: February 18, 2019

Jane Brox: The Social History of Silence

If silence could tell us a story about itself, what would it say?

This could be the question that Jane Brox answers in her most recent book, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements in Our Lives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Brox is the award-winning author of several acclaimed works of literary nonfiction, including Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light and Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm.

In her fascinating study, Brox explores how silence impacts people both as individuals and as communities, by considering how silence has shaped two of the most archetypal institutions in western society: the monastery and the penitentiary. But she also considers the ways in which silence has particularly impacted the lives of women — both inside and outside such institutions.

Silence has always been important to my life, partly because I’m a writer and to me, there’s never enough silence when I’m working. Not only when I’m working at the page, but before and afterwards — that’s the place in which the work grows. — Jane Brox

Brox offers us tremendous insight into how silence is critical to her process as a creative writer. Having first encountered silence in her childhood on a farm, she grew up to embrace the writer’s life, and discovering how essential silence has been to her ability to think — and create — in a comprehensive way.

She talks about having a long-standing appreciation for Thomas Merton, which led to her organizing her book around his story — and the story of an obscure nineteenth-century convict from America’s first penitentiary. But she also looks at how women have experienced silence in some very different ways from men’s experience of silence.

What emerged for Brox was a deepened appreciation for just how complex the human relationship to silence really is — that a simplistic distinction between “imposed silence” (in the penitentiary) and “chosen silence” (in the monastery) simply does not adequately reveal just how nuanced the social history of silence truly is.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Silence is an extreme place; and it’s total exposure. Even the most balanced person is tested there. That’s in part why people seek it, to see where they will go; that’s in party why people flee it, because it’s so terrifying. There’s no protection in the silence… There’s no place to  hide in silence. — Jane Brox

Episode 54: The Social History of Silence: A Conversation with Jane Brox
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Jane Brox
Date Recorded: February 4, 2019

Mary Margaret Funk, OSB: Silence Matters, Part Two (Episode 53)

Today’s episode is part two of a two-part interview. Click here to listen to part one.

Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB continues her conversation with Cassidy, recorded at Sr. Meg’s monastery in Beech Grove, IN. Toward the end of the conversation, Kevin, Carl (and Carl’s wife, Fran) joined the conversation via Skype.

“In Mepkin Abbey we all have to drink our coffee together… you can’t take your coffee cup to your room…  the first day I resented it, I said ‘nobody messes with my coffee’… the second day, I just sat there and drank the coffee; the third day, I actually listened to the birds wake up, the third day I noticed who also was in the room; the fourth day I actually tasted silence, and I brought that back home with me.” — Mary Margaret Funk, OSB

She reflects on how Jesus represents a path from violence to healing, plays more music on her recorders, muses on the best practice for interreligious dialogue (“practice your own faith and understand others”), and leads Cassidy on an exercise for training attentiveness.

Kevin and Carl ask Sr. Meg additional questions about interspiritual practice, on cultivating an “ethos of silence” in the church, and how to best teach the practice of silence in our time — particularly the question of contemplative teaching online.

Sr. Meg rounds out her conversation with a wonderful description of “five cups of coffee” that illustrate her encounter with silence and the presence of God. Don’t miss it!

“If I could put what I believe about God in fewer than 200 words, it would be this: Jesus is the way for us to shift from violence to healing…” — Mary Margaret Funk, OSB

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 53: Silence Matters: A Conversation with Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB (Part Two)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Special Guest: Fran McColman
Guest: Mary Margaret Funk, OSB
Date Recorded: February 5, 2019

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Mary Margaret Funk, OSB: Silence Matters, Part One (Episode 52)

Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, is a member of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana. She entered this Benedictine community in 1961 and served as the prioress from 1985 to 1993. In 1994 Sister Meg became the Executive Director of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Board. She has been in formal dialogue with people of the Hindu, Zen Buddhist, Islamic, Confucian, and Taoist traditions.

Sr. Meg chats with Fran, Carl and Kevin via Skype.

She holds graduate degrees from Catholic University (1973) and Indiana University (1979). She is a graduate of Epiphany Certification Program of Formative Spirituality (2002). She received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to explore the history of Christian spirituality and its ongoing relevant to women religious today.

“Music is the closest thing there is to silence, actually; it’s a way to taste silence.” — Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB

Sr. Meg is the author of numerous books, including the “Matters Series” books on traditional Christian spirituality: Thoughts Matter: Discovering the Spiritual JourneyTools Matter: Beginning the Spiritual JourneyHumility Matters: Toward Purity of HeartLectio Matters: Before the Burning Bush, and Discernment Matters: Listening with the Ear of the Heart. Her other books include Renouncing Violence: Practice from the Monastic Tradition and Islam Is: An Experience of Dialogue and Devotion.

Our Lady of Grace Monastery

When we approached Sister Meg to invite her to join our conversation on silence, we were delighted to learn that her monastery is only a short drive from Cassidy’s new home in Indiana! So this episode was recorded by Cassidy in person at the music room of Our Lady of Grace Monastery. In part two of this interview, Kevin and Carl — and Carl’s wife, Fran — joined the conversation via Skype.

“Solitude gives you a house in which to be silent.” — Sister Mary Margaret Funk, OSB

Sr. Meg is a gifted teacher, and our conversation quickly turned into a lesson in spiritual history and practice. Using the themes of her books as an organizing principle, Sr. Meg skillfully explained the central role that silence plays to Benedictine spirituality — and indeed to Christian spirituality as a whole. And while her insights dove deep into her “home tradition” of Christian spirituality, her years of insight into interreligious dialogue added a richness and depth to her reflections on how Christians and persons of other faiths can learn from one another — and how honoring the integrity of their own traditions enhances interfaith dialogue.

Sr. Meg playing the recorder

As if all this weren’t enough, Sr. Meg is also an amateur musician, and played several tunes for us on her tenor and alto recorders! She now has the distinction of being our first guest to explore silence not only with her words, but with her music as well.

Today’s episode is part one of a two-part interview. Click here to listen to part two.

“Everybody knows what violence is, but they don’t know what renouncing is.” — Sister Mary Margaret Funk

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 52: Silence Matters: A Conversation with Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB (Part One)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Guest: Mary Margaret Funk, OSB
Date Recorded: February 5, 2019

Shirley Hershey Showalter: Simplicity and Silence, Part Two (Episode 51)

Today’s episode is part two of a two-part interview. Click here to listen to part one.

Our conversation continues with Shirley Hershey Showalter, the author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

Singing is to a Mennonite what silence is to a Quaker. For me, singing is a way of bringing silence and voice together. — Shirley Hershey Showalter

She grew up “a barefoot girl” on a Mennonite farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where her ancestors tilled the soil for generations. Speaking of her childhood, she describes her earliest encounters with silence as embedded in the experience of the vast spaciousness of the farm. Her memoir explored the tension she experienced “in the silence of her own heart” between the traditional culture of the Mennonites and her desire to discover her own voice as a teenager and young woman in the 1960s — ultimately choosing to embrace her Mennonite identity, but very much on her own terms.

Being here in the Shenandoah Valley, looking out at the mountains, every morning it’s part of my spiritual practice to just sit in my red chair and look at the mountains. — Shirley Hershey Showalter

Shirley Hershey Showalter in Glendalough, Ireland

Our conversation in today’s episode begins with looking at the affinity between Anabaptist/Mennonite spirituality and Benedictine or monastic spirituality, including the spirituality of Celtic Christians. She shares how Irish mystic/poet John O’Donohue wrote eloquently of the contemplative nature of the mountains. She reveals why she came to call her memoir Blushand reveals who her silence heroes are (one living, one from history). She speaks about her most recent joy — encouraging people in their “final third of love” to find joy, jubilation, and a renewed sense of purpose.”

Find Shirley Hershey Showalter online at www.shirleyshowalter.com.

To learn more about Threshold Choirs, visit www.thresholdchoir.org.

At a Mennonite conference I heard someone say, “Mennonites try to take monasticism into the family.” — Shirley Hershey Showalter

Today’s episode is part two of a two-part interview. Click here to listen to part one.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 51: Simplicity and Silence: A Conversation with Shirley Hershey Showalter (Part Two)
Hosted by: Carl McColman
Guest: Shirley Hershey Showalter
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: January 28, 2019

Shirley Hershey Showalter: Simplicity and Silence, Part One (Episode 50)

What is the relationship between silence and simplicity? Silence and peace? Or, for that matter, how does silence relate to the importance of our voice — as human beings in general, but especially for writers or for people whose voices have traditionally bee marginalized, such as women or those who live in traditional rural settings?

These are some of the questions we explore with Shirley Hershey Showalter, the author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

Jesus giving his life actually is a form of helping us to find peace within ourselves, and peace with the world, and peace with all other humans and creatures in the world. — Shirley Hershey Showalter

She grew up “a barefoot girl” on a Mennonite farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where her ancestors tilled the soil for generations. Speaking of her childhood, she describes her earliest encounters with silence as embedded in the experience of the vast spaciousness of the farm. Her memoir explored the tension she experienced “in the silence of her own heart” between the traditional culture of the Mennonites and her desire to discover her own voice as a teenager and young woman in the 1960s — ultimately choosing to embrace her Mennonite identity, but very much on her own terms.

I don’t dress differently from other people today, but I hope that I am nonconformed to the world — that I am able to withstand the temptations of the violence of the world — of frivolity, and noise. Those are the things that I try to extract from the  teachings about plainness that I grew up with. — Shirley Hershey Showalter

After being the first in her family to attend college, she joined the faculty of Goshen College, a Mennonite college in Indiana, eventually serving as that institution’s first woman president.

Shirley Hershey Showalter in Glendalough, Ireland

From there she became an executive with the Fetzer Institute. She now is engaged in what she calls her “encore vocation” of writing and helping others to celebrate what she calls jubilación — the art of aging joyfully.

Our conversation explored not only how silence informed both her faith and the simple joy of growing up on a traditional farm, but also how the “plain” culture of Anabaptist Christianity gave her an appreciation both of the beauty of silence and the power of words. She reflects on how the “plain” culture of the Mennonites — an effort to follow Christ by being nonconformed to the world — not only meant for her embracing the traditional Anabaptist commitment to peace, but also avoiding the noise of the world in which we live.

This is part one of a two part episode — to listen to part two, click here.

Find Shirley Hershey Showalter online at www.shirleyshowalter.com.

When peace is associated with silence at the center, then one becomes aware of the many people who don’t have the luxury of peace, or the luxury of silence. — Shirley Hershey Showalter

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 50: Simplicity and Silence: A Conversation with Shirley Hershey Showalter (Part One)
Hosted by: Carl McColman
Guest: Shirley Hershey Showalter
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: January 28, 2019