Contemplative Practice And Inner Agency

In 2005, after completing a Masters in Theology and the Arts, I took a job teaching High School in downtown Los Angeles. I learned a lot in teaching, growing and stretching in ways I never could have imagined.

But I also floundered, knowing I was not fully living out my core purpose. But change is hard, and rolling over to the next year is easy. You don't have to do anything to stay stuck, to give up your agency. You just let life happen to you. it’s easy to fall prey to a kind of passivity and fatalism.

In my final years in the classroom I became far more intentional about practicing an ancient spiritual practice of Centering Prayer, preserved for centuries in monastic communities. This practice led to profound internal changes that have allowed me to make healthy decisions for myself and my family, articulate my purpose, and pursue it far more intentionally.

But there's a hitch. I didn't write down what I wanted to do and get after it right away. I had to bring some things to light first. Addictions. Resentments. Attachments. Fears.

Centering Prayer alone didn't solve these issues. Instead, this practice allowed me to see them, process them, and let them go, freeing up the internal space to pursue my purpose for directly, more fully.

Part of this path also cultivates a different sense of inner authority, but here I want to focus more on that renewed sense of inner direction and agency, that is the wherewithal to choose direction and movement and stick with it. For many of us, it’s a process just getting to that point…

Ancient myths and spiritual texts teach us we have to go down into our inner self, and confront the things that hold us back. We may have to become aware of the unconscious ways we handicap ourselves, to bring to light some of the fears that keep us boxed in.

For me this led to a period of immense productivity and fruitfulness in projects that had been in the planning stage, and even the wishful thinking stage, for years.

For others, there are different effects, but both arise out of a deep alignment of the inmost self and the divine reality.

As Thomas Keating writes: "One of the biggest impediments to spiritual growth is that we do not perceive our own hidden motivations. Our unconscious, pre-rational emotional programming from childhood and our overidentification with a specific group or groups are the sources from which our false gradually emerges." - Invitation to Love.

The metaphor for this process of discovery or descent into the self is the journey and we see versions of it all around us, in what Joseph Campbell called "The Hero's Journey." Yes, it's almost become a cultural cliché for screenplays and story structure, but it can be a powerful tool for examining the internal path as well. The pattern shows up in Homer's Odyssey, in The Divine Comedy of Dante, and so on.

Medieval scholars interpreted these texts and metaphors for the soul's journey toward God, and identified it with more familiar spiritual tropes: the paschal mystery, the way of the cross.

It's one thing to identify the pattern and put it to work for commercial use. It's quite another to allow it to become a means of profound inner transformation.

It turns out the Christian contemplative tradition has long incorporated this three-fold structure into a way of organizing spiritual formation. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite taught the three-fold way of Purgation, Illumination, and Union as phases in the spiritual journey.

St. Thomas Aquinas later also picked up on this pattern. It echoes down to us today in the writings of spiritual teachers like Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, who have made it their life's work to make the monastic spiritual practices and language more readily available to the layperson.

It's been reinvigorating for me to partake of that work in a small way and pass on whatever little bit of this path that I have understood and to help point others toward their own wholeness. No spiritual teacher can walk this path for us. But hopefully, in the process of spiritual formation, we have guides who come along, and point the way. It's up to us to walk it. In the writing process I've already experienced others come alongside, including spiritual directors, doctors, professors, and friends.

It feels like the old Basil King quote "Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid." That's what I'm calling agency. It takes a leap of faith to step forward and say "here's my mustard seed." It's God that uses that to bring the greater family together to move the mountain. I’ve had help from writer Clint Sabom, from contemplative teachers Rich Lewis and Amos Smith. I’ve had help from Lisa DeLay at her podcast Spark My Muse. I’ve had help from writers like Dean Nelson, from editors and podcasters and spiritual directors and publishers, like Ellyn Sanna and AnamChara Books.

It took a vision. It took direction. It took a sense of agency, of taking charge. But first, it took an inner alignment through draining out the muck that was in the way.

In my writing, workshops, and materials, I want to continue to deepen and explore this ancient practice and the teaching of the spiritual masters, sharing what I find along the way, helping others, and building community. I hope you'll come along.

Going Deeper

Richard Rohr on The Paschal Mystery
Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul by Marc Thomas Shaw
Free Mini-Course: Walking With The Christian Mystics by Contemplative Light