Great books can launch great adventures! In this particular case, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross and Spiritual Friend by Tilden Edwards.
And so, in the summer of 1989, at 3 o’clock of a July morning, after an epic 9 hr. drive, I found myself in Washington, DC. unlocking a dorm room door. I was there to begin the residential component of a two-year program in spiritual direction offered by The Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation. Tilden was then Director of the Shalem Institute.
I had no idea of the impact the program would have on my life.
A simple two-part prayer exercise in the next few days intimated the depth of what was to come. We sat in pairs, in prayer, with our eyes closed, facing each other. One the listener, one the sharer. How strange to listen to another with eyes closed while in prayer! How strange to speak to another with eyes closed while in prayer! Can we listen and speak to one another while in prayer? What exactly does it mean to be in prayer?
The exercise was then repeated — with eyes open.
Can we be speaking and then listening in prayer while looking into the eyes of another? As I write this now, many years later, the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount come to mind: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” (Mt. 6:22 KJV) To look into the eyes of another while in prayer is to see beauty, pain, truth, fragility and humility incarnate. And yes — we can listen and speak to another while in prayer, while held in the gaze of another — while being held in gaze of God … “thy whole body shall be full of light.”
Two other great teaching moments come to mind: The Group Chant and The Free Dance.
After being introduced to chant as a personal prayer practice we gathered together one day for a practice of group chant. This was entirely new to me. We stood loosely together for some time. I was never sure where the first note came from. Slowly, the room itself seemed to breathe sonorous, uncentered, enveloping harmonies of sung prayer. Each voice in its own time brought its own tone to the blossoming warmth of a single intention: to give voice to the Holy Condescension of Our Creator — the Risen Anointed One who laid Life down only to pick it up again for the sanctification of all humankind. Wave upon wave of gentle caesura of breath, of gentle return in harmony fell upon us all. We were no longer single in our gifts but shaped by the Indwelling Spirit into one, indivisible choir of angelic character and solemn joy.
This gentle river of holy music all on its own came to the delta of an all-enveloping Consecrating Silence. We stood together like an ancient, silent forest. No one breathed a word.
Do we all have this capacity for Grace? Does this dignity live in us each and every day?
The Free Dance likewise brought its charism. I remember the trepidation as Tilden gave us our brief instructions: “Move when you want to!” I sat in my chair as the solo piano music began. I felt like a boy at a school dance: embarrassed. One by one, folks began to stir … I sat … and sat … and sat … soon the room was now swaying, folks were smiling … glowing … passing one another … woven into embodied music … sublime flowing courtesy … I felt the call … I wanted to be in the dance … I felt the invitation …
I stood up… took a shy step forward … drawn by the current of a shared second naivete … I danced with my friends … gently, silently to the solo piano … when suddenly she swept by, so close the breeze brushed my cheek, on a Divine Wind, arms extended, head lifted, her eyes filled with ecstatic joy — the glory of God, humankind fully alive.
Max Woolaver is Rector of St. Andrew’s Grimsby, and Archdeacon of Lincoln. He is gifted at making us see beyond the immediate, often by helping us laugh at ourselves.