Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series
“Interfaith Contemplation: A Path that Shaped my Life“
An hourlong teleconference with
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
1 PM to 2 PM ET
WATER spoke with Beverly Lanzetta for our December 2015 WATERtalk. Beverly is a theologian and spiritual teacher of new traditions of contemplative wisdom. She has authored seven books on global spirituality and new monasticism, including Nine Jewels of Night: One Soul’s Journey into God (Blue Sapphire Books, 2014), which informed our December discussion. Beverly formed the publishing company Blue Sapphire Books to bring emerging types of contemplation to the public forum. WATER thanks Beverly for a rich hour of conversation about contemplation and spiritual callings. Q&A session followed.
Interfaith Contemplation: The Path that Shaped My Life
My immersion in interfaith contemplative consciousness began almost forty years ago when a series of religious experiences changed my life and set me on a path of devotion. In Nine Jewels I made a decision to tell something of my life story, not only as a woman with children, family, and work, but explicitly as one who follows a new, interspiritual path of contemplation.
What I come to understand on this journey, is that openness to all religions and seeking the point of unity among them is not a superficial entertainment or naïve belief, but a faith experience of the utmost seriousness, and the result of the divine working in one’s soul.
It is a direct touching of the inner spark of the soul by Divine Mystery that is calling contemporary pilgrims—many of whom never thought about leaving their tradition—to a deeper experience of the sacred that is related to but may be outside of formal religious community. While individual in the context of life experience, this spiritual movement shares heralds the unfolding of a new revelatory consciousness for humanity.
In naming it “revelatory,” my intention is to emphasize that this multi-religious spiritual focus is not something constructed by people to assuage religious doubt and confusion or to be rebellious and prideful. Rather, it an inflow from the divine, a re-vealing of a new way of being religious. It emerges as a faith experience of the utmost seriousness that compels each person to give up whatever is oppressive, superior, exclusive, hurtful, or violent in one’s own religious worldview.
This was certainly true in my own case. Rather than a rejection of or a rebellion against my Catholic heritage, the path of interfaith contemplation I live today was given—planted in my heart—in the context of a religious experience of human and planetary suffering, and activated by a vow to devote my life to its expression.
What I’ve learned over these years is that the spiritual quest is a fundamental orientation common to the human experience. The commitment to seek God is imprinted in the heart of the world. I also have learned that we live in an era of new visions of the sacred and types of religious expression; the monastic heart resides within all people, regardless of life situation or vocation; and it is a sacred duty to share contemporary spiritual ways of being in a world often lacking healthy models of faith.
Growing up near the shores of Long Island Sound, I was a solitary child. Alone I felt a Presence that inspired and comforted me in ways that were unavailable with family or with friends. This freedom of being was most apparent in nature, where I formed bonds of intimacy with stately oaks and white tail deer.
My imagination was populated by spirit figures and intuitive insights, and thus, it never occurred to me that others did not see the world the same way. I remember being sensitive, traumatized by harsh behaviors and the sloppy manner in which society handled the most significant events. Cruelty among my classmates affected me deeply. Unable to speak about my secret inner life, I dreamed of being a monk.
Looking back, I recognize elements of the person I am today in that child. Like many women of my generation, I pursued the path of marriage and children. I needed to sort out the spiritual implications of gender roles: marriage, motherhood, and sexism. I needed to explore a spiritual love that was greater than my individual life and personal pain. I would suffer many trials before I was able to find direction. My understanding of the interior life and the holiness of creation were inchoate until one fateful October day in 1976.
It was on this day that the Divine Mystery broke into my world, transforming my whole being and opening me to a previously unimagined sacred realm. I was felled to the ground by the intensity of suffering I witnessed. I was raised up by the transcendent inflow of divine love. Nothing since compares to the awe I experienced and the radical changes that took place within my heart and my soul. While the comprehensiveness of the experience is beyond the scope of our time, and a more full account exists in one of the chapters of Nine Jewels of Night, I can point to three significant aftereffects.
- A soul identification with and responsibility to alleviate, suffering. Human cruelty, injustice, and violence wound the Divine. God bears our suffering. My life must be on the side of mercy and justice. As planetary citizen and as mother, I committed myself to alleviating pain and to resisting the forces of violence and oppression.
- A commitment to peace through the unity of religions. Religious divisions and claims of superior truth, culture, or race violate the universal principle of love. Whoever degrades the circle of belonging harms every being and wounds the divine heart. I committed myself to be a devotee of love, to honor religious diversity, and to never privilege my truth or my religion over another.
- A life mission to advocate for new visions of the sacred—one that I have followed in three ways: Interfaith Contemplation, mystical path of the feminine, and new expressions of monastic life. This revelatory landscape was spiritually nonviolent, ethically merciful, and theologically open. It heralded a new dimension of spiritual life, perhaps a new way of being human.
Immediately after this period of religious transformation, I left behind the life I had known. Before long, I was offering classes on contemplation and serving as a spiritual guide to people within and outside religious affiliation. The common denominator in this period was my desire to grow closer to God and to help others embrace the contemplative call. For those who felt disenfranchised by their religion, or who were exploring a renewal of faith, I encouraged them to seek God within, and to recognize the historical precedent of no religious or interreligious consciousness. Before religion or identity is the mystical capacity intrinsic to personhood. It is the birthright of everyone.
By interfaith or interspirituality, I mean an attitude toward life and a quality of consciousness in which the world’s wisdom traditions are viewed as the common spiritual heritage of all humanity. The term “interspirituality,” first introduced by Wayne Teasdale, refers to the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions and the assimilation of the wisdom, prayer forms, and meditative practices that enhance the development of one’s own spiritual life and our responsibility for the world.
I use the term “contemplation” to represent the maturity of the spiritual life that comes through letting-go, self-surrender. We have to abandon attachment to our self and let the divine mystery take possession of our lives. It is an act of self-surrender, of allowing the Divine to work in us. It can feel like a sort of dying. “It is encountering the darkness, the abyss, the void.”[i]
Thus interfaith or interspiritual contemplation recognizes that
It is in prayer or meditation that we communicate with one another at the deepest level of our being. Behind all words and gestures, behind all thoughts and feelings, there is an inner center where we can meet one another in the presence of God. . . . [ii] [not because we will or demand it to be, but because we have been seized by the Divine Mystery, and drawn into another dimension of faith].
It is only in this inner depth of contemplation—what Hindu seers call the “cave of the heart”—that we actually experience how religious traditions are intimately connected in a continuum of the same Ultimate Reality. This living faith experience moves one beyond dialogue or even mystical awareness of commonalities between religions, to a soul synthesis that forges the convergence/unity of these traditions in the “very depth of spiritual realization.”
This process of breaking down the prohibitions, oppressive politics, and exclusion of outsiders imbedded in our religions, often leads to suffering, of experiencing what stands in the way of love. Here one discovers the soul’s capacity to heal “the sin of “otherness”—the exclusion, violence and rejection of difference—in our hearts.
Interspiritual Contemplation does not seek a syncretism of religions to find a least common denominator oneness. “It is not primarily the discovery of a new religion, although new religious expressions may be born of it. Rather, it is a quality of consciousness and a state of being that seeks to break free of the bondage of exclusiveness and superiority that pushes others outside the circle of love. It is a quality of being that honors, celebrates, and protects the variety and beauty of creation.”[iii]
In my experience it heralds the emergence of a spirituality that arises from the unification in one’s own heart of these various traditions.
Mystical Path of the Feminine
While my October 1976 experience was implicitly a revelation of interfaith contemplation rooted in and emerging from the Divine Feminine, it wasn’t until I completed doctoral studies that I realized its explicit call. Kneeling in front of a statue of Mary in the Minnesota woods, suddenly I was overcome with the realization that Sophia was the hidden voice beneath everything. For the first time I understood that her elusive wisdom had been guiding me all along. I read everything I could: the Russian Sophiologists, Thomas Merton’s devotion to Sophia in the figure of Proverb, and female and male mystics who experienced the power of the Divine Feminine.
The vision of Sophia freed me from the defense of the separate self. I accepted the path I had been following was an emerging contemplative tradition. Global in orientation, interfaith in spirit, it was a complete spiritual quest, leading the devotee to a God-experience alongside but different from known historical religions. It functioned outside of patriarchy. There was no need to reject any authentic faith or diminish ancient truths.
The way of the Divine Feminine is essential to the future of our planet.
As a spiritual path, it is attentive to the multiple wisdoms of body, psyche, and soul, placing primary importance on healing those social factors—whether of gender, culture, race, sexual orientation, or religious belief—that stigmatize persons, rob them of dignity, wound their souls, and betray the highest aspirations of the spiritual life. It thus is an invitation to divest one’s self of subtle forms of injustice imbedded in the categories that define a religion and its processes of spiritual development, which hinder the integration and liberation of the self.
Perhaps its single most distinguishing feature is its intimate wholeness, a vision of reality beyond feminine and masculine that includes everything within its merciful, benevolent, and joyous fold. It is a specific path of reconciliation that begins from a different starting point of trust and indissoluble intimacy that moves deeper into unitive states of being and an understanding of peace as a quality of heart.
- offer a spiritual path for the whole of creation, not only for humans, taking into account the variety of life forms, the cosmic circle, and our more-than-human kin. It thus promotes an ethic of what Hannah Arendt called amor mundi, love of the world.
- requires a new understanding of the profound ways in which the deep self or soul identifies with human, planetary, and divine suffering in everyday experience, and carries both the responsibility to protect the dignity of all beings and the challenge of being a vessel of divine compassion.
The fact that the spiritual journey has been dominated over the centuries by patriarchal thinking, unjust relations, and oppression of women and other outsiders indicates that there is a dimension of the soul that is not free, a place where as a global community we are not yet committed to actualizing the promise of peace and liberation for all beings.
Returning to Monastic Roots
In all of these life changes, the underlying call to solitude and silence never left me. But it was not until 2001 that I formally professed vows as a new monastic. Raimon Panikkar in the 1960s described this new vocation as a person living in the world, awake to the monastic archetype deep in the center of being and intrinsic to all humanity. Similarly, Fr. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk who lived the majority of his life in India as a Christian sannyasi, or renunciate, also described a new monastic vision:
The monk is a lay person…An order of monastics is essentially a lay order. Some monks may live in monasteries, but increasingly the majority will live in their own homes or form small communities—a monastic order in the world. . . . It is so easy to get into rules and organization and so to narrow the freedom of the Spirit…It is by learning really to trust the Spirit, in our prayers and meditation, and to share this trust with one another that a new language will gradually form.[iv]
In this context, the word “monastic” represents the commitment to the mature development of one’s spiritual life and inner transformation. It is not necessarily the lifestyle of a traditional monastery set apart from the world that makes one a monk, but this devotion of one’s life to the Divine that signifies the new monk.
This monastic orientation is “new,” because it is taking place in the daily routine of most people’s lives, and not in a monastic setting apart from the world.
In addition, the new monastic may or may not be an adherent of one particular religion, may have a dual religious focus (Catholic-Quaker, Jewish-Buddhist, Hindu-Muslim, etc.), or identifies as interfaith or interspiritual. Such a person draws from and belongs to the universal heritage of spiritual wisdom.
My own journey toward the profession of monastic vows was assisted and witnessed by a small community of women Benedictine monks. Drawing on the universal call to monasticism, my vows were not made under the auspices of Benedictine Christianity. Neither were they a rejection of these ancient traditions. Rather, I took vows of commitment to the monastic heart of reality, to that enduring center that precedes religious identification and institutional form. I took vows to love God with everything I’ve got and to serve others through love.
Taking profession was a transformative spiritual experience. The ceremony itself was simple and beautiful. My consciousness was further re-formed around silence, simplicity, and solitude. Practically, I now assessed everything in my environment from this perspective: what brings me closer to God, what offers peace, great silence?
I am certain that the monastic call is intrinsic to all people and is not confined to religious organizations or orders. It is a free call within the self, one that is born with us into the world and to which we owe allegiance. The years I spent avoiding the monk within, too busy with family and work, and perhaps afraid that it would make me more different or too pious, were empty concerns. Because there is nothing more natural than to affirm one’s monastic nature, living in God’s time, seeking transformation into the heart of reality, and loving creation with one’s whole soul.
The monastic archetype, interfaith contemplation, and the mysticism of the divine feminine continue to inspire my life and work. I believe they will take new forms during this century and those to come. The Great Vocation will evolve, as the human heart grows closer to the divine heart.
Q: In Nine Jewels of Night, Beverly talks about living in the woods with her children when she has an encounter with a man who tried to grope her. She ended up having to move somewhere that felt safer. In pursuing the monastic lifestyle, wanting to seek out others in a safer community setting without these vulnerabilities, I was wondering if Beverly could comment on that.
Beverly: I have no understanding of why this particular person behaved as he did. I think community and putting one’s heart into being aware and being open is the only way I know to go forward. As we can see from world events, it is impossible to stop every unhinged person from doing something unwanted. I can only encourage you to go forward with the idea to be in community with like-minded people – some of it comes out of an intention to do the best we can, but while being aware of the world around us.
Q: I wondered if you could touch on the balance of the active life and the contemplative life.
Beverly: For me, contemplation is deeply embedded in action. And the action I’ve taken is mostly teaching, working with people, founding an interfaith church and seminary, etc. A true contemplative attitude involves this identification with the world and alleviating suffering/injustice and transforming the world to a deeper understanding of the sacred. In whatever level we are participating, it is a form of action. I think out of contemplation comes community and out of a deepening of the inner life we see a new interpretation of how to act. Peace is also a way of interpreting the world, a way we think about action.
Q: I wanted to comment on a manifestation here. I have a deep faith in the contemplative possibilities of dinner in my home with those I know are on the contemplative path. I’m beginning to understand how the life of the monk outside the monastery is nourished by planned dinners, sharing of food, speaking out of your heart as to what you are being called.
Beverly: That’s wonderful, I love that. I do love the notion of mindfulness in everyday activities – thank you for sharing that.
Q: You were saying that your life and work is “to love God with everything you’ve got.” It struck me how touching and simple that seems and yet, in the world, it’s almost like we give up, believe that’s impossible. I believe that is an experience a lot of people feel. Listening constantly at that level of depth to the divine, most people would give up.
Beverly: I always think about what Gandhi said – there is no absolute nonviolence. Nonviolence is the way, not the end. As to what you’re talking about, I don’t profess that I’m able to be what I aspire to every moment of the day, but at every moment of the day I aspire to be that. It comes from the heart; it’s an intention to say I want to give myself to the world and understand what it means to love God in the world and in the everyday existence of each other. To be passionate about one’s commitment, in a way that is from the heart, is so often trampled by social consensus that we’re not allowed to give one’s self and not be shamed for it. For many years I never talked about my path, but I think we are crippled, especially in America, by an inability to acknowledge how much we do identify with the world and how much true passion we have.
Q: We are looking to develop pathways for interspiritual people to find their own path and calling in the world. We often hear these stories about what we’re supposed to do with our lives – but following a calling may not be beneficial materially. Do you have any advice?
Beverly: Monasticism has always been countercultural – leaving the dominant paradigm of society. But I also believe in balance, and if a person is living a single life as a monastic, not in a community that works to support itself, there has to be a balance. We have to strike that pivot point between monasticism and action, and the contemplative life of deep silence is about finding that balance, not becoming so idealized that we don’t realize our own particular emotional, physical, and financial needs. I would just say to think of balance and how you can live this life of passion that works for you. For me, I ultimately went back to school because it was difficult to raise my four children solely with my spiritual work.
Q: The notion of interspiritual – what are some of the practice that you would use to create interspiritual dialogue among practitioners of different religions?
Beverly: In terms of practice, I have developed a sort of liturgy of the hours, a set of prayers I have written that draw on the wisdom of the world. I also used a gathering prayer during our interfaith services, in which each service involved a particular theme – compassion, nonviolence, etc–that we discussed together, bringing in perspectives of different religions. When a group comes together, it is very evident where the energy of the person who brings them together comes from. Is it from a place of superiority or exclusion? It’s important to create a space where people feel safe and can be open.
Daily Prayers to Holy Mystery, a prayer book and liturgy of hours soon to be published by Beverly Lanzetta. See http://beverlylanzetta.net/2015/12/04/canticle-of-adoration/ for a sample.
Nine Jewels of Night: One Soul’s Journey into God. Beverly Lanzetta. Blue Sapphire Books, 2014. Find on Amazon.
Path of the Heart: A Spiritual Guide to Divine Union. Blue Sapphire Books, 2014.
Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology. Fortress Press, 2005.
Emerging Heart: Global Spirituality and the Sacred. Fortress Press, 2007.
If you’d like to contact Beverly or sign up for her weekly meditations, please view her website: www.beverlylanzetta.net
WATER thanks Beverly Lanzetta and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next Watertalk will be January 13, 2016, from 1 to 2 pm ET with Grace Kao on the topic “Introducing Asian American Christian Ethics.” All are welcome.
[i] Teasdale, Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to his Interspiritual Thought (Skylight Paths, 2012), 228.
[ii] Bede Griffiths, The Golden String: An Autobiography (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1980), 146.[iii] Beverly Lanzetta, Emerging Heart: Global Spirituality and the Sacred (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 89.
[iv] Bede Griffiths, The New Creation in Christ (Templegate Publishing, 1994), 89-91.