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Doing Good Better: Active Contemplation in Christian Spirituality

Phileena & Chris Heuertz

The co-founders of the Gravity Center for Contemplation and Activism, open up about Christian spiritual formation in psychological perspective, intellectual humility, renewing the mind, a Christian response to suffering, and a vision of wholeness in a world of extremes.

Author / Speaker / Spiritual Director
Author and Co-founder of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism
November 14, 2016

We live in a time of extremity. We think in extremes. And of course, we love to group ourselves into categories. You’re either liberal or conservative, introvert or extrovert, feeler or thinker, scientific or religious. And so on.

You might think of this phenomenon as a form of “splitting.” Some psychologists identify a tendency to “split” or think in extremes as a developmental stage in early life, but also see it as a defense mechanism for those with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. Seeing the world as black-and-white/all-or-nothing just makes things simpler. And yet, in both its personal and public varieties, splitting the world into extremes can lead to instability, idealization, incivility, deception, hatred, victimizing, flip-flopping, and pendulum swinging. Chaos emerges in when extremes collide.

So it’s nice when you meet people who defy our split categories. Phileena and Christopher Heuertz are two such people. The extremes they bring together are contemplation and activism, pointing out that spirituality isn’t just for the monastery. Just like the ministry of Jesus was based in the depth of prayer, a vibrant, inward Christian contemplative life leads to outward compassion, justice, and civil public engagement.

Chris and Phileena recently celebrated the second anniversary of the Gravity Center, an Omaha-based non-profit. “Gravity grounds social engagement in Christian contemplative spirituality, to do good better by facilitating contemplative retreats, spiritual direction and pilgrimage to places of religious significance as well as places marked by profound pain and hope.”

While preparing for one of their grounding retreats in late-September 2014, they graciously offered us some time to chat about their vision of active spirituality, the connections between psychology and spiritual formation, intellectual humility, renewing the mind, a Christian response to suffering, and a vision of wholeness in a world of extremes.

Desperate for the Contemplative: Solitude, Silence, Stillness

The Table: A recent Gravity Center email suggested, “Our society is desperate for the contemplative.” Why do you think that is? What cultural signs do you observe that make that true?

Chris Heuertz: When we talk about the contemplative, what we’re talking about is a tradition and spirituality marked by practices that give themselves to solitude, silence, and stillness. I think solitude, silence, and stillness are the over‑corrections of the absurdity that we’ve now fallen into—the addictions or the organizations of our life.

Solitude. A lot of folks that we know, a lot of folks that we interact with, a lot of the groups that we work with are community‑oriented, community‑based, community‑focused. A lot of our friends have multiple roommates. A lot of people in our life can’t go to the market alone. It’s like we’re always surrounded by friends, but somehow people still feel deeply and profoundly lonely.

Solitude teaches us to be present.

Silence is like… there’s all this noise in our life—our phones, our smartphones. It’s created these kinds of static and visual addictions to notifications. It’s emails, texts, voicemails, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever it is, it’s coming at us non-stop. We’re constantly distracted and we’re constantly listening to a subtext that keeps us from focusing.

Silence actually teaches us to listen.

And stillness. I feel like we live in an age where everybody is at least cause‑driven, and people get behind the things that they think are going to help build a better world, establish justice. We look at people’s Twitter feeds and we see their concerns. We look how they brand themselves. A lot of how we brand ourselves is based on the issues that we are concerned about. But stillness actually teaches us what appropriate engagement looks like.

So, solitude teaches us to be present. Silence teaches us to listen.  Stillness teaches us to engage. I think these things anchor us.

This spirituality anchors us in a way that allows us to be transformed, so that the world can be transformed.

It allows us to begin to observe our consciousness and peripheral posture, so that the consciousness that we hope can establish peace, hope, justice, build harmony, will really come from that place—a place of deep spirituality.

“The truth is, if we’re engaged in true, pure contemplative practice, we will be compelled to engage.”

The Table: You speak of the extremes, where you have to use something like solitude—the separation from others—in order to find a tone, a base, or a foundation for an better way to then engage with other people. You are more likely to thrive or flourish in a community when you do have these opportunities to step back, to observe.

There are extremes there. But I’m also thinking about the spectrum of individual life to community life. A lot of the contemplative life is moving inward, but we’re also built toward our outward environment—toward a community—to be together with people.

Phileena: Yeah, oftentimes, the contemplative gets a bad rap as being self‑centered or navel‑gazing. The truth is, if we’re engaged in true, pure contemplative practice, we will be compelled to engage. We cannot get away from it.

I think Thomas Merton (of the 20th century) is a really good example of this. He joined a Trappist monastery, took a vow of silence, but it’s arguable that he’s one of the most engaged 20th‑century leaders, who really took up concern about the social issues of the time—Vietnam War, the civil‑rights movement. He was one of the greatest peace‑activist teachers, all from a monastery in Kentucky.

I think that’s a great example of what happens when we are devoted to the contemplative. Actually, we become more relevant to the world if we take time for a contemplative practice.

Contemplation and Intellectual Virtue: Training the Mind

The Table: I was wondering about how intellectual virtues might help in the contemplative life. Do you see any connections there? Wisdom, humility, courage, attentiveness? How can we develop the skills and the habits of the mind to help make our contemplative lives better?

Chris: One of the gifts of the contemplative clearly is this place of acceptance. It’s learning to receive. As Father Richard Rohr says, everything belongs. We press into our basic fears as we center ourselves deeper, and we find that we don’t have to react to those fears, but we can actually respond towards wholeness, towards growth, towards awakening.

A lot of folks who have been socially or religiously socialized in traditional Christianity do get a little anxious when they start to feel we have to move from belief to faith. Moving from belief to faith causes anxiety. It drums up fear for people; they feel like they need to control their beliefs, so that they can defend their beliefs, or so they can rest, so that they can have some sense of confidence in their beliefs.

Actually, faith is making the option for the absurd. What we put our beliefs in, what we’re actually doing is sending that on a platform of hope that these absurd things may in fact be true. If we can move from belief to faith, I actually think that’s a move towards humility. That’s a confessional move towards acceptance.

Then there’s mystery that we fall into and learn to rest in. The invitation’s the difficult one, though. So many of us spend so much of our time trying to defend our faith, trying to bolster our beliefs, trying to come up with the better arguments to convince someone that the way that we think or live, act, or worship is superior. There’s a tendency in those efforts to actually tend towards the cousin of arrogance.

The contemplative is severe, but it’s still a gentle path towards humility as we move from belief to faith.

Phileena: That’s an interesting question that you pose. This idea of how the contemplative impacts our mind in a very real way toward intellectual virtues is something to definitely explore. As I look at it, the contemplative really does foster a “spiritual revolution.” In Ephesians 4, particularly in the inclusive Bible, it reads like that. We need a spiritual revolution, and Christ initiates that in us. That precipitates a total renewal of the mind.

The contemplative impacts the mind in all kinds of ways. Modern science is showing us that, in terms of the changes that are happening in the brain for people who meditate and give themselves to contemplative prayer. We really are yielding to a transformation of the mind. That’s going to play out, then, in our intellectual discourse, in all areas of our life. We’re going to see things differently, we’re going to understand things differently, and we’re going to approach things differently.

The contemplative really fosters this awakening of the mind, in such a way that we can engage some of the greatest problems in our world and work together with one another for an engagement of the mind that is going to lead to ultimate transformation and good in the world. But we have to be willing to yield to the process of that transformation ourselves before we can engage in any kind of relevant transformation in the world.

The Table: That’s exactly the sort of connection that I wanted to explore with you, thinking not just about how developing an intellectual virtue can help contemplation, but how contemplation—like the simple act of being still and quiet—can train your mind.

Gravity Liturgies: The Work of the People

The Table: Let’s talk about some of the individual spiritual practices—maybe what a person might encounter on a Gravity retreat. The liturgies that you explore together, whatever personal practices you encourage, and what you hope that produces in the community and in individuals there.

Chris: We get contracted to do retreats all over North America, but there are a couple times a year that we host a retreat, a little Benedictine monastery just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. We try to make probably six, seven, or eight contemplative practices accessible for people.

The formula is simple:

We introduce the history and the context of the prayers and where they came out of, what need they were addressing. We introduce methodology. We do group practice together, and then we debrief the practice. After debriefing the practice, we talk about the specific practices themselves, and the fruits that those practices can produce in a person’s life when it moves from practice to discipline.

Just like any exercise. If you go to the gym, there’s certain things that you would do that will produce different results in different parts of your body. Actually, these various contemplative practices bring forward different kinds of fruits. Of course if we introduce six, seven, or eight practices to a group of people, maybe one, or two, or three of them will stick.

That’s what we hope. Again, just like going to the gym, you’ll find a kind of muscle confusion to bring forward a robust spirituality that can center and ground you in whatever kind of active life you live. Just like getting somebody to the gym, you need that sort of exercise to get them in there. Once you get them in there, then you cross‑train and you put them around the circuit. Think that’s what we try to do.

Phileena: Some of the practices that we teach are things like Lectio Divina, centering prayer, breath prayer, which is based on the ancient Jesus prayer. What else? The Examen and Labyrinth prayer, if there’s a labyrinth available.

“We try to build the bridges between a person’s normal and active life—if it’s a stay‑at‑home parent, a teacher, a social worker, a student, or if it’s a humanitarian involved in mission or professional activism—to try to give them a sense to no longer make excuses, but to begin to protect time to make sacred pause in their days.”

Chris: And welcoming prayer. There’s yoga incorporated into the retreat, so there’s also embodiment. I think this speaks to our intelligences. Our head, our heart, our gut. These ways that we experience reality and interact with our spirituality.

The things that we do that stimulate intellectual activity, in a sense some of these practices are nurturing a neuroplasticity. It’s healing the parts of our mind that have become addicted to distractions, addicted to the personality that we wrap our ego up with. Clearly, as you give yourself to the practices, your heart center opens up. For a lot of people finding these embodied practices, too, really helps.

Phileena: These are not practices that many of us have grown up being taught in church, so we do a basic introduction in terms of scripture and history, Christian tradition, and the spirituality around these practices and why they’re important, like Chris was saying, in terms of training the mind and renewing the mind as we would our body in a gym.

A lot of people come to contemplative practice with misconceptions about what it is they’re going to experience, and we have high expectations for having an experience in a prayer practice. But, like going to the gym, the experience of exercise isn’t really a great experience in the moment, and it’s not something that we necessarily spend a lot of time reflecting on in the moment of the exercise. We’re just exercising for the benefit that will be produced later in our life. It’s very similar to that in these ways of praying.

In bringing in yoga, we do that intentionally. Because, in our Christian tradition, we don’t have really great embodiment practices that incorporate the whole body in an active prayer. We find that the tradition of yoga in the East is complementary to our Christian practice. We spend some time reflecting on that and discussing that for people who are new to the practice.

The Table: Can you speak to the elements, the liturgies, and the embodied spirituality that happens on a Gravity retreat, and how you see that, or maybe stories of how you’ve seen it, play out from the retreat outward into the world.

Chris: What we do with the retreats, we try to translate. We try to build the bridges between a person’s normal and active life—if it’s a stay‑at‑home parent, a teacher, a social worker, a student, or if it’s a humanitarian involved in mission or professional activism—to try to give them a sense to no longer make excuses, but to begin to protect time to make sacred pause in their days.

Like Phileena was saying, the prayers are un‑dramatic. Actually, some of the prayers and practices can be a version of painful for a person’s temperament. Really, the prayers are felt and experienced, and brought forward in the act of life. That’s when people start to find themselves surprised that, “Actually I am more peace filled today. I am more accepting. I can rest in mystery.”

The practice that I love introducing folks to and guiding is the Ignation practice of the Examen. We hear a lot of feedback from that. What that helps people do is nurture an awareness of the divine and these little gentle interruptions in their day, where God may be speaking at, or to, or through something.

The gift of the Examen that I think really catches people off guard is the bringing forward of discernment, and the growing of discernment and the awareness of that. Discernment is something that can be developed and practiced, but it takes time. Like I said, it’s moving that practice to a discipline, and it’s seeing the fruits of that discipline and practice come forward.

Phileena: The way the retreat is set up, generally, we begin on a Friday evening and we end at a Sunday lunch. Throughout the first few days (especially I’m speaking of our grounding retreat which is where we introduce the practices), we practice them together, we debrief them together, and we create intentional space for solitude, for people to be on their own.

But the retreat itself provides a nice incubator for people who wouldn’t necessarily venture off and do a retreat by themselves. To be within a supportive community is helpful to folks.

Psychology & Spiritual Formation: An Invitation to Wholeness

The Table: The retreats that you’re putting together have some therapeutic benefits, too. There’s a form of psychological and spiritual therapy where anxieties can be unearthed, fears can be addressed, at a personal level. But there’s the space to be contemplative together and to share that communally.

Would you mind talking about the psychological side of things and how you guys view psychology and spirituality working hand‑in‑hand in the retreat setting?

Chris: One of our founding board members is a Cistercian monk, Father Thomas Keating. Thomas Keating studied psychology at Yale. If you read anything that Father Thomas has written, you see this fusion of the psycho‑spiritual dynamic of becoming human, becoming whole, finding these hinges of the very divine and very ordinary at these mystical intersections.

Some of the things I’m trying to do on the retreats touch on that. They really touch on an awakening to identity, pressing into, like I mentioned earlier, basic fears. Becoming aware of the anxieties in our body, in our mind, in our chest, in our heart, where we experience it physically, physiologically. The practices help us become aware and attuned to those, and then help us center in those and not react, but respond. The response is an invitation to wholeness.

One of the tools that we also use and introduce is the enneagram. An enneagram is a psycho‑spiritual tool to help us understand the addictions of our personality, basing those against primary needs, and subconscious and unconscious motivations for the reason we do things. The enneagram is a powerful tool for personal awareness, but also for transformation.

Sadly, it can be used in a very negative way, where we reduce ourselves down to the shape of our tragic flaw or sin tendency. Actually, if we can learn to press into our basic fears, we see growth—psychological growth, spiritual growth, and an awakening to the possibility of human development and the evolution of our human consciousness.

I understand the enneagram as this sacred map to our soul that maps us against one of nine types. These nine types come with one of the nine capital sins as a primary tendency or habit of sin, but these nine types also bring forward what is the unique contribution that our personality makes.

“… I’m really drawn to the person of Jesus because of his Paschal Mystery of embodying the suffering, death, and resurrection, that death and life are somehow mingled together.”

Phileena: Chris mentioned Thomas Keating and his gifts: In terms of having studied psychology and helping us really uncover and understand the contemplative and its impact on our psychology, he uses this phrase, “A practice like centering prayer is like divine therapy.” I think often about the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “Why is it that I do what I don’t want to do, and what I don’t want to do, that’s the thing that I do” (Romans 7:15).

Well before there was any science of psychology, there was this understanding in Paul that there are these competing parts of who we are, that are challenging for us to overcome. Ascribing to Christian faith, having Christian beliefs, doesn’t necessarily transform the human person. There’s still this battle within us that Paul identified.

Fast‑forward now to the 21st century, and we understand through psychology—we understand more deeply this battle within us—and we often go to therapy to help us sort it out and untangle these motivations and behaviors that are causing so much turmoil in our life.

The contemplative prayer and contemplative practices support what psychology has been trying to do in a lot of ways, in terms of really yielding to the spirit of God in such a way to address those unconscious motivations that are compelling us into behaviors that we don’t like and that cause so much harm in the world. The gift of the contemplative really confronts our psychology and generates a transformation of mind, of unconscious motivations, and of behavior.

The Table: How did you guys get in touch with Thomas Keating? How did you meet him?

Chris: My first spiritual director—sadly since passed away—was a student of Thomas Keating’s. It was maybe 12 years ago or so that Father Thomas came to speak at a conference at Creighton University here in town. I remember getting a call that morning from my former spiritual director just saying, “Hey, I’d love to arrange for a few of us to have dinner together.”

We set the table and shared a meal.

Of course, if you’ve met Father Keating and been in his presence, he’s just a winsome, wise, gracious elder, and he just opened his heart up to us. He was the visitor in our town, but offered such amazing and generous hospitality that it was like, “Wow, what’s going on here?” Really a gift.

The Table: Does he stay pretty active with the Gravity Center?

Chris: He’s 91 and we try not to put a lot of demands on him. Father Richard Rohr is also on our board. We try to appeal more to Richard and Thomas as maybe advisors and mentors than nuts-and-bolts managing board members.

Phileena: Both Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach and Richard Ward’s Center for Action and Contemplation are also really supportive of what we’re doing, and they partner with us in different ways. We feel really blessed to be following in the footsteps of such incredible, modern Christian mystics and wisdom teachers who will go down in history. People will be learning from them for centuries to come. We’re glad to be a part of this contemplative movement in the world.

Do Good Better: A Christian Response to Suffering

The Table: In the context of a retreat, where you’re being called into an awareness of gift, grace, and freedom—called to focus on love and truth, but with the necessity of taking an honest look at suffering—how do you hold these things in tension? How have you experienced those things converging? They can converge in violent ways, producing some inner turmoil with some people.

How have you experienced that personally? How do you hold that in hand when you’re wanting to introduce love and peace and grace into someone’s life, amidst the pain and suffering that you need to be honest about?

Phileena: This really cuts to the heart of our faith. As a Christian, I’m really drawn to the person of Jesus because of his Paschal Mystery of embodying the suffering, death, and resurrection, that death and life are somehow mingled together.

In my work with Chris, formally with all of our work around the world, working with children with HIV and AIDS, and former child soldiers, war brides, and survivors of human trafficking, we engaged some of the most desperate situations in the world. We encountered incredible human suffering and brutality. It was at the height of the war over blood diamonds in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the suffering and brutality in the world was so unbearable. I had no more paradigms for how to understand that.

That’s really when I was able to go more deeply into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, where life and death really do mingle together. In the early days of my work in the world, Mother Theresa was such a great example. She spoke so loudly with her life, even more so in some ways than her words. She lived a life that mingled together life and death, pain and hope, and with such a light in the world.

One of the quotes that I love was when she said,

“The true inner life makes the active life burn forth and consume everything. It makes us find Jesus in the dark holes of the slums and the most pitiful miseries of the poor, in the God‑Man naked on the cross, mournful, despised by all, the man of suffering, crushed like a worm by scourging and crucifixion.”

I think that it’s only possible to find Jesus in the suffering when we have been able to go deeply, internally into our own pain and suffering. There we encounter this incredible mystery of life coming forth from pain, suffering, and death. Then we can see it more clearly in the world and engage it from a place of greater freedom, and with greater hope.

Chris: For 20 years, Phileena and I were part of an international, intentional community that was working in places of deep poverty and deep pain. So many years of my life I was bumping around on the bottom, making some pretty bad decisions that were harming myself, my health, my spirituality. It was impacting my marriage. It was harming my community.

I think we saw that. We saw that a lot. We saw a lot of people perpetually teetering on the edge of burnout, pressing into deep pain, but not having the internal or spiritual resources to translate that in a way that it wasn’t being absorbed, taken in, consumed, and then regurgitated out.

I do think this is the invitation of the contemplative. If we don’t find our way to it, we will be found by it. This is really a courageous invitation to make the option for it, to choose it before we have to be chosen by it. The deeper we do press in to our own pain, the more honest we are about these things in us that are at conflict, and the more capable we are to press into the pain and the conflict of the world.

The more honest we are, the more grounded we are—the more we can find our work in the world, not merely being sustainable, but thriving in it. We talk about “doing good better,” and we actually talk about doing good better confessionally. We’re still going to get it wrong. Still going to hurt ourselves, still going to hurt others along the way. There’s still going to be unintended harmful consequences even by our best efforts.

But the contemplative holds that accountable, awakens us to the subconscious and conscious motivations for why and what we are attempting to do. It allows us to stay, to stay in the pain, and not be overcome by it, to not push us, to not let that pain push us off the edge, but for the pain to also be something that we can be transformed in the face of.