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riots and contemplation

By Faculty Blog, Walter Thiessen No Comments

*This blog was originally shared June 2, 2020 on Dr. Thiessen’s blog. The original format has been adapted.*


This summer, I am researching and writing about contemplation and healing. I am also reading, this past week, about rioting across the US.

One phrase that has been grounding my thinking about contemplation and healing is that the connection between the two is about our need for a “compassionate consent to reality.”

There can never be wholeness without an honest facing of what is and an honest acceptance of our emotional/bodily response to what is. A compassionate consent to reality in this season of riots might begin with seeing the truth of George Floyd’s death, which, as I saw it involved a casual and utter disdain of an African American man’s life and suffering, the enjoyment that a white policeman with a  history of violence took in his power over this man, and the carelessness (pride?) in doing this in front of many witnesses.

Consenting to reality means seeing that this is not a unique act, as we would wish and hope it to be, but a visible reminder of what happens with an insane frequency. Consenting to reality means we remind ourselves that the Derek Chauvins are all around (certainly not only in the US) and that many pieces of what made his actions possible are sprinkled throughout our own spirits.

“Contemplation reminds us that to let ourselves truly see these realities and be affected by them,

we need to breathe and be intentional and be silent.”


Contemplation reminds us that to let ourselves truly see these realities and be affected by them, we need to breathe and be intentional and be silent. We need not to look away as quickly as we’d like. We need to know that we can tolerate all the feelings in us that come in response. We see and feel the rage along with the fear of our own rage and the rage of others. We recognize the frustration and shame at our feelings of powerlessness.

We breathe again. We feel that part of ourselves that wants so desperately to look away and to simply wish for a peace that buries these facts. We let ourselves hear that question whispered in our spirit, “What would we feel if we were African Americans living in the midst of this ongoing threat?” We consent to facing the reality of our weakness and temptation.

We breathe again.

What makes this contemplative courage possible (when it is possible), for many of us, is our experience that the same open-eyed, open-eared consent to painful realities also includes the reality of God’s loving presence with us. That loving presence is/was also present with George Floyd and with Derek Chauvin. We are not separate from either of them – God’s presence draws all of us together.

Consent to the Reality of Hope


It is also just as important to consent to the reality of hope. We see the passionate determination of neighbourhood leaders of all races standing together to care for each other, feeding each other, bearing courageous witness by facing up to those trying to incite more violence, trying to exploit the honest rage of the marginalized for demonic purposes. When I feel hate for those Proud Boys and Bugaloo Boys and Donald Trump, I remember that there are some among those on the front lines, experiencing more directly than I can imagine, the direct consequences of the evil around them, that are somehow able to respond with a spirit-empowered grace and forgiveness, AND to stand up and protest.

I remember that when seen apart from the mobs and the narrative posing, there are individual human beings whose life stories have led them to where they are. I see police chiefs and many ordinary white police officers, with long and complex work histories, with many experiences of fear on the job, with many friends and colleagues just like Derek Chauvin, choosing to kneel and ask for forgiveness. What has been at work to make this possible?

Lament is a necessary part of contemplation in seasons like this. How can I consent to realities like this without expressing the pain? Lament can enable the paradoxical coming to peace with our rage and shame, without immediately squelching the rage and shame. As I lament, I accept and rest while the pain and weakness are still very present, knowing that God hears my cries and feels them.

“Contemplation is the Best Foundation for Action”


Finally, there is action. I very much believe that contemplation is the best foundation for action. Certainly, contemplation is not an alternative to action, but the means by which we best discern the incredibly challenging questions of what I can now, must now, do. This includes the way that contemplation enables and shapes our participation in communal discernment about what we do together. May these conversations flourish in the days ahead.

For more from Dr. Walter Thiessen, visit:

brother and sister feeding birds

Loving Kindness

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

One of the simplest and most helpful forms of meditation that many have learned from Tibetan Buddhism is the practice of metta or “loving kindness meditation.” In this type of meditation, one practices a slow, mindful recitation (inward or spoken) of traditional wishes or intentions of goodwill toward self and others. One example of such statements (from Jack Kornfield) is:

May you be filled with lovingkindness.

May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you be at ease and happy.

Traditionally, one starts with expressing these intentions toward oneself (May I…), and then moving on toward those very easy to love, then toward people one is grateful for or someone more neutral, then toward those challenging to love (“enemies”) and finally for “all beings.”

It’s good to remember that the practice is about the direction of intentions, and there is no need to assess whether one is developing warm feelings nor should one be disturbed or distracted by any contrary thoughts or feelings that arise during the meditation. Such thoughts are simply accepted and attention is turned back to the phrases and intentions.

Here is an example of a guided meditation that we used:

Audio: Lovingkindness Meditation

We ended our time by taking note of the many research studies that have been done demonstrating the beneficial effects of this practice. You can see a summary of many of these studies here.

silhouette of man walking

Breathing in the Hard Stuff

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

As we explore deepening in our understanding of contemplative practices, we turn to the East to see what we might learn from tonglen meditation (and particularly from Pema Chodron’s, Start Where You Are). While it has some similarities to the “welcoming prayer” that we have given a fair amount of attention to, this practice has some unique emphases that seem important.

Nearly everyone who has dabbled in contemplation has at some point practiced a breathing exercise in which you “breathe in peace (or love or stillness)” and “breathe out anxiety (or whatever might have been troubling one).” This seems natural and intuitive.

Tonglen invites us to a more counter-intuitive practice in which “the poison is the medicine,” where the “logic of ego” is reversed. In this practice one intentionally “breathes in” that which is painful in the midst of one’s experience. (Of course, it does not masochistically seek for pain to breathe in, but invites attention to present suffering.) One breathes this in knowing that it will be received with gentleness and self-compassion.

This transformation of how the pain is received by one’s soft heart allows one to breathe out peace and gentleness to others. So one breathes in pain and breathes out peace. But the key is that the pain is not absorbed like a sponge but transformed into peace and gentleness.

By facing and accepting the pain in this way, we are softened and connected to the pain of others. For me this is the genius of tonglen meditation: our becoming gently present to our own pain prepares us to be more empathically available to the pain of others. Here are the four steps recommended by Pema Chodron (but mostly in my own words):

  1. “Flashing Spaciousness” (Connecting with self-compassion, awakened heart, tenderness, softness)
  2. Work with texture – as you breathe in, feel the metaphors of your own pain – do you feel it as darkness, heaviness, roughness, heat? The opposite is how it is received internally by your awakened, spacious heart (light, cool). Develop a rhythm in which you feel the heavy and dark as you breathe in; the light and cool as you breathe out (or your own metaphors).
  3. Breathe in the pain of another person, another specific “heartfelt” situation, feel it compassionately, empathically and breathe that compassion out “to the other.”
  4. Breathe in awareness of the many who feel a similar pain (to your own or the specific person in #3) and extend the wish of loving kindness/compassion to all. (It’s not an empty and shallow exercise, because it comes out of your felt pain and softness.)


burro with saddle

Contemplating with a Wise Fool

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

In the Sufi tradition, Mullah (teacher) Nasruddin was a 13th century master who liked to teach through parables with a character named for himself who was prone to doing, apparently, foolish things. He believed that humour opened up contemplatives ways to see oneself and one’s actions and assumptions from a new point of view.

With the help of Anthony de Mello’s book, Song of the Bird, we looked at some of these Nasruddin tales and we laughed even more than usual. (We are not the most somber contemplatives…)

Here is one example:

Everyone became alarmed when they saw Mullah Nasruddin, astride his ass, charging through the streets of the village.

“Where are you off to, Mullah?” they asked.

“I’m searching for my ass,” said the mullah as he whizzed by.

Alone or together, this kind of funny parable can open up new space in our contemplation.


book cover

Further Up and Further In

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

For the first time, we are entering the third term in our cycle for the School of Contemplation. The theme for this term is “Further Up and Further In” – and we want to use this time to enter more deeply in our understanding and practice of contemplation. To start us off, we did a lectio divina exercise focusing on the “Prayer of St. Brendan”:

Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.

This seemed a suitable encouragement to send us off on a trek to new places. Some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this term include:

  • How do we deepen in our understanding and practice of discernment as we seek the best intuitive and spiritual practical wisdom in our lives?
  • How do we understand “non-dualistic thinking” and what are its implications?
  • How do concepts and practices from Eastern Orthodoxy or Eastern religions help us gain a deeper appreciation for the potential in more familiar contemplative practices?
  • How do we get better at paying attention to our bodies and get more intentional about making them a part of our spiritual practices?
  • How do community rhythms/practices/liturgies take us to places beyond what is possible as individuals?

Come join us!

New Asia Program Leader!

By Faculty Blog No Comments

Nadya in the library

We’re excited to announce that Dr. Nadya Pohran will be joining us at the end of the coming summer, preparing to lead our next Asia study abroad trip that fall.

Nadya Pohran is a cultural anthropologist who focuses on understanding the ways that religious and spiritual beliefs are lived out and practiced in individuals’ daily lives. After two years at St. Stephen’s University, she went on to receive a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Ottawa, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa, and a PhD in Divinity from the University of Cambridge.

In a broad sense, she is interested in drawing upon people’s lived experiences in order to tease apart some of the binaries that are often assumed in much of current religious studies scholarship: she works to show how seemingly-opposite concepts—“belief and doubt”, “inviting and rejecting”, “captivity and freedom”, “strange and familiar”, “student and teacher”, etc.—can sometimes be better understood as oscillating expressions of the same concept.

She works interdisciplinarily, drawing upon fields of scholarship including: Anthropology of Christianity, Theology [Without Walls], Comparative Philosophy, Hindu-Christian Studies, and Indian Religions. Her PhD research focused on a Christian ashram in the North of India, where she conducted ethnographic fieldwork for approximately one year. In her thesis, she explored themes related to religious syncretism, inculturation, multiple religious orientation, interreligious relations, and existential belonging.

When not in the fieldsite or library, Nadya can be found playing basketball, puttering in her garden, or painting while sipping red wine. She looks forward to returning to SSU and having the opportunity to teach and learn alongside undergraduate students as they enter into cross-cultural experiences.

Community Engagement: Going Barefoot with Illich, Berry & Co.

By Faculty Blog 2 Comments

As soon as our (SSU’s) new focus on community engagement and innovation started to take hold, what excited me was the sense that we had found the missing piece. Here was the intentionality that would help us address “justice, beauty and compassion and a humble engagement with our world” (from our mission statement) in ways we had not yet found.

Over the years, I had listened to voices that critiqued the role of education and the university in contemporary society. Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry and the Barefoot College, founded in India by Bunker Roy, are among these idealist voices that have much to say. A deepening of community engagement is what these voices are calling for.

Ivan Illich was a renegade priest and iconoclastic voice active in the field of development and education in the seventies with a series of creative, polemical booklets on how the Church, western development and education were failing the people they were meant to serve. In works like Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, he critiqued what was failing and shared an alternate vision. He believed that educational institutions commodified education with the typical market outcome of making their product scarcer to drive up its perceived value. They stratified societies more often than they helped communities find solidarity and equality.

Instead he imagined more “convivial” webs of learning – educational practices on a more human scale that placed responsible limits on their claims, acknowledging the learning already taking place naturally in villages and non-Western countries. He felt the value of a good lecture was not primarily in its substance but in the opportunity it created for a hospitable gathering of friends to keep talking afterwards.

Wendell Berry also stresses limits and a more human education. It makes no sense to Berry that a university would take people out of their communities and train them to be useless to the places they came from. A good university must serve a real place and understand deeply its effect on human and natural communities.

A final, similar, voice is that of Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. Based deeply on village life and the values and lifestyle modeled by Mahatma Gandhi, Barefoot College was created by Bunker Roy in order to facilitate and enable the best education that was natural and innate in the villages of the poor. There, particularly among women (and even more particularly among grandmothers), he found the expertise and the approach that was needed to allow education and appropriate technology to flourish. They built their own solar-powered campus, barred anyone with a graduate degree from teaching, and spread throughout the world with their approach. The only “certificate” they are interested in is the acceptance of the community in which their people serve.

These are all radicals and idealists. I don’t want to be barred from teaching because I have degrees. But I do want to be inspired by all of them to be creative about serving our communities and our students with more justice, beauty and compassion.

As we develop our new emphasis on community engagement, here are three questions that I have for us at SSU that are inspired by voices like theirs:

  • Can we find the perfect fraction of SSU education to take place outside of our walls?
  • Can we develop the gift of searching for, identifying, participating in and offering academic credibility for genuine learning (related to university education) that takes place outside of traditionally accredited experiences?
  • Can we make SSU’s educational experiences and resources as available as possible to the communities around us?


knocker on door


By Languages of Contemplation, School of Contemplation No Comments

We often practice “centering prayer” as part of the School of Contemplation. At the heart of this practice is the language of “consent.” Since this concept is so central and stands for so much, it often takes a while to deepen in understanding of what it means. Consent has to do with making oneself available to the experience of being loved and accepted by God.

The chart below describes some of the aspects of this consent; one might see how consent refers to a response or stance that is both “simple” and yet very full. In the practice of centering prayer, one’s chosen word (or short phrase) is meant to symbolize or represent this consent. Yet, it certainly does not mean “thinking about” any of these concepts below. Such reflection may be important but not as part of the contemplation per se. Contemplation is about the act, intention or experience of consent, not the reflection on or analysis of what that consent means.

Here is a chart that reflects some of the potential meanings of consent. Today we did an activity in which thought about each line and asked ourselves how easily we could say “yes.”

Note: This chart is divided in two to provide accessibility to those who thrive on more traditional God-centred language (on the left) and to those who for various reasons find traditional language for God distracting or unhelpful (on the right).

I permit, accept, receive the gift/Presence of Divine Love

I acknowledge that the Universe/Reality has brought about my being and accepts me
I accept/join the activity/work of God in and around me. I accept that God’s intentions for me are good. I accept what is, this moment (though I may work for change)
The Reign/Reality of God (kingdom) is within/among us. I enter into participation. I acknowledge and enter into the connectedness of all things.
I consent to trust God for what lies beyond my control. I am detached from the results of my actions. I accept both the invitation to agency and the dependence in my life. I accept that much of life is beyond my control. I am detached from the results of my actions. I accept both the invitation to agency and the dependence in my life.
I accept feeling what I feel and knowing what I know. (God is not aligned with dishonesty, denial or repression.) I accept feeling what I feel and knowing what I know.
I accept the grace of God’s forgiveness that welcomes me with all my mistakes and weaknesses – I may have to face the consequences of my actions, but God’s love also welcomes me I accept myself in spite of my mistakes and weaknesses (my acceptance is not based on my performance or achievement – though I also accept the consequences of my actions)
bench by lake

Nature Contemplation

By Languages of Contemplation, School of Contemplation No Comments

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Rom. 1:20

Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. – Rumi

This week, Donna Dunsmore led us on a contemplative walk. Before we left, she shared these thoughts:

• Over the centuries Christian monastic practice in both the East and West has accorded contemplation of nature an important role in spiritual growth.
• monastic tradition has stressed natural contemplation as the second important aspect of growth that prepares us to encounter God “face to face” without images or thoughts
• creation provides us many opportunities for noticing, and appreciating. When we start noticing, we often find things that lead us to ponder and wonder. It also can lead us into deeper experiences of God himself, those times when we sense a deep presence, peace or unity with all things Getting outside provides God the chance to reach us.

And prayed this prayer (from Celtic Daily Prayer – p. 169):

Lord, You alone know
What my soul truly desires
And you alone
Can satisfy those desires

Then we were sent off with these instructions:

As you walk to your spot, focus on gratitude.

( 2 options)

  1. Find one focus (rock, petal, leaf, tree bark…) and experience it with your senses
  2. Sit or stand in one spot and allow yourself to be part of creation around you (let your senses take it in)

 For either 1 or 2:

Breathe deeply

Take in the experience with more than one sense

Allow the experience to enter your being

Trust that God is touching you in creation and that you are being filled

Flexio Divina, Natura Divina & Visio Divina

By Contemplative Rhythms and Improvisations, School of Contemplation No Comments

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at innovations on the practice of Lectio Divina. This began with Rachael reminding us of the place of lectio as part of the four-fold contemplative pattern: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. In this pattern, lectio is the particular time for receiving a “word from God” from some source. Literally, it refers to “reading” but it could refer not only to written text but to input from a wide variety of sources, which we explored with some of our innovations.

So we practiced “flexio divina” by reminding each other that we can practice this type of reading not only with Scripture but with other helpful passages of prose or poetry. The following week, we were even more innovative and went outdoors. There we walked in the early spring and experimented with “natura divina,” reading what we might learn from the book of nature. Finally, we took another turn at “visio divina. 

Whichever form our “reading” takes, it’s an invitation to be more intentional about paying attention, keeping our eyes and ears open to living with more awareness and Presence. Then, the invitation, as always is to take it deeper through the stages of meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. 

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