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Photography as an Act of Faith

While we have featured many guest posts in the past, we are setting the intention to bring you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email admin@contemplative.org.

Read on for an enlightening testimonial to art as a spiritual practice by Cynthia Bourgeault’s student, Diane Walker.


Back in the days when I was living in Vermont and heating my house with wood, we used to say wood warms you four ways: once when you cut it down, once when you drag it home, once when you chop it into kindling, and once when you burn it. For me, contemplative photography works the same way: you get several opportunities to be warmed by that spark of the sacred. 

That divine spark expresses itself as a kind of recognition, and it happens for me at four different points in the process: when the subject calls to me; when I’m deciding how to photograph it; when I develop the resulting image, either in the darkroom or on my computer; and, finally, when I decide to engage with the image and see what it has to teach me. And in each case, the key to the process lies in paying attention: being present, being mindful, and not trying too hard to control the results.

If you’re a professional photographer, you may well have been taught that an amateur photographer takes a picture and a professional makes a picture. But if you are a contemplative photographer, it’s more about making yourself available for what needs to be revealed; a matter of showing up, keeping your camera handy, and being consciously present, listening for what calls to you.

So what does that mean – to be a contemplative? What does it mean for photography to be an act of faith? According to Ed Bastian,

“Contemplation is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives.” 

Once I looked at it that way, I could begin to see parallels between his definition of contemplation and the way the spirit was moving through my photography.

Photo by Diane Walker

So what do I mean by that? To be a contemplative photographer is essentially an act of faith, and it has these same four contemplative components.  The discipline lies in being aware and open; it’s a commitment to listen for that divine spark – even to seek it out – and to keep my camera with me so that I can respond. The activity is the response to the spark, the conscious act of composing the photo in a way that allows the subject to speak most effectively through the camera. The idea, truth, or insight then appears – somehow – in the finished photo. And the consequences become clear when I engage with that photograph and try to understand and write about what it could possibly have to teach me.

When approached from this perspective, the photo can begin to serve as a metaphor for some aspect of the spiritual life. And the whole process is about faith and trust: confirming my heartfelt belief that somehow, in engaging with the photo and exploring the metaphors it suggests, I can learn something about that truth or insight and the consequences it has or will have on my life and the lives of those around me.

Sometimes the moment is accidental; the feeling, the impulse to see and respond, comes first, and you just have to hope you have your camera with you (and that’s one kind of discipline). But you also need to be conscious about showing up; to make the effort to go out with your camera, in faith that there might be something there that needs to voice itself through your work.

It may not initially be obvious, when you’re taking the picture, where the process is leading you. Sometimes the true meaning of the work only emerges when you bring the image to life – whether in a darkroom or on a computer. It may be that the key element will emerge in that process, in whatever manipulations you feel led to perform as you bring the image onto the page.

Photo by Diane Walker

And sometimes, it’s not until you meditate on the final image itself, that whatever truth it has to offer may be revealed – and, having come to that understanding, over time I developed what is now my daily practice. Each morning, after I awaken, I read a chapter or so of something spiritual with my cup of coffee. After 20 minutes of Centering Prayer, I sit down at my computer, wander through my photos and look at them to see what might be calling to me today.

I then spend time engaging with that photo, asking what it might have to teach me. Sometimes the words come quickly, and sometimes it takes a lot of pondering, but eventually I post that response on my blog along with the photo and send it out into the world. And there’s that contemplative process again: the discipline of sitting down and meditating, the activity of finding a photo, the time spent examining it to search for the idea or the truth, and then the writing itself, exploring and sharing the consequences of that truth.

So that’s it; that’s how contemplative photography as an act of faith has become, for me at least, a journey to the Sacred. The four ways in which the spirit moves through the process – finding a subject, taking the picture, evaluating the image, and then writing about it – nicely parallel the four steps of contemplation. There’s a discipline to it, then an active exploration, usually some truth or insight to be gained, and, in the end, some consequences to be learned and shared along the way.

And in conclusion:  if I were to share any last words about contemplative photography, I think they would be this: all creativity – not just photography – is really an act of faith. So I invite you to explore your own creativity – whatever form that may take. Take on a practice, a discipline. Have fun with it! Release your need for control, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Stay open to possibility and trust in the process – because here’s what I believe: there’s wisdom everywhere, all around you. You just have to pay attention.


Diane Walker is a contemplative photographer, painter, and writer with an extensive background in journalism, religion, and marketing. She is the former Communications Director for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Washington and has served on the faculty of the Diocesan School of Theology. She has lived on four different islands in Washington state, and has served as the volunteer exhibitions director at ECVA, a national artists registry with online exhibition space. A regular practitioner of mindfulness meditation/Centering Prayer, Diane pairs her writing and spiritual practice with her art, producing a daily blog of photos, paintings, and meditations at contemplativephotography.com. She is the author of Illuminating the Mystery: Photographic Meditations on the Gospel of Thomas.

Diane’s work can also be found on the cover of our audio teaching with Mirabai Starr, One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community.

In This Together

Our retreat participants are diverse: we serve Christians and SBNRs, young and old, wealthy and financially constrained. You might put yourself in one of these categories, or volunteer your own. But one thing we all have in common is our seeking of contemplative Wisdom and our wish to inject the world with love, as well as the need for  practice opportunities to deepen our journey along this path. Going on retreat allows contemplatives to learn and sink into practice in a safe and warm community of support, allowing us to soften our edges and expand our hearts a little more each time. But retreats are costly and the fees (or travel costs) can prevent our Contemplative Society friends from joining us.

Unemployment is an event that strikes most of us sometime in our life. We might be between jobs, transitioning from parenthood to an empty nest, or faultless casualties of fluctuating economies. While often financially problematic, this can also be a time of transformation as we reevaluate ourselves and what we can give to the world. The flip-side to these issues can come as a blessing in the form of more free time. Read on to learn first-hand how The Contemplative Society has helped folks in this position embrace this opportunity for both their own benefit and the world’s.


Returning to Canada after experiencing and attending to the death of both my parents, to the end of a job, and also to the end of a relationship (none of which was my choice) has put me in a place of great transition and loss. In conversation I discovered this retreat – this was a miracle for me, another step along this journey of healing and staying open to the mystery, in a big part because of the introduction to The Contemplative Society and the practice of Centering Prayer (both new to me).

“The right place and time and people…” Photo by Susan Smith

Knowing this was the right place and time and people for me presented the dilemma of not only no longer having the income from my previous work, but also not being yet able to access monies that would be coming to me in the future. Again, in discussion, I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship, which was granted. I felt SO grateful and remain so. Without it I would not have been able to attend.

Every single aspect of the retreat was valuable for me – and is but a stepping stone going forward on this journey.

~ Susan Smith, participant in the “Opening to the Eye of the Heart: Wisdom and the Gospel of Thomas” retreat with Matthew Wright (2017)


I usually feel very alone in my contemplative journey and longed for some time with like-minded people. I felt that finding a contemplative community would strengthen me and help to deepen my practice.

The retreat was a spiritual renewal for me. I cannot overemphasise how healing and encouraging it was to hear Rev. Matthew’s and other participants’ messages of interspirituality, and to experience the gentle openness and love of everyone in the community, wherever they were on their journey.

I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to The Contemplative Society for the opportunity to attend the retreat at Shawnigan Lake. It was a wonderful, challenging, and inspiring experience that will be with me the rest of my life.

~ Jennifer Hall, participant in the “The Wisdom Path: Contemplative Practice and Evolving Consciousness” retreat with Matthew Wright (2015)


It’s because of the support of our membership and donors that we can give out scholarships like these, so if either of these testimonials to the power of a scholarship speak to you, please consider giving a special gift to the new Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund. We’re in this together.

Our Wisdom Lineage

“WHUR WE COME FROM… “

~ Br. Raphael Robin


Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.” 

~ Paula Pryce, The Monk’s Cell


From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it); i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As The Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.

Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.

Our own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis – divinization – particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition; and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and, just before his death in 1995, sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis – perennial Wisdom – and, as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.

Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements – or defining characteristics – for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:

  1. We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora”, as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
  2. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing”, not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
  3. We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
  4. We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
  5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
  6. We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose but, rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
  7. We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false-self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice, or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
  8. Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels, The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions, Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart), Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And, of course, my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.

Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? video? on-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, Wisdom Way of Knowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see what we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.

Blessings, Cynthia

Advent 2016 – Letter from President

Dear Members and Friends of The Contemplative Society,

Advent: a time of waiting, of drawing more inward, a season of contemplation. It is easy for our personal energies to be dispersed and scattered, especially at this time of year. In the midst of the restlessness, fear, and general noise of day-to-day living, I am mindful of the need to consciously and honestly take a closer look at how we manifest our own energies. Advent is an opportunity to take time, to pause in the midst of all that calls us outward. We have an opportunity at this very moment as we read this to sense the activity and energies within our own minds, emotions, and physical bodies. Can we practice being here now in the midst of all that pulls our attention away from the present moment?

Advent is an opportunity to open to that place within where the deep, the holy, the inexpressible resides. Soon the festivities, celebrations, and joyful outpouring will be upon us providing much opportunity to manifest outwardly in abundance, gratitude, and thanksgiving. The weeks of Advent are a perfect container for allowing the soul to hibernate and quieten for a time. During these last days of Advent might we, like Mary, “treasure up these things and ponder them” in our hearts, or as Fr. Bruno says below, “allow yourself to be gathered into it”, into that place where  “you know within yourself the perfect stability of the universe”?

Fr. Bruno Barnhart died a year ago, on November 28th, the eve of the first Sunday in Advent last year. Fr. Bruno was a Roman Catholic priest at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, and has been on my heart and mind this Advent. Cynthia and Bruno were two of my earliest contemplative teachers. Contemplatives on Vancouver Island were blessed to have a group who annually brought Fr. Bruno here to lead and teach at extended silent retreats at the Sisters of St. Ann’s retreat house, Queenswood, and later at Bethlehem Retreat Centre. The extended sitting, as well as the teaching, deeply nourished me as well as challenged my pre-existing assumptions of what defined a spiritual life. I am deeply grateful to have been the recipient of Fr. Bruno’s words and his remarkable presence which gave witness to a life lived deeply. Those times of deep retreat laid a firm foundation and continue to inform my spiritual practice and growth today.  This section from Fr. Bruno’s book, Second Simplicity (p. 20-21) seems timely for this season of year:

Friend, just for a moment, allow your mind to disengage itself from its surface and to be drawn inward by the pull of its root, its invisible ground and stem. There at the center you are aware of something uncircumscribed, which is one with yourself, which is yourself illimitable. There: we should say here, for in this place there is only here. This is the here of being, the place of the burning bush, the crossing of time and space, of history and possibility, of experience and cosmos.

You cannot think of this, it is not an object of thought. You cannot focus on it, but from time to time it enkindles, it becomes conscious within you, and you can allow yourself to be gathered into it.

…What if it is not a place but everyplace, what if it surrounds you, so that the problem is not that of finding a way to it, but of finding the way out of the ways in which you are stuck? What if is the everywhere that we are imprisoned from, blinded from, the burning reality that we reach toward at every moment through the strong vertical bars of our mind, our will?

But still there are these moments of consciousness. There are moments when you know within yourself the perfect stability of the universe and the absolute sufficiency, the intrinsic rectitude of light.

…Maybe the way is a crazy multiple of love for this thing inside us: the pearl, the treasure. But be careful not to name it in such a way that you bring it home. For you do not live where you think you do. Instead, let it lead you. Let it be wild, an eccentric center, a city hidden in the wilderness, an unspoken name, an unspeakable syllable, a fire burning all the words into a wild and weaving script of smoke. Come back to this again and again.

One practice that can support our intention to open and receive is Centering Prayer. Cynthia’s first book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is one of the best books available on this practice and I eagerly await the follow-up to this book, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, which is now available for pre-order from Shambhala Publications. Fr. Thomas Keating writes of Cynthia’s newest book, “A masterpiece of spiritual wisdom firmly rooted in the Christian mystical tradition. A brilliant analysis of nondual Christianity in theory and in practice and a major contribution to the Centering Prayer movement and to interspiritual dialogue.”

I am grateful to contemplatives around the world who continue to support the mission of The Contemplative Society in its efforts to encourage contemplative practice and wisdom teaching. May this Advent and Christmas be a holy time for you filled with abundance and joy.

Heather

 

Heather Page, President

Cynthia on Surrender

This is a re-post of one installment of Christopher Page’s four-part series focusing on Cynthia Bourgeault’s quotes and teachings on Surrender. Please visit his blog, In A Spacious Place, for more.


Cynthia Bourgeault on Surrender #3

Cynthia Bourgeault offers an important caution for practitioners of Centering Prayer.

Cynthia says:

“Surrender is a conscious embracing of what is. At times, what looks like surrender can be to withdraw from a little bit of your reality – ‘that’s just him, that’s the way it is, that’s the way it’s going to be, we’re never going to be close, live with it.’ That’s not surrender.

“You can’t surrender to a situation. You can only surrender to what is present in the moment. You can only surrender into the now. And so, trying to surrender to a situation brings victimization and manipulation. Surrender is not passively resigning yourself to something.

“Centering Prayer doesn’t emphasize attention; it emphasizes surrender which is the other core motion you need on a spiritual path, so that’s okay. But it means that for those of you who are working with Centering Prayer as your core practice, you have to learn to re-double your efforts to pay attention in waking life and to work with your inner observer and to develop the skill of attention. And again, you can use surrender to leverage attention. Because when you surrender into the present, it’s a way of paying attention. It’s coming at it from the other side, but it’s a really good way to do it.

“…in my own preferences in things, I would rather see people develop will through repeated surrender than through repeated tightening and clinching around an aim, which is usually an egoic aim anyway. You’ll get there by repeated surrendering of your self which will lead you to true will.

“True will for me is not very far different from conscience. In other words, you see the whole; you see what must be done and your heart connection to the whole is so strong that you can’t not do it. So the choice drops out in true will, which is why I often say there’s only one will; there’s not two wills. And the seeing is the doing, the seeing is the being; and this comes from being completely immersed in and aligned with Being. But you get there with surrender, I think, not quite as fast but a lot more reliably.

“…through the constant practice of the letting go, of the surrendering of thoughts – not for any reason other than the pure gift of surrender – something develops in us, in the solar plexus area that learns this gesture. And experienced practitioners of Centering Prayer rather quickly come to the place where they feel at the centre of their being this tug, this visceral tug in the heart, this honing in on the Divine Presence. And it has nothing to do with thinking about it in the mind. It’s not in the mind. It’s totally visceral.

“But something, through the process of yielding, through the actual act of surrender, develops a very clearly magnetic centre. And then you have your honing beacon in you and you can follow. You can follow reliably the Divine hologram, the pattern of your life as it unfolds from the point of God and not screw up the pattern and the unfolding because you’re frightened or hiding something or have something in denial – all those things. You go with the pattern.”

 

Cynthia Bourgeault on Mary Magdalene #3

This post was originally published in Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place.


March 18 – 22, 2011: Poet’s Cove Resort on Pender Island BC, Canada – Contemplative Retreat with Cynthia Bourgeault

Sunday

Relax – all is held.

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Notes #8 from Cynthia Bourgeault: Olympic Park Inst. Centering Prayer Retreat – Sept. 1-5, 2003

This post was originally published in Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place (#6 and #7).


Wednesday Afternoon 

Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the Semitic traditions all talk about something happening to the heart.  Eastern Orthodox talks about the burning of the heart.  Sufis about the spinning of the heart.  CP the magnetization of the heart.

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Notes #7 from Cynthia Bourgeault: Olympic Park Inst. Centering Prayer Retreat – Sept. 1-5, 2003

This post was originally published in Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place (#4 and #6).


Wednesday a.m. 

Serene light shining in the ground of my being,
Draw me to yourself.
Draw me past the snares of the senses,
Out of the mazes of the mind.
Free me from symbols, from words,
That I may discover the Signified,
The Word unspoken in the darkness
That fills the ground of my being.

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Notes #6 from Cynthia Bourgeault: Olympic Park Inst. Centering Prayer Retreat – Sept. 1-5, 2003

This post was originally published in Christopher Page’s blog, In A Spacious Place.


Tuesday evening Q. & A. 

Burnout is an ego phenomenon.  At the root of burnout is the phenomenon Gerald May calls “spiritual narcissism,” which feeds on the fact that we don’t know ourselves very well.

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