In the last week of September, The Contemplative Society welcomed Mirabai Starr to Vancouver Island for a retreat entitled “One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Inter-spiritual Community” at Cowichan Lake Research Station, a first collaboration between our organization and this renowned author, translator of the Mystics, and speaker. While she is perhaps best known for her memoir Caravan of No Despair, in which she chronicles her many tales of love, loss, and transformation, we were interested in her expertise on and authenticity in walking the inter-spiritual path. Though we expected to learn much from her on this subject and were thoroughly satisfied by her teachings, what we didn’t expect was the tangible transformation she helped usher among a group of women from various cultural and spiritual backgrounds, different degrees of previous experience and knowledge with the subject, and varying levels of comfort with the practices we were encouraged to try. Over the course of four days, Mirabai held us tenderly and confidently, helping us foster our listening skills through triad work, harness our written voices through contemplative writing practices based on Natalie Goldberg‘s method, and reacquaint our hearts with our Beloveds as foundation for social action in our world.
As testament to our time together, and to share with the world our gratitude to Mirabai and each other for this demonstration of hope and possibility, below are two reflections graciously written by retreatants. Their similarities and differences help exemplify what can happen when unity is born out of diversity, when One Heart beats in many. Deep thanks to Mirabai for sharing her warmth, honesty, and skills; she indeed wove together threads of disparate interests and backgrounds into a Tapestry of Inter-spiritual Community.
My first foray into The Contemplative Society began with my immersion in Mirabai Starr’s retreat at Cowichan Lake, though my contemplative life started long before. Being one of many Americans whose spiritual path and questing has brought me on a meandering journey, mine began with a Catholic childhood with very liberally minded parents, an Irish Catholic father from the Bronx, and a German born mother who grew up with a Jewish-turned-Anthroposophist father and a Lutheran-Swiss mother working with Rudolph Steiner’s teachings. In my own young adulthood, I turned to yoga and Buddhism, seeking more direct embodied experience of my soul and inner life. I find myself now on a return trip to my Christian roots, while being on a contemplative path and still teaching yoga in its fullness, not separating it from its spiritual roots. Naturally, an inter-spiritual path seems an inevitable part of the plot. I am married to a spouse ardently ordained as an Inter-spiritual Minister, so when “One Heart: Weaving an Inter-spiritual Community” with Mirabai Starr was offered by The Contemplative Society, I had an intuitive draw and a natural inclination to register for the retreat.
During the retreat, Mirabai offered a teaching from St. John of the Cross about the many ways a garden may be watered, the ultimate form being through the grace of rain pouring from the sky, nourishing the plants and the earth without effort. My experience in the retreat was much like this: I became a grateful recipient, basking in poetry and readings from Mirabai’s many published works, chanting, practicing contemplative writing and sitting; all deeply nourishing for my own “inner garden”. Beyond this, I received the gift of sitting in an intimate circle of women, guided deftly by Mirabai in our project through her many invitations for us to share of ourselves in words, presence, and respectful and structured support, often as witness to others’ writing or speaking when sharing in triads. Sparkling and vast Lake Cowichan, catching the early Autumn golden light, and daily walks through the forests, added the soul-stirring dimension of drinking in nature’s healing
Mirabai has knowledge in a wide variety of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, and shares this generously, clearly reflecting her own experience walking a deep path of inter-spiritual life. While there is a common prejudice against those who take on many rather than a single path, for me Mirabai is one who lives with a breadth as well as depth I have seldom witnessed. We heard teachings from Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, as well as many readings from one of her many books, God of Love, which explores the common heart of the Abrahamic traditions. We learned of Jewish practices, Muslim teachings, and sat in the beauty of contemplative community silence. On Friday evening a Shabbat service blessed us with a beautiful challah bread, the glow of candlelight, sacred wine, and apples dripping with honey. We gathered together, our heads shrouded, our hearts opening in the intimacy of feeding and being fed, tasting the sweetness of life, and bringing forth the remembrance that Sabbath practices must be resurrected, brought back into the foreground lest we forget such essential goodness in our lives in what Thomas Merton called the “rush and pressure of modern life” during the twentieth century.
Mirabai clearly cares deeply for the world, and actively conveys her sense of willingness to enter the dark realms that inevitably emerge in our own lives, as well as globally in our contemporary world plagued by environmental problems and those of social justice. Mirabai’s weaving of elements of Sacred Activism into the tapestry of our time together, stands as a central thread as I gratefully reflect upon this retreat. She upholds the essential message of the Good Samaritan or the Bodhisattva, that we are called in our spiritual engagement to be clear that awareness and action related to the world’s suffering must be held, and acted upon.
Life’s pain and life’s beauty, in its most essential poignancy flowed like a river through the retreat, and Mirabai’s deep willingness to be open and transparent, truly humble and loving, have made an indelible impression on me. In my imagining, the circle of participants initially gathered around the teachings and exercises with curiosity, and perhaps with a little skepticism on the parts of some, and, by the closing of our time, it seemed clear that we had indeed created together an inter-spiritual community with one heart, even a bit challenged to release ourselves from a beautiful holding and step back into our ordinary lives. I have been carrying the connections in my heart and into my work in a deeply satisfying way.
I am so grateful for all those who made this rich opportunity possible, and for the refreshed inspiration and hope with which I am now moving in my life, and my work. I look forward to paths crossing again with those who gathered for this wonderful immersion.
As we drove in, old growth forest on one side, straight rows of seedlings on the other, our pace slowed, our senses opened. Warmly greeted and shown our rooms, we settled in. The shore line and silvered lake, right there, beckoned. The peace of the wild was all-surrounding.
We had come a variety of distances, for a variety of reasons, most of them because of Mirabai. Some of us had read one or more of her books. Some of us had met her before, or taken one of her on-line courses. Some of us had barely heard of her. Most of us met Mirabai for the first time as we gathered in the dining hall for dinner. All women standing in a circle, singing the simple grace she taught us, I felt the beginning of something significant. That evening in our first session the “something” began to take shape as we introduced ourselves and shared our aspirations for the retreat. Although Mirabai sat guru-like in front of us and would be our teacher-leader for the four days, I felt we were a circle of equals where everyone belonged.
The days were spaciously paced. A Great Silence held us through nights, morning meditations, and breakfasts. Live music from a Celtic harp invited us to gather for each teaching session. Several times in a day, Mirabai divided us into small groups and gave us opportunity to share what we were experiencing. In the afternoons she gave us prompts for stream of consciousness writing, then invited us to listen to each other’s unearthed gems. Unhurried, without any sense of obligation, I felt free to simply BE in each moment.
Mirabai brought me into places of deep listening by reading to us. She read poems from the great mystics, prayers to the Divine Feminine, and excerpts from her several books. She taught freely and knowingly from her early experiences in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. She shared how her love for Christ grew as she translated John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich. She sprinkled times of silence throughout her teaching. Friday evening her Jewish heritage came alive as she led us in the ritual of welcoming Shabbat. With our heads covered we prayed facing each direction. Then gathering in close, we blessed the beautiful Challah loaf and tore off pieces of its moist sweetness to feed each other – a simple act of tender intimacy. As the chalice of wine passed around I knew I had been invited into deep rest. Our hearts were kindled with loving-kindness.
Together we asked hard questions – about identity, gender, orthodoxy, forgiveness, social justice, vocation, and what gives us joy. One evening we lit a fire near the beach and sat around its warmth while Mirabai taught. Afternoons, when it wasn’t raining, we walked the trails, cheerily talking to keep the bear away. Meals were delicious and nutritious, whether eaten in scheduled silence or open for keen conversation. We told our stories and listened deeply. Mirabai gave us an eclectic bounty of truths carefully gleaned from all the world’s traditions. In order to understand them, I need to experience and live into them. Though I am quoting them out of their context, these are some of my “live-into” gems:
- The wound of suffering is the portal to the Beloved.
- Jacob’s example tells me it is my birthright to wrestle with all the teachings, and make them my own; if Love is not there, leave the teaching behind.
- The longing itself is the path.
- I don’t have to believe everything I think.
- Stay still, stop meddling, and let God paint my portrait.
- God, who is ever with me, cannot come to visit me unless I am not there.
- The moan of separation is the cry of union.
- If I take one step toward God, God takes seven steps toward me. If I run toward God, God rushes toward me.
- Sin has no substance except by the pain it causes.
- The inter-spiritual way is to travel through the wilderness with open hands and drop to my knees wherever I encounter Love. Love affirms our essential connectedness. It is all about Love.
- All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.
In our last session on Sunday we went around the circle sharing the ways our hearts had been opened. What I had felt on Wednesday had evolved into something like a woven garment, a prayer shawl, a love wrap, holding us in Oneness. Days after our goodbyes, its blessing lingers. Thank you each one, thank you Mirabai, thank you Amma God.
Many thanks to Anne Voegtlen for the photos, and to Elizabeth and Mary for sharing their experiences with us.
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