“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”
- The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
How Did I Catch This Flame?
Even as a pre-teenager I was reading Scriptures, philosophy, and theology – both Christian and Buddhist – and doing yoga poses in my room. You know, normal stuff! However, my passion for contemplation was ignited by the Benedictine monks and sisters at St. John’s Abbey and St. Benedict’s Monastery in northern Minnesota. Their simple life of prayer and work (ora et labora) gradually infused into my bones, and drew me away from a pre-medicine career into a lucrative life of study as a theologian.
In the classroom Sr. Mary Reuter, OSB, introduced us to lectio divina and Centering Prayer – both of which remain the bedrock and foundation of my daily practice. Meanwhile, Fr. Mark Thamert, OSB, introduced me to spiritual direction, the Enneagram, the mystical poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Rainer Maria Rilke, Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful little book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, cooking with enough garlic to kill a village of vampires, and the finer details of tasting Scotch whiskey. An eclectic mix of essential life skills!
Contemplation immediately spoke to an intense desire for union with God, but also communion with others – both of which require vulnerability, trust, and openness to being surprised. One of my favorite verbal prayers is “God, surprise me!” Although committed to a contemplative life, my life is quite active and busy. Contemplative prayer and meditation have been a stabilizing force that has kept me (relatively) sane through struggles with anxiety, addiction and recovery, and my vocational commitments to marriage, family, career, and community activism.
My approach to contemplative practices is “interspiritual” – that is, my spiritual home remains the Christian tradition (more specifically, the Roman Catholic tradition) in which I was raised, even as my practice, teaching, and research are all informed by both texts and persons from the great wisdom traditions of the world. I am convinced that being Christian does not have to entail parochialism and rejection of other traditions. One can be in love with the person of Jesus while opening up to love and embrace all persons. Or as I once heard Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB, state it, “it turns out there’s more to being a Christian than going to church and condemning people!” Those who have taught me the contemplative path have provided me with a concrete witnesses to this kind of radical openness without diluting one’s commitment to following the person of Jesus Christ.
During my junior year of college I was presented with the opportunity to study theology and art in Rome, taking classes at the Dominican school of the Angelicum and living in the Benedictine Monastery and College of Sant’ Anselmo. Here I learned to love the rhythm of daily prayer, work, and study, and to deepen my practice of lectio divina and Centering Prayer. Immediately after college I spent a year with the Catholic Charities Volunteer Corps in St. Paul, MN, living in intentional community (with 18 other women!) and engaged in direct service at St. Joseph’s Home for Children and social justice work. This year exposed me more deeply to the practice and lived commitment of Catholic Social Thought. After spending some time exploring a monastic vocation (and receiving a very clear message that this was not to be my vocational path), I immediately applied to graduate studies in theology and ethics.
Although I continued my contemplative practice during graduate school, it was not until a couple of years into my first academic position (at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN) that I began to integrate my contemplative life with my academic life of teaching and research. Along with a wonderful group of other dedicated practitioners, administrators, and scholars, we began the Project for Mindfulness & Contemplation at St. Thomas, and I began to bring contemplative practices directly into the classroom, utilizing simple practices as part of my pedagogy. The students loved it, and continually asked for more. In that same period I also met Myra Rucker (at the YMCA) and Stephen (Stoma) Parker (at the Meditation Center, in the lineage of Swami Rama), both of whom brought me into the beautiful world of yoga philosophy and practice. The more intentional integration of my body into my contemplative practice has added an indispensable dimension to my understanding of seeking communion with God. (As an academic, I need all the help I can get to move out of my “head” and into the body and heart-space.)
It was out of all these early experiences that my desire to bring together my own eclectic background in contemplative prayer and meditation, theology, and ethics in order to share the fruits of contemplation with others began to take root and grow.
In this growth and outreach I have found myself engaged in a great dialogue among Christians and others about the future of contemplative Christianity. This renewal began in the mid-twentieth century and is now being passed on to a new generation of leaders. Many of us – like myself – are taking up the mantle of witness to this tradition as lay persons and/or those living outside of monastic or religious communities. We are engaged in efforts to “raise the profile of contemplative Christianity” amid our culture’s fascination with mindfulness and meditation, and deeply committed to presenting this living tradition in a way that is culturally diverse, ecologically embedded, committed to a seamless integration between contemplative practices and compassionate social action in pursuit of justice and the common good. This grounding in contemplative stillness combined with commitment to compassionate social action – especially drawing on Catholic Social Thought – is a distinguishing mark of my work within this tradition. A tall order, but one that many of us feel the Spirit guiding us to undertake with both humility and boldness.
As a small part of that renewal of tradition, I began to share my passions on a blog several years ago, which has now grown into the mix of resources available on this site – blog posts, guided meditations, videos, online courses (at Contemplative U), and the “Contemplate This!” podcast. Most of these resources are offered freely, and my goal is distribute them as widely as possible to anyone who is open to these teachings. There are some items for sale. Sales help me to offset the many costs associated with creating and hosting these media resources online, and hopefully to be able to pay for my kids to go to college someday! I also ask for free-will donations to help offset these costs. If you enjoy these resources and you find they add value to your life, I ask you to contribute as you are able on the Donate Page (kinda like an NPR member-drive).
Professional, Credential-ly Stuff:
In my current day job, I am associate professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, MO, where I am also assistant director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership. I’m also a Trustee of the Trust for the Meditation Process, an Oblate of St. John’s Abbey (Collegeville, MN), and a commissioned presenter of Centering Prayer through Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. As a scholar, teacher, and author I enjoy offering workshops, retreats, and consultations with a variety of groups and organizations. If you are interested in contacting me about any of these services, please fill out the contact form below.
If you really want to see the academic stuff, you can see my full C.V. here.
“Be who you were meant to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
– St. Catherine of Siena