BOB ABERNETHY: Now our cover story, a special kind of spirituality. The word “spirituality” has come to mean all kinds of private experience of the sacred, in church and often out of it. Our story is about a unique and influential center of Christian spirituality celebrating this year its 25th anniversary.
This is not your ordinary office. These staff workers gathering for mediation run the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. Shalem is a center for the practice and teaching of the Christian contemplative tradition, the kind of worship usually associated with monks. Here, mainline Protestants mostly seek experience of God through the practices of, among others, Tibetan Buddhists and Catholic saints. Shalem’s founder and executive director is Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest.
Reverend TILDEN EDWARDS (Executive Director, Shalem Institute): We try to posture people’s deeper intimacy with the divine, their deeper sense of the immediate available presence of God in their life.
ABERNETHY: Using its books and tapes and through its newsletters, Shalem offers an enormous variety of short and long courses and retreats, all designed to help people discern the holy.
Unidentified Man #1: I say to the Lord …
ABERNETHY: Shalem teaches the technique of sacred reading practiced by Catholic monks. It uses icons, as do the Eastern Orthodox. Some practitioners like slow walking or other Buddhist mindfulness exercises. The classic texts are the writings of great Christian mystics. Reverend Edwards says many mainline Protestants enroll in Shalem courses because they want to balance their more intellectual worship tradition with direct spiritual experience.
Rev. EDWARDS: There’s also a whole ‘nother faculty of knowing in us, namely what you could call a spiritual heart. It simply knows reality, knows life, knows God. And there’s been an imbalance between, you know, the head and the heart that’s now being rectified, I think, in all traditions.
ABERNETHY: At Princeton University, sociologist Robert Wuthnow studies spiritual practice and the reasons for what he says is its growing popularity.
Professor ROBERT WUTHNOW (Author, AFTER HEAVEN): People are not finding the answers as clearly as they used to in science or in strictly rational thought. And many people, frankly, are quite disturbed about the materialism of our society, and so there is an interest in finding something more, something beyond.
ABERNETHY: Shalem’s trademark approach to the “something more” is group spiritual exploration. At a Catholic retreat center in Maryland, mostly white, mostly well-off mainline Protestants, all Shalem veterans, were invited to move from meditation, concentrating on a word or object, to contemplation, being aware of everything. Their leader was psychiatrist Gerald May.
Dr. GERALD MAY(M.D.; Shalem Institute): So what is it that makes it spiritual? What is it that makes contemplation contemplative prayer? I think that happens when awareness of what is, when the what is begins to shimmer with divine radiance. And when that gets hold of your heart, then contemplation is finding God in all things and finding all things in God.
ABERNETHY: Experts on spiritual practice say there’s always a danger of confusing your own desires with God’s. That’s one reason practitioners share their prayer experiences with one another.
Unidentified Woman #1: It feels like something beyond, something that you did.
Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.
ABERNETHY: Chanting is a venerable spiritual practice, and Shalem has a chant of its own. Tina Brown is a frequent retreatant here and another Shalem veteran. She’s a United Methodist and a social worker in Pennsylvania. Like many other practitioners, she had an intense spiritual experience. It happened late one night.
Ms. TINA BROWN (Shalem Associate): I was sitting in a chair in my living room, and the whole house was quiet and my children were in bed and my husband was asleep. And I sensed a presence in the air that I’d never sensed before. I just named that presence as God. I would say God named that presence as God in me, would be a little more accurate to say.
ABERNETHY: Tilden Edwards says spiritual experience such as Tina’s is rare, but unforgettable.
Rev. EDWARDS: Once something has been tasted, there’s a memory of that, and even though it can fade, it’s like there’s something about it, as obscure as it is to the mind, that feels more substantial than anything else in life.
ABERNETHY: As any bookstore reveals, popular spirituality comes in many forms. Sociologist Wuthnow worries that the variety of possibilities can encourage superficial picking and choosing.
Prof. WUTHNOW: The main problem I see is the consumer mentality that creeps into people’s thinking. It’s almost as if they’re walking down the aisles of a spiritual supermarket saying, “I’ll pick up a little of this and a little of that and go home and have fun.”
ABERNETHY: Douglas Ottati teaches theology and ethics at Richmond Theological Seminary. His concern is concentration on oneself.
Professor DOUGLAS OTTATI (Richmond Theological Seminary): Christ feeds the hungry, pays attention to the poor, is engaged in the world. And Christ does not just sit around and meditate and think of himself. That’s not really what we’ve got. We’ve got love of God and neighbor as the major teaching, not simply improve thyself.
ABERNETHY: Shalem’s Edwards agrees about the danger of becoming self-centered, but insists Shalem’s practices encourage just the opposite.
Rev. EDWARDS: All of this is meant to overflow into the world and caring for the world. And the spirit doesn’t come to you in some private way; it comes to you to be circulated.
ABERNETHY: This past summer Shalem celebrated its 25th anniversary with a procession and, for some, meditation practices Shalem admits outsiders can find unusual.
Unidentified Woman #3: Breathe it all in. Follow your heart.
ABERNETHY: Meanwhile, at the formal celebration, old hands spoke of what Shalem has meant to them.
Professor RICHARD LAWRENCE (Shalem Co-founder): Shalem has enabled me in — on some occasions, to position myself so that I can really be in tune with the Holy Spirit.
ABERNETHY: Shalem practitioners also say spirituality leads not only to awareness of God but to common ground with all people.
Rev. EDWARDS: When we go deep in prayer, we find that everybody’s there. We find that there’s an inclusive reality of all creation in God with us, that everyone belongs together, not just as a nice concept, but as an experienced reality.
ABERNETHY: In its 25 years, Shalem estimates it’s taught 10,000 people and influenced hundreds of thousands more. Now it hopes to work with more kinds of Christians and people of other faiths, too, believing spirituality can help overcome religion’s many divisions of doctrine, culture, and words.
The word “shalem” is a form of the Hebrew word “shalom.” It means becoming peaceful.