I was an exhausted young mother of two in 2014, a first year student at the Living School for Action and Contemplation, and after reading OF so many of my grey haired cohorts’ luxurious prayer sits and long walks in nature, I had HAD it.
“Where is the icon of the mystic with one baby on her hip, one hand stirring a pot on the stove, and the toddler crying at her feet?!!!” I wailed.
Being a young mother is tough business. Being a young mother seeking to integrate the contemplative path into every day life, is particularly tough. That is, unless you have teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Jim Finley to set you straight.
In one session with Jim I asked him how I could keep from being angry at the non-stop interruptions of my life. “How can I possibly have solitude and my prayer practice when I’m surrounded by needs?” He looked at me and said: “here’s the thing. God is so moved by your love and devotion, that he can’t help but interrupt you and run into your arms as your children. Can you not see that God is interrupting you in the shape of your very life?”
This kind of seeing does not come right away. Cynthia challenged us in a similar way during a Wisdom School in Santa Barbara on our definition of solitude and silence. We have a tendency to equate stillness with an outer state, Cynthia explained, characterized by ample time alone and beautiful retreats in nature. We wrongly think that it means “no noise.”
Over the last couple of years however, I’ve discovered, like Cynthia, that stillness is an inner state I live from. Learning to be still enough to be able to welcome the noise and chaos around me has not just affected my own capacity to see my whole life as a prayer, but it has allowed my little ones to begin to grow up knowing that their interruptions are welcome. Most mornings my youngest will get up and climb into my lap saying in a very loud staged whisper, “mama…I gonna just pway with you.” He lasts only a minute at most before his “pway” turns to “play” but now at least I know there is no difference between the two.
So when Cynthia and I first talked about the idea of creating a “family friendly” wisdom school in Maine, I was overjoyed. As young parents, we are desperate for opportunities to be together in intergenerational contexts, and all of us are seeking advice on how to practically integrate wisdom teaching into our kids’ lives.
With great consideration, Wendy Johnston set about to make the accommodations as affordable for families as possible, while Cynthia and I tossed ideas about on how we might make the children feel welcome. Since much of the week and weekend was going to focus on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, we settled on the beloved story of Jean Houston on “Mr. Tayer” as the template.
If you’ve never read this marvelous account, it is the story of young Jean Houston’s encounters with Teilhard in Central Park. The story reads like a movie, and when I first read it I was deeply moved by the account of Teilhard’s vibrancy and personhood, and how deeply in love with the cosmos he truly was. Talking long walks together, Teilhard would stop at a snail or pick up a rock, or point out a game that was being played, always leading Jean into an appreciation and wonder for the marvel of evolution and creation.
Wanting to invoke the same kind of wonder in the children, I broke the story down into four segments, revolving around one particular piece of nature that Teilhard was bringing attention to and embellished the dialogue between them to offer the kids more a story book experience of it. Essentially, I did what Teilhard did: bring attention to an aspect of science in nature and talk about how it is true for our lives as well. We covered metamorphosis, the journey of water, clouds, wind, energy, and how shapes are replicated from the very small to the very large. We had music time and sang songs about taking deep breaths to calm the storms in our hearts, and planting our feet into the ground like trees when we are afraid. We painted butterflies, made wind chimes, and marble mazes.
Other adults join in the fun, taking turns to read the stories or help with the crafts. It was a family wisdom camp….and it was incredible.
Midway through the week we had scheduled a “family fun day” to explore and Cynthia took some of us out to her hermitage on eagle island. My son Søren had already deeply bonded with Becky McDaniel’s beautiful daughter, Lily. The two of them were thick as thieves giggling and conspiring on the boat on the way there. The day was magical: we played, worked, rested….the kids ran around barefooted, their laughter as regular as the bird song around us, insisting on joining the work with us:
“I’ll be kitchen boy!” Søren would exclaim.
“I want to help clean these windows too” Lily would offer.
The children bonded quickly and would spontaneously open profound moments of wisdom transmission during their play. One particular example of this powerful “process led” wisdom was during Matthew Wright’s teaching on the sacred heart tradition. Eager to hear Matthew’s talk, I had planted myself in the front row, ready to catch every word. But just like my own children, I suppose God couldn’t keep his love from bursting on the scene in the shape of precious little 18-month old Raffi who promptly found me, grabbed my hand, and urged me outside. Who could possibly resist that little face that stole all of our hearts that week?
The kids were out there playing with stones when I remembered that I had brought a huge pack of chalk. It didn’t take long for all of us to be coloring the huge parking lot behind the town hall.
“Hey!” said Nane…”What if we make some hearts?”
“Great idea!!!!!” I said…”that’s what the adults are talking about inside.”
“Yeah! ” said Hannah, “ Let’s surprise them….”
“What if we make a PATH of hearts!” Søren said.
And off they went…drawing, coloring, all of us giggling together at our great mischievous surprise. Every now and again I could catch a phrase or two of Matthew’s talk, but by then it didn’t matter: I knew that all of us were co-creating that talk together.
Of course, when the adults stepped out they were not only delighted, they were deeply touched. And it wasn’t just our group that felt the love created that night: a neighbor came by in tears, telling us how this paved parking lot had once been a playground for her children. “We try to color on the pavement as much as possible to remember that the kids used to be welcome here….and I came out and here you were, surrounded by children and chalk. Thank you.” Somehow we all knew that the only right response was to gather our hands and begin chanting as we danced around all those little hearts:
“The heart of the heart of the world….the heart of the heart of the world” we sang together, little voices joining in with the older ones.
What got kicked off in Maine is critical not just to our community, but to the world. When the Wisdom work stops at beautiful retreats where we are comfortably surrounded by our own generation and manicured natural settings, we are continuing to perpetuate the duality that solitude, silence, and wisdom come in beautiful external packages, rather than the internal place we learn to live from in the heart of a busy town and surrounded by the silly sounds of children.
We are ushering the next generation of Wisdom leaders and teachers, and when we welcome little ones into our midst we are not only creating opportunities to teach them, we are reminded that we have a great deal to learn from them.
Here are a couple of Brie’s children’s songs she did in Maine…she’s working on recording all of them and hopes to have them available soon.
“When I’m Scared”
“There is Plenty”