Little boy. Knees so busy under your school khakis. Your dried millet stalk prods an old bicycle tire, bare of tread, along a rocky footpath.
You wear a cereal box on your head.
You are fearless! The magic of your cardboard helmet makes you bold, protects you.
Your tongue trills out machine noises, your body synced. You are an engine of movement, propulsion. You are a green dart of energy running towards me, flitting to the side when we intersect.
You come into focus, and I fold into laughter. Magic Sugar Flakes, imported from Ghana, now transformed. I know this box. Knock-off Frosted Flakes from the Muslim grocer. His store is Fridaos. Muslim Heaven. Did the wind carry the box out of the trash heap and lay it at your feet, like manna?
With the donning of colored paper with shiny letters, you metamorphose.
You take a scrap and animate it, let it animate you.
You are unstoppable, courageous.
Will anyone tell you this? Will you remember it if you reach adulthood?
Will you find other ways to protect yourself, to dodge harm when malaria and parasites and infection comes?
Later this afternoon, I drive the truck to another footpath. A new village. The rumble of the diesel an intrusion. The rhythms of this place are pestles pounding manioc, machetes chopping wood, women sifting chaff from rice.
I come to say hello, to visit. I approach a group of four women crouched on wooden stools where the path opens. There you are beneath them, the second little boy of this day. And the second mask of this day. You lie on the ground, atop a red and yellow pagne. You are all knees and twigged arms. Your face. What is this? Are you, too, wearing a cereal box? I double take, uncomprehending.
Then I see the older woman sitting closest to you. She tends an ochre paste in the scooped out earth. She is applying the mud to you. Not a mask. It is your misshapen face. Your jaw is longer than my hand. Your eyes bend and bulge through stretched, contorted skin.
You see me, too, and then you turn away. Is it a tumor? A birth defect? There is no box to contain what I’m seeing, not even Magic Sugar Flakes.
My tears start. Too many and too fast to swallow. Yes, this is happening. I go from watching to being watched. You and the women have no container for this, a white stranger who openly sobs.
We have scarcely exchanged the most threadbare of greetings. Nyanewisi: you and the sun. The afternoon greeting, followed by a litany of questions about the state of your health, your work, your children.
But no further questions will continue under this sun.
And only God knows how the years will unfold under suns back home, in North America. I will sit with people seeking spiritual guidance. I will encounter them--sometimes in the midst of great suffering--and it will unmask us both.
But for now, uneasy air stirs like a dirty swill of river water around us. None of us knows how to ease back into the everyday. I have seen you. And you have seen me seeing you. And we cannot unsee.
This is a place of suffering.
This is a place of bravado.
This is a place of brazen love.
Love in your unmasked faces, your downward gazes, bearing witness as you attend.
And while this day has been extraordinary, you are all preparing me to see others and myself more clearly as spiritual guide.
Little boy from this morning, you are preparing me to find bold, bald courage. To re-use the tools I have to leap into new worlds.
Little boy in this afternoon sun, you are preparing me, too. Preparing me to sit unflinchingly in waves of suffering and waves of love, in equal measure.
Women, you are preparing me. You teach me to turn my face toward what is before me, my attention more potent than any medicine I offer. You show me what it means to love until the end.
Author Jane Neal is a student with Cohort 2 The Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, graduating in January 2020. She lives with her family in Tyler, Texas.
At the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, we are constantly amazed at the wonderful inter-religious gatherings that we have been a part of that promote justice, respect, care, and conversation. We thought we would highlight three different ways to go about growing together as one interconnected community. Below, you will find some ideas about what you might experience in an inter-religious gathering, and perhaps you may be interested in facilitating your own gatherings.
One of our favorite ways to engage in dialogue revolves around a meal. Because many participants are available for dinner, this kind of gathering tends to begin at around six and last for two to two and a half hours. There are many ways to organize the dialogue, but it is common for the organizer to bring in a few differing religious, spiritual, and/or ethical perspectives around a theme while attendees sit around tables (we prefer circles). For example, themes could be death and dying, loving others and self, spiritual practices, etc. The order can vary, but generally, each of the experts or practitioners shares about their tradition’s worldview, attendees have opportunities to discuss together in small groups, attendees ask questions of the experts/practitioners, and everyone may have a chance to ask questions and discuss in a big group setting.
A storytelling event can be a powerful way to engage with others around a theme. They can include snacks or a meal, a formal or informal time to meet other attendees, an explanation of the theme by experts/practitioners/storytellers, and of course, the stories themselves. These events can last three to four hours and have many aspects to them, so we recommend inviting six storytellers to share, and coaching them, or having a coach, to teach them some tricks to the storytelling trade. We have also participated in storytelling events where the host provides prompts for attendees to write a line or two of their own stories related to the theme. These are read in between storytellers and before a new teller is announced.
Panels are good ways to engage in dialogue when the focus is on content and engaging with an expert in the field. Like dinner dialogues, panels are usually organized around a particular theme. Panels tend to be shorter in length than dinner dialogues, as they can last about an hour to two. Because the nature of panels includes asking questions and seeking answers, the key to a memorable panel is the host. This person facilitates conversation among the panelists, as well as attendees. It is also helpful when the panelists know each other and interact together in real time.
We hope that you may find a way to attend inter-religious gatherings and also to host them in whatever unique context works for you and your audience.
Step out of the circle of time,
and into the circle of love.
When we attended the Spiritual Directors Conference in Seattle in March we became aware of the ever-growing need for spiritual companionship for people of all traditions (and none)—BY people of all traditions and then some.
SDI has been moving forward to expand the understanding and practice of spiritual companionship—beyond formal spiritual direction. We at SGTI support this effort. There are a myriad of ways we can companion individuals of various religious, spiritual and ethical traditions and many forms of training one might be able to take to get comfortable with doing so.
When we think of all the heart-centered individuals in various caring professions—chaplains, social workers, counselors, coaches, hospice workers and health-care professionals, clergy and lay servants, spiritual and secular community leaders, and more—who might want to expand their understanding and practice of compassionate presence and care, our hearts open even wider.
The world is in such great need of healing and many of its citizens are ailing, feeling spiritually uncertain, isolated or unsupported. A spiritual companion is someone who can hold presence for someone right where they are, just as they are. No matter their religious, spiritual or ethical framework, a properly and ethically trained companion can serve others individually and collectively.
Spiritual Directors International defines spiritual companionship in this way:
"Spiritual direction or companionship inspires people to experience authenticity in their lives as they connect with and explore the ground of all being, that deepest of truths which is beyond life and death and goes by many names, including God, and no name at all."
In keeping with this international movement to promote and expand spiritual companionship, SGTI has expanded its 5-month training program to be more inclusive.
We are pleased to announce "Interfaith/Interspiritual Wisdom Training." This innovative training program is for people in all the caring professions. online program results in a Certificate in Interfaith/Interspiritual Competence. This will prepare you to companion and serve seekers of various religious, spiritual and ethical traditions.
The premier cohort is now forming and we invite you to learn more about "Interfaith/Interspiritual Wisdom Training" and listen deeply to hear if this kind of offering might serve you and those YOU serve very well.
We welcome your questions and look forward to hearing from you and do hope you will consider joining us—and enter the "circle of love" of which Rumi spoke.
The Spiritual Guidance Institute recently spent a fabulous week together at our spring residential institute. We camped out at the Cenacle Center, a wonderfully hospitable retreat center on the northside of Chicago. The week’s activities were quite varied: We incorporated teachings on development and the enneagram, practiced deep listening with our unique methodology Pure Presence, had a day of silence, ate community meals together, met with a Cenacle sister, and visited the Hindu Temple in Lemont, an Ash Wednesday service at a Presbyterian church, IMAN (Inner-city Muslim Action Network), and a Muslim/Christian dialogue dinner. It was a week to remember!
We feel grateful to our students for the productive conversations and presence during the week. And we are grateful to our friends who hosted us and shared their sacred stories with us.
Our next cohort will begin in August 2019. An interfaith immersion experience like this could be yours! Learn more.
The term "interspirituality" is still a fairly new term in terms of public awareness. Many people who might consider themselves to be "interfaith", are often called deeper: to explore the intersection of religious/spiritual experience on more universal soul level.
These people are often mystics, and sense a deeper thread of universal truth running through the religious traditions of the world. Perhaps they've never used the term "interspiritual" to describe themselves, but, in truth they just might be.
In 1999, Br. Wayne Teasdale, a Catholic monk who also practiced in the Hindu tradition, spoke of "the mystic heart," the meeting place of all the world's spiritual traditions—a deep well of wisdom sourced in Ultimate Reality that anyone can access.
Here at SGTI, we are proponents of this deep well of wisdom. We are encouragers of mystic hearts. To that end, we have now made a dynamic new e-course available to all seekers and companions (not just our students): "Enter the Mystic Heart: An Introduction to Interspirituality."
Created by Dr. Janice Lundy, it is a self-paced, downloadable course with 12 dynamic lessons, including videos and audios, to help deepen your understanding of your own mystic heart, or the hearts of those you companion. This unique course is both an informational, content-rich class and an opportunity to engage in spiritual formation through an interspiritual lens.
We hope you will take advantage of this unique opportunity!
At the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto last November, I attended a session entitled “GenInterfaith: Claiming Complex Religious Labels”. Author and speaker, Susan Katz Miller, began with a premise that speaks to us at the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute. From her description she wrote, “Few of us have singular religious identities. Most of us have extended interfaith families, are multiple religious practitioners, live in post-colonial environments with religious layering, and learn from and draw on the many religions that surround us.” We interact in face to face and online encounters with diverse representations at the intersections within our community.
In her presentation, Susan Katz Miller highlighted the fact that ¼ of our population in the US is growing up in interfaith families. In addition, the fastest growing interfaith couples are Christian and Atheist. We are in need of new practices, given the rise in intermarriage, multiple religious practices, and spiritual fluidity (a term by Dwayne Bidwell, author of When One Religion Isn’t Enough). The following four practices were suggested:
We would like to add one more and are also curious about what practices you would add.
At the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, we celebrate the multitude of religious identities as well as the identities of race, ethnicity, class, gender, ability, sexual/attractional orientation, age, socio-economic class, work, education, veteran status and more. And, we trust that our practices align with our words.
Here at SGTI, we've just completed the second Residential Institute for our 18 mos. certificate program for interfaith/interspiritual guidance. Key to our learning about how to hold presence for and engage in sacred listening with people of any and all religious, spiritual and secular philosophies is interfaith immersion.
We maintain that it is not enough to engage in "book learning" about traditions other than our own to keep our hearts open and our listening skills fluid. It is not enough to have speakers come to talk about various traditions either. In order to build and maintain interfaith and interspiritual understanding, we need hands-on experience--immersion.
While in Chicago this week, we had two interfaith immersion experiences: at the Bahai House of Worship of North America in Wilmette, IL, and IMAN—the InnerCity Muslim Action Network located on the south side of the city. At each site, we had the unique opportunity to participate in religious services and to speak one on one with members of each tradition. At IMAN we also shared a meal which is always one of our hopes with any immersion experience.
Our students were especially touched by their experience at IMAN. They rated it as perhaps their favorite experience so far. This is likely because our students are deeply caring individuals whose hearts are social justice oriented. We learned about IMAN's community outreach efforts: a low cost/free family health clinic, the Beloved Community Ceramics Studio, behavioral health counseling services and "Green Re-Entry." "Through Green ReEntry, IMAN provides transitional housing, life skills education, and sustainable construction training for formerly incarcerated citizens in Chicago."
When we connect this way--heart to heart—interfaith merges with interspiritual and we learn just how similar we all are, especially within the context of spiritual values. Our practices and rituals may sometimes feel different, yet, we are able to connect on a deeper level by cultivating appreciative knowledge, one of the other core principles of our unique SGTI curriculum.
At IMAN, there was the call to prayer in Arabic, a "sermon/message" on gratefulness, and a felt sense of sitting on holy ground with one another, Muslim and non-Muslim, to experience the Sacred. The women students of SGTI were warmly greeted and spent time after the Friday prayer service with the physician's assistant of their health clinic. Her joy of service was evident and contagious. And inspiring!
Why interfaith immersion? Because by engaging in this way, we become deeply aware of how much alike we are. We all want to be happy, to feel safe and free, to do meaningful work, and to worship in our own way. And because, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding and goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age."
In our module on Islam, one of our students, Peter Marnocha, shared a reflective expression that integrated his own tradition and offering companionship to people of different religious/spiritual/ethical traditions. You will see how he incorporates the major practices of Islam with questions that a spiritual guide might ask a seeker.
If you are a seeker, you may be asked these questions by your spiritual guide. If you are a spiritual companion, these are great questions that really get to the heart of the matter.
Questions for seekers in the spirit of the Five Pillars of Islam:
Testament of Faith: The proclamation that there is no god but God. How do you affirm this in your own belief system? How do you describe the entity or energy that is much greater than the human species.
Prayer: Prayer is formal worship. In what ways do you pray? How are you 'constant in prayer' and what does this mean to you?
Charity: In what ways do you give of yourself and resources in a humble and sincere way? How do you accomplish this selfless service without looking for praise or reward?
Fasting: What are the practices that you take time for to observe moments or days that are sacred to you? How do you practice compassion and generosity? Assuming that you are willing to practice non-attachment, how is this expressed in your life? To what extent are you willing to endure the process of self-transformation?
Pilgrimage: Pilgrimage is a journey of shared experiences and unity. How might you travel alone or with others to experience the oneness of all things and Nature?"
In our training of spiritual guides at SGTI, one of the core principles that we hope to invite from our students is mutual appreciation. As we explore the world's religious traditions, spiritual expressions and cultural contexts, it is important that our mind sets reflect openness; our hearts be warm and hospitable. Mutual appreciation sprouts from this fertile soil and is essential for good spiritual guidance to take place.
In one of the recent "Universal Wisdoms" we send out to our list of subscribers, we spoke of mutual appreciation. Here is the text that was sent:
"In their book, The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew—Three Women Search for Understanding, co-author Priscilla Warner, a Jew, speaks about an encounter with her rabbi, Jeffrey.
We then offered Reflection Questions for our subscribers to ponder:
1. Does the distinction between 'tolerance' and 'mutual appreciation' resonate with you?
2. Take a few moments to reflect on a time when you were tolerant of another. How did this feel? Now reflect upon an incident in which mutual appreciation was experienced. How did this feel?
Perhaps, you would like to take a few moments to reflect on these, too. And, of course, you can always subscribe to "Universal Wisdom" yourself and receive these thought-provoking messages in your Inbox each week. We hope they will guide you on your interfaith journey.
You can find information on this free subscription service here.
In August of 2017, SGTI's first cohort met in Chicago, Illinois, to experience its first Residential Institute. We've just posted slide shows from this stellar, interspiritual experience. They present a more in-depth look at our training, Interfaith Immersion experiences, along with Cultural Appreciation, and contemplative practice opportunities. Enjoy!
About this blog
Deepening the understanding, practice and importance of spiritual companionship across traditions.
Chat with us on Facebook