Songs of the Birds

by Mark Votava

I went on a deepening retreat through Gravity, a center for contemplative activism, this past weekend in Schuyler, Nebraska. It was one of the best experiences of my life! I was so happy to be there as we spent 40 hours in silence, solitude, and stillness together.15

  • Deepening my awareness of my true self

On the retreat, I felt like I deepened my awareness of my true self. I was wanting to read the book Coming Home To Your True Self: Leaving the Emptiness of False Attractions by Albert Haase before I came on the retreat and when I got there the book was in the gift bag in my room. That was amazing! So I was able to read the book throughout the retreat and on the way back to Tacoma, Washington where I live.

  • The sacrament of the present moment

Here is a great quote from the book that I really love, “…there is nothing to ‘get’ in the spiritual life because we already have it! We simply need to become aware of the Presence who dwells within and in whom we dwell. We need to be attentive to the sacrament of the present moment,” states Albert Haase.

  • I have been wondering about

I love that wisdom of being present to the sacrament of the present moment. This is something that I have been wondering about for a long time now. How do we embody this sacrament of the present moment? It is a mystery that I long to live into throughout my life.

  • Songs of the birds

On the retreat, I was thinking a lot about the themes of vulnerability, cultivating happiness in myself, humility, compassion, my true self, listening, awareness, and courage. I loved hearing the Nebraska birds sing in the mornings as we sat in silence together and as I write this I hear the songs of the birds outside of my window in my little Catholic Worker room in Tacoma, Washington. The songs of the birds seem to speak to me of the unity of God, our solidarity together, and the connectedness of our world.

  • Cultivating happiness

01Before coming on the retreat, I was reflecting a lot about cultivating happiness in myself. I was learning that happiness is not something outside of me, but is something I have to cultivate within myself. And only I can do this. No person or circumstance in life will give it to me. I must find it by myself alone.

  • An integration of happiness

I must learn to value cultivating my own happiness or I will live my life in misery. It is up to me, no one will do it for me. Going on this retreat was an integration of this theme for me. In being at the retreat, I was cultivating my own happiness.

  • Learning to value our own happiness

This quote speaks deeply to me, “…learning to value our own happiness,” writes Joan Chittister, “may be one of the most important lessons we ever learn – both for our sake and for the happiness of others around us, as well.”

  • Contemplative expression

The happiness that I experienced in Nebraska was based on my need to connect to a deeper contemplative life in myself. I believe this is what my true self is crying out for. This retreat met a need in me for that connection to the cry of my true self and a contemplative expression.

  • So mysterious and beautiful

How beautiful that was for me! I have been reading about contemplative experience from Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil for years, but now I was in the midst of some twenty-first century contemplatives: Phileena and Chis Heuertz. The work they are doing is so needed and amazing! Thank you for everyone who was a part of this retreat! I will never forget the silence we shared together. It was so mysterious and beautiful!

  • Contemplative spirituality for the active life

Back in the fall of 2010, I remember reading Phileena’s book after it first came out. I was so intrigued about the theme of a contemplative spirituality for the active life. Then I read Chris’s books on Simple Spirituality, Friendship at the Margins, and recently Unexpected Gifts about discovering the way of community. Such powerful books for me as I read them.

  • Gravity, a center for contemplative activism

They are two of my favorite writers. So it was an honor to learn from them over the weekend on this amazing retreat. It was exciting for me when I learned a few years ago that they were starting a center for contemplative activism in Nebraska called Gravity and some of their mentors are Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating (some of the deepest contemplatives in the United States).

  • Connect in solidarity and unity

Lastly, I got to do a spiritual direction session with Phileena Heuertz on the retreat where I talked a lot about longing. She told me about her experience of how the contemplative life is lonely. I so appreciated that because that has been my experience too, but I am hoping that more of us who long for a contemplative life can find ways to connect in solidarity and unity.

  • It’s difficult in the ache of longing

Phileena Heuertz says in her book Pilgrimage of a Soul, “Longing signifies a desire for more. It stands in stark contrast to the complacent life. Complacency is a stalemate to the journey. Longing propels us forward. It’s difficult to sit in the ache of longing, so sometimes we avoid it. But when we embrace that gut-level discontent, we are moving and growing.”

Have you longed to become a contemplative activist in the world?

My new book The Mystical Imagination: Seeing the Sacredness of All of Life (2015) is finally done! It is available on kindle and paperback!

“Our crowded, overly-consumed, hyper-active, digitally-addicted lifestyle is draining the life out of us. We are desperate to transcend the chaos and find a better way to live. We need a mystical imagination. Get ready to be transported into the depths of meaning as Votava breaks open the contemplative path and shows you how to live your life to the fullest.” Phileena Heuertz, author of Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life and founding partner, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism

My first book The Communal Imagination: Finding a Way to Share Life Together (2014) is available on kindle and paperback also!

“Inside everyone there is a longing for community, to love and be loved. We are made in the image of a communal God. But in our hyper-mobile, individualistic, cluttered world… community is an endangered thing. And community is like working out – it takes work, sweat, discipline…  without that our muscles atrophy. Everybody wants to be fit, but not too many people want to do the work to get there. Mark’s book is sort of a workout manual, helping you rediscover your communal muscles and start building them up slowly. It is an invitation to live deep in a shallow world.”  Shane Claiborne, author and activist