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Spirit Journal – January 2017


Here’s hoping 2017 is off to a wonderful, peaceful start for you!  For Contemplative Outreach – Chicago, this promises to be our busiest year yet as we offer an expanded series of events and programs to support your spiritual journey.

This month’s lead article offers a brief glimpse of the life and work of Thomas Merton – the inspiration for next month’s Winter Weekend Retreat (February 24-26), which will be led once again by the Reverend Dr. Shawn Kafader. This year’s theme is Personal Reflections on the Spiritual Journey, exploring the classic stages of the spiritual journey as reformed by Thomas Merton.

This issue of Spirit Journal also offers a remembrance of Huston Smith, a link to information about a new online program from the national organization of Contemplative Outreach, previews of local and regional retreats and other contemplative events that are coming up later in 2017, and Insights from Thomas Merton, Huston Smith, Sri Anandamaya Ma, and Richard Rohr.

Thomas Merton, Grateful Hearts, and the Winter Weekend Retreat

tmertonThomas Merton was one of the boldest and most influential thinkers of the 20th century.  A Trappist monk and prolific author, his ideas were wide-ranging but always grounded in a deep, authentic experience of contemplation.  His thinking anticipated and, in some ways, laid the groundwork for the development of Centering Prayer as a way to bring contemplation out of the monastery and into ordinary life.

Born in 1915, he vividly described his early life experiences and conversion to Christianity and Catholicism in his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.

While living for 27 years at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky, he wrote more than sixty other books and many poems and articles exploring his interests, including the way of contemplation, civil rights, nonviolence, Asian culture and philosophy, and inter-spirituality.  According to the Merton Center, after several meetings with Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama praised him as having a more profound understanding of Buddhism than any other Christian he had known.  Merton died in a tragic accident in 1968, while visiting Bangkok.

One of Thomas Merton’s enduring gifts to us is that, in his contemplative writings, he “reformed” the classic stages of the spiritual journey, capturing the essence of ancient wisdom and establishing a clear, supportive framework in beautifully expressive modern language.  It is this aspect of his work that inspires our 2017 Winter Weekend Retreat.  Using Merton’s framework for spiritual exploration, the Rev. Dr. Shawn Kafader will gently guide you on a path toward reflection on the people, places and events that have served as your personal invitations for spiritual transformation, fostering a grateful heart of thanks toward God.

Please click here if you would like more information and a chance to register for the 2017 Winter Weekend Retreat.  PLEASE NOTE: Last month’s newsletter included incorrect dates for the Winter Weekend Retreat.  The correct schedule is: Friday evening February 24 through Sunday afternoon February 26.  We apologize for the mistake.

Remembering Huston Smith

Huston-SmithJust before 2017 arrived, Huston Smith died at the age of 97 at his home in Berkeley, California.  Smith was born to Methodist missionaries in 1919, in Suzhou, China.  His lengthy obituary in the New York Times described him as, “a renowned scholar of religion who pursued his own enlightenment in Methodist churches, Zen monasteries and even Timothy Leary’s living room.”

Among many books and articles, Smith was the author of “The World’s Religions” (1958) a classic study that helped open Western minds to the unity-within-diversity of global spiritual traditions.  This great book has sold more than three million copies and continues to be used in many university comparative religion classes today.

An ordained Methodist minister, Smith was noted for taking a direct, participatory approach to his study of religious traditions — for example, according to the Times, “he meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican Indians and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.”

In remembrance of Huston Smith, the magazine Parabola re-published a 1976 interview with him that makes very interesting reading. 

Journey Into the Light: A Year-Long Online Spiritual Enrichment Program

Henryk KowalewskiThomas Keating has written that, “The journey into the light, which is synonymous with the true self… is to make ourselves aware of the height, length, breadth, and depth of the love of Christ in taking on our human nature.”

This year, the national Contemplative Outreach organization (of which we are the Chicago-area chapter) is offering Journey Into the Light: A Year-Long Online Spiritual Enrichment Program.  The subscription series includes two online retreats during Lent and Advent and one online retreat during Ordinary Time.  Between the e-courses, subscribers will receive a weekly meditation for reflection and sharing in an online Practice Group. Visit the national website to learn more about the program.

More Local and Regional Retreats and Events in 2017

In addition to the Winter Weekend Retreat (February 24-26), Contemplative Outreach-Chicago’s new Living Wisdom Program is underway, with four all-day Saturday workshops in Mount Prospect through April, each dedicated to a theme of wisdom in the Christian contemplative tradition.  The Living Wisdom Program is now fully subscribed, but if you would like to be placed on a wait list in case others cancel, please contact Alan Krema:, 630-369-6624.

In May at the Chicago Cenacle, we will be especially happy to present The Cloud of Unknowing Retreat with Father William Menninger – a rare opportunity to learn directly from one of the originators of Centering Prayer. (Update – the event is now full and registration is closed.)

In August, Contemplative Outreach-Chicago will offer an Eight-Day Intensive and Post-Intensive Retreat.   An extended retreat of this kind allows a depth of contemplative experience that cannot be equaled in a one-day or weekend event.  We will begin registration for this retreat soon.  Finally, the Annual One-Day Fall Workshop will close out our year’s activity in early November.  Whew!

In St. Louis, June will bring the five-day retreat Rebirth in Christ on the Tree of Life: a Process of Inner Transformation at the Marianist CenterBoth “old wine” and “new wine,” Kess Frey introduces a Christian contemplative interpretation of the Qabalistic Tree of Life.  This living allegorical Tree is said to predate the birth of Jesus and to have its earthly roots in ancient Hebrew mysticism. Kess, from Anchorage, Alaska, will explore the way that Christ stands in the center of creation’s Universal Tree of Life and in the soul of each individual as the divine indwelling.

Kess Frey has authored four books related to the conceptual understanding of Centering Prayer, the most recent entitled “The Will of Divine Love:  Centering Prayer & Spiritual Psychology.”  Kess serves as Coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of Anchorage, has been practicing Centering Prayer since 1989 and offers workshops on contemplative spirituality.  He is also active in prison ministry.  This retreat will include presentations, periods of Centering Prayer, silence and small group process.  For information or pre-registration, contact Susan Komis – or 314-750-5100.


Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.

– Thomas Merton

God has to speak to each person in their own language, in their own idioms. Take Spanish, Chinese. You can express the same thought, but to different people you have to use a different language. It’s the same in religion.

– Huston Smith

Whether you worship Christ, Krishna, Kali or Allah, you actually worship the one Light that is also in you, since it pervades all things.

– Sri Anandamaya Ma

While rational critique and logical judgment are important for practical matters, they can only get us so far. We need nondual consciousness—the mind of Christ—to process the great questions of love, suffering, death, infinity, and divinity and to be unafraid of diversity and welcoming of union at ever higher and more expansive levels.

– Richard Rohr

Your Turn

Please write in to comment on or add to any of the items in this month’s newsletter.  Let us know if you are aware of an upcoming event you think others should know about, or send us an inspirational quote you’d like to share, or information about a book, website, podcast, or video you recommend.  You are invited to contribute by emailing the newsletter editor at

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