Our central image of the 4-day retreat: below the flame is a desert mother holding a scroll that reads, “Light the divine fire within yourself.”
(See end of the piece for a close-up of the image.)
The burning question of my life in the last few years has been this: what is the role of spiritual practices in the quest to become a deeper, more aware, more compassionate human being? It was with this question in mind that I attended a 4-day silent retreat in Auckland, New Zealand in May with Cynthia Bourgeault in which we studied the 4th and 5th century writings of the Christian desert fathers and mothers. Continue reading
The biggest insight that I’ve had in the last four years of teaching World Religions at HKIS is that most students are far more interested in spiritual practices than I’d ever imagined. I just did not think that the majority of grade 9 students would welcome meditation, making mandalas, walking a labyrinth or joining in with Hindu kirtan singing. However, every semester students have encouraged me to push a little further out – to try and make the content we study applicable to their daily lives. The main reason for this, I believe, is that spiritual practices are purpose-built to deal with the fundamental problems of life. In its HKIS version, the biggest issue students at HKIS seem to face is the mental and emotional toll of a high-stakes education in the midst of an achievement-oriented Asian cultural setting. Continue reading
This summer’s religion course in Bhutan with my HKIS students prompted this reflection on how all of us can take what we consider our lower selves and work with these energies to become better human beings. Our group is pictured here in Phobjikha, the most beautiful valley in Bhutan, walking from a 17th century Buddhist temple down to a 14th century one where we had the honor of observing and participating in a vestment consecration ceremony.
Religion at its best brings to the fore unconventional wisdom that lightens our load, that tells us that life is unexpectedly better than we could have imagined. What if what we considered our foremost weaknesses, our vices, the dark recesses of our hearts were in fact precisely the necessary catalysts for growth? Rainer Marie Rilke’s rich metaphors are especially poignant in this regard, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are really princesses who are waiting to see us act, just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love” (123).
Teaching religion, as I have been doing in a study-travel course about Buddhist spiritual practices in Hong Kong and Bhutan this summer, should bring such wisdom to light. Too often, however, it seems as if the essence of religion teaching can be boiled down to a simple admonition: be good. Can such a l0w-bar aim justify my students’ time? Put more positively, what benefit beyond conventional morality can studying and practicing religion offer my students? Continue reading