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A Friendship, a Love, a Rescue: An Essay Celebrating Thomas Merton, by Parker J. Palmer

WeAreAlreadyOneCoverby Parker J. Palmer, from We Are Already One: Thomas Merton‘s Message of Hope, a new collection of essays to celebrate the Centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth.

…I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.
—Thomas Merton [1]

I met Thomas Merton a year after he died. I met him through his writing and through the communion that lies “beyond words,” met him in the seamless way good friends meet again after a long time apart. Without Merton’s friendship and the hope it has given me over the past forty-five years, I’m not sure I could have kept faith with my vocation, even as imperfectly as I have.


My vocational journey to what Merton calls “the margin of society”—at least, the margin of my known world—began in 1969 when I was completing my doctoral work at Berkeley. As the 1960s unfolded, the academic calling that brought me to graduate school had become less and less audible. Vietnam, a spate of assassinations, race riots and “the fire next time” in several major American cities—all of this had me hearing an insistent inner voice saying, “Your vocation is in the community, not the classroom.”

I turned down several opportunities to become a professor, and in July of 1969 moved with my wife and two children to Washington, D.C., to begin work as a community organizer. No one could understand what I was doing, beyond committing professional suicide. In truth, I could not explain it to myself, except to say that it was something I “couldn’t not do”—despite the clear odds against success.

I had no training or experience as a community organizer; much of the work had to be funded by grants I had no experience raising; and I was an idealistic and thin-skinned young man temperamentally unsuited for the hard-nosed world of community organizing. Compared to accepting a salaried and secure faculty post, as such posts were back in the day, I was stepping off the edge into “a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.” Companions would have been comforting, but few are to be found when you go over the cliff.

Meeting Merton

seven-storey-mountains-coverAfter five months in D.C.—when the thrill of my free-fall had been replaced by the predictable bruises, cuts and broken bones—I walked into a used book store near Dupont Circle. A friend had recommended that I read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It was not on the shelf, but in the place where it would have been was another book I knew nothing about: The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. I remember thinking, “It’s about a mountain and the author’s surname begins with M. Close enough…” So I bought it.

That was early in December, 1969. Merton, I soon learned, had died almost exactly one year earlier. But he came alive as I read his autobiography, as he had for millions before me. I never felt that I had merely discovered a new author worth reading. Instead, I knew I had met a kindred spirit who understood me better than anyone alive, better than I understood myself, a fellow traveler who could accompany me on the strange path I had chosen—or had it chosen me?

Wanting to learn more about my new friend, I set out to read everything he wrote. As Merton devotees know, this turned into a lifetime project. The man published at least sixty books, and that counts only those published while he was alive: I’ve lost count of how many more have been published since his death. Merton’s posthumous literary output is, I believe, the first documented case of “perish and publish.”

A few years after I began reading Merton, I learned about his correspondence with Louis Massignon, a French scholar who introduced Western readers to the life and work of al-Hallaj, a ninth century Muslim mystic. Massignon felt that his relation to al-Hallaj was not so much that of a scholar to his subject as it was “a friendship, a love, a rescue.” [2] He did not mean that he had rescued al-Hallaj from historical obscurity, but that the Muslim mystic had reached out across time to rescue him.

That’s what Merton did for me as I read and re-read The Seven Storey Mountain. Forty years later, I’m still reading him, still finding friendship, love, and rescue—essential elements in serving as a “messenger of hope.” Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way. Merton has companioned me on my journey and illumined my path, offering life-giving ways to look at where I’ve been, where I am right now, and where I’m headed. I want to say a few words about four of those ways. Read more …

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Inviting the Soul to Show Up — in Montana

“There are few places created that invite the soul to show up. Cathy Barker is working to change that,” says retired counselor Catherine Metsch.

In the comfortable Fireside Room of Plymouth Church, a diverse collection of people gather, full of curiosity, for an introductory session of Geography of Grace. Some have met Cathy Barker through Plymouth Church, where she is Co-Pastor (retiring Dec. 31), or Frontier Hospice, where she is a Chaplain. A few have been encouraged by friends to show up. Yet most have been intrigued by a small article on the Church Page of the Helena IR, and and have come to check it out.

Each season since spring of 2013, Cathy Barker has offered this unique learning opportunity called “Geography of Grace.” Poetry, essays and images spark the imagination; then through journaling, sharing, and listening, participants explore the geography without and within, and discover Grace.

“I delight in leading Geography of Grace,” says Barker. “I love being a midwife to transformation.”

Learn more about the Geography of Grace program from the Center for Courage  & Renewal, where Cathy learned how to bring this curriculum to her local community.

NOTE: This article first appeared in the Helena Independent Record, Helena, MT. It is reprinted here with permission.

Based on the work of Parker Palmer, the 12-session series uses his list of  Touchstones to guide the group’s time together, creating a safe space for the soul.

“In this culture,” Palmer writes, “we know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, to argue its case, to make its point. We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions to show up, to express anger or joy. We know how to create spaces that invite the will to show up, to consolidate effort and energy around a common task. And we certainly know how to create spaces that invite the ego to show up, preening itself and claiming its turf! But we seem to know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to show up, this core of ourselves, our selfhood.”

Many of the people at the Introduction wrinkle their noses when poetry is mentioned.

“I understand,” Barker assures them. “I used to feel totally stupid around poetry. But Parker Palmer has discovered that by using a ‘third thing’ like poetry, essay, or image, we can more easily access the shy soul. That helped me to feel better, like I didn’t have to analyze a poem, just let the metaphors wash over me and see what happens.”

The weekly themes of geography resonate well with Montanans. “Mountain Edges,” “Forest Community,” “Marshlands: Soul Kitchens” and others provide easy metaphors for reflection.

“I love the open spaces outside. … I need to show the inner spaces the same love, awe, and wonder,” wrote Gloria Soja of the series.

Following the opening essay or the poem, journal prompts are passed around and each person follows his or her heart in writing or drawing. Some in the circle are veterans at journaling; others scare up a few sheets of paper, breathe deeply, and give it a try. One recent participant, Sandy Harris, was in the latter group; at the end of the series she noted, “I think journaling reveals my inner voice — or clarifies it by focusing.”

One of the Touchstones is: “Everything is by invitation, not demand.” Participants have the opportunity to share insights from their writing, either in the whole circle or with one or two others. No one is ever required to share. What is required is confidentiality.

At the first session of the series, Vista Points, Barker begins teaching the discipline of asking Honest and Open Questions. Again based on Parker Palmer’s work, particularly found in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, this distinctive form of communication honors the fact that each person has an inner teacher. Some call it the soul, or the Divine within. Palmer asserts that the inner teacher holds great wisdom and experience, but most of us lack skills in accessing it. He designed the question process to make that possible.

As the group members improve their skills in asking Honest and Open Questions of each other, remarkable moments occur. Deep, respectful listening and nonmanipulative questions make a safe space for the soul, and insights can flow. For some the growth is sudden, for others slow and steady. Such moments of grace are named and celebrated. Reflecting on the session entitled “Water and Release,” Gloria Soja noted, “It struck me how Grace, like water, seeps into even the hardest of hearts and creates room for growth.”

Each Geography of Grace series includes a weekend retreat, usually at a camp or retreat center. The schedule includes casual time for conversation, hiking, reading, or resting in addition to three of the sessions. The retreat refreshes the soul and body in distinctive ways and further bonds the group members.

Here’s a video of Cathy at Geography of Grace: A Courage & Renewal Alumni Institute. To explore how you can bring the Circle of Trust approach home to your faith community, register here for our next institute April 13-16, 2015 in Santa Barbara, CA.

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Selma and The Heart’s Alchemy: People Can Change

Here in the U.S. today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so we’d like to celebrate with a story about the Civil Rights Movement era. The following passage is from the new introduction to Parker J. Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy. It’s a story about the pilgrimage to Selma, faith in humanity, and the courage to forgive.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In March 2011, shortly after I sent the final draft of this book to the publisher, I had an experience that brought to life much of what I had written about. I participated in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., and led by Congressman John Lewis. The pilgrimage began in Birmingham, Alabama, moved on to Montgomery, and ended in Selma, where we marked the forty-sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a pivotal event in American political history.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process.

edmundpettusbridge-1965When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.

The 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was led by John Lewis, then twenty-five years old and chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As leader, he was one of the first to be beaten by the police, who fractured his skull and left marks he bears to this day.

It left another kind of mark on me in March 2011 to follow the seventy-one-year-old John Lewis–U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom–across the bridge where forty-six years earlier he had led others in a courageous exercise of people power.

John Lewis

During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of themes that are key to this book:

  • the centrality of the “habits of the heart” that we develop in the local venues of our lives;
  • the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy;
  • the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and
  • creating the kind of tension that might arouse “the better angels of our nature.”

The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this county at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multi-generational stream of “underground” activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the exception of such places as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, every stop we made on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage was at a church–the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma–where we heard sermons, sang songs, and felt history.

Through study, practice, and prayer, civil rights activists had prepared for action in places like these. And when those actions brought the wrath of the politicians and police down upon their heads, the activists returned to these places to heal, regroup, and act again.

The few white Americans who were aware of the black church prior to the Civil Rights movement generally discounted its political relevance. As a boy growing up in an affluent white suburb of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, I remember being told by a white clergyperson that African American religion was all about “pie in the sky when you die by-and-by,” a phrase used by capitalists who were unconsciously and ironically parroting Marx’s notion of “religion as the opiate of the people.”

“Pie-in-the-sky” was a racist, dismissive, and profoundly ignorant characterization of the role of the black churches in the United States. In fact, these churches birthed a form of social activism that eventually transformed the lay and the law of the land. Like the tiny church I wrote about in Chapter II of this book, these churches had long been helping oppressed people develop habits of the heart that empowered them to become participants in the democratic process.

At the end of the Pilgrimage, after we had marched across the bridge, we boarded a bus to take us to the Montgomery Airport for the flight home.

By happenstance, I sat just behind John Lewis and one of his staffers where I overheard Lewis telling a story.

In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.” They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.

In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?”

John_lewis_official_biopicLewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”

As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member.

Then, in a very soft voice–as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him–Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”

At that moment, I felt as if I had seen deep into the soul of a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” I saw the faith in our shared humanity that has kept John Lewis on the march for all these years, despite the abundant evidence that we are capable of being unloving, untruthful, and unjust.

I thought of this good man again on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis had helped make possible with his own blood, sweat, and tears.

As I say in the Prelude to this book, “The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good.”

When I heard John Lewis say, “People can change… People can change…,” I felt a sense of hope, not simply for “them” but for me.

The belief that change is possible–personal as well as social change–can keep us engaged with this endless experiment for the long haul, doing whatever we can to help democracy not only survive but thrive.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Healing the Heart of Democracy: Now available in paperbackThe new paperback edition of Healing the Heart of Democracy, released August 25th, 2014, includes two new features:

(1) a chapter-length Introduction with Parker’s latest thoughts, from which the story above is taken;

(2) a detailed Discussion Guide with links to videos related to key topics in the book.

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Empathy, Burnout, and a New Kind of Work

Karla McLarenIn my work as a consultant, I help people identify the behaviors they’re expected to display in the workplace – often without fully realizing that these behaviors constitute actual work. In many cases, this behavioral work isn’t openly acknowledged (which usually means that it isn’t properly supported), and as a result, people can burn out at their jobs without being able to clearly identify what kind of work they’re actually doing.

Understanding emotion work

In her excellent 1983 book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, sociologist Arlie Hochschild described what she termed emotional labor, or the way that our emotions and emotional states are a part of what we offer (and what is expected from us) in the workplace. Hochschild gives examples of flight attendants, who must not only understand the intricacies of their physical work on airplanes, but must also display an open, calm, and welcoming emotional demeanor to passengers.

Even when passengers are bad-tempered or needy, part of the work of a flight attendant is to always present a calm, helpful, and accepting demeanor, no matter what. These emotional expectations are not often stated explicitly in airline job descriptions, yet they’re a fundamental part of what we’ve all learned to expect (and even demand) from flight attendants. This is an example of a flight attendant’s emotional labor.

emotionwork-pullquoteThis concept really helps us look at the often unwritten emotional rules and behaviors that are expected from us in the workplace – at how we must manage our own emotions and the emotions of others in order to get our work done. For instance, if airline passengers are rude, a good flight attendant won’t generally snap at them or ignore their requests – as he might if his friends or family treated him rudely. In fact, his normal human reactions would be frowned upon by the airline; therefore, part of his job description (stated or not) is to deal with rudeness and bad behavior in unusual or even counter-productive (to him) ways.

This emotional labor – this emotion work – is actually, in many cases, enforced empathizing. It’s a part of our social contract with each other, and though it’s not usually spoken of explicitly as a job skill (or written explicitly in a job description), our capacities for emotion work and professionalized empathy are possibly the most important job skills we possess.

The crucial work of emotion work

Your capacity for healthy and perceptive emotion work is what makes your relationships flow smoothly; it’s what helps you relate to and support others, and it’s what helps you mature as an emotional, social, and empathic person. However, emotion work is work, and if you’re not aware of how much emotion work you do (or how much you expect others to do for you) then burnout – empathic burnout – is a very real possibility.

To get a clearer handle on your own emotion workload, it can help to look not just at yourself, but at the people around you. Pay attention to the emotion work of the people who serve you, and of the people you serve. You probably have very specific (yet unspoken) emotion-work rules for the owners and employees of businesses you visit (especially restaurants and retail outlets), even if you’ve never set eyes on anyone in the business before.

As you observe these people, ask yourself: Can these people openly display a full range of emotions, or do they have to constantly manage their emotions in order to serve you? Can they display anger or fear? Can they be sad or anxious? Or do they have to be calm and display happiness at all times?

Now observe yourself: In your own work, can you display a full range of emotions, or are you constrained to just a few? What kind of work are you doing to manage your emotions? You may find that you have very specific emotion-work expectations for yourself, for your co-workers, for your employees and contractors, and for your managers or bosses.

We all have very specific (and nearly always unspoken) emotion work rules for ourselves and everyone around us – yet we don’t talk about this work. A great deal of the trouble I see in the workplace revolves around emotion work that is either not being performed (the problem employee), or is being performed but not valued or supported (the put-upon, or heading-for-burnout employee). The workplace can become really miserable when there is trouble in the sphere of emotion work.

Creating an emotionally well-regulated workplace

There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers,” because the fact is that very few people leave jobs because their daily tasks were too hard; instead, they often leave because the emotional environment was not managed effectively – and because they were doing far too much unsupported emotion work.

There is a saying that “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their managers.”

You can do something about this. You can become aware of the emotion work you do, and of the emotion work you expect from others – and in so doing, you can create a more supportive emotional environment for everyone. These three suggestions are a great way to start:

1) Identify any unsupported emotion work and acknowledge it openly

Observe the emotion-work requirements at your workplace. What emotions are required in interactions with customers, suppliers, and co-workers? Is empathy toward customers required but unacknowledged? What emotion rules are active, and for whom?

2) Identify and acknowledge any emotional inequality

Are the emotion rules different at different levels of the organization? Can one person or group display (for instance) anger, depression, or anxiety, while everyone else must display only happiness and complacency? To the extent that you can, acknowledge this openly.

3) Welcome open conversations about emotion work

Burnout occurs when people aren’t allowed to identify or speak about their emotion work. You can help to create a healthier and more emotionally well-regulated workplace if you can simply speak openly and honestly about emotion work.

In my consulting work, I’ve found that being honest and open about emotion work is a nearly magical way to make a workplace more healthy, inviting, and efficient. Forget artificial team-building games and this month’s hot new management tricks; if you can talk about emotion work openly, your employees and colleagues will be able to build an effective workplace on their own.

~~ Excerpted with permission from The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren (Sounds True, 2013).

Karla McLaren, M. Ed., is an award-winning author, social science researcher, and pioneering educator whose groundbreaking approach to emotions and empathy revalues even the most “negative” emotions and opens startling new pathways to effective communication and competence. Karla is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013) the pioneering book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You (2010), and the interactive online course Emotional Flow (2012). Her website is

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Anyone Can Sing

I have trouble with the title of this poem, “Anyone Can Sing.” You see, in junior high school choir my teacher once approached me during a song we were preparing for a concert, tapped me on the shoulder and told me to “just mouth the words.”

Yet I am also drawn to the title of this poem because it names something that’s true for me. My choir teacher may have embarrassed me, but he couldn’t silence me. It’s true that I rarely lead others in song, but I continue to sing along to this day.

I love the power of song to touch the bittersweet paradoxes of being human. And I love the call to give voice to what is most important and most poignant in our lives and in our leadership, knowing that when we do so, we invite others to join in.


Anyone Can Sing

Anyone can sing. You just open your mouth,
and give shape to a sound. Anyone can sing.
songbird-012015What is harder, is to proclaim the soul,
to initiate a wild and necessary deepening:
to give the voice broad, sonorous wings
of solitude, grief, and celebration,
to fill the body with the echoes of voices
lost long ago to bravery, and silence,
to prise the reluctant heart wide open,
to witness defeat, to suffer contempt,
to shrink, lose face, go down in ignominy,
to retreat to the last dark hiding-place
where the tattered remnants of your pride
still gather themselves around your nakedness,
to know these rags as your only protection
and yet still open – to face the possibility
that your innermost core may hold nothing at all,
and to sing from that – to fill the void
with every hurt, every harm, every hard-won joy
that staves off death yet honours its coming,
to sing both full and utterly empty,
alone and conjoined, exiled and at home,
to sing what people feel most keenly
yet never acknowledge until you sing it.
Anyone can sing. Yes. Anyone can sing.

- William Ayot

To what will you give voice in 2015?

Warm regards,

Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. You can discover the power of your voice and agency at a Courage & Renewal program.

Today’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!


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To Hear the Sound of the Genuine Within Us

"quote-L There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the genuine in yourself—and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls. 

Based on excerpts from Dr. Howard Thurman’s Baccalaureate Address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980, as edited by Jo Moore Stewart for The Spelman Messenger Vol. 96 No. 4 (Summer 1980), 14-15.

Atlanta Young Leaders GroupParticipants of the 2014 Courage to Lead for Young Leaders and Activists

On the afternoon of December 11, 2014, only weeks before the beginning of this new year and amid the backdrop of anguish and activism in our country, 32 young leaders and 5 Courage & Renewal facilitators gathered outside of Atlanta, GA for Courage to Lead for Young Leaders and Activists retreat. We came from various parts of North America from a wide range of sectors including: education, healthcare, food justice, ministry, social entrepreneurship, law, and nonprofits. Together we would create a Circle of Trust where each one of us was invited to listen for what Howard Thurman calls the sound of the genuine in ourselves and to be present to the sound of the genuine in each other.

Just hours before the start of the retreat, Marcy Jackson, Stephen Lewis, Parker Palmer, Matthew Williams and I shared a smaller circle, acknowledging how our own hearts were holding both grief and hope and the ways we, too, were wrestling with our own difficult and demanding questions. And also we acknowledged, to paraphrase a poem by Wendell Berry, that what we needed was here.

And so it was.

We were together for just under 48 hours—barely two full days—but long enough, in the words of one participant, to create “a countercultural space where all are invited and welcome to be their most authentic self . . . [to take] a journey into the heart in order to understand its complexity, simplicity, its most current condition . . . [to experience] a time for renewal, reconnecting with the self that is courageous, confident, and whole.”

For many, our time together introduced principles and practices that allow something essential, but often elusive, to emerge. As one young leader said: “After months of trying to connect with my true self in the margins of my life, the retreat offered a container and a community to have a deep, honest and heartfelt conversation with my self which has awakened in me a renewed sense of wholeness and strength.”

Perhaps there has never been a time when generative spaces between and among people have been more necessary or when our world has held a greater need for people to lead from within. For my own part, I left our time together filled with a tenacious hope that as we keep straining against the many forms of injustice in the world, change will come. A deep source of the wisdom and energy needed to shape a different future is held in the hearts and souls of young leaders like the ones who formed our circle.

And there is more. As we shared expressions of gratitude with one another in closing, these vibrant and innovative leaders and activists offered encouragements which came to me as a clarion call for the Center for Courage & Renewal and its worldwide network of facilitators: “There is elegance here that is so brilliant. Be wary of its preservation. Continue to create spaces like this that so beautifully coax forth the soul. Continue to offer this sacred space, for all who find it surely need it.” Or more simply, “Convene. Convene. Convene.”

Another participant put it this way, “To empower young people to mine their own wisdom rather than searching the wisdom of others is a profound contribution to the field of leadership development. And yet! Yet the process itself is shrouded in the wisdom of our elders.”

Truly, we are all in this together.

kathryn_mcelveenKathryn McElveen is the President of inVision Ventures, a company specializing in leadership coaching, facilitation and collaborative program design. After more than a decade working in education and community-based nonprofits, Kathryn discovered a passion for helping leaders join “soul” and “role” for personal, organizational and cultural transformation. She especially appreciates working with diverse groups whose different backgrounds, experiences and world views enrich and inspire mutual formation.

Join Kathryn McElveen’s upcoming Courage & Renewal program: 

Courage to Lead for Young United Methodist Ministers: A 6-month Leadership Intensive for Faith Leaders to Renew, Reflect, and Reconnect
Spring – Fall 2015
in Atlanta, Colorado Springs, and Milwaukee  |  Learn about the program >>

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Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold

This “New Year” thing is a curious fiction, isn’t it? The planet on which we’ve hitched a ride has been wheeling through space a lot longer than 2,014 years. And the hoopla we make at midnight on December 31st is a tad over the top for one more tick of the clock.

But this annual ritual allows us to imagine that maybe, just maybe, we’re on the threshold of something new and better — and some of our imaginings might come true, depending on what we do…


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Happy Holidays!

During this time of holidays, enjoy this lovely song, Abide, sung by a dear friend of ours, Carrie Newcomer with lyrics written by Carrie and Parker J. Palmer.

Sometimes the finest gift we can give one
another is true presence.

I will bring a cup of water,
Here’s the best that I can offer,
In the dusk of coming night,
There is evidence of the light,
With the pattering of rain,
Let us bow as if in grace,
Consider all the ways we heal,
And how a heart can break.

Oh Abide with me,
Where it’s breathless and its empty.
Yes abide with me,
And we’ll pass the evening gently.
Stay awake with me,
And we’ll listen more intently,
To something wordless and remaining,
Sure and ever changing,
In the quietness of now.

Let us ponder the unknown,
What is hidden and what’s whole,
And finally learn to travel,
At the speed of our own souls.
There is a living water,
A spirit cutting through,
Always changing, always making,
All things new.


There are things I cannot prove,
And still some how I know,
It’s like a message in a bottle,
that some unseen hand has thrown.
You don’t have to be afraid,
You don’t have to walk alone,
I don’t know but I suspect,
That it will feel like home.


Music Carrie Newcomer
Lyrics Parker J. Palmer and Carrie Newcomer

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Darkness Cover Me, a winter song by Sara Thomsen

Darkness Cover Me

Darkness Cover Me
like a blanket of night
Oh, cover me lightly

Shadows gather around me
Deepening darkness,
Whispering softly

Holy Maker of Moonlight
Singing through starlight
Keeper of all life

Hidden Seed deep in the dark soil of the earth
Fertile Ground, Womb of the Night, bring us new birth

© 1999 Sara Thomsen

Sara Thomsen is a gifted singer-songwriter whose “soulful voice, poetic lyrics and unforgettable melodies cut through to the heart and soul of human experience,” proclaims the Minnesota Women’s Press.

Paula Pedersen, a Courage & Renewal facilitator in preparation, shared this song with us, writing, “This song has helped me through my own times of darkness – the image of my own hidden seed (even wholeness) and the promise of new birth.”

Thank you Paula for the gift of this exquisite soundtrack to our winter solstice day.

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I Want to Live Fierce with Reality and Lead from My Self

Nick RossMy work with leaders takes me all over the world and puts me in the company of men and women with tremendous responsibilities in the world of business. I work with major corporations at very senior levels, providing educational programmes; workshops and retreats, around themes of self-development.

At first blush it’s a stark contrast to my ‘first career’, which involved working with addictions, homelessness, social disadvantage and the UK prison system.  I say ‘at first blush’ because as the years have gone by I’ve come to notice how much of life is a deeply shared experience. I meet as much addiction and as much confusion in a corporate meeting as I ever did in a homeless shelter. The suffering is acute wherever soul and self are divided.

There are thousands of books written about leadership every year; it’s not news to say that leadership is big business. There are so many definitions that try to speak to what leadership actually is, but it’s difficult to define since it’s clearly not one thing. Leadership shifts with the identity and integrity of the leader. A Hidden Wholeness, when I first read it, gave me some clues around the subject that felt honest, true and real to me and are now foundational to my work.

My work is not about helping leaders develop new techniques or clever methods to be more productive, get results or become more efficient or effective. Maybe that will happen as a byproduct of our time together, but it’s not the root of the work. For the folks I work with, the greatest concerns are in the tension they feel day to day between the life within and the life around them.

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, many of the people I work with feel anxious, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Overwhelm in fact is probably the biggest private concern that executives share, along with fear and the behaviours that they adopt to try to keep things together.

When I traveled to San Francisco for my first retreat I was looking for a programme that I could apply in my work. But when I immersed myself into the depths of the work itself, I realized that the work is really about me. As the soul speaks so things start to change.

I asked myself: How does this apply to the way I actually live my life, the sense of integrity or division I actually feel? What does it mean to ‘let me life speak’, to allow my vulnerability to open me, even break me towards the one gift I really have to offer which is my self-hood, my wholeness? These are the questions I am still sitting with and living into today.

"quote-L You need only claim the events of your life to make them yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.

—Florida Scott Maxwell

I remember reading a quote somewhere by Florida Scott Maxwell: “You need only claim the events of your life to make them yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.”

What I have come to know is that I want to live fierce with reality—that this is my birthright. And such an undertaking requires, as T.S. Eliot put it, “nothing less than everything.” It helps me as a facilitator, as a son, as a friend, but it’s most essential because it gives me ground to stand on as I am.

There is a tremendous difference between using the work (any work) for the benefit of others, and actually embracing the work itself, owning it. A poem that speaks to me deeply around this is called ‘The little ways that encourage good fortune, by William Stafford.

Wisdom is having things right in your life
and knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life
you will be overwhelmed:
you may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life
but do not know why,
you are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.

The saddest are those not right in their lives
who are acting to make things right for others:
they act only from the self–
and that self will never be right:
no luck, no help, no wisdom.

I am starting to appreciate what Stafford was saying. Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why. Not nice in your life, not happy or good even, but right.

What does doing courage work mean for me? Well, most of all it has involved coming to terms with aspects of my own life I have not been able to own for a very long time. Specifically, I have begun to find the courage to embrace my own longstanding struggle with depression and the additional suffering caused through the many means of self-medication I deployed for decades to keep the pain out and the show on the road.

I see now what I could not see before and that is perhaps the greatest gift of all in circle of trust. I feel vulnerable to my truth in a new way, but strangely, that vulnerability has not crossed a line into shame, which had been a long familiar companion to me in my life; familiar, stifling and distressing.

"quote-L Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why.

—William Stafford

Today, more and more, I find that I lead who I am, I teach who I am, I befriend and coach and am the son and father and partner as who I am. I am learning the art of gentle and generous integration. Integration—the act of embracing integrity—I am discovering, takes time; it cannot be rushed or bullied by anyone’s agenda—even my own ego’s. It requires silence and stillness, solitude and friendship.

I notice through my own direct experience that when I feel and allow the current of my life to move through me, when I let self and world meet in a spirit of love, discovery and exploration, that I feel a freedom I have rarely known, that I feel true, honest and real. I am aware at times of a feelinga feeling of faith really, a trustingthat the greatest gift I can offer in any moment is indeed my Self-hood and that this is the pearl of great price.

In that respect to paraphrase a poem by James Autry, my life is becoming my work: We do what we know we must do, we nurture the threads of our lives and respect the lives of those we meet and work with as the most important act of leadershipwe do all this…and business takes care of itself.

Nick Ross is director of A Different Drum, a professional training and coaching business in the United Kingdom.

Discover a Courage & Renewal program for your own leadership in work and life.

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