LS Alumni and Students Reflect on CONSPIRE 2018
Mark Longhurst (’15)
CONSPIRE 2018 dared to open a thematic gateway to challenging terrain that few spirituality conferences tread: the path of descent as the path of transformation. As Fr. Richard Rohr said in his conference video invitation, “Failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers. . . . We come to God . . . much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”
The crucified Jesus may be a universal Christian symbol pointing to a descending path, and yet typically large Christian conferences are not known for their emphasis on suffering, oppression, and grief. Nevertheless, 1,000 pilgrims descended to Hotel Albuquerque in New Mexico for a sold-out conference emphasizing those very themes.
The CONSPIRE program featured riveting keynote talks from writers and teachers such as Richard Rohr, Barbara Holmes, Mirabai Starr, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Brian Mclaren. The conference design also allowed attendees to encounter God through their own experience and embrace descent as a learning method.
Leaders invited participants to descend from the rational mind’s “tower of thought” into the holistic knowing of hearts and bodies. For example, participants walked through Stations of Jonah portrayed in art by Kyle Steed. They joined in chanting, drumming and dancing with a brass marching band. Musicians lifted up African-American musical traditions as embodied inspiration. Interspiritual teacher Mirabai Starr read poetry from Teresa of Ávila, led a Shabbat ritual from her own Jewish tradition, and guided collective meditation practice. Brown Taylor facilitated journaling. McLaren orchestrated a rotation of small group conversations about social justice.
Father Richard Rohr opened the conference with a reflection on “Ascending and Descending Religions.” Rohr spoke of Jesus’ incarnation as the ultimate “descending” movement. As God becomes human, surrendering Spirit into matter, Jesus the Christ is revealed in all reality. Yet the Christ mystery, Rohr pointed out paradoxically, moves seemingly fixed categories of “down” and “up” into one circular flow. “Lower” matter itself yearns for “higher” divinity; Christ “descends” but then affirms the unity of all things. One of Fr. Richard’s asides struck me: a Christian, he said, is one who sees Christ everywhere.
Several alumni and students I surveyed highlighted Barbara Holmes’ presentation as a transformative teaching moment. Holmes incorporated lecture, music, art, and poetry to speak of “crisis contemplation,” when oppressed people encounter God in moments of historical horror and injustice such as the Middle Passage, the Holocaust, and Apartheid. As Holmes puts it, “The word contemplation must press beyond the constraints of religious expectations to reach the potential for spiritual centering in the midst of danger.”
Jonathon Stalls (’17), founder of Walk to Connect, said, “The session where Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes used video, music, and group engagement to bring us into all that moves and rattles inside of and between a contemplative stance and engaged action alongside justice inspired all of my edges.” Living School student and CAC Board Member Phileena Heuertz (’20) said, “Barbara Holmes made a huge impact on me. I’ve never experienced the transformative nature of a public talk like she offered us. And so, the work that she’s doing on rethinking contemplation from oppressed and repressed people groups is really crucial for our times.”
Other alumni identified a common inspiration in Howard Thurman. The witness of the longtime Boston University Chaplain, mystic and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., wove through the conference through multiple speakers. Brian McLaren used Thurman’s life as an example of one finding depth and freedom in descent. Thurman calls all of us to hearken to “the sound of the genuine” within, McLaren said, referring to Thurman’s 1980 commencement address at Spelman College.
Swami Omkar (’18), who served as a volunteer greeting attendees at the doors, said, “I personally found myself wanting to go back to watch Brian [McLaren’s] session over and over again. I learned a lot from his slides and was especially grateful to have an in-depth introduction to Howard Thurman, especially from a white man who had been so inspired by him.”
The emphasis on Howard Thurman caused Hendree Harrison (’16) to delve into Thurman’s work more thoroughly. Inspired by Thurman’s teaching on the necessity of resisting hatred in the world and in oneself, Harrison said, “I came home from CONSPIRE inspired to drop everything, and love. The world needs extremists in love, and followers of Jesus are perfectly poised for the work.”
For some, the CONSPIRE 2018 experience—whether in person or watching online—provided spiritual renewal in a time of global crises. Susan Funk (’17) said, “In the current political climate we may at times feel discouraged, but Brian [McLaren] encourages us to fortify through our contemplative practice and be spiritually prepared to not throw in the towel.” Daniel Vrooman (’15) watched the conference webcast with other Living School alumni in California. He reflected on CONSPIRE not long after the Kavanaugh-Blasey Ford hearings in the United States and said, “The conference gave me such added meaning to the courageous testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. The movement begins when we become ‘soul friends’ to one another on the path of descent, journeying together from cheap certainty to deep faith and connection.”
CONSPIRE 2018 stirred participants toward a broad and compassionate understanding of contemplation. This is not a self-satisfied and individualized contemplation that, as Brian McLaren put it in his social justice workshop, “is a little bit like building your own private, gated community.” Rather, CONSPIRE challenged contemplative practitioners to encounter Christ on the path of descent in the chaos, conflict, and heartbreak of reality. A Christian is one who sees Christ everywhere, then, and especially in liminality, crisis, suffering, and uncertainty.