In June I had the privilege of ordaining One Spirit Interfaith Seminary’s 16th graduating class and blessing 53 new Interfaith/Interspiritual ministers into the next step of their sacred service in the world. Beyond the joy of contemplating the countless lives they will touch through their ministries, I also felt the deep joy at witnessing a group of people who, two years earlier, had come together as strangers to one another and through their journey together had become a deeply bonded and loving spiritual community.
I have witnessed this miracle over and over again. A cohort of students from a broad range of generational, religious, ethnic, socioeconomic, educational, and occupational backgrounds walk into the One Spirit space, or join us virtually over the internet, and within a short time begin to feel as if they’ve “come home.” And as they learn together and grow together, they come to love and form deep connections and lasting friendships with people they might never otherwise have encountered or taken the time to have a conversation with.
In reflecting on what allows and supports this to happen year after year, on what I see as the real essence of the One Spirit experience, I recognized three things that I believe make us who we are, as a school and as a spiritual community. While these things are by no means unique to One Spirit, I have come to see them as essential to creating the kind of experience our students describe having, nearly without fail.
We Open Hearts
The first thing I see as essential to who we are as One Spirit is that our education is heart-centered. One of the comments I hear most often from people about One Spirit is that we open hearts. To me, that means that we support people in connecting to and living from the profound innate capacity for love and compassion, for ourselves and for others, that resides deep in the human heart.
Whatever their differences in background and life experiences, what all One Spirit students and graduates have in common is a deep longing and aspiration to live in this world as a presence of love – as a presence of compassion, peace, healing, and blessing. I believe that when we are able to live that way – when our hearts are open, welcoming, embracing and loving – we feel most authentically ourselves. We feel most truly and naturally “at home.”
Most likely you have heard the phrase, “Home is where the heart is.” I would suggest that the truth goes a little further: “Home is where the heart is open.” And I believe that that is one of the most important things we learn and discover at One Spirit.
The focus on cultivating a heart that is open, clear, courageous, humble, and wise prepares us to offer ministries of presence: spiritual service to others and to the world that is expressed as much through the quality of our being as through the particulars of what we do.
We Create and Experience Authentic Community
One of the most valuable vehicles for supporting the inner work of opening the heart is the experience of developing a sense of authentic spiritual community.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, has suggested that the Buddha of the future is the sangha, and many other modern spiritual teachers agree. Activist Grace Lee Boggs pointed out: “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual” – in other words, the primary vehicle for the transformation of consciousness.
The late Dagara teacher and ritualist Sobonfu Somé described community this way:
Community … is an environment where you can find a home in each other’s heart and soul. It is a living entity with spirit as its anchor, where a group of people are empowered by one other, by spirit, and by the ancestors to be themselves, to carry out their purpose, and use their power responsibly. … The goal of community is to form a diverse body of people with common goals and empower them to embrace their own gifts, selves, and nature. Community holds a space for all its members to work at becoming as close to their true selves as possible.
– Sobonfu Somé, Welcoming Spirit Home
There are two aspects of community that, I believe, make it an essential crucible for growth and for preparing us to be of service in the world. In her book All About Love: New Visions, feminist social commentator bell hooks writes, simply, “There is no better place to learn the art of loving than in community.”
It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re more enlightened and loving than we actually are if we can manage to avoid or minimize contact with other human beings. Being in community is a powerful and sure-fire way to free us of any such illusions! The art of loving, and the process of creating genuine community, demands of us the essential, challenging, and humbling inner work of recognizing, taking responsibility for, and working with our interpersonal “triggers” and shadow projections. Only by doing this inner work can we clear the way for genuine acceptance and love to blossom.
The second essential dimension of community that I want to highlight is something psychotherapist Francis Weller points to in his powerful and insightful book The Wild Edge of Sorrow. He writes,
Deep in our bones lies an intuition that we arrive here carrying a bundle of gifts to offer to the community. Over time, these gifts are meant to be seen, developed, and called into the village at times of need. To feel valued for the gifts with which we are born affirms our worth and dignity. In a sense, it is a form of spiritual employment – simply being who we are confirms our place in the village. That is one of the fundamental understandings about gifts: we can only offer them by being ourselves fully. Gifts are a consequence of authenticity; when we are being true to our natures, the gift can emerge.
One of the most precious gifts of community is that it offers us a place where we can discover and begin to practice offering our own gifts, and to have that experience of “spiritual employment” – whether or not our ministry ever becomes our formal means of livelihood. For many of us, our experience of community at One Spirit restores our faith that authentic human community is possible, and offers us a foundation for trying to take that experience into our own lives, communities, and spheres of influence.
We Have a Deep Trust in, and Commitment to Support, People’s Capacity for Genuine Transformative Growth
The final element I believe makes One Spirit what it is is that we don’t merely teach or talk about transformation. We have a deep trust in people’s capacity to grow and transform, and a powerful commitment to support them in that process.
Most people who go through our programs do not simply gain knowledge and professional skills (although they do, in fact, gain knowledge and professional skills). Rather, they come out of the programs as changed people, more connected to and committed to their own deepest values and highest aspirations for themselves and for the world. And that is how we have our greatest impact in the world – because, as we know, changed people change people. Through our own experience and process of being transformed, we help to catalyze transformation around us.
Genuine transformative growth is the core and aim of every authentic mystical, spiritual path. Yet it is a process that is inherently daunting, unsettling, messy and even scary at times, because old beliefs, worldviews, and identities get questioned, challenged, disassembled, and let go of. As this occurs, people enter an “in-between” time, like a caterpillar in the chrysalis, when nothing feels solid. The old no longer works but the new has yet to take form.
It is easy to become impatient or frightened during this uncomfortable yet essential part of the transformative process. We may be tempted to re-grasp our old ways of thinking and being and abort the process of radical growth that is trying to occur. Yet what we need to do is stay present with, and allow, the discomfort of uncertainty and not-knowing, until we begin to glimpse the beginnings of a new and more authentic expression of self.
Part of what makes One Spirit what it is, is that we know and have deep faith in this process, and we’re not quick to give up on people. Instead, we are committed to doing our best to hold and support them during their “chrysalis time” in a container of safety, patience, and trust in the beauty of the butterfly in them that is forming and wanting to emerge.
In a world that values “instant everything,” trusting in, nurturing and cooperating with what Teilhard de Chardin describes as “the slow work of Spirit” in ourselves and others to grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be is a priceless gift.
Rev. Diane Berke, Founder & Spiritual Director One Spirit Learning Alliance/One Spirit Interfaith Seminary