Sixth Parliament of the World’s Religions
Part One of Five
“Religion may be the problem,” said Rabbinit Hadassah Froman from the Holy Land, “but it’s also the solution.” I agreed, and I suspect, so did the other 9,805 people from 80 countries and 300 religious traditions who also attended the Sixth Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City October 15-19, 2015.
The first Parliament in 1893, inspired by Swami Vivekananda, drew 3000-7000 attendees to Chicago and made the West aware of the beauty of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Baha’i. A hundred years later, again in Chicago, 3000 people, including the Dalai Lama, explored the ethical common ground shared by the world’s spiritual traditions.
Three subsequent Parliaments took place from 1999-2009 in South Africa, Spain, and Australia, with Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Dr. Jane Goodall, and President Jimmy Carter attending. The Australian Government issued a national apology to the aboriginal peoples at the fifth Parliament, which convened indigenous elders from around the world.
Indigenous peoples were well represented in Salt Lake, too, in a major plenary session and multiple workshops with Black Mesa Di-Ne (Navajo), Africa’s Yoruba religion, and the “Bush University” of Australian aboriginals. On the first day of the Parliament, indigenous peoples lit a Sacred Fire in a sunrise ceremony and kept it burning continuously until the end of the gathering. I loved going to the fire every morning to pray with them before coffee and my first workshop.
Other plenary sessions focused on War, Violence, and Hate Speech, Climate Change, Emerging Leaders, and Income Inequality. Oxfam International recently issued a report warning that as of 2016, the world’s wealthiest 1% control as much of the planet’s assets as the other 99%. This means that 67 people own more than half the world’s population does.
Women’s Spiritual Leadership
Another major plenary focused on Faith in Women: Women’s Dignity and Human Rights. Only nineteen women addressed the first Parliament in 1893. Over half the presenters at the sixth Parliament in Salt Lake were women, and over 60% of the registrants.
I was part of an intergenerational panel of women representing Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Sufi, Mennonite, Navajo, and Inter-spiritual traditions. Our theme was Embodied Service: the Wholeness of Women’s Spiritual Leadership.
I also joined Imam Jamal Rahman and Celeste Yacobani for a session on How Do You Pray: Celebrating the Spirit that Unites Us. You can read Fr. Dave Denny’s review of How Do You Pray and my contribution to the book here.
This is a version of my presentation at the women’s panel.
I represent three of the rich streams in the Christian contemplative tradition: Celtic spirituality, the Carmelite spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila, and the desert spirituality of those ancient monks known as the Desert Fathers and the lesser known Desert Mothers. For almost 50 years I’ve lived alone in a solitary hermitage in the wilderness: in deserts, mountains, and woods.
Almost 40 of those years I was the spiritual leader of a monastic community of both men and women. For more than a decade now, I have lived on my own, but still in community: a broader global community. An important witness of the solitary is solidarity with the whole human family. I am not really alone in my solitude. The whole world is there with me.
Contemplation and Action
The biggest challenge for me as a woman in spiritual leadership, and I believe the challenge of women everywhere, is overextension. Women tend to give and give and give until there’s nothing left of us. The most important lessons I’ve learned, and learned the hard way, are these: We cannot give what we do not have, and Action without contemplation is blind. According to the Sophia Institute, women need to lead from the inside out, from their interiority, from the depths of their contemplative stillness.
The gift I have to offer is the witness of my life as a difficult and delicate balancing act of contemplation and action. Women’s spiritual leadership is like tightrope walking between two poles: contemplation and action. In this struggle – and it is a struggle almost every day – we finally learn the greatest lesson of all: There is ultimately no separation between contemplation and action. Contemplation is – or can be – action, and action is – or can be — contemplation.
The simple 17th-century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence, said there was no difference between the time he spent in the chapel and the time he spent in the kitchen as his community’s cook. My favorite saint and namesake, St. Teresa of Avila, put it succinctly when she said: “We find God among the pots and pans.”