• Phileena Nikole: "Spoiling Ourselves with Prayer" | Transcript

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Love, Henri podcast, produced by the Henri Nouwen Society. My name is Wendy VanderWal Martin, and I’m part of the team that seeks to encourage spiritual transformation through the writing and work of contemporary spiritual Master Henri Nouwen. Now, whether you’re a longtime lover of Henri, or you’re just being introduced to his work, we encourage you to check out our website, henrinouwen.org. And if you aren’t already a subscriber, you can sign up for our free daily meditations. Every morning you can be reminded that you are a beloved child of God. Now, our guest today is Phileena and I’ve been just so looking forward to having this conversation with you. Thank you so much for being with us.

    Phileena: Thank you, Wendy. It’s great to be with you.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Now, I’m going to give a little bit of your bio that I stole directly from your website. But listeners, this is quite a story and a journey. Phileena spent much of the first half of her life in social justice work among the world’s poor for nearly 20 years. She served in more than 70 countries, building community among victims of human trafficking, survivors of HIV and AIDS, abandoned children, child soldiers, and war brides. Her work among the most vulnerable of human beings shaped and prepared Phileena for her life’s work as a spiritual director.

    I mean, I feel like we could spend an hour talking about what a journey you’ve been on, but maybe we’ll begin our conversation by simply inviting you to tell us what are you most passionate about in your work today? What’s energizing your joy as you get up in the morning and look at your schedule and say, “I get to do this?”

    Phileena: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the joy that comes to me every morning, and the gratitude that fills my heart in the setting that I get to live in, which is in the mountains of Northern New Mexico and being drenched in a natural environment, a very wild environment, very remote. And I get the privilege of resonating and and just synchronizing with the natural world. And that’s a wonderful reminder for me of my nature also. So that’s the first thing that comes to mind. And then in terms of my work, I get to spend my days meeting with incredible clients who are spiritual seekers and people who are desiring to grow and heal and develop their, not only their spirituality, but their consciousness becoming more mindful and aware of reality and how they are relating to reality. And so, perhaps we may get to talk a little bit more about my practice, but that’s certainly what gives me a lot of joy and a lot of satisfaction.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Thank you. Where I am on the east coast of Canada pretty close to the ocean, I feel that same immense gratitude. And it reminds me that after so many years of suburban living, not even the beauty of urban living, but the sprawl of suburbia, connecting with the natural world is awakening different parts of my spiritual life and has become so important. And where I live, the seasons are a real thing that are very different. And so things are beginning to bloom here. And even as I walked my little Yorkshire terrier this morning, being able to breathe in the fragrance of a lilac, and how just that awakens something very different in me than the brain out of which I spend most of my life living. So thank you for that. Now, Phileena, tell us about how you encountered Henri now, and how has he been someone who accompanied you at various points in your journey.

    Phileena: Yeah, it’s interesting. Henri Nouwen was deeply formative for me. He’s one of those spiritual teachers that guided me early on in my young adulthood just at the beginning of that work that I was doing all around the world. And my strongest memory of first encountering him was a talk that he gave on the three lies that we often listen to and let define us. And that has stayed with me throughout my adulthood and has greatly impacted the work that I do as a spiritual director. And those lies were so revealing just really had a way of confronting my own illusions of self. And for the listeners who may not be familiar with that teaching, he says that there are three lies that we often listen to and let define us. And they are:  I am what I have. I am what I do. I am what other people say or think about me.

    And it’s an incredible, just brilliant and well articulated breakdown of the difference between our true self and false self and how we are motivated and operated and how we operate. And those three lies then started to show up in other teachers in different language. And I started to see this universal truth in terms of how our humanity gets tangled up and how we have to kind of sift through those lies to get to our divine nature. And so that’s been deeply formative for me.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Thank you for that reminder of that core teaching.

    Well, this podcast, the concept is based on the fact that Henri was a letter writer. Relationship was so important to him, and he spent time every day as a discipline to be responding to his mail. And this was handwritten letters often transcribed by an assistant of his, but there are over 16,000 letters in the archives. And the reason the podcast is called Love Henri, is because there’s a book, a collection of his letters called Love Henri, and it’s a catalyst for the conversations I’ve been having on this podcast. And today’s letter is from March 10th, 1988. So we can, both of us probably flashback to a lot of neon and harem pants. And, you know, perhaps both of us were in high school back in 1988 but it’s written to a woman named Dolores and Henri says,

    Dear Dolores, many, many thanks for your wonderful letter.

    In response to the article I wrote on Adam. [Listeners, if you’re not familiar, I’m going to inject just a bit of context. Adam was Henri’s dear friend for whom he was an assistant when he was at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario. So a very seriously disabled young man from whom Henri learned a great deal and had begun to write articles about Adam’s life and his relationship with him. And so, Henri continues.] I very much appreciate the many things that you write. One thing that seems critical to me is that even when you live a very intense type of service, you keep at least one hour free each day for prayer. My sense is that if we’re no longer centered by Jesus in prayer, it becomes harder and harder to experience him in the people we work with. I really appreciate the work you are doing with the elderly and admire your great dedication. But if you want to do it in the long term and remain faithful in it, I think it is very important that you spoil yourself, spend some good time with Jesus and Him alone. This is the way to prevent burnout and to remain always joyful, even when you see so much suffering and pain. Somehow the marketplace and the soul have to stay together. I also hope you will find someone who can give you support in your spiritual life. It is always so wonderful to have a fellow Christian with whom you can pray and talk about your work and who prays also for you. Thanks again for your good letter with warm greetings. Yours, Henri.

    Now, the question I’m asking every guest after I read the letter is, what resonates with you all these years later in what Henri has written?

    Phileena: Well, he says it so beautifully and in a helpful manner with this person that he’s corresponding. What resonates with me is this gift of so-called spoiling ourselves as he puts it, with time with Jesus, and how he illuminates how critical it is to integrate essentially our inner life with our outer life, our outer life of action and service. However, we understand that the way in which I began to integrate this kind of teaching came through the principles of solitude, silence, and stillness. So the language of prayer, when we speak of prayer, it can mean very many different things to different people. And we all approach our faith and spirituality and prayer practices in different ways. But what became essential for me is this aspect of solitude, silence, and stillness as being really distinguished from other modes of prayer.

    And I think Henri is pointing us to this in this letter, and certainly in his other writings. What I came to appreciate over time, especially with the very involved work I was doing in terms of humanitarian activism with people in poverty and dealing with great, great human suffering. What I came to appreciate in these principles of solitude, silence, and stillness is that in solitude, when we take time to withdraw from our daily life, our active life relationships, we develop this capacity to be more present, to be more present to ourselves, to God, and to other people. And in that time of silence, we developed capacity to listen to ourselves, to God, to others, and in stillness then we develop this capacity for discernment to determine what is mine to do. And in this process of spoiling ourselves, we are essentially opening to divine therapy that starts to break down our illusions and reveal our unconscious motivations. And this is what can prevent so-called burnout.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Wow. Those motivations. Can you expand on that a little bit?  Tell us about some of the motivations that get exposed, that some of us might hear that and think I’m not sure I want to see them. We feel a little scared. We, we wonder how much pain or how much work it will be to look at those and, and to try to address those. So I wonder if you’d if you’d just tell us a bit more about that.

    Phileena: Well, it’s interesting because the very teaching that I remember from my first introduction to Henri reveals these unconscious motivations and the way he puts it you know, we listen to these lies that shape who we are. So in terms of, so the way that I see that is parallel to these, this idea of unconscious motivations. So if I believe the lie that “I am, what other people think about me”, or if “I am what other people say about me” or the other lies of “I am what I do”, or “I am what I have”, if I am shaped by that, then that becomes, those lies become my motivation for engagement with the world. And what I found personally in my life of service was that I was very attached to this idea that “I am what other people say or think about me.”

    And over time, I mean, of course, I didn’t realize that’s what I was, that that’s how I was motivated. It took these practices of spoiling myself and contemplation to then reveal, oh, wow. Like, that’s what’s happening for me. In that experience, I began to see that I was saying yes to some forms of service or commitments that really were not aligned with who I was and what I was to be doing in the world. And we’re all, we all have limitations. And so by exposing those lies or those unconscious motivations, we get freer to be of service in the way in which we are truly made to be and less obligated by these, so-called lies.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Now it just strikes me that things aren’t really binary. They’re, they tend to not be either or – it’s a bit of a mixture, and I’m sure that most of us who are involved in service have a whole lot of mixed motivations. So tell us a bit about how do we tease that apart when genuinely we are motivated by love and desire for justice that comes from a good and healthy place within our being and then there are these other things, we might say our shadow self or where our ego or our false self arises. How do we navigate through the mixed up mess that  that energizes our desire to be of service?

    Phileena: Well, that’s a great way to put it, that we do have these mixed motivations. We are complex human beings. We’re complex divine human beings. And it is, it is this very point that I think Henri is pointing us to when he’s inviting us to take this time for regular prayer or solitude, silence and stillness, a type of prayer that allows for clear exposure and examination. Certainly we have very positive motivations for how we are serving in the world, how we’re relating to others. There are warning signs that will kind of indicate if these lower motivations are at play. Energy is a big one. And often I see people in service who are running on fumes, so to speak. Jesus said that our yoke and our burden would be easy and light. And so a first indicator that there’s some mixed motivations at play that are kind of weighing us down is that the kind of energy we are putting out and whether or not we are light and flowing in our service, or if we’re heavy and burdensome with our service.

    There’s other indicators. Resentment is a big one.  Those of us who may be very wired to give and to give sacrificially that’s all well and good when it is aligned with the spirit in us motivating us for  those acts of service. But as soon as the resentment starts to rear its head, or we start feeling taken advantage of or that sort of thing, then that’s a, a pretty big indicator that there’s some unconscious motivations at play that are not aligned with the spirit in us. And so as we become more attuned in discernment, then we are able to flow more freely in our work in the world.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Henri makes reference to that and saying, Dolores, how you see people is going to be affected by your communion with Jesus. And if that’s been your capacity to see people beyond their imperfections, or the ways they’re annoying you in your fatigue will also get very thin.  It strikes me as an introvert who at this age and stage of my life, it sometimes feels like I just can’t get enough silence.  I am married to an extrovert. And so this idea of spoiling yourself in prayer for some who’ve perhaps had some religious trauma where prayer was connected to striving, achieving, performing, being a good Christian, or simply for those who, the idea of silent contemplation is not a dream, it’s more of a nightmare,  talk to us about this idea of spoiling.  For some folks, prayer is work or prayer has this association of some negative tapes in our head.  Now you’re someone who has found deep restoration and beauty, a flourishing in solitude, silence and stillness.  What’s that like for people who learn in different ways or who might have some triggers? Tell us a bit more about that.

    Phileena: Well, certainly we’re all wired differently. And this dichotomy between introverts and extroverts often come up in the context of contemplative prayer. And I think it’s critical to pay attention to our desires and to listen really closely to those. Ignatius of Loyola founder of the Jesuits was really wonderful at bringing forward that teaching of listening to our desires. And if we truly desire to face the truth of reality of ourselves then how might we go about that? And for some sitting still on a prayer cushion is not at all inviting. There may be zero desire for that. And yet there are other practices that can bring us to the same awakening and awareness and accountability for ourselves. I know some who really have trouble sitting still, it’s just not in their nature to do so. Things like walking and walking in nature can be incredibly effective.

    The ancient prayer practice of the labyrinth is a walking prayer that’s also helpful. Movement practices like yoga can be an incredibly helpful. Other cultureshave various practices.  Dance, ecstatic dance, movement of the body in different ways can be incredibly helpful for stilling the mind while the body is busy.  And so there’s all kinds of practices out there for every kind of person if one truly desires to awaken and to face their own illusions or lies about who they are and how they’re interacting with reality. But I think, you know, we truly have to start there. Is that the desire? Because for some it’s not. And to be honest about that, I think is really important.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Now, there might be some listeners who say Henri’s in some ways giving some proactive wisdom to Dolores ahead of burnout, but perhaps they’re listening and saying, “I’m there. I am burned out. And in this place of burnout, I don’t desire anything except nothingness.” As you work with individuals who perhaps are spiritually burned out, or again, where trauma can play a role, what are some of the gentle beginning steps? Even a former pastor of mine used to talk about being willing to be made willing to desire again, or what would be some of those gentle first steps?

    Phileena: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is something that’s been really helpful for me. And at those moments of complete exhaustion generally the last thing we need is more obligation or more “should” about what to do from there. And at moments like that, I think it’s really critical to increase self-compassion and to take off any burden of obligation. Our God is a gentle, compassionate, loving and understanding, empathetic God, and to have that frame of reference which can be difficult to get to if we’ve grown up with various forms of religious trauma. So what has helped me is a practice called Yoga Nidra, which is a deep relaxation practice. And you can find apps and guided yoga nidra kinds of practices to do, which is just simply lay down and do a body scan. And with these wonderful apps, you can be guided through that, and it’s an invitation to let go at deeper and deeper levels, but it, it comes by way of deep relaxation and just this invitation to completely let go. But letting go in a way that feels safe, that feels like you’re being held, and that you don’t have to do anything but just receive.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Just receive. I know that in Christian communities, sometimes there’s some resistance to something like yoga. There’s fearfulness about connecting that to something inconsistent or incompatible with the way of Jesus.  And yet I think what we’re talking about is opening ourselves up to the spirit of God. So you’ve been in various parts of the Body of Christ and, and talking with various groups, I’m sure you’ve heard some of those reservations about a practice like that.  Can you give us some simple thoughts for those who are kind of curious and a little open, but you know, again, some of those old tapes are hard to silence about practices that would lead us astray or, or what have you.  How would you speak to someone who has some of those reservations?

    Phileena: Well, certainly I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do something that they were uncomfortable with or feeling deep reservations about or anything of that nature. If someone was curious about yoga, but struggling to understand how it might be compatible with their Christian religion or Christian faith, then there’s plenty of resources out there to help someone explore the ways in which an ancient practice of yoga that came long before Jesus was walking the earth could be actually beneficial in helping one become a better Christian. And so this is something that has been a part of my journey learning how to receive from other traditions that were not like my own. And being a student of discernment and prayer to help navigate that path for me is what made all the difference. I think it’s really critical that we empower one another to know how to recognize spirit in our own life and listen to that voice, that still small voice calling us. And in that way, we can’t be led astray. If our desire is to deepen our connection with God and our union with God, then there’s all kinds of support out there for us. And it’s up to us to listen then to that inner guidance of that still small voice that Jesus said would be deposited in us through the Holy Spirit.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Thank you. One of my long time favorite quotes of Henri’s is “Fear filled questions never lead to love filled answers.” And this question of what is energizing us? Is it fear or is it love as we are seeking new ways of communion and connection? So, thank you.

    Now you have put two beautiful books into the world, Mindful Silence and Pilgrimage of a Soul. And we’re going to put your website up on the show notes for this episode so people can access not only the books, but other services and resources that you offer. But can you tell us a bit about the gift of these books and, and how they might be a blessing to others?

    Phileena: Sure. Well, Pilgrimage of a Soul was the first book I wrote way back in 2007, I think. And there’s an updated version that came out about 10 years later. And it was a book that was written in me, most certainly.  I didn’t set out to be an author or to write books but because of this commitment to my spiritual journey and my commitment to a deep spirituality really anchored in contemplation and contemplative prayer these, I, I started being impacted in my daily life. I was being changed, and these themes emerged that kind of marked the way of my awakening and my growth. And those became the chapters of these books, awakening, longing, darkness, death, transformation, intimacy and union. And I found that I was moving through these elements of the spiritual journey, and I had to write about it. I was very into journaling at that time in my life to just try to make sense of my experience. And this book came about. And so the book also is illustrated through the Camino de Santiago. So I made this ancient pilgrimage over 33 days, walking across northern Spain. And so I illustrate these deep spiritual truths through the experience of walking the Camino. And in that way the book is like a theological narrative, and it invites the reader to explore their own spiritual journey.

    After that book was written, a lot of my readers were interested in contemplative spirituality or Christian contemplation, because I had referenced this throughout the book, but I didn’t give any, you know, expressive explanation about the tradition. And so many were coming to me asking, you know, why have I not heard about this tradition in my church or in my spiritual formation? And so it became clear that it would be helpful to write a book that is very basic, but giving a comprehensive overview of the Christian contemplative tradition, “What is it? Where did it come from? Who are the key teachers? What are the practices? How might I get on that path of awakening and growth?” And I think folks who have found that perhaps their local church is only taking them so far in teaching and support for the onward spiritual journey, will find that the contemplative tradition of which Henri Nouwen was definitely aligned, people find that it’s kind of the support that they need for the onward path. And so Mindful Silence, the subtitle is The Heart of Christian Contemplation. And it just gives a really wonderful introduction for people who are curious and looking for spiritual support in their Christian evolution, if you will.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: So for those listening, especially if your tradition is not steeped in the contemplative history and tradition Phileena’s book is a great place to begin to learn and to gently just open yourself to different and new ways of being formed and shaped in a spiritual journey.

    Now, we’ve been talking about this, the whole conversation, and you mentioned already at the beginning of the podcast how critical solitude, silence, and stillness are to you personally. But every guest I ask, what are the practices that are sustaining you? And either, you know, tease out those, those three s’s, how are they different from one another? Or are there additional practices that you would just say, you know, maybe people wouldn’t even think of this as a spiritual practice, but it’s an important part of the rhythms of my life.

    Phileena: Well, I think I would be drawn to go back to the, the three S’s, solitude, silence and stillness. And for me, you know, drawing quiet and allowing there to be silence in my surroundings coupled with solitude, withdrawing from my daily life and obligations, demands, relationships, and then sitting still is critical to my own rejuvenation renewal. It is a practice that as I’m in that state of quiet and aloneness and being still, then I, I get more comfortable with listening. And in a lot of cases, I’m then able to actually hear anything of any sort, because life can be so busy, can be difficult to hear anything other than all the demands and responsibilities that are pulling at me. So what happens for me is by growing, quiet, I can listen to these stirrings that are inside of me that I hadn’t noticed.

    And by doing that then I am able to begin to hear, but not in audible words, but I begin to hear what needs my attention, like truly needing my attention, whether it’s something within me that’s unresolved or a particular person in my life that I’ve neglected or a particular responsibility that is not getting its due in terms of what I’m aligned to be about and to give my time and attention to in that solitude. Then in this process of sitting still and quiet then I’m able to actually be present. And I think in the listening, and as I’m describing that you can, you can hear that there’s a deepening of presence to what is right here, right now, not what was, which we can often spend a lot of mental energy around, and it’s not about what is coming, which we also can spend a lot of mental energy around, but I’m learning how to be present to what is right here, right now.

    And what I always remind people is that God can only be experienced in the now, but how often are we truly living in the now in the presence where we can be present to the presence? So this becomes very important for me. And then, in the stillness, even as I was describing my experience in silence, you can hear the reference to this discernment that is starting to come up.  Maybe I’ve been spinning my wheels and giving my attention to all of these other things, but in the solitude, silence, and stillness, I’m discovering this clarity around, no, it’s these things or these people or these projects that I am truly meant to give my attention. And so it’s just very refining for me. And all the while there is this renewing that’s happening in my energy because my energy is getting brought into focus, so to speak, rather than being dispersed and pulled in too many other directions.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Thank you. Now everyone needs to find their own practice.  and, and we’re also very different. But I wonder if you could unpack some of the practicalities. Is this a practice that’s daily for you? Is it the same time of day? Is it the same place? Are there times where it’s extended periods of solitude? Are things like unplugging from social media part of it?  Can you unpack that, not as a formula for somebody else, but just for someone who might be very new to this, they might say, theoretically, that sounds really wonderful, but what does that look like practically? Practically in, in day-to-day life?

    Phileena: Sure. So I’ll speak from my framework and how I have found my way into these practices. And there’s a practice called centering prayer. And the interesting thing about this practice is that it was introduced to me by one of the architects of the practice named Thomas Keating, who is a Cistercian monk who’s no longer living.  He passed several years back. However, the interesting thing is that he gives a teaching that is parallel to Nouwen’s, three lies, and he refers to these unconscious motivations that map just directly with Nouwen’s lies. So these two teachers are very closely aligned. And this practice of centering prayer is an ancient practice in the Christian tradition, but it wasn’t necessarily named centering prayer. But the practice itself is taught in such a way that we are encouraged to sit for 20 minutes and work our way up to sitting still for 20 minutes and then working our way up to sitting twice a day for 20 minutes.

    And that’s kind of the minimum encouragement if we’re really drawn to the practice. And so those 20 minutes of solitude, silence, and stillness then are we’re given a method by which to sit still introducing a sacred symbol into the practice. And people can research online for this method. But it’s very helpful. It’s a good framework for, because many of us are like, what am I going to do in the stillness and silence? What do I, how do I do that? You know, we’re not used to it. We’re maybe used to praying with words or something of that nature. So this isn’t a prayer of words, it’s a prayer of consent learning how to surrender to God and to say yes to God. That’s what the practice is all about. So this is something that has been very helpful, deeply formative for me and sustaining for me.

    And then certainly there are other aspects of greater moments of solitude, silence, and stillness. And so in Pilgrimage of a Soul, I mentioned how I, as I was kind of growing in the spiritual journey, I discovered I did need more than 40 minutes a day of solitude, silence and stillness. And I started to introduce one day a week that was given to solitude, silence, and stillness. Unplugging, from social media, from gadgets, from technology, and unplugging from responsibilities and relationships. And this allowed for deeper reflection and a greater listening and developing those capacities for presence and discernment. And those one day a week turned into a few days a quarter where I would steal away to spoil myself at a retreat center and take that time for exploration, reflection, rest, and prayer. And then it can go on and on from there. But those are some of the practical ways that I integrated solitude and silence and stillness in my life.

    Wendy VanderWal Martin: Thank you. I think some of our listeners will find that very helpful. And not only can you Google Father Keating, but there’s videos of him doing teaching so you can listen to his voice and follow through on the way he invites us into centering prayer. So thank you for those reminders and tips for those for whom this is new.

    We are coming to the end of our time, and it has been, just has had a rhythm for me, even in the conversation of a certain calmness and stillness. So I think those who live into these rhythms we know it when we’re in their presence. So Phileena, thank you so much for taking an hour to be with the listeners of the Henri Nouwen podcast, Love Henri. And again, for those of you listening, if this has been an enjoyable episode or you can think of friends or family that would benefit from hearing of Phileena’s wisdom and her connection to Henri, share it with them. If you were listening and you’d like to watch the interview, this is going to be up on our YouTube channel as well. Leave us a review, give us a thumbs up. And thanks so much for listening and never, ever forget that you are a beloved child of God.

    Thanks, Phileena.

    Phileena: Thank you, Wendy.

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