Last weekend, I committed to a year-long chaplaincy at a local church.
For those that are unfamiliar, the purpose of a chaplain is to hold sacred space alongside the pastor, minister or spiritual leader – by assisting with prayer and/or meditation requests, making calls on the members of the congregation, and attending regular group meetings.
It’s basically a spiritual internship, with rounds to make and hours to satisfy, but primarily it’s an opportunity to develop my skills as a compassionate listener, and continue to hone my chops as a reverend and as a shaman. It’s truly a responsibility that I was honored to take on, and the inner rewards are many.
In the weeks leading up to the retreat, we had been advised to re-focus our efforts toward self-care, as it’s difficult to lead and open yourself to others when you haven’t done the work yourself. I had been dealing with some personal shadow work and some issues around “letting go.” Meditating on what it meant to lead and be led, and on how my roles as musician, father, marketer, husband, reverend, son, etc. all fit together.
The weekend-long retreat took place on the church property, located in St. Petersburg, and I was joined by 23 others who were drawn to the chaplaincy for various reasons, or were renewing their annual commitment (one woman was going on her 7th year). We were told the theme for this year’s retreat was “angels,” and I tried not to visibly roll my eyes. After all, I told myself, “angel” is just another word for a guiding energy from the bardo (or causal) realm, and I would surely be safe from any metaphysical mumbo jumbo as long as I interpreted my experience from a pragmatic (read: integral) perspective and listened from the compassionate centers of the heart.
It started off simple enough, with a lot of sharing and getting to know one another over communal meals and team-building activities. But on the second day, it started to become clear that I was truly in the right place at the right time.
As we were fully immersed in three hours of silence, taking turns in the labyrinth and in a sanctuary filled with musical instruments, we all drew Archangel Cards and were sent to the rose garden to write in our journals. I’m not sure what anyone else drew, but I drew a card labeled “Victory,” marked by the Archangel Sandalphon. Sandalphon is one of two angels (the other being Metatron) that, according to legend, started life as a mortal man and was allowed access to archangeldom for his numerous good deeds on Earth. Sandalphon’s chief purpose was to gather up the prayers of humans and send them as a glowing orb of white light to God.
“Victory,” I thought. Victory, indeed.
Not only am I blessed with a loving wife and family, but the serendipity of things continues to reveal itself to me in unexpected ways. Cards like the one I drew seemed less random when I realized that my path wasn’t so much a road, but a new mode of being. A state of perpetual insight and intuition, and also a stage of development that is tuned to the highest ethical ideals, the highest and most inclusive forms of consciousness. In other words, this new way of looking at the world is recognizing that you are an expression of Divine energy. That when you reflect on the Cosmos, you are staring at the best and most beautiful parts of yourself.
Not only was I tapping into the unfolding of cosmic consciousness – of which our own unfolding is but a small part – but I was learning to articulate these states and stages in the language of the heart.
It helped to be surrounded by such openly loving and compassionate people, all at various stages of growth, healing, and insight. And the perpetual oscillation between solitude and connectedness allowed for huge emotional and psychological breakthroughs to occur.
One of the words I had contributed to the whiteboard on day one was “altitude.” And I found that in keeping myself “ratcheted up” to include the perspectives of those in attendance (and holding such intense sacred space for each other over a short period of time), I was reminded of something. As beautiful as the grounds were, and as blessed as we were to have a place that held us all, a church is not a building. A church is not a place. A church is people.
I was reminded that there is nothing that is not God. There is nowhere that is not home. There is no one that is not family.
The moments we spend in awareness together (moments filled with emotions like joy, sorrow, laughter, fear, love, and all the silence and complacency in between) are like birds that we capture, carry around inside our rib cages momentarily, and then release, never getting too attached to any of them.
We ended the retreat with a dynamic group process called an “Angel Wash,” though I now refer to it as the “Angel Womb,” for when I came out the other side, I felt like I had been through the eye of a needle. It allowed everyone to be filled with such positive affirmation and love, that coming down from it over the next few days proved difficult. It filled my ears and my heart with so much love and euphoric light that I still clutch at my chest when I think of it. It was truly remarkable and one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
I could have sat all weekend and listened to everyone’s stories of loss and celebration, of dis-ease and healing, and it would have been enough to encourage new growth within myself. Little shoots of green – new, small, soft parts that would eventually become strong and supportive to others. But it was when I opened my mouth to speak and share from the heart, that I could feel my own heart swell and grow. It was then that I felt the energy multiplying within me, and that it was this energy in all its multiplicity of forms – through verbal language and transpersonal intention and mythical visions of six-armed deities – that was the ever-expanding, ever-widening, ever-blowing mind of God.
I had come to the retreat seeking “altitude.” What I got was a kind of high that can’t be described.
What I got was lifted.