The Context of Wisdom Work

Two of the great hungers in our age are the hunger for spiritual depth and the desire to live meaningful lives that make a difference in our broken world. Many people today find themselves longing for something that could not only address these strong desires, but that could also connect the two. We need schools of contemplation and action that might help us ground and deepen our inner faith journeys, while at the same time guiding us toward engaged lives of social conscience. Wisdom Schools intend to do just that.

Some might argue that the religions of the world hold these two goals as their purpose. Maybe they in some instances do, and probably they should; but the truth in our day in age is that most don’t. It seems that much of organized religion in our time, and I am here thinking primarily about the Christian Church, has lost his core vision as well as its nerve and spends much of its energy on strategies for mere survival. Wisdom schools, then, because they are not concerned with their proliferation or even their continued existence may be able to accomplish what organized religion cannot.

These Wisdom schools have two dimensions. The first is to open up and engage the rich contemplative wisdom that exists (albeit, for the most part hidden) within the Christian tradition. This vein of Christianity is generously openhearted and inclusive and is eager to engage other faith traditions in mutual learning through respectful dialogue. So, although these Wisdom schools are unabashedly Christian, they are at the same time enthusiastically interfaith as well.

But the caveat that comes with a contemplative approach is the recognition that this deeper vein of Christianity cannot be grasped with the mind alone. It requires nothing short of a transformation of the entire being. And this is the second, crucial dimension of Wisdom schools. Throughout the course of human history there have been Wisdom schools to further spiritual development and to transform human community. Utilizing the ancient practices of sacred reading, meditation, sacred movement and gesture, contemplative prayer, and sacred song—Wisdom schools have taught focused attention, recollection, mindfulness, present moment awareness, inner observation, non-possessiveness, inner honesty, non-identification, and surrender.

The schools are conducted in the 1500 year-old Benedictine spirit of a balanced daily rhythm of prayer, work, silence and study. Wisdom schools operate by the core components of this path: contemplative prayer, lectio divina, chanting the psalms, simple physical work in community, shared meals, silence, inner practice, and study.

Leaders

The Wisdom schools will be led by the Rev. William Redfield and Sister Lois Barton, with help from Deborah Welsh and Cathy Dutch.

Father Bill recently retired as rector of Trinity Church, Fayetteville, NY, after nearly 20 years. Besides being an Episcopal priest, he is also a licensed clinical social worker and has worked in private practice in Central New York and Maine. He has had a lifelong interest in the intersection of the spirituality and the inner life. He is the creative force behind the birth of Wisdom House, Fayetteville, NY. Bill was introduced to Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault over 23 years ago and has been as active student of hers for the last eight years. Bill can be contacted at: wisdomswork@gmail.com.

Sister Lois Barton, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, holds basic and advanced certificates from the Spiritual Direction Mentoring Program of the Spiritual Renewal Center in Syracuse, NY, and a Master’s Certificate in Pastoral Ministry from the Loyola Institute for Ministry Extension Program of Loyola University, New Orleans. Sister Lois is an experienced teacher and spiritual director. Along with Bill, Lois has a long-established practice of Centering Prayer and also has been an active student of Cynthia Bourgeault for the past eight years. She is the program director of The Sophia Center in Binghamton, NY. She lives in community at the Spiritual Center in Windsor, New York and can be contacted at: hrtcenter12@gmail.com.

Deborah Welsh is a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist, Board Certified in Dance/Movement and Body/Breath sensing and awareness, and a licensed Mental Health Counselor. She has been teaching dance and movement for over forty years and practicing psychotherapy for over twenty. During this time Deborah has been a student and practitioner of “Body Wisdom” and over the past four years has found a wonderful confluence with Bill’s and Lois’ Wisdom work. Deborah’s E-mail is: djwelsh@syr.edu.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Wisdom?

Maybe it is most helpful in starting with what Wisdom is not. Wisdom is not a cult or esoteric metaphysical system. And it is not a New Age fad. Perhaps a helpful metaphor that illuminates Wisdom is that of an underground stream that runs deep beneath all of the world’s spiritual traditions and from which they all draw. While this deep stream of Wisdom it is not exclusively identified with any one of them, it can be expressed in some of the unique forms and theologies of any of them.

Wisdom fundamentally describes a higher level of human consciousness that enables one to live fully and simultaneously on both the vertical and horizontal axes. It may be characterized by both a willingness and an ability to live beyond the smaller self and may be marked by the capacity to stay present without getting lost or hijacked by the machinations of the smaller mind. This can contribute to a lively and compassionate awareness whereby one can engage reality more directly without unhelpful presuppositions or judgments.

In this way, Wisdom is more about experience than it is about belief. It is not about knowing or believing more (or anything in particular); it is about experiencing life more deeply and intentionally and about knowing with more of ourselves than just our mental minds. And all of this is accessed and taught through spiritual practice.

What is unique about a Wisdom School?

In order to break through to new levels of awareness and intentionality, old habits and patterns must be acknowledged and transcended. This work is best accomplished in a retreat setting apart from a person’s usual routines. Ideally, it is recommended that such an experience last for a duration of at least four days. In this setting the days are punctuated by a balanced rhythm of learning, work, silence, and study—all contributing to this process of transformation.

Why are Wisdom schools emerging (or re-emerging) now?

We are in an age of breathtaking change—a time when some of the older and more established institutional structures have lost their relevance and their authority, and maybe even their nerve. Wisdom schools seek to bring some of the ancient spiritual practices to this context of rapid social change in order that new levels of reality and spiritual insight might be made manifest. In this work, Wisdom seekers find more than personal growth and transformation; they find themselves becoming active conduits in this emergence. It becomes both gift and calling.

Are Wisdom Schools "Christian?"

While Wisdom is in some ways deeper and greater than any one spiritual tradition, it seems to express itself most authentically within the particularity of a specific tradition. Therefore, one can best access the deep roots of Wisdom by taking one’s spiritual tradition down far enough to where its depth opens up to the kind of spaciousness and inclusivity that characterizes Wisdom.

While we will be informed by Wisdom as it is expressed in some of the other faith traditions, the trajectory of these Wisdom schools for the most part is unmistakably Christian. Utilizing the gifts and treasures of the Christian mystical tradition, we follow the path forged by the classic Christian contemplative tradition. This tradition has bequeathed to us the practice of contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and chanted psalmody. The great Christian Benedictine model of "ora et labora" ("prayer and work") furnishes our basic template for transformation.

How is a Wisdom School different from a retreat or a seminar?

While using aspects of both retreats (silence) and seminars (teaching), Wisdom schools seek to take both of these aspects, add specific spiritual practices, and ground them all in a balanced rhythm. The deliberate movement through the day provides a container for transformation. Because Wisdom is not knowing more but knowing with all dimensions of the mind, heart, and body—this balanced rhythm facilitates the multi-leveled learning that contributes to the possibility of transformation.

Are Wisdom schools the only form in which Wisdom can be taught and experienced?

While Wisdom schools are the heart of our work, there are other complimentary programs that will be given. In addition to the programs cited above, there will be one-day Centering Prayer Practice gatherings, theme-centered programs and retreats, as well as a host of different programs offered through Wisdom House in Fayetteville, NY, and Gracepoint Center for Spirituality in Binghamton, NY.