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Phileena Heuertz: It's not easy to be human

The co-director of the international mission organization Word Made Flesh talks about how she balances contemplative practice with work in the world.

July 27, 2010

After experiencing a spiritual crisis, Phileena Heuertz began exploring contemplative practices as a way to anchor herself in her work with Word Made Flesh. Her experience is reflected in her new book, “Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life.”

She is co-director, with her husband Chris, of Word Made Flesh, and has spent the past 15 years working with marginalized and oppressed people around the world.

Heuertz spoke to Faith & Leadership about her new book and her new job title with Word Made Flesh. She and Chris Heuertz co-taught a seminar at the 2010 Summer Institute of the Center for Reconciliation. The video clip is an excerpt of the following edited transcript.

Q: You’ve recently published a book, “Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life.” What is that about?

I’d like to think of it as a theological narrative that describes my experience as I’ve attempted to live out my faith in the world, and particularly in a world of poverty and injustice and suffering. And as I’ve tried to live that authentically, I’ve found my way into the rich history of contemplative spirituality in our Christian tradition. I try and give expression to that, and it comes in the form of seven movements that we find ourselves experiencing in the life of transformation in Christ.

Those seven movements I’ve experienced and identified are awakening, longing, darkness, death, transformation, intimacy and union. In the book I try and unpack those experiences personally, but offer the reader some signposts for how to identify their own experience in those movements of the soul.

Q: This book brings together your passion for social justice and contemplative Christianity. Can you expand upon that?

Contemplative Christianity really tries to tap into the intuitive part of who we are. Much of our Western Christianity has overidentified with the intellect and expressing our faith through the intellect.

We need them both. I think we need to enter into that kind of renewal and awakening of bringing contemplation and activism together. In bridging the two, I think our social activism is purified and perhaps we are open to more consent to the action of God.

A lot of us have been the victim of someone’s good intentions. How often as Christians do we get really geared up to go out and do good things for God and enter into this world of poverty and suffering and injustice and oppression and make things right? And yet how often do our very good intentions in that direction perpetuate some forms of violence?

So what is it today that we’re doing -- we think we’re doing the right thing, and yet what will history say about us, you know?

Contemplative spirituality offers us a way to keep those motives in check that we’re often asleep to or blind to in terms of how we relate to the world and how we interact with the world.

Q: You and your husband are very active in social justice work all over the world. Is the interest in contemplative spirituality something more recent?

Yes. I come out of the evangelical tradition, and my husband also grew up in that tradition. And so the organization we’re a part of is rooted in that history.

But we started to realize there are others that we need to give attention to, our Catholic brothers and sisters, our Orthodox brothers and sisters, different expressions in the Christian faith, different traditions we need to be sensitive toward, and we began partnering with folks from different traditions.

Much of Word Made Flesh is influenced by Mother Teresa and her work in Calcutta, as well as some of the Jesuits that we’ve come to know over the years. Óscar Romero and his life and witness have been huge for us. Some of the Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters helped us start to see our history in the contemplative tradition a bit, and we began to learn more.

Q: The book says, “You can only go so far for so long before you find the limits of yourself,” and notes that that moment for you came while you were on sabbatical.

That’s right. The Duke Center for Reconciliation gifted my husband and I with a sabbatical, and it was our first sabbatical, our one and only, actually, so far.

During that time, I think I was released into a season to be really able to surrender and let go in ways that I hadn’t before. I entered a really, really dark night. It had started prior to that, but when we’re very active and doing our thing in the world, sometimes there isn’t time and space to really take note of what’s happening internally and in our relationship with God.

I had been introduced to the contemplative tradition by Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk out of Snowmass, Colo. I had been practicing a particular contemplative prayer he had introduced me to. That really paved the way to be receptive to this deeper work that was going on that emerged during that sabbatical season.

Q: What are the implications of this for leaders of Christian organizations and institutions?

I am convinced that contemplative practices, contemplative prayer, uncovering and renewing our rich heritage in the contemplative Christian tradition, is absolutely essential to leadership and our engagement in the world, because practices in the contemplative tradition teach us how to surrender.

We talk a lot about surrender, we intellectualize about surrender, we believe as Christians about the importance of surrender. But contemplative prayer practices teach us how to surrender, and these practices instill this way in us to consent to the action of God in the prayer practice so that in the active life I am more attentive and aware of the presence of God.

That’s the idea and that’s the notion, but it’s really getting back to the elements of disciplines, the disciplines of our faith.

Q: Do you have to wrestle with this in your role at Word Made Flesh?

Yes. I was 22 years old, I think it was, when I joined Word Made Flesh. I was very young. I’ve been doing this for 15-some years. I am very acquainted with the needs of the world.

I know about the children who are suffering from HIV and who have been abandoned by their parents. I’m very acquainted with the women and children who are enslaved in the commercial sex trade -- they’re my friends. I know the child soldiers and the girls who’ve been victimized as war brides and children who have grown up on the streets. These are real intense needs.

On top of that, there’s this community that’s emerged called Word Made Flesh -- I think there are nearly 200 folks serving with us internationally now -- and they also have needs and need attention in different ways. And so the work is never done.

I think most everyone can relate to that, if you’re a stay-at-home mom or dad, or if you’re a CEO of a company, or if you’re a banker or a teacher. It’s like the work is never done, the needs are always before us. And so then how are we to respond?

Contemplative spirituality has really helped me to find that anchor and that rootedness in the daily presence of God.

It’s just not easy to be human.

Q: You and Chris were recently made co-directors of Word Made Flesh, right?

Yes. Well, Chris and I were married at a very young age, so from the time that I was involved in Word Made Flesh we were married. We’ve done it together, and it’s been really rewarding. But there wasn’t an imagination in those early days for our co-directorship, and though we’ve done it together -- I’ve been glad to serve in different capacities; that’s been great, a really good experience for me -- in recent years we began to give more emphasis to mutuality.

We wanted really to bring attention to gender equality. We saw communities that didn’t affirm the full potential of women, and we wanted to be different in Word Made Flesh. We had really been working toward that.

In recent years, we found that it would be crucial for us to recognize the partnership that we’ve been living organizationally and to create a co-directorship that would be well-thought-out, and we just recently formalized that.

Q: What difference is that going to make to your day-to-day work?

Well, interestingly, in some ways it doesn’t make a lot of difference, because I had been serving in this capacity in a number of ways, but technically I had been overseeing the Community Care Center.

About six years ago I started the Community Care Center for Word Made Flesh, which focuses on vocational expression and support and formation for our staff. So now we’ve got a new director overseeing Community Care.

I can give more attention to the internal management of the whole organization. I’m freed up to give my full attention to our senior staff, accompanying them well, thinking through more of the organizational scope and influence internationally, leadership development and support.

Chris will be freed into more of the external elements of Word Made Flesh, which involves our international partners, and frees him into more speaking and writing, that kind of thing. So it gives a balance to some of those responsibilities of the executive director.

Q: How do you actually incorporate contemplative practice into your work at Word Made Flesh?

For me, the practice of centering prayer is really helpful. It’s a discipline. It’s not easy. The method is rather simple: two periods of 20 minutes of prayer a day. And yet that practice in itself, 20 minutes to be still and silent before God and to stay there and not go after all the thoughts and ideas that are running through my head, but to stay and just discipline myself to consent and surrender -- that 20 minutes of prayer twice a day has been really, really helpful for me.

So in the morning is the first period. And then in the afternoon, I open my office to the community and they’re welcome to join me at like 3 o’clock in the day. So it’s just kind of right at the peak of the day where we’ve gained a lot of momentum; we’re doing a lot of good things, and there’s a lot of projects maybe that have been started that need to be finished. And for 20 minutes we retreat from that and we remind ourselves that “I am not God; God is God, and at the end of the day, God is going to still be in control. I am not in control.”

I get to enter into and partner with God in his creative work in the world, but that’s a helpful reminder to me to kind of keep things in perspective.

Q: Is it tempting in your line of work to get those confused sometimes?

Oh, yeah. That’s why Mother Teresa was such a good example for us in those early years.

Q: You worked with her, right?

Yes, she and the Missionaries of Charity were really formative to us in the early years. We would volunteer in the homes in Calcutta, the House for the Dying and the children’s home there. And Mother [Teresa] would just bear witness to their life.

I would witness these sisters in the morning starting their day in prayer and adoration, at different key points throughout the day leaving men and women who are on their death bed, leaving them for moments and retreating to the rooftop prayer chapel, and praying and spending time with God.

They never said anything about that, but now all these years later I reflect and I realize what a witness that was to me and what that says. You mean you can leave these men and women? They’re dying. Hello, they’re right here in your room, you know? But they pause and they retreat from that and they go and they adore God. There’s something powerful in that.