I am excited to share my interview with Marc Thomas Shaw, author of Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul. (You can see my review here.)
Marc Thomas Shaw is an award-winning instructor, speaker, and author focusing on the contemplative path as a means of inner transformation. A graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and co-founder of Contemplative Light, he has been a Centering Prayer practitioner for over a decade and is a commissioned presenter through Contemplative Outreach.
He is a member of Spiritual Directors International, the Tau Community of Interfaith Franciscans, and the Ignatian Spirituality Project. He co-hosts the Contemplative Light podcast and resides with his family in San Diego, California.
Now onto the interview!
Why did you write your new book, Dante’s Road: The Journey Home for the Soul?
I touch on this somewhat in the book, but after several of my friends died suddenly in a horrible incident, I started delving into these issues that had been circling on the fringes of my awareness with far more urgency. I had experienced a personal breakthrough through the study of both ancient and contemporary mystics, and through prolonged practice of both Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina. I had a profound experience of both the downward and upward spiral that Father Thomas Keating writes about, and then a prolonged breakthrough experience of profound balance, energy, presence, awareness, no self, whatever language helps communicate this experience born from that deep interior silence.
But it had taken years of interest in this topic and these authors to get to that point. At the same time I had friends and family going through extremely hard times – the loss of a child, the death of a friend, the death of parents, divorce, anxiety and depression, conflict with their children – all of those mid-life issues that bedevil us. Not to mention the “garden variety” loss of a sense of the sense of something sacred in everyday life, of vitality, meaning, and purpose. I wanted to help bridge that gap for people I knew would never find their way to Rohr, Merton, and Keating or who would slog through the Divine Comedy to squeeze out the deeper meanings. I was looking for a way to make that path accessible and engaging for people I knew.
The structure of the Divine Comedy – this hell, purgatory, heaven structure came to mind. The key questions I wanted to frame for the reader were “what’s my own hell and how do I work through it? What’s my purgatory and the lesson I need to take away? What’s my paradise? How do I get there and how do I abide there?” Along the way, I put in readings and reflections to hopefully help unmask the ego or false self that keep people mired in constrictive or destructive patterns, sometimes for decades.
How do you pray?
Although I occasionally pray verbally or “discursively,” and participate in things like the corporate prayer of confession in my local congregation, my understanding and practice of prayer has shifted to “the little lower layer.” The breakthrough experience I’ve had is a testament to Fr. Keating’s notion of the Divine Therapy that occurs when we consent to the action and presence of God within, allowing healing at levels below what we’re consciously aware of. So prayer becomes self-emptying to open ourselves to a God who is at all times and everywhere present.
Silent interior prayer becomes a means of attuning to that divine reality. I acutely notice the difference during those stretches I’m not able to practice for one reason or another. It’s like the spiritual senses becomes dulled. At the same time, time-worn, familiar, and stale passages of scripture and spiritual teaching open up suddenly after years of this kind of practice when the separate self sense starts to corrode.
For those not familiar with Contemplative Prayer, how do you describe it? What tips or suggestions will you give someone new to Contemplative Prayer?
I keep it pretty basic: it’s resting in the presence of God. On the surface, it’s a very simple practice. 20 minutes twice a day in silence, resting in the presence. But it’s also about intention and disposition. About relinquishment. We select a sacred word that symbolizes our consent to the action and presence of God within. When we find ourselves preoccupied or distracted by a thought we silently say the sacred word ever-so-gently, and let it go. I’ve found three different points of emphasis helpful: When saying the sacred word, make it almost a competition with yourself to say it as gently as possible, and the next time, even more gently.
I found when I started I was maintaining a kind of dualistic approach by resentfully yelling the sacred word at the pesky distracting thoughts, instead of gently accepting and releasing them. There’s a different inner quality that’s cultivated. Then, I also found a practice of transition very helpful in going from everyday consciousness into the contemplative space. For this, first I focus my attention on my lower abdomen, two inches below the navel, for two in-breaths. Then, I focus on the philtrum (just above the upper lip) for two in-breaths, then 2 inches behind the eyes. This calms, relaxes, and focuses my body, so I’m less restless during the sit. Finally, it’s important for me to make sure I complete my evening sit before bed. There’s a kind of propulsive energy that runs through my sit the next morning as well. The evening sit is easiest to blow off, but for me an extremely important piece of the process.
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I notice you have a couple of courses on Contemplative Light. What inspired you to create Christian Mystics Sacred Lives: An Introduction To The Christian Mystics?
We found there is a kind of generalization of the Christian mystics. There are a lot of inspirational quotes out there from St. Francis or Julian of Norwich, say, but who were these people? What was the through line, if any? Where did they live and when? What was the context of their lives and teaching? Were their contemplative teachings, practices, and experiences anything like what we call “contemplative” practice or experience today? What could be learned? What was essential? What was incidental?
We wanted to take a fresh look at well-known figures and maybe introduce some less well known figures. One revelation for me, for example, was Nicholas of Cusa, who lived not far from where I grew up outside of Frankfurt, Germany. His insights and level of learning seemed so present and resonant. We wanted to help facilitate that revelation and discovery for others, too.
How have you been influenced by any past or contemporary mystics?
There’s a process of discovery I find, when it comes to influences, so to speak. The biggest influences have probably been Thomas Keating and Anthony De Mello, each of whom built bridges, either interdisciplinary or interfaith dialogue, and opened up insights into new ways of seeing and synthesizing, whether it’s the psycho-spiritual language of Thomas Keating, or the facility with Eastern and Western stories of Anthony De Mello.
And yet, I find it extremely important to emphasize the development of an inner authority on the path. I’ve found the same egoic structures from life, whether at a workplace or religious community persist in contemplative spaces. There is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, most of us still need community and accountability, opportunities for service along with an active prayer life. But when it comes to our development, ultimately, no Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, or whoever else can walk this path for us. We need guidance and wisdom, but are also called to become spiritually mature.
Tell us a little bit about the other course offerings on Contemplative Light.
What first drew use together, these disparate contemplatives from around the country, was a desire to facilitate transformation through contemplative practice specifically. The readings, different traditions, even the mystics were really a secondary consideration. So we focused very much on spreading practices as an invitation to the contemplative life in our opening course “5 Contemplative Practices From The Christian Tradition.”
What upcoming projects do you wish to share?
My next project will be a 10-week course specifically on Dante’s Road, this structured set of reflections as an opening and deepening on the contemplative path. I’ve found as much as we have to do the inner work of practice and relinquishment, we also find movement and transformation in community and holding each other’s stories, so I’m hoping to guide a group. There will be both self-paced and live options.
How can people find you to learn more about you and your work?
My personal writing is at marcthomasshaw.com and I post frequently at contemplativelight.com. And then of course I share quite a bit of my own story of being lost and trying to get home inDante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul.
Also by Marc Thomas Shaw and Contemplative Light:
How might your life change if you were steeped more deeply in the wisdom of the Christian Mystics? Drawing on the best available writing on the topic of Christian Mysticism both ancient and modern, Contemplative Light is offering a special course on the Christian Mystics Sacred Lives: An Introduction To The Christian Mystics.
The Divine Transformation: Essentials of Christian Mysticism – Welcome to a comprehensive introductory through intermediate level course on both practice and perspectives of these timeless teachings from the Christian Mystical and Contemplative traditions! Whether you are a long-time practitioner looking to solidify your understanding and framework for practice or a beginner interested in immersing yourself in this teaching, this course can serve as a rich resource.
Contemplative Practices: 5 Ways of Consenting to the Divine – Learn methods practiced by Christian mystics for centuries to consent to the action and presence of God within, including Centering Prayer, The Examen, Lectio Divina, Christian Meditation, and the Jesus Prayer.
Dante’s Road: The Journey Home for the Modern Soul by Marc Thomas Shaw
150 Meditations From The World’s Mystics by Marc Thomas Shaw and Clint Sabom
Writing as a Spiritual Practice: This course helps you to access the rich spiritual stories that lie deeply within you. Words are powerful. The words that you write can be used to:
- help you understand yourself better – and therefore divine God’s purpose in your life
- facilitate healing of spiritual wounds
- minister to others more effectively
- share your testimonies of how God has worked in your life
How to Write a Devotional: Plus How to Get Them Published – If you read devotionals, you already know how they can be a true blessing. A devotional can uplift you when you’re feeling discouraged, sad or lonely. It can allow you to feel a keen sense of fellowship with another Christian, even if the two of you never actually meet. And, if you are feeling called to write devotionals, know that you have a unique opportunity to bless others and make a genuine difference in their lives. This course takes you step by step through the process, and then guides you towards publishing, if that is your goal.