Soul Pilgrimage: Meet Phileena Heuertz

As we wrap up this month’s focus on “being” and transition to a focus on “doing” for next month, I’m excited to invite you to take part in a conversation with author and ministry leader Phileena Heuertz. Through her own faith journey, Phileena’s been carving out a compelling marriage between being & doing — between the contemplative & active parts of Christian spirituality.

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phileena2Phileena, welcome! Tell my readers a bit about yourself.  

It’s a pleasure to be a part of your blog today. I’ve spent my life in social justice work among the world’s poor. I’m a member of the New Friar movement, and for nearly 20 years my husband Chris and I co-directed Word Made Flesh (WMF). During that time we served in more than 70 countries building community among victims of human trafficking, survivors of HIV and AIDS, abandoned children and child soldiers and war brides.

Chris and I founded Gravity in 2012. Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place. My primary work is public speaking, teaching and writing on contemplative spirituality, facilitation of contemplative retreats, and spiritual direction.

I’m a member of the Red Letter Christians, featured on The Work of the People and Q Ideas and known for my theological narrative, Pilgrimage of a Soul (IVP 2010).

Pilgrimage of a Soul - phileenaYour book Pilgrimage of a Soul describes a bit of your own journey from working as a missionary among the world’s poor to a much-needed sabbatical that eventually revolutionized your faith. Can you tell my readers a bit of your story? 

Sure. I had spent many years serving among people in poverty—children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in India; women and girls enslaved in the commercial sex industry all over Southeast Asia and South America; children living on the streets in urban centers across the globe. And I thought I’d seen it all—the worse of poverty and injustice. But then my work took me to Freetown, Sierra Leone at the peak of the war over blood diamonds.

The human brutality I witnessed in Freetown was like nothing I’d ever seen. Young girls forced to watch the horrific amputation and murder of their parents, taken as “war brides” and subjected to every form of abuse—often gang-raped.

Boys as young as 5 and 6, forced to amputate the arm of their parents or be brutalized themselves, conscripted into the military or rebel army, given drugs and involuntarily compelled to carry weapons that were at times too heavy for them and forced to commit unspeakable crimes of massacre, murder and rape.

I returned from Freetown empty of answers for the world’s problems and questioning God’s goodness. This crisis of faith plunged me into a classic wrestling with God scenario in which I became very aware of my limitations and deep need for God.

Around this time I met Fr. Thomas Keating, a leading teacher on the Christian contemplative tradition and architect of centering prayer, and my life and spirituality found access to a deep well of faith.

What do you see as some of the main barriers that prevent modern-day Christians from prioritizing or experiencing the “being” side of Christian faith?  

Great question. The main reason we are uncomfortable “being” is because we fear being seen and known.

Our human condition has natural resistance to being seen and known for who we really are. It’s an age-old problem that Christians learn about in the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve succumbed to the Tempter’s nudging to eat the forbidden fruit, they suddenly realized they were naked and felt ashamed. They proceeded to cover themselves up and hide from one another and God. Scripture says that then God walked through the Garden calling out, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

Where are we? We’re hiding.

“The Fall” as we understand it, has caused us to “fall” out of union with God where we are seen and known. Instead of being selfless and in harmony with God, one another and the created world, we are self-conscious, causing discord with God and one another, leading to mistreatment of the created world.

Where are we? We’re hiding in our busyness.

Our busyness covers up the shame we feel in being exposed. We feel shame because we’re afraid that if we were really seen and known, we would not be loved and accepted. Ultimately we fear rejection.

And so we run, we hide and we keep God and everyone else at a safe distance. 

Our digital age only exacerbates the problem. Today more than ever, it’s extremely easy to hide in the frenetic activity of always being plugged in.

Contemplative prayer, marked by degrees of silence, solitude and stillness, forces us to be to seen and known. And that kind of intimacy stirs up anxiety for most of us.

I love the subtitle of your book: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life. How do you think Christians can best strike a balance — or forge a connection — between being and doing?

We’ve mastered the art of doing. It’s time we practice being. Striking a balance requires adopting a daily contemplative practice like Breath Prayer, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, or Prayer of Examen.

And if we’re really serious about achieving balance in being and doing, we’ll probably need to cultivate more extended periods of time for solitude, silence and stillness.

In your book, you talk about establishing “Phileena Fridays” and some other habits of rest and retreat. What ideas — both practical and spiritual — would you recommend for people taking some first steps toward integrating “being” with their “doing”?

Most of our lives are hyperactive, overactive and hyperconnected. It won’t be easy to bring balance with practices of silence, solitude and stillness. It’s difficult to change behavior, so start with realistic changes. Here are a few suggestions: 

1)   Choose a reasonable amount of time to set aside everyday to practice one of the contemplative prayers mentioned above. Start with a daily practice of 5 or 10 minutes and work up to 20 minutes at a time, perhaps eventually setting aside two periods of 20 minutes each day. (Instructions and resources on these and a few other contemplative practices can be found here.)

2)   Set aside one day a week as a contemplative day (Sabbath)—a day to detach from your normal activity to nurture your body, mind and spirit. I know people who takes this very seriously and on their Sabbath day they unplug—no computers, Internet, smart phones, TV, etc.

3)   Consider setting aside longer periods of time throughout the month or year for an extended retreat. Pray and ask God what you most need. Perhaps a quarterly retreat, getting away for 2-3 days and/or an annual retreat, getting away for a week or longer.

The important thing is to remember that cultivating a sense of being takes commitment and sacrifice of time, pleasures and addictions—addictions to food, entertainment, social media, etc.

The time you set aside is for the sole purpose of being with God in solitude, silence and stillness. It’s not for you to do anything. It’s so difficult for us to know how to just be and so that’s why we need contemplative prayer practices—they help us figure out how to be present to God, self and ultimately to others.

Thanks so much, Phileena. Is there anything else you’d like to say to my readers?

If you are finding it difficult to bring balance to the doing and being aspects of your life, we’d love for you to be connected to Gravity. You can subscribe to our monthly e-letter here to be encouraged, inspired and take part in some of our services and programs.

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Friends, I hope this conversation has been encouraging to you. Be sure to stop by Chris & Phileena’s  Gravity site to learn more about her ministry and her book. Also, you can read some of my own thoughts on topics Phileena mentioned here by clicking on the following:

• Silence, Solitude, & Stillness

• Lectio Divina

• Prayer of Examen

Stay tuned for next month’s discussion on doing. It should be a great journey together!



One response to “Soul Pilgrimage: Meet Phileena Heuertz

  1. Thank you for reposting this on Twitter! I have a hard time finding practical ways to incorporate contemplative practices into my faith, but as someone who is very good at the “busy” I desperately long for it. This was such an affirming post.

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