“Can a heart-focused formal and informal contemplative practice of tuning in and identifying with indwelling life force energy, or spirit as one’s deepest, truest self, contribute to healing?” That was the central question in a programme designed by doctor-of-ministry candidate, the Rev. Catherine Mary Quehl-Engel (CQE).
She conducted her project in Mount Vernon, Iowa at Cornell College, where she is an Episcopalian chaplain. Cornell students, faculty and staff and members of the community comprised the 30 participants in her six-week Deep Abiding: Praying, Living, and Loving From the Inside Out programme and study.
During the programme, “Participants were free to interpret indwelling life force energy or spirit as best fit their own religious, secular, or spiritual, but not religious perspectives.” Throughout her thesis, she touched on a wide range of Eastern and Western contemplative, spiritual and other traditions such as mind-body-spirit practices. Core texts were from the Carmelite and Franciscan traditions focusing on the indwelling spirit and prayer of the heart.
She gave considerable attention to scientific research exploring heart-focused compassion and intention and the interconnection between all living systems, which is theorised by a growing number of scientists, including at the Institute of HeartMath – www.heartmath.org.
Catherine Quehl-Engel successfully defended her thesis in March 2014 before the faculty of Washington Theological Union, a graduate school of theology and ministry in Washington D.C.
Purpose of the course
“In society and at liberal arts colleges like Cornell, there are people living busy, overstretched, and often anxious lives who seek the healing benefits of contemplative practices. They do so not only out of a desire for personal transformative healing, liberation, and empowerment but also in order to live, lead, and love as channels of healing peace in the world.”
The programme had two primary learning outcomes. CQE hoped people would cultivate a practice that opened them to personal and communal healing. She also wanted them to turn to the indwelling life force energy or spirit in their daily activities when confronted with fear and sadness amid the demands, discomforts and difficulties of life.
The Deep Abiding programme was designed for healing in a variety of emotional contexts, among them fear, disappointment, inability to control a situation, and discomforting and non-life-giving thoughts about oneself. The programme was also created “to reclaim the original purpose of many contemplative spiritual traditions: namely, to help awaken awareness of life’s inter-connective oneness, and to live, love, lead, and serve as instruments of healing peace.”
Outcomes of the research
After the programme, and based on detailed participant surveys, CQE concluded that a majority of participants had indeed experienced significant levels of healing. CQE reported findings such as the following in support of her conclusion that the programme helped lead to healing:
- 96% of respondents reported using the practices for personal healing on a weekly basis during the programme.
- 93% of respondents said they still used the program for personal healing on a weekly basis one month after the program ended, though less frequently.
CQE summarises the qualitative results as follows:
“… the Deep Abiding program—including its contemplation-in-action version of the practice occurring amid daily life activities and encounters—was realistically doable for busy people. The program and its contemplative practice helped most, if not all, participants work more skillfully and compassionately with discomforts amid the demands and difficulties of life. Participants learned about the inner gentle gesture of surrender to indwelling life force or Spirit for the self-transcending exterior purpose of loving and healing service. Moreover, participants increased compassion for others and self in transformative, healing, life-giving ways. They also cultivated an awareness of our inter-connective oneness in the dynamism shared by indwelling life force-Spirit, others, self, and all creation in a communio of love.”
Details of the research questionnaires and commentary on the results is available online in the PhD dissertation (see end of article).
Content of the programme
There are five course sessions, with weekly meetings. Participants’ homework practice, Interior Prayer of the Heart, was integral to CQE’s research and programme and is based primarily on the experience of divine indwelling in both St. Teresa of Avila’s Carmelite spirituality and in the spirituality of St Clare, who worked alongside St Francis. The PhD thesis goes into the sources in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament for the presence of Wisdom and the indwelling spirit within all human beings and within creation.
As well as the initial stages of the prayer that focused on softening and opening their own heart centre, they then focused on sending out healing, compassionate intention to others. This, participants understood, was vital in achieving personal healing. They ended the formal practice by expressing their gratitude for healing and asking to live their lives as instruments and channels of healing peace. The stages of the interior prayer of the heart are set out in detail in the thesis (see link below).
Integration into the everyday
For an informal contemplation-in-action homework practice, participants followed the formal practice steps during their everyday activities, enabling the approach to become integrated into their daily life. Examples include:
- when they wanted to prayerfully send healing and compassionate intention to others.
- when they wanted to be a calming, peaceful, healing presence.
- whenever they noticed their “reminder wristbands,” thus helping to make their spiritual practice become “a way of being.”
- when they felt joy, wonder and/or gratitude.
Relevance of this approach in a range of community settings
Outcomes of this project may also suggest that this programme could be of use in the wake of community tragedies and conflicts. Other settings where it could be tried include health and wellness centres, spiritual retreat centres, community healing programmes sponsored by places of worship or inter-faith associations, as well as correctional, rehabilitation, and social service settings.
Importance for work in inter-spiritual situations
This programme successfully combined a foundation in the Christian contemplative tradition, with inter-spiritual aspects, and was acceptable to the diverse course members. Among the many rich findings of this study, the author says:
“….heart-focused compassion meditation/interior prayer allows religious, secular, and spiritual-but-not religious people to sojourn in healing ways through personal communal adversities together. This program demonstrates how diversity does not necessitate removing spirituality and religion from the public square. More spiritual and inter-spiritual competency—not less—is an answer to diversity, and to ending ignorance, prejudice, and hate.”
Comment from LivingSpirituality
At the present time in the world, with constant news of human conflict and suffering justified in the name of faith, Deep Abiding offers one possible response that may be helpful both for the individuals participating and for the wider community. We will contact Catherine Quehl-Engel to enquire about guidance for leaders considering offering the Deep Abiding course in the UK.
Link to thesis
You can read the PhD thesis, which is written in very accessible language, at www.heartmath.org/templates/ihm/downloads/pdf/research/publications/deep-abiding.pdf.
Petra Griffiths is LivingSpirituality Coordinator, and UK Lead for the Healing Journey Programme for people affected by cancer.