Sunday, September 11, 2011

Northwest Catholics: Present and Accounted For

The installation of Rev. J. Peter Sartain as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle presented a unique opportunity to observe and take measure of a cross section of Seattle’s Catholics. Approaching St James Cathedral, my pace at once quickened with anticipation of witnessing the event, in contrast to my heart rate which alternatively began to slow to the rhythm of the pealing bells ringing forth from the top of the cathedral tower. Seemingly the bells were calling, not just to those already gathered in the cathedral, but to the larger community within its range to come and see the drama unfolding within.

Dozens of priests dressed in white full-length robes, framed in bright red silk scarves, surrounded the perimeter of the cathedral entrance providing the first visible evidence of the high ceremony about to begin. While predominantly middle to late- middle age, I was struck by the fairly high percentage of younger priests who were among them.  While undoubtedly the number of young men who are dedicating their lives to the priesthood has declined over the years, I was impressed at the continuing allure the priesthood holds for some young men.

After a convivial moment of shared smiles and conversation among colleagues gathered on the sidewalk, the priests formed a procession and slowly began to enter the church in pairs. The clergy were followed by the Order of Malta, a lay ministry dedicated to medical and humanitarian activities whose formation dates to 1048. The Order’s Western Association provides financial and volunteer support for multiple programs in Seattle ranging from homeless advocacy, food distribution and counseling.

The ornately dressed Knights of Columbus took their place next and closed the procession. While I was familiar with the Knights as a Catholic fraternal organization whose members conduct fundraising for community service programs, I had never witnessed their participation as dignitaries in a church event. Each “knight” wore a tricorn hat festooned with large feathered plumes, which neatly complemented their militaristic garb. Outfitted as they were, and given the lack of any visible security personnel, whether intended or not, the Knights took on the appearance of protectors and guardians of the event. Again, among their numbers I was struck at the number of young men in their 20’s and 30’s who participated in the ceremony suggesting at least on this day that a traditional Catholic social organization continues to attract new members.

Following the procession inside, the large cathedral was now packed with several thousand parishioners.  All pews and side rows as well as the areas to the side and behind the center altar were full to capacity.  I took position nearest the altar where I could best view both the installation and the reaction of the attendees. After a series of songs and prayers, Sartain took the pulpit to deliver his homily. His message placed urgency on the church’s need to connect and remain a relevant presence with people of all nationalities and cultures.  To emphasize this point he delivered his homily in both English and Spanish adding credibility to his remarks.

Once the homily was complete, several speakers approached the pulpit and offered prayers in multiple languages including Vietnamese, Tagalog and Polish, as well as drummers from the Lummi Nation reflecting the many diverse cultures in the Northwest that embrace Catholicism as their spiritual practice.

Surrounded by other bishops and dignitaries, Sartain was presented with his golden staff and, to great applause, officially introduced as the Archbishop of Seattle. In this role Sartain oversees the community of nearly 1 million Catholics and 147 parishes located throughout Western Washington.

In preparation for Holy Communion, the most sacred part of the Mass, dozens of tall silver chalices were set out on the raised altar. Gently swinging a thurible, Sartain approached the altar bathing the sacred space with the smoky, spicy fragrance of incense. Incensing the altar served to highlight the Eucharist as the most sacred element of the worship service. Once the wine and host were blessed a silent choreography was set in motion among the dozens of priests who took host and chalice in hand to serve communion to the assembled worshipers.

The parishioners who stepped forward to take communion, resembled any other large, urban community gathering reflecting a variety of ages, ethnicity and dress. Their presence and active engagement in this special event served to illustrate that while Catholicism may not play a highly visible role in Northwest daily life, clearly, given the outpouring of support for the installation of their new leader, Northwest Catholics are present and accounted for.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nishmat Shabbat: A Meditation On Rest and Peace

On a cold December evening I entered the United Methodist Church in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood with a mixture of uncertainty, curiosity and anticipation of what I was about to experience within. This evening had been some time in coming. My journey on this chilly winter night had begun about seven months prior on warm summer Sunday afternoon during a brunch I was hosting at my home.

Knowing of her deep interest in spiritual development, I shared with my friend Suzie Cantor the initial steps I had taken to begin this project. Without missing a beat, Suzie immediately recommended I connect with a rabbi who was conducting monthly meditation Shabbat services that she enthusiastically described as “amazing!”

Having participated in Shabbat prayers in the homes of several Jewish friends over the years, I was familiar with the practice of Shabbat as a call to the beginning of the weekly observance of Sabbath.  “Meditation Shabbat” suggested an entirely new concept and definitely intrigued me to find out more.

As is typical with most of the spiritual practices documented in this project, I began my correspondence with Rabbi Olivier BenHaim of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Bellevue over email. After learning of my project, Rabbi invited me to attend the Nishmat Shabbat taking place the next month. While open to the idea of my documenting the meditation Shabbat, rather than bring my camera and recording gear, he recommended that I first experience the meditation and then we could jointly make a recommendation on how to best approach documenting this unique event. I am grateful to Rabbi for he gave me a gift of time and reflection that I all too often neglect to provide myself.

Once inside the sanctuary, I took a seat among the other worshippers. Seated in the round, I noticed that many (but not all) of the participants were clothed in white garments. Unbeknownst to me at the time, white clothing, along with prayer shawls (talit) or any shawls, are worn to “support of the deepening of one’s meditation.”

As Rabbi entered the center of the group, lights were dimmed and the traditional prayer candles were lit to signal the beginning of Shabbat. While only two candles were lit, they seemed to provide a luminescence well beyond their capacity filling the space with warm light.

Rabbi began the service with a quiet reflection on the words “Shabbat” and “Shalom” the greeting used during and after traditional Shabbat services. Explaining the literal definition for each term; Shabbat meaning “to rest”, Shalom defined as “peace.” He suggested that we begin a chant reflecting on the deeper meaning associated with each term and, through meditation, chanting, singing and silence that we take time to both be at rest and be at peace.

Rabbi’s incantations were accompanied by the mesmerizing singing and playing of Gina Salà, a gifted multi-instrumentalist who led the chants and singing with harmonium and guitar. The chants, along with Gina’s alternately soaring and soothing singing voice, filled the space with a rich swirl of tones that both soothed and aroused the spirit. Rabbi encouraged participants to freely use the entire space to celebrate and personalize their meditation experience. While some danced in place swaying with the rhythm of the hand drums, others sat cross legged on pillows or mats they placed on the floor, while still others elected to lie prone on the carpeted surface remaining motionless with eyes closed among the swirling din of chants, music and words.

The chants were interspersed with periods of silent meditation, which, when contrasted with extremely animated movements including clapping, singing, dancing and swaying, were deeply moving in both their intensity and duration. After about 90 minutes, the meditation came to a climax with the call and response singing of a tune led by Salà that repeated the phrase “Because the One I love, lives inside of you.” A joyous expression of oneness with both divinity and with each other, the participants drank in these words fueled by Salà’s beatific smile that literally lit up the dark room.

As the choruses came to a close, Rabbi initiated a moment of silence before ending the meditation and inviting everyone to join in the breaking of bread and sharing wine at the Shabbat table that was set up adjacent to the worship space.

As the lights rose, I got a better sense of the people now occupying the space and was pleased to see a wide range of ages participating in the service from teens through seniors and all ages in between.  I was also struck with how welcome I was made to feel both at the Shabbat table as well as in the conversations that took place after. 

While I do not profess to comprehend the meaning or tradition behind every chant, lyric (some in Hebrew) and melody we sang that evening, given the hugs, smiles and good cheer that were in evidence among all who participated, it was undeniable that all had achieved the evening’s primary goals of rest and peace. Shabbat Shalom.

A schedule of Shabbat Meditation services is available on the Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue website.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sri Chinmoy: Spiritual Leader Honored in Seattle

On a bright, late autumn afternoon, a diverse group of admirers and disciples of the late Sri Chinmoy gathered beneath the Aurora Bridge on the banks of Seattle’s Ship Canal to honor the life and legacy of this spiritual leader. Having learned of my project through a mutual friend, I was invited by Agraha Levine, Member of the Seattle Sri Chinmoy Centre and Seattle World Harmony Run Committee to join them and document the ceremony.

Before taking this assignment I was not familiar with the work and teachings of Sri Chinomy nor did I have any insight or connection to the local community of followers.  I quickly came to appreciate that while perhaps I was unaware of his teachings, Sri Chinmoy’s life work as an advocate for world peace, had in fact attracted the attention, loyalty and admiration of millions of followers around the world. His most recent published work “The Jewels of Happiness” includes dedications from such prestigious world figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall and recognizes his 37 years of leadership of the Peace Meditation at the United Nations by invitation of Secretary-General U Thant.

In addition to his peace work, Sri Chinmoy also placed significant importance on the role physical strength and overall fitness play in personal peace and meditation. In an effort to promote international friendship and understanding, in 1987 he founded the World Harmony Run, whose participants carry the torch of harmony passing it hand to hand. To date the torch has traveled through more than 100 nations attracting 1000’s of participants worldwide.

Raj Manhas
To celebrate his many accomplishments, representatives from more than 13 countries were present at the dedication of a bronze sculpture erected in Sri Chinmoy’s likeness. Local leaders spoke eloquently of Chinmoy’s message of peace and the impact he has had on their lives. Speakers included Raj Manhas, Superintendent of North Thurston Public Schools and former Seattle Superintendent of Schools; Suzie Burke, President of the Fremont Dock Company (who also donated the land under which the statue now stands); Daulot Fountain, Leader of the World Harmony Run and owner of Fountain Light & Electric; Richard Harrington, Co-Owner of Sound Mind & Body Gym and Nayak Polissar, Co-owner of Silence-Heart-Nest Restaurant.

Moni Neradilek (rear right) and members of Peace Choir
The dedication also included memorable singing performances. Moni Neradilek, conducted the Peace Choir soothing the audience with a series of hypnotic and meditative chants and vocal flights. Renowned vocalist and director, Pat Wright, led the Total Experience Gospel Choir in a rousing rendition of Jackie DeShannon's "Put A Little Love In Your Heart."

As the ceremonies came to a close, many of the participants lingered to share in the moment and quietly reflect on the memories and emotions that unite them in celebrating Chinmoy's legacy.  Each person approached the statue, some to have a photo taken with a likeness of their mentor, others to pay silent tribute to a spiritual leader and, in many cases, a dear friend.  Regardless of their actual relationship to Chinmoy, each gesture of respect was characterized by a serenity and profound sense of calm that was apparent in every person present.

In the weeks that followed I had the great pleasure of sharing lunch with Agraha Levine at Silence-Heart-Nest, a vegetarian restaurant also in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood founded and staffed by followers of Sri Chinmoy. Agraha was gracious in explaining to me not only the spiritual practices espoused by followers of Chinmoy’s teachings, but emphasized how members of the community apply the insights of peace and harmony into businesses they operate. In their own way these businesses and their founders,
Silence-Heart-Nest, Sound Mind & Body, Transformation-Surprise Laundromat, give evidence of their spiritual values to the customers, suppliers and communities they serve.

In his book “The Jewels of Happiness”  Chinmoy’s writes thoughtful meditations on topics such as  Peace, Love, Joy, Hope, Patience, Wisdom and more. In his essay on Peace, he sums up rather simply, but eloquently his hope for mankind: “It is only through inner peace that we can have true outer freedom.” 

Through their meditation practice and practical application of their spiritual beliefs, this community of spiritual beings seems on course to achieve just that.

May such peace and freedom be granted to all who seek it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spiritual Beings: Project Origins and Overview

In 2008 I was invited to participate as a member of a search committee to identify candidates for the position of Rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church located in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.  In that capacity, I, along with a team of dedicated individuals, embarked on a two-year process to find a new rector.  Two years may sound like a long time to recruit a new leader to a church (and it is!), however, considering that our goal was to call a rector who we hoped would not only become a member of our community but would be committed to leading our parish for the next 10 —or more-- years, it was paramount that I approach this assignment with utmost care, sensitivity and diligence.

Before reaching out to qualified candidates, our Search Committee spent the better part of our first year surveying not only the spiritual needs of the current members in our church, but also those of the greater community neighborhood we hope to serve.  With this latter objective in mind, I would often engage family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances on this topic. However, since my goal was to understand the broader spiritual needs of the community-- regardless of the church they attend or the faith they practice--- whenever I broached the topic, rather than ask “What religion do you practice?,” I would ask a more open question “How do you express your spirituality?”

This question elicited many fascinating and, frankly, unexpected responses. I say “unexpected” as during my 16 years living in the Pacific Northwest friends and colleagues rarely, if ever, openly discussed their religious, spiritual or faith affiliations. Growing up as a native of the East Coast, I was accustomed to friends and colleagues openly identifying and celebrating their respective faith traditions in a very public manner. Kids wore their Catholic school uniforms in public; Jewish friends missed baseball practice to attend “Hebrew school” and Eastern Orthodox friends extended their public school holiday a week beyond the New Year to celebrate “Little Christmas.” Being part of a faith community was part of your public identity not some dark secret you kept to yourself.

What I came to realize was, in fact, people in the Pacific Northwest (and more specifically my home town of Seattle) practice a wide variety set of spiritual and faith traditions spawned at least in part by the rich and varied cultural communities that have taken root in the Northwest.

With this insight now in hand, after successfully calling our new rector, I did not want to simply let this information fall by the wayside. Rather I wanted to find a way to shine a spotlight and celebrate the rich and varied spiritual traditions that are thriving here in the Northwest.  Through this project, I also hope to alter the stereotype cited in social commentaries and repeated by faith communities, that the Pacific Northwest is “The None Zone” where no prevalent form of worship or faith exists in this region.  Lacking any single dominant theological institution or culture, combined with the influx to the region of radically diverse peoples and cultures versed in both Western and Eastern faith, spiritual and mystical traditions, the Pacific Northwest is, in fact, fertile ground for faith seekers looking to express their spiritual yearnings in a manner that is at once both profoundly personal and yet connected to a broader community. 

To highlight the broad range of spiritual practices at work in the Northwest, I have embarked on a three-year project (that officially began in April 2010) titled “Spiritual Beings”. Through sensitive use of photographic and audio recordings that respect both the deeply personal, as well as the corporeal expression of spiritual worship, ritual and ceremony, the project attempts to capture the diversity and scope of spiritual and faith traditions being practiced today in Seattle and the greater Salish Sea (aka Puget Sound) area.

I plan to use this blog as a means to periodically publish the images and field audio recordings as well as share insight I gain throughout the duration of the project.

I hope that you enjoy the work and are inspired as I am by the deep and varied spiritual practices documented throughout the duration of this project.

Participating in the Documentary: If you are a member of a faith or spiritual community and would like to be included in this project, please email me at

Artist’s Statement: This project is a personal art project whose sole purpose is documentary in nature and has no affiliation or association with any organized group, religion or faith community. The project is a self funded, independent production and is not sponsored or funded in any way by any 3rd party organization.

Copyright Notice: All images and audio published on this website are protected by Copyright and cannot be copied, reproduced or distributed in either print or electronic formats without prior consent and written approval by the copyright owner. All images are © Mark Ippolito/