Great Smoky Mountains National Park Scenic Sunrise Landscape at Oconaluftee Overlook between Cherokee NC and Gatlinburg TN

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Currently, three contemplative groups meet at the Empty Bell. The Sunday morning group includes contemplative Christians; the Tuesday group is a contemplative interfaith group of people who live nearby. This group is especially focused on community building, seeking to cultivate a shared sense of spiritual presence and to nourish trust among neighbors. The third group is also a contemplative interfaith group, with people from all over the U.S., and a few people from other parts of the world. In addition, we occasionally bring guest speakers in to share insights from their spiritual journey. No matter where we gather under the umbrella of the Empty Bell, participants can expect certain things to happen. Here are the basics:

As mentioned, core elements of an Empty Bell gathering include:
Vocal Prayer

Here is an imaginary visit to an Empty Bell gathering:

• Meditation cushions or chairs are arranged in a slightly oblong circle. In the center a candle burns inside a glass jar that sits atop a small altar. The host sits at one end of the circle, next to a large temple bell. A striker for the bell lies beside the host. Incense burns. The lights in the room are turned down a bit low. Icons, statues or wall-hangings from the Christian & Buddhist traditions are displayed.

• When worshippers enter the contemplative space, they take off their shoes. While there may be someone at the door to greet participants, the meditation room itself is silent. There may be some whispered greetings or mutual bows or hugs, but soon, worshippers who walk into the worship area find their cushion or chair, and get comfortable, relaxing their bodies and recollecting their minds and hearts.

• On Sunday mornings, Hebrew and Christian scriptures are shared. On each cushion, or nearby, is a booklet or a handout which contains the readings for the day. Since the Empty Bell opened its doors in 1993, we have subscribed to the Roman Catholic booklet of monthly readings, “Living with Christ”. Sometimes, as participants sit down on their cushions, they will briefly glance at the day’s readings, perhaps to find a theme, a phrase or a word that they will take into their meditation. (No one reads or writes during the meditation time itself).

The contemplative interfaith groups on Tuesday and Wednesday function a bit differently. On the previous Sunday, the host emails participants to suggest a topic that everyone will reflect upon. When the group then convenes on Tuesday or Wednesday, participants will meditate on the topic and be prepared to share their explorations in the whole group, and also in small groups of three persons. Topics have included: anger, joy, jealousy, hope, memory, forward planning, love, God, and scores of other subjects, questions or talking points.

• At the appointed time, the leader hits the temple bell to begin the meditation time. We sit together in silence for 20 minutes to one-half hour. At the end of the silence, the leader hits the temple bell again, usually once or three times (to symbolize the Trinity).

• Very often, at the beginning of the meditation, the leader sometimes welcomes participants and welcomes the Holy Spirit.

• During the silent time, the Empty Bell mission does not stipulate what meditative method the participants should follow. In the past we have been fortunate to attract people who already have training in Buddhist or Christian prayer, meditation and contemplation. Occasionally, especially for the sake of newcomers, the leader shares a few words at the beginning, or toward the end of the meditation to help focus the minds of everyone present.

• Most participants begin the silent period with some method of relaxing and focusing their minds on the present moment–simply being on the cushion, in the room, and in the presence of a transient spirit. Some bring awareness to their breathing; some count their breaths silently; some recite a passage from scripture or say a sacred word repetitively; and some fall effortlessly into God’s presence. We assume that participants already know that meditation is not the same as “monkey mind”, day-dreaming, compulsive thinking, problem-solving, analyzing, visualizing pleasant alternative surroundings, inwardly complaining, writing poetry, composing music or arguing with one’s partner or friend. Silent prayers may be recited, but often someone who prays might let all inner talk dissolve in pure silence. The announcement time at the end of the service is often the time when newcomers ask for help in their meditation and prayer practice, and can arrange to get it.

• On Sundays, after the bell that brings the silent meditation to an end, participants pick up their scripture booklets and find the readings for the day. Sometimes, the leader says out loud the references for the readings and perhaps an another few words about the theme of the readings. We try to apportion our time so that every participant has a chance to read a portion of Scripture out loud. Readings include the Hebrew scripture, the Epistle, and the Gospel. When the group is fortunate to include someone with musical training, the Responsorial Psalm is chanted.

• The scripture readings for the day are read in such a way as to include all participants. One person in the circle begins by announcing the source of the scripture passage, and then goes on to read several lines or paragraphs, and then the next person in the circle continues to read from the passage, and so on around the circle. How much a person reads is up to that person, keeping in mind that if the group is large, and if everyone is to read, each person might be limited to only a few sentences. We encourage readers to let there be a little silence between readers so that the readings can be digested.

• After the last scripture is read, the group lingers in silence for several minutes to digest the readings. Sometimes, when the group is so moved, this silence might go on for five minutes or more. Then someone–sometimes the host–begins a sharing time that continues for another half-hour to forty-five minutes, depending on the size of the group. Guidelines for this sharing (outlined in the Principles of Sharing) include keeping the contemplative ambience, not engaging in theoretical or theological debate, not asking for or giving advice, and observing limited cross-talk or “ping-pong” conversation. We ask that participants listen well, inwardly, and to others as they share. We ask that participants leave a space of three seconds or three breaths before responding to what someone has just shared. All participants are responsible for protecting the right of participation for everyone who wants to share.

• After the sharing time, the leader hits the bell again to indicate a time of group prayer. Sometimes the leader begins the prayers, but anyone may do so and everyone has the right to offer their prayers out loud. Some groups may choose to come together and to hold hands during these prayers. Some groups may choose to say a prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer together as an entry into the individual prayers. There is no time limit on this prayer time, and it is usually clear to the host when it is time to say, out loud, Amen.