Category Archives: News from Abwoon Network

Stories from the Circle: Dancing in the Presence of the Divine

By Sharon Abercrombie

(This is the second in an ongoing series of stories featuring people worldwide who are sharing Neil Douglas-Klotz’s Aramaic Jesus and Desert Wisdom-related work. Our newest profile spotlights Br. Joe Kilikevice, a Dominican friar based in Oak Park, Illinois. If you have a related experience to share with us, please contact Sharon at Nurjehan3@att.net).

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Dominican Brother Joe Kilikevice has been dancing in Sufi circles since the late 1960’s.

He credits a 1965 Roman Catholic document coming out of the Second Vatican Council for setting him on the path of his life’s work. Nostra Aetate, (“In Our Time,) is a groundbreaking paper that stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics and calls for the church to dialogue with other world religions.

By 1983, Br. Joe was bringing the Dances of Universal Peace, particularly the Aramaic words of Jesus, to the art-as-meditation class he was teaching in Oakland, California.

Since then he has been leading “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Beatitudes,” the “I Am” sayings of John and other dances created by Neil Douglas-Klotz . He has introduced them into his own Catholic tradition to Dominican high schools and colleges throughout the United States. He has brought them to interfaith groups, both in the Midwest and abroad.     “I wouldn’t be here but for that document,” said Br. Joe during a recent phone interview.

“Work” is probably too thin a word to describe Br. Joe’s ministry. For those of us who have danced with Joe Kilikevice at Plano, Illinois and in other retreat settings, “passionate dedication” is more like it.

Br. Joe discovered the dances during a retreat in San Jose, California more than 40 years ago. “Let’s go Sufi dancing,” Jshemsomeone suggested. A DUP North American Journal story from 2011 notes that Br. Joe hadn’t a clue as to what Sufi dancing might be, but he decided it would be a good idea to ‘get off the mountain’ for a few hours.”  He piled into a crowded station wagon with the rest of his friends.

The dance experience that evening touched him deeply.  For the first time, this life-long Catholic and Dominican brother realized that “you don’t have to give up your own faith tradition to be enriched by the traditions of other people.”
A couple of years later, back in Chicago, he located another dance meeting.  This one was fine, too, but he wished it had included more dancing and less talking.

His wish came true in 1983, when Br. Joe moved to Oakland California.  Matthew Fox, a Dominican colleague had recently moved his Creation Spirituality master’s program from Mundelein College in Chicago to Holy Names College. Fox invited his old friend to resume teaching the art-as-meditation class he had previously taught at Mundelein.   It didn’t take long for Br. Joe to discover the stunning smorgasbord of dance meetings throughout the Bay Area.

That’s how he met Neil-Douglas-Klotz. One Saturday morning, Joe Kilikevice found himself in San Francisco’s Precita Park with Neil and six other dancers, chanting and moving to “Abwoon d’bashmaya.” Precita Park is right across the street from Mentorgarten, the home of Murshid Samuel Lewis. Murshid brought the first Dances forward during the late 1960’s, so there has always been a lot of baraka living in that park.

Br. Joe doesn’t recall who the other dancers were that day. But Br. Joe does remember the power of the Lord’s Prayer, transliterated by Neil into Aramaic, the language Jesus/Yeshua spoke. “We were trying out the first four lines.  I was immediately struck by their sense of timelessness.”  Jesus/Yeshua was there in the midst of the circle, beyond the English or Latin words this Dominican had been praying all of his life.

Br. Joe immediately brought the dance back to his Holy Names classroom. In subsequent years, he would become a co-retreat leader with Neil and Kamae Miller, and would then branch out with his own interfaith retreat ministry. In  1993, he founded the Shem Center, an interfaith spirituality center located in Oak Park.

His work took another significant turn in 2000 when Dominican Sisters Pat Brady and Gina Fleming invited Br. Joe to lead dances at a high school retreat, to represent “the diversity of ways Dominicans preach.  They knew of my work and thought the students would both enjoy and benefit from a contemporary way a Dominican was claiming a centuries-long tradition of praying with the body. Dominicans have always brought the body into prayer with bowing, prostrating, and processing,” said Br. Joe. Two years later, when these student conferences were expanded into Dominican college venues, Br. Joe became a regular presenter there, also, in schools coast to coast.

In 2010, the Conference organizers awarded him the Sister Pat Brady award for “extraordinary service and contributions in furthering the traditions and charism of the Dominican Order.” Sr. Pat Brady praised Br. Joe for “encouraging each of us to realize the power of dance and music as a medium of peace and harmony. Brother Joe has taught us that world understanding begins with a willing, open and accepting heart. He has truly released the Spirit in each of us.”

This writer contacted both Sisters Mary Soher, and Gina Fleming, the current organizers for the student preaching conferences to gauge reactions to Br. Joe’s work. Except for occasional liturgical dance within many Catholic liturgies and prayer services, Catholics do not ordinarily dance. But Br. Joe gets them on their feet in short order.

After a day of dancing, “it ‘s not uncommon for a student to linger a bit after my session to thank me for what they experienced,’ recalls Br. Joe. “I can tell that they have been deeply moved and often can’t find the words to say so.”

Mary Soher contributed her take on the student experiences. “Something magical happens,” said Soher, an Adrian Dominican. “He teaches them to really be in the present moment, to be in the presence of the Divine with each other.  If they are carrying grief, sadness or stress, the dances provide a body-soul-mind break for them.”

Soher said she has witnessed the dances as a vehicle for helping to build bonds and strengthening community among the young people.

For Amityville Dominican Sr. Gina Fleming, Br. Joe’s dance leading has been “a deeply prayerful experience.  Asking us to look into each other’s eyes has touched me deeply.” His teachings have given her a better understanding of the Muslim religion, she said.

And as for the Aramaic, “it’s a part of me now,” said Fleming. “Studying the words of Jesus in His original language, “awakens you to a different way of thinking.”

Stories from the Circle: River’s Edge

Seven years ago Neil Douglas-Klotz launched his first Aramaic Interspiritual Leadership Program.  AILP was designed for dance leaders, therapists, ministers, and teachers who wanted to deeply immerse themselves in the insights, teachings and dances from Neil’s Native Middle Eastern Tradition,  Aramaic and Genesis Meditations work.

Today over 150  individuals from the U.S., Europe, and South America have completed the three and a half year AILP trainings held in Ohio, the UK and Germany.  So what have they learned and how are they sharing this work? We’ll begin finding out with this issue in a brand new blog at Abwoon Network (abwoon.com) from entitled “Stories from the Circle.” It will recount the experiences, not only of AILP graduates, but hopefully, our many other old-timers, as well.

Ellen Bush, Eileen Taj  Pappalardo, and Sharon Nurjehan Abercrombie,  editor for this new dance experience blog, are graduates of AILP One. The following account is our collective memory of what it was like to conduct three ten-minute introductory “prayer services” using the first line of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer, “Abwoon d’bwashmaya,”during a weekend retreat at River’s Edge in Cleveland, Ohio. River’s Edge is a Catholic environmental and wellness center operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

We had been tapped to serve as the “opening act” for Brian Swimme, renowned mathematical cosmologist. Brian is a protégé of ecozoic theologian, Fr. Thomas Berry, (1914-2009) author of “The Great Work.” In 1992, Brian and his beloved mentor co-authored  “The Universe Story” (see his website at: www.journeyoftheuniverse.org)

A 2012 northern California Emmy Award winner for his DVD documentary, “The Journey of the Universe,” Brian serves on Brian-Swimmethe faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He taught Ellen and me when we were both graduate students in Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality Program at Holy Names University in Oakland during the early 1990’s. Neil was one of our teachers there, too, at the same time!

So for starters, this awesome opportunity seemed to be one of those “coming full-circle” type of  adventures. We would be using what we had learned and had built upon from each of them. We would be scooping into the depths of Neil’s spiritual work to illuminate Brian’s scientific cosmological teachings.

Our assignment that weekend of June 29, 2012, was to set the tone for 180 retreatants, bringing spirituality and science together back to,  “the first primordial flaring forth of the Universe,” in the words of Brian and Thomas.

And as Neil, hearkening back to Yeshua’s prayer, would say,  “Oh mother-father-birther of the cosmos, you create all that moves in light…”your Name shines everywhere.”

We had three, separate,  ten-minute segments to accomplish this, and carry the group forward.  Initially, this was a pretty scary proposition for us  ‘unknowns,’–  providing the opening act for a brilliant, ’rockstar’ cosmologist.

As Ellen recalls, we “needed to create some kind of container space for ‘Abwoon’ to live.”  And it needed to happen quickly within a vast, crowded room full of people, most of whom had never experienced the Dances of Universal Peace before. Or knew anything about the Aramaic language for that matter.

We considered the daunting prospect of getting the group into ten or 12 concentric dance circles amidst the muddle of chairs.  Given our time frame, though, furniture moving was simply not an option. We would have to keep this project very simple. We therefore decided to  embark upon what a California dance friend, and fellow AILP student,  Richard McMurtry, refers to as “pew dancing” – Simply standing, and moving back and forth in place.

So ultimately, we decided to present an introductory, seated guided meditation on  the opening Friday night session that would set the stage for Brian’s talks.  I led off, drawing upon Saadi’s powerful “caravan” meditation. This is the one where he has us envisioning being part of a camel caravan, falling in line behind the beloved ancestors who have gone before us in wisdom, and traveling back to the beginning of Creation.

camelstunisia_njlWe embarked from a Middle Eastern desert, our camels’ favorite environment, then moved  magically to a palm-tree lined beach.  Our trek took us into a mountainous landscape of sparkling snow, followed with a quick side jaunt to a North Carolina meadow filled with spring flowers, bees, butterflies and flitting birds. As our camels prepared to take off into space, we passed a plain filled with grazing dinosaurs.  Then came the floating outwards into the Cosmos, past our sun. our moon, and distant galaxies, until we reached the Original Source.

With Taj’s frame drum, and my open tuned guitar, we lead a breath practice, intoning the sacred phrase, ‘ABWOON.’ We explained the word, and introduced the chant.

The next day, we resumed the chant, this time with Ellen leading another breath practice. On morning three, Taj reviewed the original meditation, with her frame drum calling up  — “the heartbeat of the Universe.”

We concluded by having Ellen teach the Prayer movements in place. Within minutes, 180 individuals were dancing Abwoon, “totally free of any self consciousness,”  said Taj.

It had all come together.  In looking back Taj observed, that “We took them into that deep place to find the central harmony by chanting the separate sounds in the Aramaic word, ‘Abwoon.’ This is what  united every person in the room.”

Everyone seemed captivated, and moved easily into each phase of our process, without resistance, she added.

Said Ellen: “We carved out the Aramaic words and moved into vibration of Creation. We were not just talking about cosmology, here. We were able to set the tone like a spoken prayer could never have done.” Yes.

Our featured speaker, Brian Swimme, was there with us, through every breath, intoning, singing and movement. “I felt it in his body language,” said Ellen. Which included a twinkle in his eye, a broad smile, and at the conclusion of each session, a fervent ‘thank you.

Meanwhile, one sister from the River’s Edge staff marveled to us ‘unknowns’ that we had provided a whole new experience she had never dreamt could happen. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. And she was smiling, too. By then, so were we.

(For further information, or to share a report, please contact the blog editor, Sharon Nur Jehan Abercrombie at Nurjehan3@att.net.)