The Headless Marys



It sounds like the title of a zombie-esque film noir: The Headless Marys.

It is in fact the name of a contemplative prayer group to which I belong. At 48, I am the youngest of the bunch. Most are retired nurses or teachers. In other words, they are women who have been active, other-focused, do-gooders most of their lives.

They are not women who indulge in hours of bonbon-eating leisure. The group’s name, while conjuring macabre horror-film images, actually refers to our collective desire to move from our heads to our hearts as the focused centre of our spiritual lives—a la Mary, Lazarus’ sister, who sat at the feet of Jesus while her active, “do-er” sister scurried about in frenetic activity (Luke 10).

As women all sympathetic to Martha and thus inclined toward frenetic activity, our coming together is something of a radical act. We are pushing against our culture’s obsession with stimulation and information and noise and distraction.

As a society, North Americans are so obsessed with sensory input that, when surveyed, 67% of men and 25% of women would rather receive mild electric shocks than sit in silence for 15 minutes.

Ummmm. Hello?

Our little group has enough collective wisdom to recogonize the deep neurosis hidden in these statistics.

And so we hold a monthly day of silence.

For the more linear out there, curious about how our day works, here’s a sketch of our time together:

15 minutes: Visit over coffee (we get to talk!)
20 minutes: Corporate silent centering prayer
20 minutes: Lectio Divina
3 hours: Solitary silence (some sit alone, some go for a walk, some journal)
20 minutes: Corporate silent centering prayer
20 minutes: Daily Examen (we get to talk again!)

For an evangelical girl raised on a steady diet of spoken prayer, I was taught to be suspicious of so much silence.

My prayer menu was based around the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication—all tasty morsels and useful in communicating with God, but terribly one-way and overburdened with words and thoughts and effort, and, dare I say, personal agendas.

Conversely, silence as the ground of prayer requires the letting go of agendas. It requires the stilling of thoughts and the “dialing in” to a Presence that—surprise!—was there all along.

Silence is not an emptiness, but a fullness, containing the very breath and life of God.

In this silence I have found an expansive kingdom within.

No, really.

I know this might sound airy fairy, but perhaps only as airy fairy as Jesus’ words—the Kingdom of God is within you. Silence has been the path into this Kingdom and silence has shown me the terrain.

And it is beautiful.

Looking back on my ACTS years, I feel like I was offering God (and myself) bread crumbs of cerebral effort-full prayers, when in reality I was being invited to a feast. A feast of the presence of God.

Crazily, each month, I want to forgo this feast. I’m a fickle friend of God (and therefore a fickle friend of myself). And this is why I need others–I need a community of women who hold me in a circle of friendship and attention. I need guides—women older and wiser, who remind me it’s not about the arriving and accomplishing, but just the coming, again and again. It’s about approaching the table because the feast is always waiting.

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.
Come, yet again, come, come.

– Rumi

Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo is the author of Planted: a Story of Creation, Calling and Community, a book Eugene H. Peterson called “remarkable” and Margaret Atwood called “clear-sighted and humorous.” She likes to read (and write) wise and winsome stories that inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world. She can be found online and @leahkostamo. She ministers with the Christian conservation organization, A Rocha.
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo

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  1. Oh, myyyy. This is so rich. It makes me long for stillness, silence, and sisterhood. I’ve recently entered a new season of life, after a marriage and a cross-country move all within a month. These words encourage me to pursue those three S’s! Thank you.

  2. Hannah Kallio says:

    Leah, You so beautifully articulated my passion back to me. Jesus drew His strength from listening to the Father. Listening gives us access to that same deep well of…everything. And even in those times when we sit in silence and don’t seem to receive anything, He is worthy of our listening. Thank you for giving words to the power of silence!

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Hi Hannah,
      Yes! Even if we don’t hear anything, we are still transformed by the silence as we train our attention on God. Blessing in your own journey. 🙂

  3. pastordt says:

    Leah – this is one of the best ideas I’ve ever seen! Do you take turns planning the lectio? Do you rotate homes/locations? More details, please. I would love, love, LOVE to start a group here in Santa Barbara. I can think of 3-5 women who would jump at this. Thanks so much for sharing this idea – this practice.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Happy to share more! Yes, we rotate houses and whoever is hosting plans the lectio (really just picks a passage or a poem). We all bring food and set it out in the morning so that folks can just swing by the table to grab a nibble around lunch (or take it with them if they go outside). It’s really so easy and so shared. We started our little group with a weekend retreat where we experimented with different formats. It was lead by a woman who started a similar group that has been going for over 20 years! (They’re actually the first Headless Marys and we’re technically the Headless Marrys II (or Too!). So, you could be the Headless Marys III :). Our group has about 8 people in it, which seems like a good number since there are always one or two that can’t make it, but there are enough to always make it a go. It’s remarkable how God meets each of us in a unique way, often through the lectio reading which then simmers throughout the day and also often through creation. If you want any more ideas or info, feel free to email me: Peace in the journey!

  4. Yes. Silence is so important. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. This sounds wonderful. I feel like the odd bird out because I’m thinking “Silence? Yes, please, bring it on! I can be silent for hours on end!”
    I knew that my husband was the one for me when we were dating and he drove me 5 hours to visit my best friend. Much of our time in the car was not spent trying to make conversation, we just sat in silence. Not awkward silence, just the companionable silence of not needing to fill a space with words. I think that’s a bit of what contemplative, silent prayer is like. Just being with God, knowing you don’t really need to say anything.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      I love that comparison, Rea, and think its bang on. How beautiful that you can give yourself to silence so easily. 🙂 Blessings on your journey.

  6. Leah… I visited with new friend recently who has a crazy, full life and she told me her secret to staying centred and connected with God and others is going on a 3 day silent retreat 3 times during each year. I admit that I cringed at the thought of three WHOLE days of silence – maybe this would be a great start for me – 3 hours! I always love your words and the wisdom you share. xoxo

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Hi Helen! Yes, I’m still taking baby steps in this whole contemplative journey and multiple days of silence are still daunting. We had a pastor friend live on our farm last year before she was heading off to the mission field and she spent 5 WHOLE MONTHS in silence. It was a remarkable experience hosting her. When she left she said her predominate feeling during those 5 months was joy. (Maybe I’ll write about her one day — she is one of the most Jesus-like people I’ve ever met and I think silence helped get her there.)

  7. So thankful for the Imago Dei experience of Contemplative prayer! Our group also has a similar group for once a month silent “retreats” attended by dear wise, humble sisters. I’m glad to read your encouragement in this direction; your writing is quite engaging!

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      I’ve learned so much from the Imago Dei folks (and Rob DesCotes in particular). Blessings in your own contemplative journey!

  8. This is so beautiful! I want a group like yours. “Silence is not an emptiness, but a fullness, containing the very breath and life of God. In this silence I have found an expansive kingdom within.” Finding silence on my own was life changing and life giving. But having a group of women to pursue silence (God’s presence) with each other? That is such a beautiful gift.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Yes, indeed, having a group to share the silence with is a gift! The more people I tell about his, the more it seems there’s a groundswell of people wanting to engage with God and others in this way.

  9. I love the idea of the Headless Marys. I also love the name … O, to carve out that time. I can see how it will be super challenging and yet, I can only imagine the richness. Beautiful.

  10. Oh my goodness, this sounds so wonderful. Hard and wonderful. I spent a weekend at a monastery in a similar format and it was so hard for me but I find myself craving it, wanting to go back there. To have that monthly and in a community that holds you accountable is such a gift. Now if we can just find ways to enjoy this feast in our daily lives…

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Yes, that’s the key isn’t it, Nicole? Letting this special rhythm soak into our daily lives. Sometimes I’m good at it — like in the summer when the sun comes up early, but as the days darken I feel the pull of sluggishness when it comes to contemplative discipline. We all need grace, eh? (said the Canadian :))

  11. I’ve been trying to practice this kind of listening prayer, and finding myself to be a mental flibbertigibbet. Reading your words about a community that is working on this together makes me realize that we do need to be enculturated into these practices — and the links you provided as part of your post were excellent. Thank you.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      I totally get the “flibbertigibbet” nature of this kind of prayer (which I think is a sign that I need it!). Yes, community has helped me so much in this regard. And creation — getting out of my house and sitting quietly somewhere in creation (usually a bench by a little creek near our house) has helped tremendously too. Blessings on your prayer journey, Michele!

  12. Debbie Horrocks says:

    So good. Looking after a tiny baby, my brain often can’t string too many sensible prayers together. Thanks for the reminder to just come to Him. And the headless Marys is a tremendous name!

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      I so remember those days, Debbie. to have the freedom to just “space out” in the presence of God is probably the most holy thing you can do! 🙂 Blessings!

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