Sacred Circles at Washington National Cathedral

This profile was last updated in 2006

History of Sacred Circles

The Sacred Circles conferences at Washington National Cathedral are true celebrations of women’s spirituality. Begun in 1996 by Grace Ogden, the conferences occur every two years, the next one being held February 16-17, 2007. Typically drawing over 1,000 women, the conferences are comprised of prominent keynote speakers, inclusive shared spiritual practices, and a multitude of workshops in order to engage the women in active and reflective spirituality and community. Sacred Circles is devoted to developing “a deeply felt sense of women’s spiritual community, woven by leaders in voice, dance and religious ritual from diverse faith traditions.” The program is an expression of the National Cathedral’s commitment to being a “national house of prayer for all people” and a place of reconciliation for ecumenical collaboration, interfaith dialogue and discussions that seek the ways of understanding and peace. Having been a part of the spirituality movement in the United States since the mid-1980s, Ogden was interested in how to unite women of different faith traditions and backgrounds within a spiritual community. In 1995, Ogden had been working for a non-profit organization that charted the intersection between spirituality and psychology while also serving as a volunteer on the spiritual perspectives committee at the National Cathedral. She began to plan a women’s conference to take place in 1996 with the hope that it would bring women together for spiritual community-building. Ogden’s background in marketing helped her succeed in an amazing feat: 1,200 women of different faiths attended the conference inside the sweltering Cathedral in the middle of the summer, joyously making do with paper fans. The main event of the conference was the labyrinth walk, used for the women to communally partake in a spiritual practice that “did not have a sole inherent theological tradition associated with it,” according to Ogden. After another successful Sacred Circles conference in 1997, the Cathedral offered Ogden a full time job. Ogden produces other programs for the Cathedral; however, as the ongoing convener of the Sacred Circles conferences, she places them closest to her heart. As of 2006, the Sacred Circles conference at the Cathedral remains unaffiliated with other women’s groups around the United States, although conversations have developed over how to expand Sacred Circles, conduct women’s spirituality courses, and monitor women’s spiritual circles that have sprung up across the country. As the demand for Sacred Circles continues to soar, Ogden feels that the sense of “opening and understanding the ‘other’ and experiencing a loving community” draws women to the conference time after time. She says that, “as a leader of this project for more than a decade, I continue to be in awe of it. The best thing that I am able to bring to it is a deep faithfulness in trying to discern what will most nourish women at a each point in time the program is offered.” With Sacred Circles, participants are able to take part in shared spiritual customs that encompass many religious traditions, allowing each woman to have a place in the community regardless of what she may or may not practice.

Sacred Circles after 9/11

The events of September 11, 2001 dramatically altered the way in which Sacred Circles was run. There had been a diverse approach to spirituality in the conferences preceding 2001, but the conference did not focus on religious diversity or interfaith efforts. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Cathedral made a broad commitment to interfaith work. It was only natural that Sacred Circles embarked on an interfaith initiative as well. Although the planning committee Ogden worked with had always been a diverse group of women in spiritual practice, profession, age, and religious background, the committee had evolved and changed over time. After 9/11, Ogden expressly invited Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist women to join the committee, and the conference now has a stronger emphasis on religious diversity and the exploration of similarities and differences. Drawing from personal experiences, the committee is seen as the first circle of the sacred circles, and tries to address those issues most important to women’s spiritual lives at a given time. The planning committee works to help participants meet and overcome the spiritual challenges of their times. Before 9/11, the previous Sacred Circles themes had included creativity and spiritual friendship. The first Sacred Circles conference after 9/11 was in November of 2002, with keynote speakers discussing the “Four Faces of Faith” on the theme of “affirming our bonds of the heart across religious and cultural boundaries.” In order to best share experiences and foster community, the most accessible spiritual practice that such a large group of diverse women could do in the Cathedral was the practice of silence, so a silent communal meditation was developed. Other workshops delved into the universal practices of loving-kindness. The labyrinth walk also encouraged community understanding, as did group singing. The 2005 Sacred Circles conference focused on various types of compassion, and how to act with compassion through all of life’s ordeals.

Sacred Circles in 2007

The 2007 Sacred Circles conference will maintain the post-9/11 shift towards interfaith by exploring the theme of wise, courageous love and teaching ways to choose love over fear in women’s daily lives. The 2007 Sacred Circles mission is as follows: “In these times, we must choose love over fear. Deep, wise love is the spiritual ground from which we draw strength, vision and courage. Come for stories, teachings and practices that will empower you to walk the path of love. Be nourished by the joyous spiritual community that has characterized Sacred Circles since 1996.” When living in a fear-based society, Ogden explains that, “as a spiritual choice, we have to decide to be motivated by love or motivated by fear. Being motivated by love when one of the dominant messages is to be afraid is a hard thing to do. We’re offering the conference to support women. Love is women’s greatest secret weapon; love is what keeps us going in our lives.” Women at the conference will learn insightful ways to practice loving-kindness and to act with love in practical ways that can help heal our lives as individuals and communities, both local and global.

Keynote Speakers and Workshops

Every Sacred Circles participant is at a different point on her own personal spiritual journey. At each conference, spiritual differences are acknowledged through a varied and inclusive package of workshops and keynote speakers. The speakers’ personal stories are meant to empower the participants of the conference, as they find their own spiritual story affirmed by women in leadership positions who are working towards similar goals. Ogden calls this approach the ‘sister-teacher model,’ and explains that both keynote speakers and workshop leaders teach with the understanding that “women possess our own wisdom and, in sharing our stories, the program looks into how we integrate our faith into our daily lives, as a lived practice.” There is diversity among the keynote speakers in terms of religious traditions and way of life, as well as among the workshop leaders. The leaders are chosen because of their deep knowledge of their own traditions, as well as for their ability to work with an interfaith group. Workshops offer the women a chance to experience traditions with which they are not necessarily familiar, and help them come to understand more about ‘the other.’ Workshops take place in both morning and afternoon sessions. Some highlights of workshop topics from the 2005 Sacred Circles Conference include Sufi Meditation for Conflict Resolution, Walking the Path of Compassion, The Dance of Love, and Mindful Parenting. There are also early morning spiritual practices such as yoga and Buddhist meditation.

Sacred Circles at the Washington National Cathedral

Many women who attend Sacred Circles come from religious traditions in which leadership positions are male-dominated. As Ogden explains, “it’s a relief for women to come into a spiritual community with a sense of true authority that is not led by men, that is, in fact, led by women. And beyond that, it is based on women’s own life experiences, with a sense of personal, lived wisdom rather than doctrinal wisdom.” To feel personal spirituality in a community environment allows these women to continue their spiritual journeys, while also having the chance to be surrounded by a safe, trustworthy group of women. To have Sacred Circles take place at the Washington National Cathedral is a “tremendously powerful invitation for [the women] to come back to the church and have a new experience, one that is affirming of themselves as women, that is affirming of the validity of their own spiritual hunger and questing.” Organizing a multi-religious women’s conference in the Cathedral holds true to the Cathedral’s dedication to being a house of prayer for all people. A constant programmatic success for the Cathedral, the Sacred Circles Conference is the biggest conference event on the rich and varied calendar, with other events such as lectures and concerts. Using the Cathedral for the Sacred Circles conferences adds positively to the conference themes of spirituality, love, and compassion. According to the workshop leader and dancer Zuleikha, “Getting a thousand women together in the cathedral seems a great way of opening for us. The cathedral’s space is so magnificent that, when you lift your arms up and look at that ceiling, it makes you feel there’s space for more love.” Amidst all the turmoil in the world today, Sacred Circles gives participants a chance to express love in a spiritual community of women, and allows these women to act on that love in their own communities. Information and all quotes taken from Sacred Circles website accessed on July 13, 2006 and from phone interviews with Grace Ogden on July 11, 2006 and July 12, 2006