Late in Easter Week I drove to St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado to attend a 10-day immersion in the practice of Centering Prayer offered by Contemplative Outreach of Colorado in cooperation with St. Benedict's. On the way there I stopped for Sunday Eucharist at St. Mark's Cathedral in Salt Lake City and spent an afternoon touring Temple Square and enjoying an organ recital on the Tabernacle's great Aeolian-Skinner.
Centering Prayer is the name given a method of silent prayer taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk. The roots of the practice are in the classic work “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which is an ancient and classic manual of Christian mystical prayer. The purpose of centering prayer is to foster an attitude of “consent” to God's loving transformative work in us. Before the retreat, over the last couple of years, I'd been moved more and more to undertake periods of silence in my private prayer. Conversations with members of our Contemplative Prayer group at St. Paul's and with Fr. Chuck Whitmore had encouraged me to seek out this retreat.
I found myself with about 20 people on retreat. We lived with a roommate in separate “hermitages” on the grounds of the retreat facility at St. Benedict's Monastery. We prayed in common in a prayer room. We took vegetarian meals together, beautifully prepared from fresh and diverse ingredients by three volunteer retreat facilitators and served family-style around large tables. We ate breakfast and lunch in silence, listening to readings about Centering Prayer taken from Fr. Keating's book “Open Mind, Open Heart”. Except for two completely quiet days out of the ten, we had conversation at evening meals which allowed us to meet one another.
We rose most days at 4:40 am to begin an hour of silent sitting in prayer at 5:00 am in the large, open prayer room with a wall of windows looking out on a range of the Rocky Mountains dominated by snowy Mt. Sopris. We kept our eyes shut during prayer, though! Following this hour was breakfast, after which those who chose to do so could attend Lauds and Mass with the monks at their oratory, which was some distance away on a road through their fields. Most attended. I found this daily corporate prayer an anchor that grounded my silence.
Returning from the oratory, we spent another mid-morning hour in silent prayer together. Typically, these hours of prayer were in 20-minute increments, interspersed with “walking meditation”. Late in the morning we had the option of viewing a video recorded talk in a series delivered by Fr. Thomas Keating under the title “The Spiritual Journey”. I found these talks captivating and meaningful, as they deeply explored dimensions of the work of transformation that can happen in human beings over a lifetime when we consent in prayer to the love God has for us. Discussion in the group after the talks was encouraged, and these conversations deepened our engagement with each other as retreatants.
After lunch we took an hour-and-a-half break, returning to the prayer room in mid-afternoon for another hour of silent prayer, after which we would view another in the series of Fr. Keating's talks and engage in discussion until just before supper. After supper we had the option of returning to the oratory for Vespers with the monks of St. Benedict's.
Two days out of the 10 were dubbed “hermit days”, because we agreed together to complete silence for those days, and each of us was given permission to structure our day as we desired. Periods of solitude were encouraged. I took each of those days to combine communal time in prayer and meals with solitary hikes from the retreat house up two different nearby peaks where I could see vistas of the surrounding Rockies and thank God for the privilege of being alive to witness the splendor.
As the monastery has no wi-fi, we could put our phones and computers away and not be tempted by them. That was a good thing! These ten days were given to being present to one another and to God.
You might wonder how people can be present to one another in silence. Believe me, it is possible, and a very restful and unifying way to build a sense of the value of each person in community. This was noted by quite a few of us in our reflections on the experience at the end of the retreat. Egos are subdued and normal patterns of dominance are disabled when silence is engaged. Many of my fellow retreatants spoke of the value of the group for encouraging prayer, and spoke of the mysterious sense of community which grew as we were with one another in silence in that prayer room and around meals.
So, who was there with me? I'm glad you asked! People of diverse age and station in life, that's who. There was one other Episcopal priest present, and one Catholic nun. The rest of the company were living more normal lives in the world. The eldest of the company were a man who just turned eighty-one and a woman who just turned eighty. He is a retired academic administrator, she a vigorous activist in Catholic efforts on behalf of justice who is a widow after years of being married to a professor. The youngest was a man of 23 years who works in a famous craft brewery in Fort Collins and was introduced to Centering Prayer by his father back in Palestine, Texas. We celebrated a birthday one day for a young mom from Houston whose husband took care of their young child so she could have this retreat. She couldn't have been more than thirty, I'd guess. We had retired business executives with us, one of whom was a Presbyterian deacon, another of whom was a Vietnam veteran still seeking peace and healing from the wounds of war. Another man told us he happened upon St. Benedict's Monastery 20 years ago when he took a side-trip from the famed Aspen Institute out of curiosity about what what monastic life was like and has been returning yearly ever since. We had with us a man who paints houses in Aspen during the summer and lives the rest of the year in a snowbound cabin high in the Rockies outside Aspen reading Thomas Merton. I roomed with an artist from Corpus Christi who I found quite a bit in common in terms of interests. One was with us who was the mother of teenagers back home in Southern California in the care of her husband. Another man surprised me when we got talking about his background of a decade as a successful investment banker in New York City. His appearance was more like someone you might find living in Bellingham as an artist, and as it turns out he is now teaching guitar in Boulder, enjoying a long-delayed stint as a father of a five-year-old daughter, and married to a woman who practices accounting. He'd gone into business to please his parents, and now he's living the life he actually feels called to live, which includes daily doses of silent meditation. There were others present whose lives touched mine. I give thanks for them all.
Our facilitators were dedicated practitioners of prayer who donated their time to prepare meals, lead the prayer times, engage in one-on-one conversation with retreatants, and generally promote an air of warm hospitality. They did so unobtrusively and with obvious pleasure. I give thanks for each of them: a Catholic man from St. Paul Minnesota, an Episcopalian woman from Berkeley, and a former Bellingham resident who has been living in Colorado and working with Fr. Thomas Keating since the late 70's.
One night we had over an hour with Fr. Keating himself, who at ninety-one is living a sort of monastic “retirement” at St. Benedict's. We sat in a circle in the prayer room to hear him reflect on a range of concerns, ranging from the challenges faced by returning veterans of our current wars to the challenges faced by all of us when we try to practice contemplative prayer. It was all related, and all of a piece, and all in the spirit of encouraging us to allow God to use us as messengers of reconciliation in the world. He communicated with an open, joyful countenance and great warmth. The take-away message for me? “God wants to love us. God desires only our consent.”
We have a Centering Prayer group at St. Paul's, as you may know. They meet on Thursday evenings at 5:30 pm in a room set aside for that purpose in the lower story of St. Paul's. I encourage you to inquire about how you can join them for a session to try out Centering Prayer. You will hear more from me about this subject. In the meantime, you can read about Centering Prayer.
After the end of the retreat I drove to the southwest corner of Colorado through the stunning scenery of the San Juan Mountains to Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument, where I saw the astonishing remains of Ancestral Puebloan people. I spent a day at Mesa Verde; a morning at Hovenweep. Heading north through Moab, Utah, I stopped to watch the sunset from Grandview Point on Island Mesa in Canyonlands National Park. From there I drove to Capitol Reef National Park, where I camped two nights at Fruita and took a long day hike up high in the strange and wonderful rock formations of this great national treasure. Heading for home, I drove north through Utah enjoying the scenery, then caught the freeway south of Salt Lake City for the rest of the drive to Bellingham.
At home I've been engaging in a program of reading and doing some basic chores. I spent a weekend celebrating my 34th year of marriage to Sharon, and another weekend celebrating at a family wedding, and enjoying the gift of four days of solitary time in a cabin on an outer island in the San Juans. Soon I will leave for a week at Glen East, a gathering of creative people organized by Seattle-based Image Journal, (ask Lucy Shaw about this) where I expect to gain some inspiration. I will attend a seminar on American cinema led by writer and critic Gareth Higgins which will explore what stories are told in cinema and how we might imagine what stories need to be told about love and justice from the standpoint of the Gospel.
Following this week, Sharon and I will spend some good time with our two daughters, first with Olivia near New York City and then with Olivia and Josie together in Vermont, where Josie lives. This will be precious time with family. While in New York City we expect to see the 9-11 museum and hopefully have a conversation with the designer of the displays, who happens to be a high school friend of Sharon's. We'll also take in "Amateur Night at the Apollo" with our daughter Olivia.
Thank you again for the gift of this sabbatical. I deeply appreciate it!
Yours in Christ,