I’m grateful to have had ten days in March for retreat to St. Benedict Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, meeting with twenty others for eight full days devoted to Centering Prayer, silence, and the opportunity to attend daily monastic prayers and mass with the Cistercian monks in their chapel.
We spent three-and-a-half hours a day sitting in meditation in thirty-minute segments interspersed with walking meditation. We ate meals in silence. We shared rooms in the guesthouse and in an array of small hermitages. We took in the grand silence of what retreatants have come to call “The Sacred Valley.”
I’ve been asked for insights from the retreat. The main insight for me is confirmation of the value of rest, of time away from daily demands, of the need we all have to commune with our God, as Jesus did when he went away into the hills for prayer and rest. After a few days coming down from the stress of work and travel, I found myself in a rhythm of early rising and early to bed. I slept well. I did just fine away from the news, from the internet, from a phone and e-mail. I reveled in the amazing beauty of this valley resting at 8000 feet on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, covered with snow, lined with snow-laden ridges and forests, with the brilliant white cone of Mt. Sopris occupying the highest horizon. I enjoyed the crisp crunch of snow in the pre-dawn walk from my hermitage to the prayer chapel, and walking, bundled against the chill, the half-mile or so walk from guesthouse to monastery chapel twice each day. And yes, I enjoyed having my morning coffee prepared for me; my breakfast, lunch, and dinner expertly prepared with vegetarian ingredients by the dedicated staff of Contemplative Outreach of Colorado. Our staff: Jenny, Jill, and John, also led our prayer sessions, were available for individual conversations, and ferried us to and from St. Benedict’s at the beginning and end of our retreat.
The concept behind Centering Prayer is fairly simple. The late Fr. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk who lived at St. Benedict’s, was among those who brought the practice to the general public, working with Fr. Basil Pennington and Fr. William Meninger, both fellow Cistercians, and borrowing the title from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, who described contemplative prayer as “centered entirely on the presence of God.” In their work, they explain that they were drawing on the roots of prayer as practiced by the Desert Fathers of early Christianity and the Lectio Divina practice of Benedictine monasticism, and to such spiritual classics as The Cloud of Unknowing and the works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
Centering Prayer is a practice alongside the practice of mental prayer, in which we turn our thoughts to God and submit our intellect and imagination to God for renewal and for insight, drawing on Scripture and devotional and theological discourse. In Centering Prayer we take up from where mental prayer leads us, and we simply rest our minds and our thoughts and emotions while we continuously give ourselves over to the presence of God continuously available to us. Here is a simple outline of Centering Prayer as taught by Fr. Keating:
In Centering Prayer we choose a sacred word as the symbol of our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
Then we sit comfortably, close our eyes, and briefly and silently introduce that word as a symbol of our consent to God’s presence and action within.
Then, when engaged with thoughts (bodily sensations, feelings, images, and reflections), we return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
At the end of the prayer period, we remain in silence for a couple of minutes with eyes closed. I generally close my times of Centering Prayer by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Anyone can practice Centering Prayer. The desire to do so is the invitation from God. One can practice anywhere at any time, but of course it is best to find at least a brief time alone. One can pray for a few minutes. One can pray for twenty minutes, which is a recommended goal, twice a day.
We have a Contemplative Prayer group meeting at St. Paul’s at 5:30 pm on Thursdays in Room B22. They meet for an hour. To get to B22, come down the ramp to the playground and turn left to the door that leads from B22 to the playground. You’re all welcome.
Fr. Thomas Keating’s work in Centering Prayer is carried on by Contemplative Outreach, an organization formed by people who benefited from Centering Prayer and wanted to help him make the practice available to as wide a public as possible. Contemplative Outreach of Colorado sponsors these retreats at Snowmass, which you can find out about by visiting their website.
Here are some words about Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating from his book Invitation to Love:
The way of pure faith is to persevere in contemplative practice without worrying about where we are on the journey, and without comparing ourselves with others or judging others’ gifts as better than ours. We can be spared all this nonsense if we surrender ourselves to the divine action, whatever the psychological content of our prayer may be. In pure faith, the results are often hidden from those who are growing the most….The divine light of faith is totally available in the degree that we consent and surrender ourselves to its presence and action within.
What is the effect of Centering Prayer? I find it helps me center in God, whose love for me is the same love God has for every human being. Centering in God helps us resist the temptation to become attached to our prejudices, obsessive thoughts and fears, and helps us resist the influences that seek to divide people one from another. I hope it means that I’m better able to love.
We retreatants broke our silence on the afternoon of the last full day together, and as we talked and got to know one another we found that the bond formed among us in silence was strong. We thanked one another for making the space for each other in silence. In companionship there is help for this prayer.
Thank you all, especially the clergy and staff who did extra work when I was gone, for giving me this time away. It was a blessing to me