A Silent Retreat

A Introduction to Centering Prayer.


After my last panic attack, we scheduled a silent prayer retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. It focused on contemplative or centering prayer. We spent the weekend with around 30 people from every denomination under the sun. It was led by a Catholic, an Episcopalian, and a Baptist. Also in attendance were Methodists, Non-Denoms, Coptic Orthodox, and a Buddhist convert to Christianity. There were African Americans, Koreans, and Egyptians. We were the youngest, but there were people from all walks of life. Astounding. I had no idea how many people hungered for silence and craved the ability to simply Be Still and know that He is God. People who want to abide and rest in God. Stunning.

They separated the married couples. I was in Mary's House, while my husband was in Joseph's. The Benedictine Sisters are all about hospitality. There's always room in their inn! We maintained silence throughout the weekend, but we could ask questions about the prayer method during the teaching times. The silent meals were amazing. It really forced you to savor each bite. (The silent part would have been more beneficial had we not gone together. When you've been together over half your life, you don't need to talk to communicate! So it didn't feel truly silent until we were separated!)

My husband loved this retreat. He got so much out of the teachings. I was a bit more familiar because of some research on the mystics while getting my Masters. We have documentation of centering prayer as being practiced in the Christian tradition as early as the 6th century. Contemplatives flourished during the Middle Ages, but the Reformation dampened the popularity of the tradition. The Enlightenment completely squashed it. The focus in the Christian tradition has been more and more concentrated on reason and understanding. Of course, this is a great thing, but it has adverse affects on our understanding of prayer.

First, you have to see prayer as more than a conversation. Prayer is first & foremost an act of submission, admitting that you are not in control. Since you are not in control, you will give some time to God.

There are really four "levels" of prayer. I call them levels loosely because we all use each of them every day & will continue to do so all our lives. The problem is many people don't truly work on cultivating a prayer life, so you stay at the most basic stages forever. Remember, Jesus said to have faith like a child, not child-like faith. Here are the "levels" of prayer we learned about this weekend:

1. Vocal Prayer - Saying Grace, The Lord's Prayer, etc. Wonderful opportunities to focus on Christ, to bring Christ into your everyday life. The includes the liturgy and our endless petitional prayers.

2. Reflective - Prayerful reading of Scripture. Sitting in silence in the sanctuary or during your quiet time. Lectio Divina, which I'll discuss tomorrow.

3. Responsive - Praying without ceasing. When you start to see your service as a closeness to God. For example, there's a wonderful blog post by a stay-at-home mom, who writes that she can't feed the nations & she can't preach to the masses, but she does wash her baby's feet every day. To start thinking of that every day activity as something that brings you close to God is a prayer.

4. Rest - Learning how to simply abide with God. This is a cultivated skill, particularly in our world of nonstop noise & distraction. Contemplative or centering prayer is not an attempt to clear your mind. It's a time to fix your eyes on Christ, the author and perfector of your faith. It is offering a time of silence to Him & recognition that you don't need to inform God of your needs. He's omniscient. He knows! Contemplative prayer comes from an intent to silently surrender our time. Have we not all read this in devotionals? Heard this advice in sermons? This retreat (as well as centering prayer groups around the country) show you how to do this in a Scripturally based manner.

The speakers compared these four "steps" to friendship. When you first meet someone, you're acquaintances, & you speak formally together (like rote prayers). Then you become friendly. Hopefully next you cultivate an actual friendship which puts deeds with words. Finally comes intimacy, where you don't have to talk. You just understand one another. In intimate relationships you see self-surrender, fidelity, and no need to prove anything.

It breaks my heart that so many people leave the faith to find this experience in Eastern religions, when it exists in their very tradition! It is not for everyone, but it should be available to everyone. So many Christians talk about this practice as "New Age," when really it's older than the mass itself.  You can learn more at Contemplative Outreach, or you can check out the books of Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating, or Cynthia Bourgeault.

I'll show you my pictures & give you a bit more of my perspective tomorrow. Until then, many many thanks are due to the four most amazing grandparents in the world, who took our boy & spoiled him all weekend long. This was the longest both of us had been away from our children at the same time. Texting to check on him also put a bit of a strain on the "silent" weekend. Surely texts don't count, right?

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