Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"For wherever your treasure is ...

... there will your heart be too." (Matthew 6:21, New Jerusalem Bible)

I once saw Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, interviewed on television. Maybe by Bill Moyers. She was asked at one point why she had chosen to remain a Roman Catholic, especially given her views on the role of women in the church.

No, Sister Joan is not the sweet lady on that network you surf past sometimes where you can almost smell the incense. She is instead a Benedictine nun who has been a tireless voice for justice and an important spiritual leader:

Sister Joan's answer to that interviewer was one of the best answers to a question I've ever heard (the best answer is the one I use most often: "that depends.") Sister Joan said, without, as I recall, skipping a beat, "Because the Roman Catholic Church is a treasure house of the Christian tradition."

One of the coins in that treasure house was removed from its coffer over 30 years ago, polished until it shone, and sent into circulation, where it continues to collect interest (OK, took that metaphor as far as it'll stretch). The contemplative prayer tradition, always at the edges of Christian theology and spiritual practice, emerged into the thriving spiritual market of the 1970's as "centering prayer," outlined in the work of Trappist monks Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Meninger.

The work of Fr. Keating is perhaps best distilled in his contemporary spiritual masterpiece Open Mind, Open Heart ( It has also given rise to Contemplative Outreach, a ministry designed to make contemplative life and prayer a vivid and viable choice for both Catholics and non-Catholics:

This is where I enter the story. In 1994, as I was wrestling with my vocational future (as I am currently - note to potential employers) my mystical mom suggested a centering prayer retreat at a place called Chrysalis House in upstate New York. As an analytical type with a very restless mind (and distinctly more OCD than OSB) I suspected I was more of an Ignatian Spiritual Exercises type. You know, a spend-20-minutes-in-prayer-and-solve-three-major-longstanding-theological-conundrums-before-breakfast kind of guy.

Besides, Chrysalis House was apparently vegetarian and, worse, potentially involved still more dubious practices such as chanting and smiling for no reason. And me, raised a hamburger-loving, dour, non-chanting Presbyterian (please note: this is not meant as a characterization of Presbyterians generally, some of whom are no doubt chanting as they read this).

But I signed up anyway. And it became apparent pretty quickly that Chrysalis House was a very special place (it has since closed). Centering prayer, not to go into too much detail, involves making oneself present to God, and God's interior healing activity, and gently renewing that presence by returning to a sacred word (individual to each person) when distracted. Beyond the river of thought and the sacred word is interior silence and pure attentiveness. I can recall going into my room at Chrysalis House at one point and realizing that my rhythms had slowed and my mind calmed to the point that I could just sit wide awake without the need to do anything except be.

There's more to it, obviously. Also obvious are the parallels with other meditative practices and contemplative traditions, with Zen Buddhism being perhaps the most evident analog. My own practice of centering prayer has led me to a personal dialog with Eastern Orthodox hesychasm, Zen, Hindu Sannyasa, the spirituality of the indigenous peoples of North America, and Sufism. It has also led me into the monestary, and back into the world.

I have not uniformly maintained my centering prayer practice. Maybe I'm not the only contemplative dad forced to make this confession. When I am loyal to my prayer practice and give God the space, I often refind that place of equanimity I first discovered at Chrysalis House 15 years or so ago. The practice of letting go carries into my day, and I am present to people and situations in ways uncharacteristic of "ego me." And then it's all too easy to succumb to the temptation to use prayer not as a means of spending time with God, but a coping mechanism I can bend to my own stressed-out purposes.

Nevertheless, this blog has "Contemplative Dad" right there in the title, so I figured maybe I owed a few words about what that precisely means. Centering prayer has been somewhat controversial, no surprise given its relationship to other mystical and meditative traditions. Besides, if you ask me, you're asking for trouble as a Roman Catholic if you put "Open Mind" right there in the title of your book. Yet the simple truth is that centering prayer leads not to freedom from the material world, with its immense brokenness, but into it's very heart. The detachment it cultivates is not freedom from engagement but freedom for it.

In other words, the road still leads, inevitably, to the cross.

- monk about town

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Tales of a Contemplative Dad by Monk About Town is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at