"Pop, pop, pop!" It was that rapid fire succession that I usually associate with Fourth of July and fireworks. But last week wasn't the midpoint of summer, it was the midpoint of Lent. And I was settling into the first day of a Lenten retreat, "Centering Prayer and Nondual Awakening" at The Garrison Institute on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. So there I was meditating, saturating in that sweet silence when "pop, pop, pop!" cut right in.
And that interruption wasn't the only one, there would be many, many more! You see, Centering Prayer is a meditative practice of intention. The moment our mind fixes its attention on a sound (like fireworks), or a thought (like, 'why are there fireworks?'), or a feeling (like, "hey! I'm on retreat stop with those fireworks!!) - that is simply an opportunity to practice our intention to be with/in God. Each new thought gives you a chance to exercise the 'muscle' of letting go.*
I was with a group of about 70+ people from all over, some were probably clergy - but I don't know because we didn't talk. We prayed and we listened. We gathered three times each day to practice Centering Prayer, to exercise that mental muscle of "letting go;" and we listened to the teachings of the retreat leader, the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault an Episcopal priest, author and scholar.
This form of Christian prayer and meditation is challenging because it is so very simple. There is no pre-work, no steps to ascend or scripture to memorize or doctrine to adhere to. It's just an intention, a desire, to grow closer to God. To see and feel and be aware of God's presence. Not so much during the time of meditation but through all the hours in-between. Its a practice that strengthens our awareness of that ever-present connection - a connection we let go of all day long - during the struggles of any given day when God can feel separate from where and who we are.
After our first meditation ended I went and stood by the river, the "pop-popping" was still going on. The source was across the water near a building that looked like a counterpart to the one I was staying in, a renovated seminary and monastery. So I pulled out my phone (yes, I texted during the retreat and checked email - albeit silently!) and got on Google maps. The building was The United States Military Academy, also known as West Point. So now the source of the "fireworks" made sense. How interesting that two institutions connected with peacemaking in very different ways have faced each other for almost 100 years.
There is much I could say about this retreat experience. It strengthened and renewed my personal practice, but also, I came away with a strong desire to bring Centering Prayer into our faith community at Good Shepherd. Yes we pray together every Sunday in worship and we "do" much good work together in celebration and in service. But there is something unique and special about this practice of awareness. On this retreat the presence of the Spirit was as palpable as those "pops" were audible - and that was with a group of strangers! I can only imagine how the Spirit could inform and enrich our individual and shared lives of faith if we gathered regularly to learn and practice this "muscle" of letting go and letting God.
Does this spark something in you? Are you interested in finding ways to "see with the eyes of your heart enlightened?" Do you feel stuck, or bored, or disconnected from your prayer life? Would you say you have a prayer life? I am praying there is a group of people at Good Shepherd who would like to join me in learning more and growing this practice in their lives. I'm going to write more about it in the weeks after Easter and see if these seeds plant something. If you're curious or interested I hope you'll talk to me on a Sunday or send me an email. May God help all of us see the new life always around us as we move towards Holy Week and Easter. Peace, Arianne+
* From, "The Heart of Centering Prayer" by Cynthia Bourgeault, 2016