Sunday, March 28, 2010

A New Initiative

We're beginning a new project, or undertaking a new initiative, or whatever words are appropriate to the beginning of a new ministry. Yesterday (Saturday) we had the first of a series of events that we hope will enable Holy Cross to spread the knowledge and practice of contemplative prayer to people who live around us. Contemplative prayer is the foundation of the monastic life, so it's something that we have to offer and there is a good deal of interest in this kind of prayer at the present time, so we're hoping to find an enthusiastic audience.

As a vehicle for this project we're going to be using Centering Prayer, one of the most well-known forms of meditation in Christianity. Yesterday we had the introductory workshop, and it was a great success.

We advertised the event among the local Episcopal parishes and in other places that we know about, and we didn't know what kind of success we would meet with. This is a rural and small-town area and the immediate neighborhood is pretty poor. We didn't know how much interest there was going to be in an introductory workshop in Centering Prayer, so we thought that maybe if we got between 5 and 10 people, that would be an encouraging beginning. We actually had just over 30 people come, which both surprised and delighted us.

We are working with Contemplative Outreach, an organization that oversees how Centering Prayer is promoted and taught, and they provided us with a presenter named Bruce Gardiner from the Albany area, and they couldn't have done better for us in our first effort. He was superb. He is obviously easy on his feet and confident in his abilities as a speaker. But much, much more than that, he has a thorough knowledge of the contemplative tradition, and an ability to present it so that people can grasp what he is talking about. This is not a common combination.

Centering Prayer is a nearly formless approach to meditation and that makes it hard to describe. It has as one of its central focuses the use of a "Sacred Word" - a one or two syllable word like 'peace', 'Jesus', 'open' etc., which you use to draw yourself back into silence when you get carried off by thoughts. Exactly what the sacred word is, what it's for, and how you choose one is one of the most important parts of Centering Prayer and it turns out not to be easy to grasp. Our need for control is so great that it's tempting to use the word as a sort of mantra to center the mind, or even as a club to beat down distractions with.

The real purpose of the sacred word is to help you to consent to just being in silence and to waiting for whatever transformation God has to offer you. It needs to be used gently and delicately and if you don't, the result can be something far distant from what Centering Prayer is intended to be. Bruce did the best job of presenting this part of the discipline that I have ever heard, and over the years I've heard quite a number of presentations.

With a deft touch and a solid confidence in his presentation, Bruce guided our little group through the introductory material and led us in two sessions of practice. The silence was deep and it felt like the prayer was on target. I could not have asked for more for the day, and I've been teaching meditation for about 40 years, so I'm intending that to be high praise.

At the end of the day, 14 of the participants indicated interest in the six follow-up sessions that lead on from here. If those sessions go well (and maybe even if they don't) we want them to lead into the formation of a meditation group that will meet here one night a week, and can be an on-going resource for people in our area and for those who come to our Guesthouse.

We are also beginning a series of Centering Prayer retreats which will provide a more intensive experience in the use of this form of meditation, and can serve as an opportunity for deepening the spiritual practice of those who live further from the monastery and who can't get here frequently.

So this effort joins our other recent initiatives in beginning St Rafael's Place - our work with people with AIDS - and the work we are doing with the homeless in Kingston and Newburgh. We've been very successful in attracting people from around the Northeast to our Guesthouse, and from much further away as well. Now we're concentrating on those in our immediate neighborhood, to see how the prayer that sustains the life of this place can also sustain the lives of those who are our neighbors.

This also happened in a small way this morning. We've been working on our celebration of Palm Sunday for several years now, and putting some effort into seeing whether we could create a procession that was truly joyful. What kind of music could be used, what sort of instruments would get Episcopalians to actually break out into joy? This year it seems like we have succeeded. For the first time in my many years of Palm Sunday processions, I felt like I actually wanted to dance during the procession - so I did. (I was also beating a large drum and holding Palms and Pussy Willows, so it was quite a project!). It was joyful, it was fun, it was holy. It was, in short, an excellent way to dive into Holy Week, and wonderful to share with people from our area who came to celebrate with us.

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