In my fifteenth year of sobriety, I realized that I wanted to thank God in a formal way for rescuing me from alcoholism. Joining a church seemed like the best idea—I wanted to pray regularly with others—and I had been attracted to Catholicism for a few years without taking the plunge. So one bright autumn day I marched up to my neighborhood church, St. Luke's (now St. Thomas More) and enrolled in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) class. At Easter of 2000—a resonant year—I was received into the Church.
I have a background as an academic agnostic with a jumpy mind, and it seemed obvious to me that my biggest challenge in practicing the Christian faith would be figuring it out. I loved the beauty of the liturgy, of course, and the dedication of the priests and the religious, but I knew that my real task was getting a clear handle on things like the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth. There must be a set of intellectual keys, I thought, for unlocking and understanding these strange things.
When I got the opportunity to write a book in 2006, it was in service of this quest. How to Believe (Random House, 2008) is based on a series of interviews with Christian thinkers, clergy, and laypeople in which I ask them to explain their understanding of the faith, and especially of mind-bending doctrines like the above. To my surprise, many of my informants told me that figuring these paradoxes out wasn't the point. The point was to use them as perfect tools to open my mind to the presence of God, who can never be fully "thought-out," only surrendered to, adored, and thanked.
Not long after, I joined the Centering Prayer group at St. Thomas More—as kind and loving and truly spiritual a cluster of human beings as I have ever come across. I had known about Centering Prayer for a few years—I'd taken instruction in it from Basil Pennington during one of his visits to the Twin Cities—but I hadn't practiced it much, distracted as I was by my search for those doubt-destroying, certainty-producing, purely intellectual keys.
But sitting with my friends in the sanctuary on Tuesday nights, in silence, resisting, retaining, and reacting to none of my many thoughts, I slowly found myself going in two beautiful directions at once: on the one hand, letting go of my demand to understand the faith on my terms; and on the other, coming to find that words like Trinity, Real Presence, and Communion were taking on a new and deeper resonance and a clarity too, a clarity beyond definition. As I went deeper into silence in the presence of Love, those words became road signs toward a deeper silence and a richer Love.
And I also began noticing the changes that are the real point of being on a spiritual path: I was being a little more consciously loving with my wife, a little less prone to annoyance with the world, a little more welcoming of whatever shows up in my life. Today I'm convinced that this task of welcoming and accepting is the best possible employment for my mind, while, with the help of Centering Prayer, I let God change me in whatever paradoxical ways He chooses.
Jon Spayde is a facilitating member of the St. Thomas More Centering Prayer group, and is a regular presenter at the 12 Step Spirituality Workshop, which meets at the Colonial Church of Edina from October through May.