By Katherine Leighton
Last November I had the privilege of retreat time facilitated by Martin Laird, OSA at the House of Prayer on the campus of St. John’s in Collegeville. We enjoyed a silent retreat and had periods of centering prayer, quiet time and outstanding vegetarian meals in an atmosphere perfect for retreat.
Following are thoughts from the talks Father Martin gave...he called them his mumblings! At times he attributed ideas to others and I may be missing some attribution.
As we continue our practice of centering prayer, distractions are experienced in a different way. Early on distractions are like the presence of a bee in a phone booth. As centering prayer brings a depth to the present moment our relationship with the bee changes. Instead of our tight, narrow self, with judging and blame in the phone booth we begin to meet the bee in a wide open field. The swarm of thoughts is still there, but in a wide open space.
The bees of distraction remain, but our relationship to them changes. How we react changes the more we practice. We stay in the phone booth for a long time, and are in and our of the phone booth forever, but deepening contemplation leads to expanding awareness that feels like inner spaciousness and the phone booth gives way.
Much of our suffering is due to meeting distraction with commentary. When we get ourselves out of the story line and stay with stillness, suffering ends. Whether thoughts are tumultuous or tame inner stillness can handle them.
Something in us opens and we can’t open it. Providence has its own time. The most master gardener cannot successfully say to a tulip bulb, “BLOOM” and expect it to happen. The gardener doesn’t grow anything in the garden, but works with nature, cultivates the soil and creates an environment that encourages flourishing.
We cooperate, but do not control. We practice. Real synergy happens when our cooperation meets grace. We ever more deeply participate in God’s time by cooperating.
There will be trials and we can’t advance without practice and trials. Trials make the contemplative. He told the story of an atrium where large trees grew inside. They had to be chained to the ceiling in order to stand because the lack of wind, rain and nature’s pummeling meant they didn’t grow strong roots. We need trials to grow roots. Practice is the work we do, God gives the gift of contemplation.
No contemplative practice is meant to be rigid. Our practice becomes our own.
The saints didn’t find practice easy...St. Teresa wrote of shaking the hour glass to try to make prayer time go by faster!
Silence is very dynamic, it will do what needs to be done with our wounded, dark side. It will happen in God’s own time. We have to trust it. The more still the mind becomes the less our dysfunctional commentary works to distract us into suffering.
If you want suffering to grow, run from it. Afflictive emotions are parasitic, they thrive when we avoid them. When we stop fighting what is happening the winds of resistance stop. Just sit still, stay with your practice. It can be very hard on us because we want action and want to be stars.
When distraction comes just let it be, don’t whip up a commentary, just look over its shoulder (John of the Cross) and space will open. Real spiritual progress does not happen without struggle, life happens. Let it be as it is in any given moment. We will see many things we don’t want to see about ourselves, but it is the only way to grow. Struggle leads us to the deep bedrock of peace.
The practice of contemplation seeks nothing, God is already present within us, we just keep releasing, releasing, releasing until there is an awakening. We realize there is a place within that has never been wounded and has always been free.
Sometimes we cling and can’t let go. First let’s look at what we cling to. Often it is our self image, could be new pain, old pain. Let it be. Just keep releasing. We all think we can fix ourselves, but we can only cooperate with grace.
Intercessory prayer draws us closer to God’s will. Pseudo Dennis gave the image of a person in a boat who has tied a rope around a rock and intends to pull the rock off the shore. What happens is the boat is pulled toward the rock. We think we know what we want and try to bend God’s will to our will. When we pray we pull ourselves closer to God and become united to God’s will.
As contemplation deepens we realize that we are all connected, we are all one. The intercessory dimension is intrinsic to centering prayer.
This is a smattering of the ideas presented. To expand I highly recommend two books by Martin Laird: Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence.