“In returning and rest is my salvation.”
When I was in the 7th grade I wrote a short story about a young girl who ran away from home. At the encouragement of my parents and my teachers I entered it into a countywide “Write-A-Book Contest” and rejoiced when I won first prize. Reflecting back on that moment, like most writers, even young ones, I was writing from experience. There was within me an impulse to run away to find my way home, a place to which I could escape.
I need stillness, silence and solitude in order to do the work that my writing demands. I escape to imaginary places to create worlds that I can translate to the written page. Creatively this can be productive, but emotionally and spiritually, escaping can be detrimental to my spiritual development. I came to my Centering Prayer practice in my mid-20’s around the same time that I joined a 12-step program for compulsive overeating. In the years between childhood and adulthood, what began as a retreat to my imaginary creative worlds, became an escape route from all of the angst and pain of childhood wounds. And so I entered into the practice of Centering Prayer a self-professed full-fledged escape artist. Over time, I found a new shelter in my contemplative spiritual practice: It provided me the same space for stillness, silence and solitude than writing, but with a more life giving practice of “letting go” which challenged my habitual coping mechanism of escape.
We often refer to Father Keating’s image of “boats floating down the stream of consciousness.” as a representation of our thoughts. When I practice observing these boats just off the shore of my intention to consent to the prayer, as a recovering escape artist, I see them as a get away vehicle. Anywhere but here, where I am, in this still presence of God who wants to do whatever mysterious thing with my overthinking, overanalyzing, hypercritical mind. What does God want with my mind? Why is being here, now, more valuable to our intimate relationship than being on that boat floating out there. Honestly, I do not know. But I know that God enjoys my presence on the riverbank a great deal.
It would be years before I came to see these escape boats as all too convenient vehicles enabling me to run from my emotions. And years more before I discovered that I had a temptation to run from the “good” feelings, as much as the “bad” feelings. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I left the riverbank, boarded one of the boats idling just off the shore, and took a 3-day cruise down the river. I had been feeling anxious all week, during these heightened times of uncertainty and that day, I didn’t show up for my date with Jesus on the riverbank. And I didn’t show up for 3 whole days. When I came back, still distressed, there he was, faithfully sitting in our same spot on the riverbank, arms outstretched, ready to join me in prayer. Through the practice of Centering Prayer I learned how much God desires to be present to my feelings, my joys and my fears, and how the Spirit lovingly invites me at the same time to let them go.
Centering Prayer has also come to teach me something very important about “returning.” Returning to the practice and returning within the practice. During those twenty minutes, I am practicing the graceful art of return. I am constantly consenting and returning, to my salvation that the prophet Isaiah alludes to. Our salvation is not one moment in time. Rather, we are continually being held by God. Centering Prayer teaches this. We know well the story of the prodigal son and the joy the father has when he returns. So is our experience in Centering Prayer. Each time we say the sacred word, we can imagine the joy of the father running to meet us on our way back…our way back to consenting, our way back to the riverbank. Our way back home.
But there is also this paradox. The young girl in my “Write-A-Book Contest” story ran away from home. She was searching for something – meaning, belonging, love, community. Yet unlike the prodigal son, she never returned home. In some way, I have never returned home either. Instead what I have found is that in practicing “returning” in Centering Prayer, home became not a physical place but rather a place of ultimate belonging and meaning within myself where I discovered I was no longer alone. In what has become my favorite of Fr. Keating’s writings, ‘The Storm in Us’ from his collection of meditations in Reawakenings, he says “contemplative prayer demolishes the monumental illusion that God is absent.”
Like so many of us, I did not know as a young girl that I was not alone. To be honest, sometimes I still forget. But it is especially in those moments that Centering Prayer becomes my way to return home. In the silence of the prayer, in the inner sound of my sacred word, the Holy Spirit tells me as often as I consent – “God is not absent. You are not alone.” And over time,it became true. Truer than any other sound, truer than any other thought. Truer than any of my ideas about who God is.
In this profound way Centering Prayer can become more than a space for silence, more than Divine Therapy, more than a transformative healing practice. Centering Prayer can become grace itself.
As we sit in Centering Prayer, in those moments when we are really at rest…when all thoughts seem to sit just above the surface of our being present to and in God, when all is quiet and still, when we touch that mystery of oneness with God…we also experience the vastness of God’s loving presence. It is where we come to know that there is no place like home and home is also no place. There is no returning and no going away…we are suspended in that place and time where we have always been. We are eternally, as Tillich says, simply in the “ground of being.”
Colleen Thomas is a certified Spiritual Director trained in the monastic art of spiritual discernment and retreat leadership, with an MA in Theology from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. She is founder and curator of Soul Care LA an urban “monastery” offering spiritual companionship for enterprising artists, entertainers and entertainment professionals. To find out more, visit her website www.soulcarela.com