The first words of Jesus reported by Mark are, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1: 15). Immediately following comes the call of the first disciples: abandoning boat and nets, Simon and Andrew are promised they’ll be made fishers of men; James and John walk away from not only their livelihood but also their father, an act which at that time would likely signify either insanity or outright rebellion (Mark 1: 16-20).
It’s easy to hear these familiar words and stories with 21st century ears, missing their full force. Gospel proclamations, common in the Roman Empire, normally brought tidings of military victory, and it was the victors who heralded the expansion of the Empire and the resulting change in political authority, deeming it “good news”. This particular proclamation, however, is the gospel not of Caesar, but of God. Its hearers, too, are asked to make a change in their allegiance, not simply political allegiance to a new leader, but something much deeper … an allegiance of the heart. This “good news” ushers in the long foretold time of fulfillment, opening wide the door to the very repentance (metanoia) asked of all who have ears to hear.
Simon, Andrew, James and John heard the call and answered with a generous “yes.” What is it that made their “yes” possible? Who was this man who could ask something so outrageous and elicit such a response?
In Invitation to Love, Fr. Keating says that to repent means to change the direction in which you are looking for happiness (pp. 11-12 in the 20th Anniversary edition), and the foundational teachings of this book and the Spiritual Journey video series we have been invited to revisit this year shed much light on the subconscious motivations that so consistently derail even the most heroic efforts to bring about this sort of change in our heart’s allegiances. Thanks be to God for the slow and steady journey of divine therapy and its fruit, brought into reach by Centering Prayer.
Another central feature of contemplative practice is also captured by Mark in the telling of this story: Jesus’ exhortation to those fisherman was not, as YHWH’s to Abram, “Go!” Rather, it was, “Come after me.” The language is that of following, of accompaniment, of relationship. Christ’s method is friendship, encounter, table fellowship, intimacy.
A homily I heard recently pointed out the efficacy of Jesus’ strategy: He met these fishermen precisely where they were and then pointed the way to something much greater. Their consent was to being made fishers of men, to participation in a fuller manifestation of gifts they were already putting to use.
How was their bold and immediate consent possible? They had encountered Divine Love, in the flesh.
Being met and accepted precisely where we are‚ being joined on the journey‚ changes everything. Our God, who is both transcendent and immanent, who is totally other and yet counts the hairs on each of our heads, who craves intimacy with us so much as to take on flesh and pitch a tent among us — our God crosses the great divide that on our own we are powerless to traverse. Yes, this changes everything. One might even speculate that this need of ours for accompaniment is the very reason for the Incarnation. Might it not be the Way that Jesus came both to model and to enable us to follow?
Not long ago, this life-changing Love was made flesh in my life through an unexpected “yes” given in answer to an absurd invitation. The back story: I had made arrangements with the prison Chaplain for a slot in his very busy chapel calendar so that a guest speaker might visit the Centering Prayer group I facilitate inside a local correctional facility. Then, later in the very same day I had shared the exiting news with the group, I received a call that the visit wouldn’t be possible after all. Not wanting to disappoint the men, I cast every net in my boat, hoping to find someone willing to come in his place. I emailed everyone I could think of, near and far, and left voicemail messages for several total strangers, including one about whom I knew nothing save that she was scheduled to present several months later at a retreat center nearly 300 miles away.
Amazingly, Sue said “yes.” Actually, she first asked some questions, then said she would pray about it, and just a couple days later responded in the affirmative. Sue “yes” was to traveling six hours each way and filling out plenty of prison facility paperwork, in order to do a brief introduction to the Welcoming Prayer with the group of 25-30 inmates who faithfully show up every Friday morning to learn about and practice Centering Prayer at significant cost to her, and with no earthly remuneration. Her consent made Christ manifest to me and to the men in the group. Her very presence was an incarnation of Divine Love in our circle. It communicated (in a way no words ever could) the God who always wants to live through us the promise, “I am with you.”
An encounter with Divine Love captivates. It changes us. Sue’s “yes” brought something to life in me and in the group; it called me on and encouraged me to stretch in new ways, giving me new eyes with which to see the Spirit’s movement among us. It prompted conversations in the circle about the miraculous paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence, more than many in the free world; those who are incarcerated often both better understand the Reality that transcends time and space and better appreciate the gift of in-the-flesh visitors whose simple presence communicates God’s love and care. There is a reason God took on flesh. I am humbled and filled with gratitude every time I travel to join the inmates for our circle, knowing that simply by showing up I participate in God’s ongoing Incarnation.
Encountering Christ in another helps me break out of my narrow ego-driven view of things; it helps me see more clearly the limitations — indeed, the utter insufficiency of my own self-designed plans and emotional programs for happiness. Practicing Centering Prayer inside those walls is opening my eyes in ways I couldn’t previously have imagined to the fact that what I have long seen as the bread-and-butter essentials of life may be providing for material needs and meeting external obligations, but, without being transformed and put in the service of a higher purpose, even putting to use God-given gifts will not bring about the happiness I desire.
This must be something like what moved Simon, Andrew, James, and John that fateful day by the sea when they stepped out in trust, leaving behind everything familiar to follow Jesus. Their response to Love Incarnate was generous consent, and it changed the course not only of their own lives but of many others, in turn. It is in encountering Love that we are emboldened to love, for God’s love cannot but be fruitful. For me, at least, it is learning to open my heart to this dance of mutual accompaniment that brings true repentance within reach.
Chandra Hanson has been practicing Centering Prayer for five years and facilitating a group at the Graceville Correctional Facility for just over a year, with a great deal of support‚ and accompaniment‚ from Prison Contemplative Fellowship (Ray Leonardini), the Pensacola (FL) Chapter of Contemplative Outreach, and several long-time Centering Prayer practitioners. She is currently helping develop a pilot program that aims to offer Contemplative Spiritual Companionship to inmates with an established Centering Prayer practice. If you have both training in Spiritual Direction/Companionship and an established contemplative practice and are interested in accompanying an inmate via written correspondence, please email Companions.StAnne@gmail.com for more information and an application. For information about starting a Centering Prayer group at a prison near you, contact Prison Contemplative Fellowship: firstname.lastname@example.org