It’s All About What God Has in Mind for You

Opening Minds, Opening Hearts Podcast Season 2 Episode 2 with Fr. Justin Lanier

Episode Title: It’s All About What God Has in Mind for You 

“His (Father Thomas’s) vision for the community and the Contemplative Outreach Organization was group meetings and group training. He also wanted to bring contemplatives together without an agenda.” - Father Justin Lanier

In today’s episode we welcome Father Justin Lanier, an Episcopal Priest. He was born in Louisiana and grew up in Delaware where he went to both Methodist and Episcopal churches. Father Justin was ordained as a priest and went to Trappist monastery in St. Benedict’s in Snowmass under the direction of Abbot Joseph Boyle and Father Thomas Keating until their deaths in 2018. As part of his formation, he also trained in a Zen monastery in Japan and has known the Contemplative Outreach Organization for some time. In this episode, we will focus on the expanding vision of the community of Contemplative Outreach.


“You don’t have to spend every waking hour in Centering Prayer, but it made me recognize the moment to moment aspect of the practice and I learned to keep the prayer while I was working.” - Father Justin Lanier 

In this episode
  • Father Justin shares how he came to Centering Prayer and how his spiritual life was formed. A near-death accident in soccer helped him realize what was important to him and what is worth dying for, oneness with God. Shortly after he attended a retreat with Father Thomas Keating and the experience was life-changing. 
  • He shares some teaching Father Thomas helped him to work through and better understand Centering Prayer and his spiritual journey. Father Justin shares that life itself has a contemplative aspect to it. 
  • Father Justin talks about a retreat setting and how it can help the surrender to start to open up and stay open. The mind is settled, you're not reacting to your thought stream, you are being surrendered, not reflecting or talking to self, not grasping thoughts, and the heart is open to the Divine.
  • We discuss how the practice can be lived outside the monastery and Father Thomas’s vision of establishing a community to return to in order to deepen our practice. 
  • He reflects on the parish in Western culture. We discuss the place for it, the importance, and how the parish can be both a hospital and a medical school at the same time because it provides both healing and teaching.
  • Father Justin leaves us with the question: “In the end, in your last breath, what’s your practice? When you are on your deathbed, what’s your practice?”

“The parish is oftentimes the symbol of the place you go when you are in spiritual need. Whether you are seeking or broken or at your wits end, people of all walks of life and stages and manner of health and disease come. No one has to pay to get in, it’s not a club. Not only the priest but that community is there for you … For a contemplative to be present in a parish setting, you have to be intentional about it. The parish can take all of your energy, yet it’s much more important to do it from a place of surrender. That is the Spirit’s work.” - Father Justin Lanier


To learn more about Father Thomas Keating’s guidelines for service and principles visit 

To connect with Fr. Justin Lanier 
To connect further with us:  

Season 2 of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts was made possible by a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Process, a charitable foundation encouraging meditation, mindfulness and contemplative prayer.

This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana LLC

Opening Minds, Opening Hearts EP# 2: It’s All About What God Has in Mind for You with Fr. Justin Lanier

[cheerful music starts]

Colleen Thomas [00:00:02] Welcome to Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, a podcast about the transformative practice of Centering Prayer. In each episode, we will talk to Friends of Contemplative Outreach about their personal practice. Listen in as our guests share insights about the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, how the practice impacts their work in the world, and their thoughts about how Centering Prayer connects to the living traditions of contemplation and meditation. We are your hosts, Colleen Thomas.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:00:35] And Mark Dannenfelser.

Colleen Thomas [00:00:36] Centering Prayer practitioners and contemplative life seekers who love to talk a little too much about how the practice of contemplative prayer transforms our inner and outer worlds. Our hope is to open the door for you to explore more deeply this powerful practice of Centering Prayer.

[cheerful music ends]

Colleen Thomas [00:01:00] Welcome to the Contemplative Outreach Podcast, Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. I'm Colleen Thomas.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:08] And I'm Mark Dannenfelser.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:10] How you doing?
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:11] It's good to be here again, Colleen. I'm doing good. How are you?
Colleen Thomas [00:01:15] Am good. I'm excited to be back again for another conversation.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:20] Yeah. I'm especially excited today to talk to our guest about this evolving and expanding vision of Contemplative Outreach and how it all got going. Yeah, we've been looking at this first principle in Contemplative Outreach. We have these principles that guide us, and this one is talking about that Contemplative Outreach is this evolving community with an expanding vision. And then it also says that it has a deepening practice of Centering Prayer and attempts to serve the changing needs of the Christian contemplatives. So this evolving community and expanding vision is where we're zeroing in on today, isn't it?
Colleen Thomas [00:01:59] I think it's important. I hear evolving community and then I think about where or from what is it evolving? What is this community? What was the vision that's expanding?
Mark Dannenfelser [00:02:11] Yeah, we get to maybe look at that a little bit today from the early days, the history of Contemplative Outreach. And also we definitely want to hear more from our guest about Father Thomas Keating and his vision. And I think this guest we have today is a kind of the perfect person for this. So why don't I get to introducing him for our listeners. Today, we're going to be speaking with Father Fr. Justin Lanier, Episcopal priest. Justin was born Louisiana, grew up in Seaford, Delaware. He went to the Methodist and Episcopal churches. He was ordained a priest in the Episcopal tradition.
Justin has worked as a parish priest in several different parishes. In addition to attending the seminary for his training to become a priest, Justin's spiritual formation also included time in the Trappist monastery of St. Benedict's in Snowmass, Colorado, where he was under the direction of the Abbott Joseph Boyle, and also taking spiritual direction from Father Thomas Keating. And Justin continued to be guided by these two men until their deaths in 2018. As part of his formation, Abbott Joseph also sent Justin to train in a Zen monastery. So this led him to Kyoto, Japan, where he entered a training monastery there. Justin has known the Contemplative Outreach Organization for quite some time. It's a true delight to have you with us today. Justin, welcome.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:03:43] Thanks. I'm so excited to be here.
Colleen Thomas [00:03:46] Me too, Justin. I've been excited about this since we first talked, which wasn't too long ago on Zoom. That was such a transformative conversation for me. I wish we had recorded that actually, because you dropped some gems.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:04:06] Oh, man. Well, anytime we talk, you could just hit record. My memory is not so great on whatever I said, but sometimes the spirit moves and it's received. That's great.
Colleen Thomas [00:04:16] No, that's how it was. I actually took notes talking to you and I was looking at them preparing for this. Sometimes it's funny when you talk with a true contemplative, it feels like you just grasp what's meant for you at that moment and trust that it's doing the work. Because I look at these notes and I'm like, what were we talking about? But it was rich and man, it's in me. So I'm sure that our guests, our audience will have a similar experience hearing you today and we want to talk about a lot. But first we want to just hear from you what we invite all of our guests to open up the conversation with, which is talking to us a bit about how you first came to the practice of Centering Prayer and how Centering Prayer formed your spiritual life at the time and how it continues to.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:05:14] So when I was growing up in Seaford, Delaware, there, I mean, it's pretty rural. It's less rural now, like every place maybe. But, and so the closest kind of contemplative thing we had was like martial arts. So I was involved in a bunch of martial arts, and particularly the Japanese styles, the karate and then sword fighting and Aikido. But I'm not really a fighter. Some of my buddies who were in the karate school, like they went on to be army rangers and marines and stuff. And I was like, yeah, yeah. But I knew probably when I was 16, I was in this more of a hoorah kind of mindset, and it was in a soccer match. And I fractured my skull because I jumped up, I had a header, hit the ball, the other guy drilled me right in the temple, knocked me out cold.
Don't even remember it. But I saw a video. And also in the video is from the opposing team side. My mother climbs up this fence, jumps this eight foot fence and runs across. You can see her in the background looked like Spider-man. So anyway, the doctors were like, man, you almost died in the soccer match. And I was like, I'm not really willing to die for soccer. And by then I was interested in the Special Forces unit and on my headboard, I had just recently been given three books. One was Meister Eckhart's Sermons from the German, the Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich, the showings. I think I was eating this stuff up and I was like, what am I willing to die for? Whatever that is, one is with God. Like that signed me up. And so I think I was about 16.
And when I got to University of Delaware, I came across a workshop with Father Thomas Keating in Butler in Ramsey, New Jersey, I think. And I got about, I had a stipend of 50 bucks a month from one of my uncles. God love him for things that you couldn't get in the dining hall. So I took the 50 bucks and I bought a ticket, a bus ticket from Delaware to Ramsey, New Jersey, the Don Bosco school for boys. And I called ahead and the I'd stayed in the residence with the brothers. And little did I know Father Thomas was down the hall. And before I left I went to Refactory and I made a dozen sandwiches. And that was the food I took on the trip. It was a intro to Centering Prayer. And I had read the website, and this is in like 96, so like the internet is fresh.
And by then I had also done some zazen training. I take the bus, I get there, I stay with the brothers. The next day we're all in this auditorium and it's like chitchat and a little bit of banter. And then all of a sudden the whole atmosphere changes. And something in me, just like the center of gravity, just dropped to the center of the earth. And I was like, and I'm starting to wonder like what just happened? And then I see Father Thomas do his six foot plus tall walk down the aisle and went right by me. And I was like, that's what it was. It was that guy right there. That's the antenna for this gravity. I was like, man, whatever this guy's teaching. I'm ready. Let's sign me up. So then he taught some aspects of Centering Prayer.
I think Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler was also there, so she was there as well. And oh yeah, it was wild. I was like, this is brilliant. And I was a philosophy student. And by now I had been studying, if I could say studying. I had been reading Meister Eckhart in The Cloud for a couple years. It wasn't real yet, but when Thomas walked by, I was like, this guy is a meister Eckhart, this guy right here is the cloud of unknown author. Whatever's going on here. I met him after everything. And I worked for the brothers, moved the tables around and stuff for my stay. And so we're in the residence or the enclosure or whatever they call them. I walked down and I see Father Thomas and I thanked him so profusely for this lovely workshop.
And he really had the chronic fatigue syndrome at the time. So he was only really up out of bed for a couple hours a day. And I happened to get him at a time when he was up, I think. And so I told him, I was like, I'm interested in this contemplative life. I'm interested in contemplative training. And he's like, “Well, you should come to the monastery.” And I was like, brilliant, “We have wonderful cookies.” And I was like, what does cookies have to do with anything? But then when I got there, like the food was pretty bland. God bless Charlie and Benito, but that food was bland and all vegetarian and so they didn't have a lot to work with anyways. But the cookies, if you were on cookie duty, depending on who was in charge, there could be a lot of rejects which went into the monks bowl, which meant you could have cookies later. And they were very helpful because you had a lot of milk. You could have a lot of milk and if you had them cookies, that was a big help. When I took in Centering Prayer, I also took in the invitation to monastic life. And I had already been thinking about it and I'd been looking at a variety of monastic houses. But once I met Thomas and once I had that invitation, that's where I was going.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:11:11] Yeah. So when was that? When did you moved into the monastery?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:11:16] So they wouldn't take me right away because I was too young. I think they wanted me to be 20 or 21. So I wrote to them and went through the process and converted to Roman Catholicism. And it started directing my studies towards also theological study. And I think I entered it in 1999 because it was the whole Y2K.
Colleen Thomas [00:11:42] Yes.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:11:43] Make sure you got all your underwear in line because you're not going to get any more after the Y2K apocalypse.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:11:52] I didn't realize that people were going to monasteries to duck Y2K.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:11:57] Yeah. You figure like, this place hasn't really changed a whole lot in a long time. So what's gooing to happen? We had our own generators.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:12:06] But you weren't going to just kind of hang out there. You were making a commitment. I mean you were a, sometimes they call that being a novice there, right? A formal entrance into the monastery. Was it?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:12:19] So I was trying to make a formal entrance. When I first got involved, it was in a time period when you couldn't formally take the Abbort unless you were debt-free. Needless to say, there were very few guys my age in the monastery. The next guys up were like 55 was the next youngest guy. Because we all had debt. So, but they fixed that later. But it was too late for me by then. My vocation had already passed, the window was passed. So when I went in I was like, yes, you go in for like a little bit of time. Like I think I went in for a month or so and then they check it out and if it's a good fit they invite you back. I was there for about a month. They were like, good fit.
Come on in. I moved in 99 and then I was there for about a year or so before the Abbott was like, this is a good fit. Things look great. You're a smart guy. You're going to study for the priesthood eventually it seems you're going to need to finish that undergraduate degree. It doesn't get any easier. So after a year, I went back out to the University of Delaware and when I left Joe was like, come back for as long as you want. Stay for as long as you want anytime. And so we would be back and forth. I checked in with him I think maybe once a month by that point. So when I went in, also Thomas was my director, my spiritual director, my first year in the monastery. I had been doing Centering Prayer by then for three years or so.
But then I was learning for me the more subtle points by meeting Thomas once a week, sometimes three times a week, unless he was traveling. I got to work with him. I got to work with him so much, which was good because I was this real knucklehead as a great example. So you're sitting Centering Prayer and you're having thoughts, but you're not engaged in them. They're coming right down. And by now I know that you just let them go by. But for a while I thought for sure I had to have no thoughts. So every time a thought came down, I would smash it with the sacred word. So the thing would come down, sacred words, sacred word. I was just, it didn't last long because Thomas picked it up and he was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, that's not how it works.
Luckily I didn't stay in that kind of a Thor hammer mode for very long. But then he also noticed that back then we were getting up at three and we had vigils at like 3:15, 3:30. And that's when your day started. And you would go to sleep after Coplin around eight or nine o'clock. All the free time I had. I was in Centering Prayer in the church. Only later find out Father Thomas did the exact same thing. Only I knew how to sit in lotus position. And he had to be on his knees. So he notices one day that I'm like spending probably five to seven hours a day in Centering Prayer in the church. All my free time is in there.
And then we also have the offices and mass, et cetera. And I'm not going out for a hike. The place is like beautiful. It's in the Colorado, Rocky Mountains, it's gorgeous. And I am spending almost all my time in silent prayer, Centering Prayer. So he tells me one day when I'm in for my meeting, he says, ”I notice you've been doing a lot of sitting lately.” And I was like, yes sir, yes sir. Some people want to walk up the mountain and I want to run up the mountain. And he laughs. He says, “Well you should take the chairlift.” And I was like, chairlift. What? There's a chairlift. Very quickly he was breaking down a lot of the do it, I got to do this thing kind of knuckle headedness that I had.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:16:40] A variation on smashing the thoughts with the sacred word. It was that kind of push, push. And he's urging you to lay back a little, is that?
Fr. Justin Lanier[00:16:49] He was urging me to, well the thing that he said was, the life itself has a contemplative aspect to it. The monastic life itself. You don't have to spend every waking hour in Centering Prayer. But one of the other pieces that I realized when I started to take his to some degree, I'd sometimes, like when a teacher gives you a lesson, you're like, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Instead of seven hours, I'm only going to do five. That sounds good. That's dialing it. And for me it was dialing it back. It was dialing it back. But what it did was it made me recognize the moment to moment aspect of the practice rather than relying on seated. And I did walk and meditation too. So rather than just seated and walking and it would just overflow. I would sit for such a long period of time that I barely had to do any work to refresh the surrender in me.
I was in it so for so many hours and we were doing enough chanting to where my body seemed to be able to digest some of the silence so that I wasn't having weird hallucinations or I wasn't blowing any gaskets, really. Which can happen. Yeah. And did happen later in Japan. But it really, it opened up the moment to moment practice of mopping the floors. I mopped a lot of floors there. And then another time. So there was a work meeting in the morning. Some of the jobs came out. I had read Therese's, the Little Flower, and she said, pick the most humble job. So the bathrooms were up. So I was like, I'll do toilets. And they were like, nah. I was like, whatcha talking about I can do toilets. I know how to clean a toilet bowl. And they were like, yeah, but you're having a hard time keeping your prayer while you're mopping. So the toilets are more complicated. And also clearly I was going at it in that same charge up the mountain way. So they told me I couldn't do toilets, I wasn't ready, was not ready for toilets. And eventually, and they were right, it was hands down like it was right on. And then three months later I got assigned toilets.
Colleen Thomas [00:19:15] Now explain that to us, Justin. What was meant when they said keeping the prayer? Because we tend to really separate. We work and then we take a break and we pray or before we start working, we pray. But you're talking about keeping the prayer while you work.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:19:38] You notice in, I would say it occurs more in a retreat setting. So say you're on an intensive retreat or post intensive and the surrender just starts to open up and it just starts to stay open. So your heart, your mind of course is settled. You're not reacting to your thought stream. You're simply being surrender. That's one of the best ways I've found to really put words around it. Just simply being surrender. I'm not reflecting on myself. I'm not talking to myself. There are thoughts or there are not thoughts. Doesn't matter. Don't need to let anything go. You're not grasping on stuff. You are letting it all be. You're letting it flow right by, your heart is just open to the divine. If there's any inspiration or none, you're just surrender. And in my experience of monastic life, especially it's monastic life on Centering Prayer.
So not all places are like this, but for many of us, like Snowmass was the mothership. You're there, you're working with Thomas, you're in the kind of milieu that the Centering Prayer came out of. And in my case, I was kind of trying to get after it. And the heart is just surrendered, just open, surrendered. Sometimes you'll go into the census will shut down, but usually not, usually you're just mopping up. You're just sweeping up. But in those first couple months, I was still fighting fantasies and thoughts and I was having to let go of a lot of habitual thought patterns. And one of the pluses of the divine office is you're chanting the psalms so often that that just becomes the wallpaper and it helps write over those tapes. Almost like albums of pattern thinking. I was 21. So for me, college student, like girls are on the mind at that time.
Now also, I wasn't really prone to melancholy, but from time to time you miss your family. You miss your friends, you miss chicken wings, those patterns. Thomas like to talk about tapes and rewriting tapes with prayer sentences. The psalms, in many ways for me would rewrite the album with the Psalms. And so they would just be praying themselves just right through the mind. It was a such a great support to letting the Centering Prayer practice let it really start to unravel deeper and deeper aspects of my body, my nervous system, and really start to set a baseline for me for what surrender could be in a daily life. Because eventually I even worked in the bookstore interacting with people, interacting with women. It was like, that's no problem now. But like the year before it would've been harder.
It would've been hard to do. But, and everyone has their own patterns. It's just happened to be my set. And I still have lots of patterns there. There's seems like it's a deep treasure trove of thorns in many different sides of my life. But again, they're still being excavated. And so sometimes when you're in that surrendered place or when you simply are surrender, then unloading can happen and you're sweeping or you're mopping or you're doing the, and the unloading happens and it just flourishes and it moves on. You break out in a sweat or you break out in a cry and the thing just, it blooms right in front of you and it moves on. So that for me that's what I pulled away. That's what I took away from you're not ready for toilets. Because eventually I was working with the toilets and I didn't care if it was a humble job or not. It was just toilets. It's your time to do toilets. You do toilets
Mark Dannenfelser [00:23:52] Not attached to doing toilets or not doing toilets.
Colleen Thomas [00:23:55] Or how well the toilets get done.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:23:58] And then, I mean, those toilets, they needed a good job done too.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:24:03] So Justin, that's a pretty intense life living in a monastery. And you said earlier that the life itself has a contemplative aspect to it. That's what you were being encouraged to. Have you found, you've been able to, now that you're not in a monastery and for those of us who don't live that particular kind of life, do you find that sort of integration of contemplative living out here where there are a lot more toilets?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:24:33] There was a saying in Japan when I left the Zen monastery, which was one of the Zen masters who was nearby said, he said, well, you are leaving the monastery now. You're going to have to practice 10 times harder because it's easy in the monastery. And meanwhile, like the monastery was very austere. I mean it was, I thought the Trappist life was tough. And then I just got my rear end handed to me in Japan, what I found is I have to be much more intentional about how I spend my time because I don't have a monastic structure that is already doing that for me. You're not going to meet with the only 20 people you know, to pray seven times a day. Probably not. But you're going to be asked to do, I think in a non monastic life, you're going to be asked to do a lot more, more diverse things. If you've ever been to New Jersey, I'd now drive in the state of New Jersey to get to Philadelphia. And that is an intense toilet cleaning experience.
Mark Dannenfelser[00:25:45] I grew up in New Jersey. I know Ramsey, right? I know Don Bosco. Yeah.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:25:50] Oh, you know those places?
Mark Dannenfelser [00:25:51] Oh yeah, yeah. Toilet sir. Yeah.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:25:54] It's a lot. If you don't have a really intentional culture around you already, I have to be much more intentional myself because for me the cultural values around me are not the gospel values necessarily and certainly not contemplative values. So I have to be very intentional with sit got for me. Like the sits are foundational. Also, I always like to say too is like try and go on retreat. Even if that's just a couple days or a day. Try to go and retreat where the spirit can push the needle for you a little more. Also, little moments, many times throughout the day, super helpful for integration. And when the pandemic was going on, like my kids were in the dining room both on like computers trying to do their schoolwork over the internet. And meanwhile I'm cooking food and I'm wiping noses, I'm taking kids to the bathroom.
But whenever there's a moment, take that moment and I would just let the moment utterly go. I would let the moment just utterly be. And it was almost like trying to catch the echo from the sit earlier in the day so that I could in a flash, just touch back into that surrender, touch back into that surrender to the divine and do that as often as I could. And when I would have five minutes, I know there're going to be five minutes on this thing, whatever I'm doing, I just let that surrender open up as best I can. I think that's a big helpful piece. Does that get to what you were asking about?
Colleen Thomas [00:27:51] Yeah, and at the same time I hear you talking about how we can live the practice outside of a monastery, but what I'm also hearing is it seems like Father Thomas's vision for establishing a community called Contemplative Outreach would be so that we have a community to whom we can return to in order to deepen our practice. And so because you spent so much time with him and had these really personal interactions with him, I'm curious what you gained from him with regards to, what would you say was his vision for community that he held? As we're talking about the evolving community and expanding vision of the Contemplative Outreach, how would you describe or how did you understand Father Thomas's heart for community?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:28:56] To my mind, there are two obvious pieces. One is the Contemplative Outreach Organization. Like I did my first intensive at Snowmass from the monastery. I would drive up and it was great because I got off of work. So like I could drive up and I could go sit at the intensive. And I met Pat Johnson and like these amazing, amazing contemplatives who had kids. And Pat especially, one thing was the Contemplative Outreach Organization because everywhere I've gone, I've always connected as best I could with Contemplative Outreach. When I moved back to Ohio, when I was in Vermont and actually my parish as I was leaving, they set up their own chapter and they went train for presenting Mary McGuinness. The other thing I noticed, and so of course the Contemplative Outreach has the group meetings and group training. Thomas also, like with the contemplative exchange group, he also just wanted to bring Contemplatives together without much in the way of an agenda.
It's like, oh, like Rory, you should meet Justin. Oh Justin, you should meet Adam. Adam, you should meet Mark. And just like, and here comes Felina and here's Savannah. And it's like, it was, he just wanted to bring these people together the same as he did. He invited me to the first Snowmass conference junior edition, which was like the, everyone brought like a young, a junior. And so Father Thomas brought me the first year. And he really, part of what I saw was these are just people who love each other. Like that was the main teaching. They were in love with each other and they wanted to be converted to one another's understanding at such a deep level. I was like, this guy's Buddhist, but he's trying to become Jewish right now. He's trying to get on the inside of what it is as best he can.
So I think one of the formal ways to really house Father Thomas's teaching of Centering Prayer and William and Basil, that to really house those teachings, the Contemplative Outreach, particularly organization is a fantastic institution. On the other side, he also had this like very almost chaotic crew that he constantly was trying to put together. Even before we all went to the meeting, he constantly was like, if someone would visit, he'd say, “oh, you should meet Father Justin, he lives in Vermont.” And then next thing like you're visiting someone who's not too far away. And I feel like when folks who are really serious about the contemplative life, when folks get together, it's just really just so like, it's so helpful. It's so helpful to connect. It's so helpful to know each other and to just with your being, to support one another and to fall in love with each other and each other's practices and just want the best for each other. Just like it's, so that's the vision that I saw in him when he was around these other contemplatives. And then he tried to model with the interspiritual dialogue stuff at least as far as I was involved in. And then he tried to bring us all together and with the Richard Rohrs people and Lawrence Freeman, Tilden.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:32:31] Tilden Edwards.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:32:32] Tilden Edwards, yeah, that was brilliant. It's so fruitful. It's so unbelievably fruitful.
[solemn music starts]
Mark Dannenfelser [00:32:51]
In the Christian tradition, Contemplative Prayer is the opening of your mind and heart to God who is beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate contemplation. The method suggests four guidelines.
One, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within you.
Two, sit comfortably and relatively still close your eyes or leave them slightly open and silently introduce your sacred word.
Three, when you notice you have become engaged with a thought, simply return ever so gently to your sacred word.
And four, at the end of the 20-minute prayer period, let go of the sacred word and remain in silence for a couple of minutes. The additional time invites you to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.
[solemn music ends]
It sounds like that vision that Thomas had and maybe was a vision of the monastery as well, was quite porous. It did not have a lot of boundaries. In fact, wasn't it the Abbott Joseph at the monastery who actually sent you to this Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:34:20] They were not overly directive for better and for worse. Some guys couldn't handle it because it was too open. But also when they saw something that looked like it was going to get traction, they sent you. So Joe knew that I had this kind of warrior energy and that the Trappist life is a long, is a long stretch. And the Zazen is a monastic training really meant for, in this case, Japanese men from 18 to 33, I would say once you get to 30 and your body just, it starts to creak in ways that, but there were guys who were 50 years old there. I don't know how they did it. They mostly got kicked out before the winter season so that they wouldn't die in the winter. Anyway and Thomas was the same way. Like Thomas was not overly directive basically with me with one exception.
That was when it came to the actual prayer practice. It was not anything goes, but he would nip stuff right in the bud. I've apparently never been so funny as I was to Father Thomas with some of the things I had said. I thought they were great insights and he laughed in my face so hard. I was worried whether he was going to be able to take another breath. I was like, oh. I was like, oh, is that funny? I was like, oh my God, that's, oh my God, are you all right? They were not overly directive and when they saw something they wanted you to really take a strong look at it. And actually Joe was also had me take a strong look at getting married. When I connected with my wife Heather and I wrote him, I was like, oh, dag aren't Joe. And he didn't say like, well hurry yourself back here. He said, you got to check this thing out. And I was like, and part of me was like, what? He's like, yeah man, you got to check this thing out. You got to get to know this person. You got to see if you are called. Because they always, the main thing was like, it's all about the vocation that God has in mind for you, not whatever you think you're doing. So they were pretty good on that.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:36:40] So that deep exploration a key value for them. You go to Japan, you spend some time there. What about a year or so?
Fr. Justin Lanier[00:36:50] It was supposed to be a year, but Fukushima Roshi had Parkinson's disease and it was a rapid form while I was there. I was essentially in the last class. And so what was supposed to be a year turned to be seven months. And then he stopped training us. Once I saw that we weren't going to have regular one-on-one training with him, once that training season ended, I didn't re-up. I said, well, I'm going to go then. And I went back to Snowmass.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:37:21] Did you recognize there, in your time there, did you recognize similarities, these two ancient traditions, the Trappist and then Zen Buddhism? What things did you notice that were similar or that were different in terms of the practice itself or really just the contemplative life?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:37:38] First off, the tempo is way different. The tempo in the Rinzai Zen monastery in Japan was waterfall. It was drinking from the fire hose, you're going to get a drink, but also it's getting going to get in your eyes, it's going to get in your nose, it's going to blow your clothes off. And so the austerity there was really helpful because it puts you in the most uncomfortable place all the time like you were. And you could get thrown out in a heartbeat and there was a guy that trying to get you to quit. So you're constantly challenged to re-up. You're constantly challenged to return to the practice. Constantly in my experience, and I was really just a baby monk in both traditions really. But in my baby monk experience, the Rinzai practice had such a cultivation of concentration that before you really got into any koan study, you had to really have this one pointedness.
Now I've talked to some guys that don't have that experience, but the part of the teaching there was like before you do koan study, what's the sound of one hand clapping? Or does the dog have a Buddha nature? This kind of thing. You had to be one pointed. So you're talking about sitting for 50 minutes basically with a concentration on one thought, which would be this conundrum eventually. What's the sound of one hand clapping or, I mean there were 10,000 koans, so we used a big curriculum. Now you can push somebody pretty hard and it really helps the concentration really get honed in was my experience. And in the Trappist, in my experience, Christian monastic life in the Trappist way that it was a receptive and brotherly love. It was a receptive practice Centering Prayer coming right out of this. I could never crack a koan with Centering Prayer.
They're such different ways of tackling. I think if you have a big toolbox, you can have the both these styles in there. I think in the end though, the question for me is like in your last breath, what's your practice. When you're just on your deathbed, what are you doing? What's your practice? Do you know? Is it a surrender? Is it utmost surrender to God? Is it this kind of non-dual breaking open? And I think the entourage effects of both styles, they have different qualities too. Father Thomas, even William, Joe, these guys were very loving people. Fukushima Roshi, he was unbelievably generous. We shook hands but didn't really hug.The culture it wouldn't have a hug thing. And like shaking hands was a big deal. And he was like unbelievably generous, particularly as Japanese Rinzai Zen master, head Abbott of this entire lineage of temples varied amazingly down to earth guy.
So the entourage effects also were like Thomas, when you sat with him, he didn't laser beam you right through your soul, but you could be in with Fukushima Roshi and you're in there with a dragon. He could just look at you and just laser beam right through you and just stuff just would burn away. And those I think are just entourage effects. Like that's not even the main point. That's just t the side effects. But one more piece about the porous nature of Snowmass. When I first got there, I saw on the board, we did a lot of like write on a note and then place it on the board. The community was going to do a sweat lodge. And I was like, whoa, this sounds amazing. Sign me up, I'm ready to roll.
And they were like, I'm sorry brother, you can't go in the sweat lodge. I was like, oh man, why not? It's like, well, you just got here. You're not attune to the altitude. You are not attune to the level of dryness. You haven't done the preparation, you're not going to be able to go in. So we did cross what I would call cross training. We did cross training. Oftentimes, anytime one of these like amazing masters would visit Thomas, we would see if they would give us a little, a little workshop or a retreat or just a talk. And then sometimes it could turn into, they come back and give us a week retreat. So that was very porous, more so than I think probably any of the Trappist houses. But like I said, I was really just a baby monk. So I can't really talk much about the order at large.
Colleen Thomas [00:42:36] We want to be conscious of our time too. But I want to talk to you a little bit about who Father Thomas was. And he was controversial to people within the Catholic church, in part because he was so invitational to the Interspiritual community. But I find it interesting that he also, when I'm talking and working with young Contemplatives, he appears very staunchly Catholic too. He is very religious and he was able to be in dialogue with other spiritual traditions and really remain true to his tradition. And it strikes me too that those who came to participate in the interspiritual inter-religious dialogues were also representing their own faith tradition. And I always am thinking about that in this increasingly spiritual but not religious world that we're occupying now.
We have these masters who are representative of their own faith tradition. They're not universalists, they don't believe. No, we all believe the same thing, but they're able to be in conversation with each other. And a lot of what you're talking about sounds really helpful to that dialogue of giving us permission to really go deep in our own tradition and yet be open to learning from other traditions which can actually be harder to fully respect the difference, acknowledge the difference, and remain true to our own faith. And I don't know, I think maybe what I want to talk to you about a little bit too, along those lines is that it seems like there's a role that priests and monks play in this religiously spiritually diverse world. And you were talking a little bit ago about vocation and how all of the monastic directive that you were receiving was to be true to your vocation.
Whether that's marriage, whether that's the priesthood. And when you and I talked, we talked about your role there as a parish priest in Philadelphia, and especially in this time of like branded personalities and spiritual teachers on Instagram. Like I really admire your commitment to parish life. It's a simple life. It's not a lucrative life. You could publish books and lead workshops and charge thousands of dollars, but you seem to be very intentional about remaining accessible. And there's something interesting about Father Thomas too, even though he did travel and speak a lot, he never became famous. Thomas Merton was somewhat famous and he rarely left his community there. But I don't know what I'm trying to ask you about necessarily, but could you talk a little bit about the important role of the priest, of the parish community in these times? Especially.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:46:10] My two models really for priesthood, both monastics, they were Father Thomas and Joseph. Father Thomas was in many ways like stratosphere, very high, high contemplative tradition. And Abbott Joseph was Jesus at the table with his friends, men, women and Jesus, like with people who are not going to go on retreat. He was there with prostitutes, he was there with the poors, he was there with people who were outcasts. In my experience of Father Thomas, the monastic culture was an anti cult to personality environment. It's one of the best things I've ever experienced to be able to be nobody, whoever you were, in many ways it didn't matter. You got a PhD, nobody cares. You're real smart, nobody cares. You're real strong, you're good looking. Nobody cares. None of those things really applied to me anyway. But you didn't have to put on anything. You didn't have to be anybody.
So I think there is something embedded in, at least in that monastery and the time I was there, the two guys that were priests that were my models essentially were, the example was nothing special. And meanwhile it's extraordinary in its ordinariness. Father Thomas, when he said mass, it blew my mind, when he couldn't say mass anymore. And when he was in the infirmary, one of the novices brought him reserved sacrament every day. The man had regular visions of the Virgin Mary that helped him get up out of bed because he had such pain in his neck from the car accident he was in. He was deeply spiritually Catholic and he didn't expect any of us to be like him, even if we were Catholic. So I had the opportunity to ask him sometimes about things like minor exorcism stuff and I would ask him about it and he would gimme some pointers, things about requiem masses for the departed and dealing with undead ghosts and how not to get overly involved in it, but also how to help people on. Things that I'd never heard him talk about in public.
And it didn't seem to me like his main public teaching was particularly about some of these fine points of the priesthood or fine points of being a Christian or being Catholic. So I think on the one hand, Thomas had deep devotion to our lady and constantly asked Jesus things constantly. Also, when he was making a decision, one of the guys asked him, so what do you do when you make a decision? He goes, ”Well I always ask our Lord first.” And I was like, what? I never heard you say that like in any of these things. And that always also was a mystery to me that on one hand he would really be encouraging really deep investigation and deep study of the tradition and then not get caught in the mythical membership and then not get caught in the cultural phenomena of Catholic culture, but that the gospel can flourish in Catholic culture.
That Christ can flourish in Catholic culture and also can flourish everywhere. And of course this comes also right out of St. Augustine who mentions that this religion, that true religion has always existed, never didn't exist, was always available. And only now as in like since Jesus has come only now do we call it Christianity. There is also a sense of the deep reality of the divine presence that is really just lending itself to existence. So he could always come from there. And so he immediately had connection with this Zen Tibetan Buddhist master or this Zen master over here, or this rabbi or this imam or this baptist preacher in as much as they all could really let this true religion overflow in them and in their own tradition. But that was always a still a mystery to me.
Because sometimes he would say, “You don't need the church.” And then meanwhile he is saying like, “Make sure the blessed sacrament arrives at 10 o'clock.“ So part of me was like, okay, alright. It's good to say masses for the dead, but if you have the time. So part of it was like, well, you're not telling anybody else this. What, like, there's a bunch of people who probably enjoyed that. Anyway, the parish, I think in Western culture, whatever we're in like late capitalism or whatever this is called, it's still oftentimes the symbol of the place you go when you are in spiritual need, whether you're seeking or you're just broke, you're just heart is broken or you're at your witts end. I work in a parish in Philadelphia, St. Clements, and I have people all walks of life in all stages and manner of health and disease.
And no one has to pay a fee to get in. You don't have to know anybody is not a club. You walk in there and not only the priest, but like that community is there and they want the best for you, even in their everyone's own dysfunctional way. It's such a miracle. And they're all over the place. And some are very liturgical and have incense and some places are very plain and very rustic. I think it's just the, especially for a contemplative to be present in a parish setting is you have to be, again, you have to be really intentional about about it. Because in my experience, the parish can take all of your energy. There is so much to do. And yet it's much more important to come to be, if you can do from surrender, that is really the spirit's work.
At their best I think parishes can be places that are both hospitals and medical schools. So you're both healing and you're teaching doctors and like, it blows my mind. It happens like parishes are open.They're trying to do something all the time and you could be sure they're going to do something on Sunday. You don't even have to know what it would like. You go walk in off the street and hear a teaching on love, on divine knowledge. Now it's not always a great sermon. And sometimes the community is dysfunctional, but some people just are not going to be able to go on retreat. I wonder myself about what would it be like for us to never be able to go on retreat and only have Sunday, only have weekday mass or Wednesday night and Friday night and I wonder if I oftentimes wonder about that.
Because some of my colleagues, my brother and sister priests are would say like, you don't need to go on retreat. There's a whole retreat economy that we don't need to get into. And part of me is like, I don't know, I hear what you're saying, but also retreats. I just went with my own parish. I took them on retreat up at Holy Cross monastery and we were only there four days we stayed. And that monastery, there's a pretty solid integration between their retreat house and their cloister. And you can just really work through so much in retreat setting. And then when you go back to the parish, it continues to unfold.
Colleen Thomas [00:55:16] What I'm hearing is that the parish is an accessible place where everyone can go regardless of being able to take a week off of work, pay for airfare. And also I'm hearing too, just overall that we go where we're called and while those of us who go on retreat understand the benefit of retreat, I guess like Father Thomas, our job isn't to make people like us. And maybe I take for granted that it's by grace that I go on retreat. I don't choose to go on retreat. I'm invited by a mysterious grace to go on retreat. And I say yes to that invitation. It's none of my business how that grace comes to me or not. But it's not simply a choice that I make. It's a gift.
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:56:20] That's better than, so much better than. That's so good. One of the things that towards the end that in the last like five years I was a rector in Vermont. I was doing a lot of hard work there, untangling things. One of the things he did say though was you should think about making yourself more available to do retreats. And I was like, father, I ain't got, it's like I'm having trouble just getting a day off in a week or sometimes in a month. And he's like, you're doing good work. He didn't want to shun the parish work. Basically, his last words, when I visited him in his sick bed in Spencer, I got to sneak in there. He also said like, it's important work that you're doing in the parish. It's really important, at least in my own vocation. He did give the push of like, you should do more intensive training stuff as well. And also the parish work is really important.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:57:24] And it sounds like both things with regard to the passing on of the contemplative tradition and the practice of Centering Prayer. Sure. As we're saying, if you can get to an intensive retreat, there's a benefit there but some people will never do that, don't have access to that, don't have the means for that. But it also, Centering Prayer has traditionally been delivered in small groups all around the world. And do you see that for the future? Or what do you see for the future of passing on the tradition?
Fr. Justin Lanier [00:57:56] One, this also I think is a plus for parishes, is that sometimes your priest is going to be a knucklehead. He, she, they might not have any real contemplative experience or formation. It's not all about them. I think that every way it's the best way every way, laypeople in a parish, people who aren't even attached to parishes, totally fine. The biggest hurdle is really a good formation for contemplative leadership. The vitality of Centering Prayer in the future is going to come really from the depth of practice and the fruits of the spirit and the transformation of the human person so that it doesn't matter if this person is married with kids, celibate, a nun, gay, straight, transgender, that all of these, all the boundaries, that the kind of cultural spots.
[solemn music starts]
Not as essential as the actual living practice and the living spirit that is overflowing through the person. That's the vitality I think of the future.
Colleen Thomas [00:59:28] Thanks for joining us on this episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. Visit our website, to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. You can also follow us on Instagram @ contemplativeoutreachltd. To learn more about our guests and their work, you can find info in the show notes for each episode.
If you enjoyed this episode, you might want to check out our YouTube channel: C-O-U-T-R-E-A-C-H. Coutreach.
Thanks for listening and see you next time.
Mark Dannenfelser [01:00:15] Season two of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts was made possible by a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Process, a charitable foundation encouraging meditation, mindfulness, and contemplative prayer. To find out more about the foundation, go to If you are a grateful listener and would like to support this podcast, go to to make a donation of any amount. And thank you for your support.
Colleen Thomas [01:00:50] This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana.
[solemn music ends]