The National Catholic Review
A contemplative learns to let go.
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Five minutes into my centering prayer practice—though it felt like 30—with a dedicated Thursday prayer group at the Sisters of the Cenacle, I sat fidgeting in a stackable chair with coarse fabric and a pin-straight metal back. The sound of the fan whooshed overhead adding a distracting rhythm to silence: whoosh, pause, thump, whoosh, pause, thump.

The woman next to me coughed, then the chair to the left of me, a rocker like the one my grandmother sat in to watch “Judge Judy,” began to creak. The symphony in my brain began to whir: whoosh, pause, thump, creak, creak, cough, creak.

I could almost feel the seconds ticking by on my watch, a slow-motion judgment of my inability to sit, be still and wait for God to do the heavy lifting. Its rhythm joined the sounds counting down to my failure to find bliss, peace and union: Tick, tick, tick, whoosh, pause, thump, creak, creak, cough, creak.

If only I could find a sacred image or word. But the search became a game of free association as my brain clamored for an anchor: God? No. Jesus? No. Joy? No. Peace? No. Fan? Um, really no.

“O.K.” I told myself, “We’re going to try peace.” That seemed like a reasonably sacred aspiration. Slowing my breath—inhale deeply, exhale completely—I used physical breathing to command my mental hyperactivity to calm down. Peace, peace, peace. The word called to my soul to lean forward through the psychological noise.

Then, rushing ahead of the word, a figure came into view—soft hair, bright eyes, gentle—the childhood image of Jesus I had always carried with me, like a postcard from another life. A scene unfolded, as in a guided meditation. “This is something I could use in teaching contemplative prayer next week,” I thought, trying to nudge this distraction from my head so I could contemplate my sacred word. Peace, peace, peace. Breath in, exhale.

Then, like an impatient customer on line at the grocery store, another image pushed forward, this time of a figure sitting knee to knee before me, each of us on a chair staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. I see my mother and feel a wave of unconditional love. I see the closeness between us grow in the shape of warm, white light radiating from her chest and mine.

“This will be a great meditation,” I thought. “Now come on, brain, get back to silent prayer. Why can’t I focus?” Peace, peace, peace. Breath in, exhale.

Again, the visualization rushed back, crisper than before: My mother and me, facing each other, knees almost touching, bright warm light moving together from the center of our chests into one larger light that encompasses us. The light grows with every breath, moving through us, then growing past us, around each side of us into the dark space beyond our chairs. With each breath the light grows, the warmth pulses, our bodies radiate with light and compassion.

“O.K.,” I began again, frustrated with my lack of concentration. “Everyone around me is probably ensconced in a sacred word or image, and here I am struggling to stay focused, planning this visualization for my own contemplative prayer students. I’m an awful contemplative.” I sighed a deep sigh of self-inflicted judgment.

The visual came back fiercer than before, and I gave up trying to control it. “I guess this will just be a ‘working’ contemplation,” I thought, giving in to it—the warmth of light, the love. Then as I gazed into my mother’s eyes, her face became that of Jesus, like the postcard image, but more alive. I felt her loving me with the vividness of my mother, and I saw her eyes in Christ’s gaze and her face in his.

This was not my mind intruding on my contemplation, I realized. This was God, trying to get some quality time in a prayer meant to be God-centered. I smiled and let the warmth of the light wash over me, finally being quiet long enough to let God get a word in edgewise.

As a teacher of contemplation, I travel on daily pilgrimages of faith with others, acting as a roadmap or a tour guide, serving in whatever way God blesses me to be useful. Perpetually I am learning lessons in deeper and more humbling ways, trying to make my failings useful to other pilgrims.

I am surprised by the grace that regularly, softly shrouds the life I lead and the mistakes I make and by the God who helps me find the way when I stop interrupting. God calls us all to listen: “Be still and know that I am God.” I am haltingly trying to learn that lesson.

T. B. Pasquale is a writer, trauma therapist and educator on the contemplative dimension of faith.

Comments

T.B. Pasquale | 3/18/2013 - 3:25pm

Dear J Byrne,

I appreciate your summary of the ideal nature of centering prayer. It synthesizes a lot but also does not leave too much room for the honest nature of the human condition in prayer. Regardless of the parameters of centering prayer, or any prayer, we often find ourselves fallible and human in even and especially prayer, so while I do understand the premise of the practice and would assert that is what the intention was, this story was meant to encapsulate the human nature of prayer, in all its "off track" messiness. Thank you again for your sharing, even though we disagree. Blessings on your journey!

T(eresa) B Pasquale

J BYRNE | 7/22/2012 - 3:04pm
In Centering Prayer (CP), the sacred word is a symbol of our intention, which is to consent to God's presence and action within us.  One establishes his/her sacred word before entering the prayer, not during it.  CP has one intention as noted above.  There are no expectations, such as finding bliss, peace or union.  Outside noises are called thoughts in CP and one lets them come and lets them go.  If they persist, one returns to his/her sacred word in order to let the thought go.  Mental hyperactivity or thoughts, in CP parlance, are an integral part of the prayer.  We do not resist them.  We let them come and we let them go.  When we engage a thought, again, part of the process of the prayer, at some point, we become aware that we are engaged with the thought.  We , then, gently return to our sacred word.  The idea of contemplating one's sacred word is really foreign to the CP practice as is focusing and concentrating.  Centering Prayer is not contemplation.  Contemplation is a pure gift from God.  With all due respect, whatever T.B. Pasquale was doing, it wasn't Centering Prayer.
6466379 | 7/13/2012 - 1:33pm
Thanks T.B. Pasquale for the kind, unexpected  comment on my #2 post. I began this yesterday but lost it when AMERICA website experienced partial shutdown. I think that's what happened.So let me try to repeat briefly.

 Yes, in a real way all prayer in Centered Prayer, and its fragrance like that of a rose permeates all rooms in the mansion of the soul. Yet, each petal on the rose of prayer is unique to each person, very personally personal, even if it's "slinky!" The Rose scent emanating from  the Rose's Center can be giddying in the best sense of the word, with a kind of hilarity akin to the Spirit's Gift of Joy, which is beyond understanding, but which I'm sure you "get!" Again, thanks! 
T.B. Pasquale | 7/11/2012 - 9:45pm
Thank you Rosalie and Bruce for your wonderful comments. I always love to listen to the advice of the mystics and always have to remember to heed their wisdom.

Rosalie: distractions, beautiful and chaotic, and everything inherent in the universe do carry with it so much grace-even a fan or a cough or my rambling thoughts!

Bruce: I love your "slinky prayer". Agreed on the premise that "Centering Prayer" can be restrictive for many. It is one of a variety of forms of contemplative prayer I practice and when I teach/facilitate contemplation groups it is only vaguely referential to the centering prayer suggestions of an image or a word which I like as an anchor in silence. I find the total commitment to the 20 minutes in silence practice for my beginner contemplatives is enough to send them running and I want them to embrace the practice; so my teaching is a guided and gentle path to silence-with a few "spiritual push up" exercises to get people in the head and heart and soul space to get there.

I love hearing your conversations with God and I love the many ways God speaks to us in the form of everything, sometimes even the words in our own head.

Thank you for the blessing of both of your words, as the grace in this magazine and further into the virtual world consistently keep erupting and doubling in size, like the light in my essay, with every article, each exposition, and each comment that creates a living conversation out of a static story.
6466379 | 7/6/2012 - 7:15pm

“Interrupting Grace” by T.B. Pasquale hit home, even though I do not practice “Centering Prayer”    which  sounds so me so confining. But I do relate to T.B. Pasquale’s wild distracting rides and appreciate that dilemma. However, while by no means rigid at prayer having to follow this rule, or that rule,  personal  prayer is not exactly unstructured. It’s structured like a Slinky!  Do you know what a “Slinky” is? It has a mind of its own but God rules and  the heavenly hint, “Be still and know that I am God” takes over in an adventurous way.  “Slinky Prayer” is all about imagination which simply does what it does.  As Rosalie, #1 post points out, like Therese of Lisieux,  make distractions a useful part of prayer, not hard to do even if it involves falling asleep again and again. Let me tell you a brief story about that.




Once trying to get some quiet time with the Lord, I positioned myself as close to the tabernacle in a small chapel that I could get. But I kept falling asleep! Finally with “toothpicks of determination” holding my eyes open I decided to focus on the tabernacle door and imagined I was opening it! But sleep kept returning as the “toothpicks” fell out and so, in a dozing state still trying to force open the tabernacle imaginatively, I heard imaginatively these words, “Come on in!” In a sleepy way I thought it was Jesus speaking so I responded imaginatively, “Where, Lord?” Immediately through my ever active imagination  the answer came, “In the
tabernacle with Me!"


Suddenly I became wide awake and wondered where Slinky had led me and just as suddenly I understood!  It was all about Friendship. And it included everyone, not just me. Jesus is our Best Friend and he wants us all to be his best friend too!  St. Therese was right – distractions at prayer are very useful, even the distraction of sleep. Thanks, "Dr. Martin"- I mean Slinky!


 


 

Rosalie Krajci | 7/6/2012 - 2:40pm
Here's what St. Therese of Lisieux told her sister who complained of distractions:
"I also have many," she said, "but as soon as I am aware of them, I pray for those people the thought of whom is diverting my attention, and in this way they reap benefit from my distractions. . . . I accept all for the love of God, even the wildest fancies that cross my mind."

All is grace, even, I guess, distractions. 

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