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.