Episcopal priest, author and contemplative retreat leader Cynthia Borgeault tells a story about Fr. Thomas Keating teaching a class on centering prayer. One of the central aspects of practicing this type of prayer focuses on calming the mind as it does what the mind is wont to do: jump manically from thought to thought to thought. Centering Prayer involves sitting in silence, acknowledging each and every thought as it emerges, and then simply (!) letting it go.
Some people use a word or phrase to help bring them back to the present. Others focus on their breath. It doesn’t matter what strategy is most helpful; the point is to center into the loving presence of God. We are meant to recognize and release, without judgement, any thoughts or emotions that pull us from that center, turning again and again back to the here and now.
Fr. Keating was one of the people who developed this form of ancient contemplation for contemporary practitioners. And at a retreat he was leading, one of the participants was having a difficult time. During periods of prayerful silence her shoulders were hunched up, her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her face furrowed. When asked how it was going, she blurted out “I just can’t DO this! No matter how I try, I fail. The thoughts keep coming, and I can’t clear my mind.”
Expecting some form of condemnation (or at least instruction reserved for remedial students), the person praying was surprised by Fr. Keating’s response. “That’s wonderful!” he exclaimed. When she gave him a puzzled look, he went on, “Each and every random thought that comes to you during your practice gives you another chance to turn toward the Divine. The more this happens, the more invitations you have to know God’s loving presence.”
No matter where we are in our spiritual lives, or what prayer practices are most fruitful to us, may this season encourage us to recognize our perceived shortcomings as fertile ground for the work of the Holy Spirit. May we understand that it is in process rather than fulfillment that we experience surprising opportunities to meet God.