My First Retreat

A week ago Friday I restarted spiritual direction, my first session in about two years.  Most of the meeting focused on contemplative prayer.  I came out of it scratching my head, unsure of just how to embark on contemplative prayer.  I’m a very left-brained guy, grasping things like flowcharts and bullet points well, abstractions….not so much.  So my interest was much piqued when I browsed the St. Paul’s bulletin the following Monday morning before 0630 Mass and I read that an “introduction to centering prayer retreat” was being held at a monastery about an hour north of Birmingham the following weekend .  The word “contemplative” was in the ad, as was “Become more in intimate with Jesus Christ.”  Sounded like just what the Doctors (of the Church) ordered.  Called my wife, and she was jiggy with it, so with a couple of more phone calls I was registered and arrangements for payment had been made.

Excited about making my first-ever spiritual retreat, I sent out an email blast about it.  Wednesday evening I got a reply from a friend with a link, and “You should read this first”.  It was a lot of reading, but to boil it down “centering prayer” was a New Age pseudo-spiritual discipline condemned by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – back in the 1980s when he headed the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and that I was heading into the clutches of Satan.  Alarmed, I emailed my spiritual director and one of our deacons, and both assured me that I wouldn’t be sacrificed to His Infernal Majesty at midnight, but approach the weekend with discernment and a degree of skepticism.

Several surprises awaited me at the orientation session Friday evening. First, the Benedictine nuns were not leading the retreat; it was lead by an organization called Contemplative Outreach (  In their “About Us” page, CO describes itself as “…a spiritual network of individuals and small faith communities committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. The common desire for Divine transformation, primarily expressed through a commitment to a daily Centering Prayer practice, unites our international, interdenominational community.  The contemplative prayer movement was started by Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating in the early 1980s. The Sisters were just hosting the retreat.  The facility director – an engaging nun of about 40 – was the first speaker, warning us not to flush the toilets in Mary Hall when someone was in the shower and other facility-use things we needed to know.  The second surprise was the interdenominational part.  In this baker’s dozen of attendees, four or five were Catholic, the rest were a mixture of Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists.  Of the co-facilitators, one was Catholic, one was Baptist.  I thought I was attending a Catholic thing, but that was okay: a little ecumenism never hurt anybody I told myself.  One attendee seemed to be quite the seeker, saying she had even tried Baha’i, which spurred some pleasant nostalgic thoughts: that Summer Breeze album by Seals and Crofts temporarily replaced Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat as the greatest album ever, which leads to a digression.  I am the oldest of four children, with my brother being the youngest, eight years between us.  The aforementioned Cat Stevens album was on my dad’s stereo playing “Peace Train” when he came through the front door home from work.  He looked at me coldly and asked “What are you doing burning up my stereo playing that hippie crap?”  Fast forward some years when I came home from college.  The house was actually vibrating as my brother George had something from Black Sabbath playing on the same stereo.  Both my parents were at the kitchen table, sitting there with vacant, defeated expressions.  My mother hadn’t even mustered her usual enthusiasm for having a grilled bologna and Velveeta sandwich (her signature dish) ready for me.   A great truth: as time wears down the highest mountains, so time and multiple children wears down the mightiest parental will to instill their particular world view.

The third surprise was I was the only guy there.  Apparently another man had registered but ultimately bowed out.  A little intimidating, but not a major issue: it was a silent retreat; i.e. the point was not fellowship, but interior growth.  So we would be maintaining silence during meals and in general, except for the opportunity to ask questions during the conference presentations.  I quickly perceived it as a great opportunity to get in touch with my feminine side: just maybe I could watch “The View” afterwards and listen empathetically to Joy Behar.  With God all things are possible.  The big benefit of being the only guy there was I had the entire first floor of Mary Hall to myself.  So there was no danger of being in the shower in the communal bathroom when Big Ed absent-mindedly flushed the toilet and I channeled St. John’s miraculous saving from being boiled alive.  A tip of the hat to the Sisters: the accommodations were somewhat Spartan but impeccably clean and comfortable.  The food was tasty, wholesome, and quite adequate.  Hospitality is one of the highlights of the Benedictine rule, and nothing shamed St. Benedict in that regard over the weekend.

So what is “centering prayer”?  From the CO web site:  “…a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.”  The centering prayer movement has had some controversy, being accused by its detractors as a New Age abomination, defended by its proponents as a return to contemplative disciplines endorsed by the Church Fathers and practiced for the first 1,600 years of the Church.  I’m of course not doing centering prayer total justice with the following description: you sit in a chair with your eyes closed for 20 minutes and attempt to “rest in God”, allowing your thoughts to float on by.  Your main tool is the “Sacred Word”, a 1-2 syllable word like “Jesus” or “peace” you choose that you repeat inside your head every time you get “attached” to a thought.  The goal is not an empty mind, but the ability to let thoughts float on by.  Everyone liked my “guy” analogy that centering prayer is like putting yourself up on blocks, and letting God work on your engine.  Centering prayer is not for discernment, but for putting yourself in the hands of God and allowing him to shape you interiorly so that the discernment happens outside of centering prayer.  You don’t bring an agenda to centering prayer, but trust and the discipline of doing it.  That truly appealed to me: to carve out time for God and approach him in total trust.  We were encouraged to not get frustrated with a busy mind, that if we committed to the practice (minimum two 20-minute sessions a day) we would eventually master it and good things would happen: people would see the positive change in us.

What had my “spider senses tingling” over the course of the weekend?  I had to take a few days and pray and try to get my arms around the experience.  I don’t want to commit the sin of rash judgment by making pronouncements based on impressions and fragments of conversations, but here goes nothing.

I have the opportunity to meet for a 20-30 minute one-on-one session with one of the facilitators, so I signed up to meet with the Catholic one late Saturday afternoon.  She was a very impressive lady, with a degree in theology and a career in Catholic education.   I began the meeting by sharing with her the email I got condemning centering prayer right before I came, and the resulting qualms.  She was quite familiar with those ideas, and gave me some print-outs rebutting them.  She took me by surprise though when I said “So obviously the Devil doesn’t like centering prayer!” and she made a dismissive noise and a gesture “Who know who the Devil is anyway?”  I replied that according to the Catechism he’s a fallen angel dedicated to the corruption and damnation of the human race.  Her reply was “He’s an idea certain people use to create fear.  God in His goodness is not out to frighten or punish people.”  Hmmm…according to #391 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy.  Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called “Satan” or the “devil.”  The Church teaches that Satan was a first a good angel, made by God: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.” (Lateran Council IV (1215): DS 800).

I’ve talked about Satan and “cafeteria Catholicism” in other posts.  I’m not trying to be accusing, I’m trying to emphasize my thirst for the Truth.  If one doesn’t adhere to the teachings of the Church – unless it’s out of ignorance or faulty catechesis – then why be Catholic at all?  This little exchange put a wedge in my willingness to fully embrace centering prayer, based on my doubts regarding the teacher.  Of course, because the teacher may be flawed (i.e. human) the teaching is not necessarily invalid.  If that were true, in the wake of the abuse scandals we should all become Methodists or Mormons or Scientologists.

Saturday evening we had a session on the syllabus titled “Shared Lectio”.  Lectio Divina, according to the Contemplative Outreach web site, “…is an ancient practice of praying the Scriptures. During Lectio Divina, the practitioner listens to the text of the Bible with the “ear of the heart,” as if he or she is in conversation with God, and God is suggesting the topics for discussion. The method of Lectio Divina includes moments of reading (lectio), reflecting on (meditatio), responding to (oratio) and resting in (contemplatio) the Word of God with the aim of nourishing and deepening one’s relationship with the Divine.”  This left me more disquieted than anything about centering prayer.  We applied it to Matthew 15:1-9, where the Pharisees and the scribes ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating, and Jesus hammers them for hypocrisy and “teaching as doctrines human traditions.”  Many of the responses going around the room centered on verse 9, the “teaching of doctrines human traditions”, which had to old spider senses tingling that taking this part of Scripture out of context would make it easy to embrace the “I love Jesus but hate religion” mindset.  As we know Jesus also said He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law, and that He established a Church.  Using this chunk of Scripture was also disquieting in regards to the centering prayer principle that we all have “an inner core of goodness” – the Divine Indwelling – that centering prayer is putting us in touch with.  For in Matthew 15:19 Jesus says “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy.”  So there’s bad stuff in there too.  Did Hitler have an “inner core of goodness?”  Maybe so, but maybe it was surrounded by an outer core of impenetrable badness – a question for people much smarter than me.   I do know that Pelagius (no original sin, man can be saved by his own merits) entered into a pay-per-view caged death match with St. Augustine (we are fallen), and Pelagius ended up unconscious and bleeding profusely after St. Augustine hit him with that chair, never to wrestle in prime time again.  I just want to learn more about Lectio Divina before jumping in, because I see great peril in relying on “the Holy Spirit” to shape one’s one interpretation of Scripture.  Undeniably that can be problematic, or there wouldn’t be 1,000+ different Protestant denominations (snake handlers, Holy Rollers, and Anglicans to describe a few), and Catholic whackos like Mel Gibson denying the authority of the Pope because of Vatican II.  Proceed cautiously Mr. Sulu, engines on impulse only.

Finally, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Benedictine Sisters of this particular monastery.  Recently I listened to a show on EWTN radio talking about the state of vocations.  The guest made the statement that tremendous renewal and growth was being seen in congregations embracing “the old school”, while those espousing a liberalism that was a misinterpretation of Vatican II were not flourishing.  Allow me to jump in my time machine and go back to my elementary school education (1962-69) at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Grove City, Ohio.  Most of the teachers were of the order of St. Joseph – later to be known as the Chuck Norris nuns (“Good Girls Wear Black”) for their affinity for discipline and mirror sunglasses (“Tom, Tom never cross Sister No Eyes!” an older kid with an amazing resemblance to George Kennedy advised me one day).  Imagine my confusion in 1970 when I showed up at Bishop Ready High and these ladies were introducing themselves as “Sister Marie Gonzales” and you could see their elbows and what their hair style was!  At least I had the presence of mind not to jump out of my chair and tear my nice dress shirt like Caiaphas the first time that happened.  But flash forward these last 8-9 months of attending St. Paul’s Cathedral in Birmingham at the 0630 Mass, which is often attended by the Dominican Sisters (“Good Girls Wear White”) who teach at St. Stephen’s.  They have the full habit, but I was impressed that they are so young.  Encountering the Benedictines (“Good Girls Wear…I Guess Whatever The Heck They Want”), I was impressed by how elderly so many of them were…I mean, not Jessica Tandy elderly in “Cocoon”, but old.  One poor sister couldn’t make it through vespers, and had to be carried out by one of the sprightly youngsters, probably only in her early 50s. I tried to be cognizant that perhaps many of the younger nuns were out doing stuff in the community, but at the final lunch the facility director did identify herself as the youngest nun at age 39.  They did have a postulant she said.  There were a number of other “tingling spider sense” occurrences around these nuns over the weekend – e.g. whole-grain leavened hosts at Mass, the “yoga room” – but if I don’t mow the lawn before Mary comes home I’m a dead man, so I’m going to cut it short.  Are the Dominicans in Birmingham flourishing because they cling to the strict teachings of the Church and the Benedictines in Cullman not flourishing because they are clinging to the wild and whacky 1970s?  I don’t feel comfortable making that call.  There’s no doubt in my mind however that the Benedictines of Cullman love Christ and are dedicated to living out the Gospel in charity.  I’m just a poor boob who wants to live out the Gospel in the fullness of Truth, not aspiring to come up with any brilliant insights of my own.

On Sunday after Mass we had a final lunch where we could talk all we want, and I got to better know the great group of ladies I shared the weekend with.  I decided to take the “back way” home, going Alabama State Route 278 instead of getting back on I-65 and heading south to hook up with I-20 in Birmingham.  Halfway home, Andy (the guy I subcontract for) called me and said not to come back to Birmingham Tuesday morning, that for an undetermined time the hospital wouldn’t need our services.  In our parish prayer at St. Monica’s we end with “…and trust in God’s perfect timing.”  So maybe this retreat was an example of God’s perfect timing.  I’m working on centering prayer: in this morning’s session I did a full 20 minutes for the first time, and a picture of my wife (Rowrrr!!!!) walking around the bedroom in her underwear didn’t pop into my head once.  But “In Remembrance of You” is proving a tough nut to crack, as that melody and lyrics keep swirling into my consciousness more stubbornly than “It’s a Small World” ever did.  Oops, now you’ve got “It’s a Small World” running through your head because I mentioned it: depart from me, for I am a sinful man!  And it’s a small world, after all.

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