Back to School, Back to Basics

It always amuses me that even though I haven’t been on a school schedule in years, I find that September signals a new start … the smell of new textbooks, pencils and crayons; donning a new school uniform; and a crisp breeze letting us know autumn is coming. With that new beginning often comes a time of reviewing what we’ve learned before we left for summer vacation when other things grab our attention and fill our lives.

As I reread my last few GSR reflections, I was struck with how much is going on in our political and ecclesial lives. There is so much pain as we embrace families separated at our border and the reality of hundreds of children who have been abused by priests. There is much frustration, anger and deep sadness. All of this fills our hearts and our minds. And I believe it will continue.

In light of this, I was drawn to write this reflection as a “Back to School Review” — a review of the basics of contemplation. I find it is always helpful to stop and remind myself of what I am being invited to when I “sit.” In doing so, I am better prepared to take in and respond to the events of daily life.

The Textbook: Contemplation

The textbook for contemplation is our life. It is the integration of our mind, heart, soul and body with the presence of God, with Divine Mystery permeating the Universe. It is an invitation to awaken to our true self and to the presence of God within each other and throughout our world. As Christians it is an invitation to “put on the mind of Christ” and act courageously to live the Gospel.

The first chapters in this textbook focus on prayers and devotions. Words that comfort and challenge us. Universal prayers that we can memorize that stay with us throughout our lives. It teaches us to use our imagination and to experience “being part of” the Gospel stories encountering Jesus and inviting us to think in new ways.

The next chapters focus a bit more on our moral development. We begin to get in touch with the values and beliefs we hold. We begin to discern which ones foster Gospel living and which ones feed our egos and prevent us from seeing anew.

Second Section — Chapters on Contemplation

With these building blocks in place, the next chapters flow. They are the chapters on contemplation. Contemplation is a different form of prayer. It is not full of words, or thoughts,

or imaginings. It is a non-discursive form of prayer. You really don’t think about anything. What you are doing is emptying yourself, letting go of the usual ways of knowing to enter a space within which to encounter Divine presence.

You surrender to God within. You surrender and become aware of your sacred self, the “diamond self” that Thomas Merton writes about when he is trying to capture the true self that lives within each of us.

Such surrender and entering that silence takes time and practice.

Chapter on Centering Prayer

How to do it?

Although there are different ways to engage in contemplation I’m going to review the practice of centering prayer, which has its origins in the 14th-century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing and reintroduced today as Centering Prayer through the work of Fr. Thomas Keating.

Centering Prayer is a prayer of intention. You set the intention to be open to the workings of God within you and your intention to become your “diamond self.”

Important to this practice is choosing a sacred word or letting it choose you. This is a short word or phrase with one or two syllables. You pray this word gently at the beginning of your practice acknowledging your willingness to be open to the presence and action of God during this time.

Then when you are no longer attracted to thinking, the directions are to let your sacred word go. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and leader with Keating in the Centering Prayer movement, writes “you don’t have to do it; it happens on its own, programmed right into your original intention to be deeply open to God. You don’t notice the moment you stop thinking; what you notice is the moment you start thinking again.”

When that happens, you simply return to the word. It invites you to let go once again and drop down in the place of stillness, silence.

Chapter on the 4 Rs

As thoughts rush in as they certainly will, you employ the 4 R’s: don’t Resist, Retain, React — simply Return.

Do not Resist. Don’t try pushing the thoughts away. Let them float by you as clouds in the sky. Many will simply move on. If some get stuck, then simply Return to your word. 

Do not Retain. Often a good idea starts to emerge. It may be the plan needed for the meeting you are going to later in the day or the focus of an article you are writing. Do not work it. Do not finish the thought. Do not Retain. Simply Return to the word. (If it is really a good idea it will come back to you.)

Do not React. As thoughts come and come and come, don’t judge yourself. Don’t say oh, not again or this isn’t for me. Simply Return to the word.

Return, Return, Return to the word and let it drop away once again.

It is recommended that you sit twice a day for 20 minutes. However, everyone has to begin, so do what you can, and over time it will become easier and part of your daily routine.

Although there are a few more chapters on contemplation in our textbook my September Review ends here.

I hope it brought back good memories of your practice or an excitement to try this kind of prayer. I suggest that we all have to review and renew our commitment to contemplative practice so as to remain grounded and centered for what we will encounter in the months and years to come.

[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby.]

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