Seeking solitude and quiet, I was drawn to an advertisement in the Lincoln Journal-Star—“This retreat in the style of Zen involves breath practice. In contemplative prayer, we divest our minds of all thoughts and images in order to receive the pure and simple light of God directly into the summit of our souls.” Breathing as prayer. Experiencing God directly. These words spoke to me; they held promise.
That was in 2002. It was the first retreat I went to at St. Benedict Center. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Most of the people at the retreat had some experience with contemplative prayer before. I had none. I just wanted quiet and to learn about prayer without words. At our introductory dinner, others referred to “sitting” as the way we would be praying. Contemplative prayer borrows many practices from Zen meditation, especially the postures. Apparently there was going to be a lot of “sitting” these next few days. And there were rules for “sitting” that took some explanation and practice.
Sister Ludwigas, a petite Benedictine nun with a thick German accent, was leading the retreat and gave us these rules—
- No reading
- No talking
- Let thoughts not distract us from what the silence may teach us
WAIT, WHAT? No books?! I had packed a boatload of books—fiction and non-fiction, depending on the mood I might be in, and several options within each genre, depending further on what mood I might be in. The “no talking” rule seemed like one I could live with since silence was what I had been craving. Having no thoughts would be the biggest challenge that practicing contemplative prayer would hold, but for the time being it sounded like absolute peace. At the dinner with the veterans of meditation, I was able to learn more about what I was actually getting myself into, and it gave me the opportunity to, well, talk. (More about that in a future blog…hard to imagine that you could make friends at a silent retreat, but indeed I did)
Typically, I’m not at a loss for words, but when it comes to prayer, silence seems to be the form of prayer that was appealing to me. I was never comfortable with informal out-loud prayers, the kind of prayers you had to create on the spot. Memorized prayers that were part of the liturgy didn’t do much for me either, although at times when I struggled to find the right words, the familiar phrases were comforting. Mostly, I felt that noise was everywhere; people were always talking, that I could never find a quiet space, no matter how good my intention was. As a high school teacher, I had to either listen or speak all day long and the greatest desire of my heart was to just BE. I hoped this retreat would meet my needs. Total silence.
Wanting and craving silence is not necessarily preparation for what that will really be like, however. In my spiritual fantasy, I would feel God, like an electrical charge. I would return to daily life a changed person; charged up enough to deal with life’s challenges better. Some of this happened, but not without some struggle (and perhaps a bending of the no books, no talking and no thoughts rules). It was difficult, even painful, to be so quiet and still and present. And even now, thirteen years later with many contemplative prayer retreats under my belt (veteran status?), it can still be a struggle. So why do it?
Well, it delivered on its promise. Perhaps not in the ways I imagined or expected, certainly not instantly, and without the bolts of God lightening that would zap me into spiritual bliss. There is nothing magical about contemplative prayer. It is a practice. The fruits of the practice come so beautifully, so unexpectedly, and fill me with an awe that the Divine INDEED breaks through my mind chatter and leaves me with a sign, a message of peace.
One of these Divine messages was just a few weeks ago. Mid-way through a weekend Contemplative Prayer retreat, I had a faith-crisis moment, doubting the value of sitting as prayer. Why do I doubt when I can’t wait for the next contemplative prayer retreat each and every time? I vacillated between mind chatter and nearly falling face forward in sleep (I feel sorry for the person sitting next to me—the sudden jerks to avoid the fall were likely distracting).
The spiritual environment at St. Benedict Center is unmatched; the presentations by Father Thomas interspersed through the weekend, were phenomenal as well. I was simply frustrated with myself…those expectations again. After reviewing my retreat notes, I went to bed contemplating the words of wisdom from contemplatives like Meister Eckhart, Soeren Kierkegaard, Johannes Tauler, Teresa of Avila, John Cassian, and, of course, my long-time spiritual adviser, dream analyst extraordinaire and friend, Father Thomas Leitner. Hardly anything to be disappointed about. (And yes, technically I broke Sr. Ludwigas’ rule from 12 years ago. I read.)
A good night’s sleep cleared the thoughts, and upon rising Sunday morning for the 6am sitting, I was open to receive the sign of peace that came. While walking to the sitting room, I looked out the window at the still-looks-like-night sky and saw a crescent moon. It was shining at the very bottom of the fullness of the moon; sitting restfully, it seemed to me.
Just as quickly as I glimpsed the moon, the thought came to me that this was my sign of peace. I love the moon…waxing and waning, crescent and full, it holds such meaning to me. The crescent moon was an image I could use for my breathing—to sit restfully breathing in and out, surrendering to the eventual fullness of the moon, the fullness of God. It seemed a bit of a visual lullaby. Singing inside, “A(b)vun” (My breath word meaning Our Father in Aramaic) sort of a cradling of my breath in God. It’s a comfort to know I don’t always have to feel full, complete or perfect; that God finishes it out for me, just as the crescent moon will become a full moon every month. The whole moon is always there, we just don’t always see it. Once I had this image and the conviction that I can surrender to God’s wholeness, not my own desire for perfection, the sitting was more peaceful.
The Divine message of peace–it arrives as a surprise. It does not come on command. Contemplative prayer takes practice. But the fruits always come. And of course, I will definitely go back again for another Contemplative Prayer Retreat.
Card Name: Growing into Fullness