The Inner Pilgrimage of Centering Prayer

I("Praying," by Alex Gray, Oil on canvas, 1984)
(“Praying,” by Alex Gray, Oil on canvas, 1984)

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“I felt the need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days.”—Hafiz

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As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog (“Retreating,” November 30, 2015) some year and a half after my daughter Laurie’s death, I attended a program at my church called “Meditation as Part of the Christian Tradition.” That night I was introduced to Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation, and soon began a journey that’s been part of my life ever since—one winding through an interior landscape complete with mountains, valleys, deserts, seas, and cities.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Centering Prayer, it differs from many other types of meditation in that the practice is “intentive,” rather than “attentive.” Instead of focusing on a word or various breathing techniques, you find a simple word such as ‘Abba,’ ‘God,’ or ‘Love’ to signify your intention to surrender to God, but don’t focus on it; you merely use the word as a pointer away from all the thoughts which will rush into your head. The idea is to sit, relax, and watch those thoughts pass by. When you find yourself (as you will, again and again and again) becoming attached to one of those thoughts, you use your sacred word to help you let that thought go.

Of course, this is a lot easier to describe than do. What’s kept me going, I think, is Centering Prayer’s emphasis on letting go, known in some Christian circles as kenosis, or self-emptying. Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, and others tell us is that kenosis was what Jesus was trying to teach us. They quote Paul in Philippians: Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave ….”

Over the past twenty-four years, Centering Prayer’s embodiment of kenosis— self-emptying—has helped me travel grief’s rocky terrain, while letting go of the insidious false selves that want to trip me up along the way.

What do I mean by false selves? Father Thomas Keating, one of the early proponents of Centering Prayer, defines the false self as the self-image we develop in early childhood to cope with emotional trauma, and to satisfy our instinctual needs for survival, affection, and control. My experience is that even as adults, we continue to create false selves, especially in times of turmoil. After an emotional trauma such as the loss of a child, we grieving parents struggle to live with our pain. Out of our need for survival, we create a self-image that will help us pick up the pieces of our lives and go on. The problem is that this false self winds up exacerbating the pain. At least it has in my case.

In my efforts to make sense of Laurie’s death, to answer the question of why my up-until-now healthy, happy, beautiful, compassionate, intelligent, eighteen-year-old daughter had to die, I created an image of myself as Sinner. Having grown up in a religious background, and since I had divorced Laurie’s mother two years before our daughter’s diagnosis in order to marry another woman, I concocted a drama about a man who sells his child’s life to the Devil in order to satisfy his own lustful desires. I continued to embellish the narrative until I’d convinced myself that I had murdered my daughter, just as if I’d put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

At the same time, however, there was part of me that kept telling myself, “Don’t be foolish. Millions of fathers are divorced from the mother of their children and the children grow up perfectly fine.”

So that when I first began to practice Centering Prayer, I kept trying—unsuccessfully—to let go of my self-image as Sinner. Then, after three years or so, I found myself one day letting go not of my image of myself as murderer, but of censoring the thought—letting myself admit, “Okay, I will always feel that at some level, I killed my child.” It was if a two hundred pound rock had lifted from my shoulders. I learned that once I accepted the thought, it lost its power.

After letting go of my sense of self as Sinner, however, I encountered the second—and harder to destroy—false self: that of Bereaved Parent. What makes this self-image so hard to let go of is that parents who’ve lost children are bereft, suddenly isolated from most of our friends and colleagues. No one who has not lost a child has any idea what the pain is like, and frankly, no one wants to know. Add the fact that grief totally absorbs each person involved in it, and we find ourselves isolated even from others who are grieving.

What can happen is that we become comfortable with this self-image and begin to cling to it. After all, our grief is our link to our child, and letting go of the grief can feel like letting go of our child all over again. Suffering begins to define who we think we are. All the while, however, grief continues to eat away at us like a cancer.

Eight years after Laurie’s death, after several years of relative serenity, I found myself once again angry, guilty, often in tears. At a Lenten retreat, when my wife shared a poem she’d written about grief, I sat, enraged that she had written about MY story. Centering Prayer practice became like sitting at the edge of a black abyss, enveloped in a cold fog. Sometimes, I rose from meditation with tightness pushing at my temples; sometimes I got up shaking with cold.

Then, on Easter Sunday, I listened to a sermon focusing on the women at the empty tomb in Mark’s Gospel:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The priest focused on the fear that keeps many of us from entering into the joy of Easter, the fear of what the resurrection means to our understanding of the way the world works, to our security, even if it’s the security of our own suffering. An icy snake slithered across my neck and shoulders. Had I become secure, I wondered, possibly even happy in my vision of myself as Grieving Parent? Did I want my daughter only as memories pasted on the pages of a scrapbook? Did I want to keep the stone rolled in front of her tomb? I realized that if I were serious about my Christian faith, I needed to stop dwelling on old memories of my daughter, and trust that she too had become resurrected as a living, growing presence. I needed to let go of my vision of myself as Grieving Parent.

I’m not sure I’ve completely let go of that false self, but when I do, I find that I am hearing my daughter’s voice in my ear, feeling her hand in mine. She tells me that while death may end a life, it doesn’t end a relationship, a relationship, which, ironically, grows by letting go.

My various pilgrimages to retreat houses and other holy sites are, for me, manifestations of an inner journey. Each helps me understand the other. Each hopefully keeps me learning, growing, and moving towards my true self—what Keating calls the self as the image of God, “manifested in our uniqueness.” But each is also helping me let go: I’ve never yet been on a pilgrimage when I wasn’t humbled, wasn’t forced to let go of my inflated self-image.

As I age, as I’m forced to let go of my health and my height, my friends and my memory, as I contemplate having to let go of my life, I figure that’s pretty good practice.

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Looking Back at Big Sur

If you look closely, you can see the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. It was never that clear when I was there.
If you look closely, you can see the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. It was never that clear when I was there.

 

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“…we look back, with thanksgiving, in order to look forward. We cannot stand still. God is always calling us on to larger life.”

—Br. Geoffrey Tristram, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give Us a Word,” June 6, 2016

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One of the neat things about writing this blog is that I get to go back and reread old journals. If I’m doubly fortunate, I can see how far I’ve come—psychologically, spiritually—sort of like standing on a bluff looking back at the trail you’ve been traveling, realizing you can see a lot further than you once could. This week I’ve been looking back at my journal for August 7-12, 2005, when my wife Mary Lee, my brother Roger, and I stayed at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, some 1300 feet up into the Santa Lucia Mountains, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The first thing I notice is how often I write about the fog that lay over the ocean for almost all of the time we were there. We almost never saw water, only a bank of clouds that I kept trying to describe: a “blanket of white foam,” “a soufflé,” “like something from a dry ice machine,” “beaten egg whites,” “shaving cream,” “a snow field,” “a white carpet”—I’m not sure I ever did find the right words. During the day, I sat on my hermitage patio and looked down at the clouds, feeling like God looking down at an uncreated firmament. At sunset, the clouds rushed up the ravine, turning pink in the sunset before enveloping the hermitage in a dense, but somehow comforting, fog. One day, I quoted T.S. Eliot—“Only the divine stands firm/ the rest is smoke.” (“Or,” I added, “fog.”)

I think I took the Eliot quote from a book I read while I was at Big Sur. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save may be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage compares and contrasts the religious journeys of four American writers: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Until I reread my notes, I’d forgotten quite how long the image of being on a pilgrimage has been part of my personal mythology—those stories I tell myself about myself.

And I never included Elie’s definition of pilgrimage with all the other definitions I’ve collected over the years. For the author, the pattern of his four subjects’ pilgrimages is “the journey to first hand experience.” Which helps me see the difference between those journeys I’ve been on when I’ve felt like a pilgrim, and those when I’ve felt like a tourist: when I’ve been a participant in an experience versus when I’ve been an observer of someone else’s experience.

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I see that on August 10, I went to a “Collato,” which was a study with the Brothers at the New Camaldoli monastery of the following Sunday’s scripture readings. The gospel reading was Matthew 15: 21-28. A woman from Canaan—and thus, a non-Jew—comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, who is being tormented by a demon. Jesus tells her that he was sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel,” going on to say (somewhat cruelly, it seemed to me then and seems to me now), “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Apparently impressed, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And as Matthew writes, “…her daughter was healed instantly.”

The discussion that followed was, I write, “heady.” The gathering of Brothers and guests referred to other passages of scripture, Biblical commentaries, even, my notes say, Jungian psychology. The big issue for the Brothers seemed to be if the woman really changed Jesus’ mind or whether he was testing her faith, which led to discussion of how divine Jesus was and how human.

I recall being bored with all the talk. The day before, August 9, had been my daughter Laurie’s birthday. She would have been thirty-five. She had been dead for seventeen years, almost as long as she’d been alive, and the story made me envious that the woman’s child had been not only healed but healed “instantly.” I remembered Laurie’s months of suffering from radiation, chemotherapy, her intense physical and emotional pain. Before I knew what I was doing, I became a participant in the discussion instead of an observer. “Do you realize,” I said, “how hard this story is for people whose children are suffering from disease, addiction, and mental illness, not to mention parents who’ve lost children? All this story does is imply that if we had more faith, our children would get better. I don’t need any more guilt, thank you very much.”

My journal notes that none of the Brothers seemed to want to deal with my question, but that one of the other people there, a pastor from San Francisco, stopped me later and said I’d given him the basis for his sermon the following Sunday. (I’m sorry now I didn’t think to ask him to send me a copy of what he’d said.)

What strikes me today, however, is that these stories of Jesus’ healing, of raising children from the dead, no longer make me angry. I don’t know when it happened, but sometime within the last eleven years (Laurie’s forty-sixth birthday is coming up this summer. Good Lord!), I started to think of the healing stories in the Bible as moral lessons, not necessarily historical facts—as dramatizations of a larger Truth: God heals our children, and us, for that matter. The healing may not take place in this lifetime, but it will come. And faith, I now believe, lies in believing, accepting, waiting.

Am I still angry that my child suffered? That she died before she’d ever really lived? Absolutely. But somewhere along my “journey to first hand experience,” this anger seems to have been enveloped, sort of like the white clouds of fog that climbed the ravine from the ocean to the monastery at Big Sur every night, wrapped now in a blanket of—dare I say it?—love.

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