February 7th, 2019
I had only been to centering prayer at St. Rita’s with Karin one time. That was a few years ago. I decided then that I didn’t like the program because people tended to ramble on and on about things. I liked that we together sat in silent meditation, but I didn’t like the endless discussion afterward. Perhaps I was too hasty. I might have decided to go to the prayer group again, but I got involved with teaching the citizenship class at Voces de la Frontera, and that is always on a Wednesday evening, the same night as centering prayer. Teaching immigrants always seemed to be more important than silent prayer, so I never went back to the group until last night. Yesterday evening, there was no class at Voces, so I had the chance to go and pray with Karin.
Oddly enough, even after a few years, the group membership was almost exactly the same as when I last attended one of the sessions. There were all the usual suspects (to misquote Claude Rains in the movie “Casablanca”). Fran was there, and Monica, and Tony, and Pam. And, of course, Paul was there.
Paul is the group leader. He started the centering prayer meetings at St. Rita’s, and he continues to be its guiding force. Paul is from Germany. He is old. I understand that “old” is a relative term, but Paul meets the qualifications. Paul grew up in Germany during the Hitler years, so he is old. Paul is a quiet and gentle man. He speaks slowly and deliberately with a noticeable accent. He has a mane of long, white hair. Paul is wise in his own way. His only fault is that he is hard of hearing, so he sometimes fails to hear the voices of the others in the group, and this causes him to keep talking even when he ought to let the others speak. He gets on a roll, as it were.
So, what is centering prayer? It is a form of Christian meditation. In practice (at least at St. Rita’s), it involves reading one of the psalms, then sitting in silence for half an hour to meditate on the words of that psalm. There is a vaguely Eastern feel to the meditation practice. Paul starts the meditation by striking the edge of a singing bowl (that is a classic Buddhist move). He ends the period of meditation by striking the bowl again. After the meditation, people read and discuss a reading from Father Thomas Keating, the priest who started centering prayer. Keating died in October of last year, at the age of ninety-five. He was a Trappist monk, as was Thomas Merton. Trappists are experts with regards to prayer and meditation. They focus their entire lives on those things.
On Wednesday evening we read two very brief chapters from Keating’s book, “Reflections on the Unknowable”. I will quote one passage here:
“Because we are members of one species, all of whom are interconnected and interdependent, our every thought, word, and deed affect everyone else in the human family instantaneously, regardless of space and time. Hence, we are accountable to each other as well as to God.”
Another quote is: “There are further states of consciousness beyond the rational.”
Those comments are totally Zen. I have been meditating with a Zen sangha since 2005. The other people in my Zen group might not like the concept of God, but otherwise they would have no problem agreeing with Father Keating. Zen considers intuition to be another valid way of knowing reality. Rational thought can only take us so far. Zen considers everything to be one. We are all one.
Keating’s words are similar to those of Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. In Franciscan spirituality there is also an emphasis of the unity of all things. The Franciscans, like their founder, Francis of Assisi, see cosmic interconnections. For Keating, for the Franciscans, and for Zen practitioners, there is no such thing as “us and them”. There is only us. All things complement each other. Everything, including good and evil, belong to the same eternal whole.
Not many people meditate. Not many people can imagine a universe that isn’t split into categories of “good and bad”, “black and white”, and “us and them”.
The people at centering prayer can and do imagine that kind of world.
I need to spend more time with them.