For God alone my soul in silence waits;
From him comes my salvation.
In the midst of getting to know my new grandson I attended a week-long residency for my class on contemplative prayer, offered by the Shalem Institute. To say that both these experiences were transformative is not exaggerating one bit. The miracle of new birth combined with a spiritual experience of great depth and meaning has given me a new lens through which to look at life.
Not knowing a single person or really what I was getting into, I was quite anxious about the residency, held at a retreat center west of
Baltimore. But when I walked into the first session I
realized that the other 21 students felt just like me. The anxiety lasted about 5 minutes-I quickly saw
that we all spoke the same language.
Each day included a seminar on such topics as leadership, prayer forms and contemplative awareness. We met daily with a small peer group where we “practiced” leading a particular form of prayer and made and received comments from our leader and the other members. We shared good food together as well as walks by the meditation pond or on trails thru the surrounding woods. There was no hiding-we talked one-on-one and in larger groups about our deepest beliefs, hopes and disappointments. And there was plenty of opportunity to be alone and quiet if one so desired.
In the midst of the residency there was a 36-hour period of total silence. We still ate together, met in seminars (led by a leader who was talking) and even danced our hearts out. But we were silent. I relaxed into this time with myself, and truthfully, it was wonderful. I noticed the ordinary and treasured the common.
I want to explain a bit about prayer forms-this has been new to me. A prayer form is simply a way to help one grow closer to the Spirit and listen-it is similar to meditation, with the intent of drawing near to God. The prayer forms serve as ways to help calm and clear a cluttered mind. One can use a particular word, chant, icon or interior image.
In leading my peer group I chose to use thanksgiving as my prayer form. Reminding the group members of Paul’s admonition to be thankful in all things (1 Thessalonians 5:18) I asked them to say “thank you” to each thought that came into their minds, whether positive or negative, then to let it go. Yes, it is easy to be grateful for the good in our lives, but what about the bad? This prayer is not gratitude for the bad but a way of showing us that something good can come from a tragedy, a loss, a death. But how can the death of a loved one contain anything to be thankful for, you might ask? Perhaps your loved one was spared agonizing pain by dying or perhaps estranged family members drew closer. This is what is meant by thanksgiving in all things.
Returning to my everyday life after the residency was not easy. Stacks of bills, piles of paper, flower beds full of weeds-all vying for my attention. Yet I am trying to carry this marvelous idea of contemplation with me as I live each day. I feel that I am on a bridge, leaving behind the tendency to control and demand and heading toward a profound sense of peace and acceptance.
My soul waits quietly for you
From you comes my deliverance
(Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 62 by Norman Fischer)