‘We’re the original hippies!” Father Bernard broke into a mischievous grin, white teeth flashing in the spring afternoon sun. We were talking about the Trappist lifestyle: four hours of manual labor six days a week to earn enough to support the community; the rest of the time spent in prayer, contemplation, walking, hiking, reading, writing, studying—whatever helps you to grow in your spiritual journey. It sounded wonderful.
I had been to Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey near Lafayette, Ore., a few times before, but this was the first time I had met the abbot. He looked more like a well-preserved lumberjack than a Trappist abbot. Father Bernard was tall, bronze-skinned, ruddy complexioned and had eyes set deep in his head. He was also a surprisingly crusty, earthy, jovial man and, as I was to find out, a very wise and holy man as well.
I was spending a few days at the abbey guest house on a private retreat and was struggling with what I thought were some life-changing decisions facing me at the time. I had heard of the abbot’s reputation, so I asked to see him for spiritual direction. I hoped that some expert guidance would help me resolve my dilemma. After I had explained the choices and options that confronted me, Father Bernard commented, “Gee, those are all good choices. Have you tried contemplative prayer?”
“Have you ever tried contemplation? Have you read The Cloud of Unknowing”?
“No.” (“But what on earth does that have to do with what I just told you?” I was thinking, but was not brave enough to say.)
“Well, why don’t you get a copy in the bookstore or from our library, read it and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
End of session.
So I located a copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic 14-century anonymous text on the theory, practice and effects of contemplative prayer. It was something I never would have sought out to read on my own. To my surprise, I found it quite interesting and thought-provoking, despite its medieval language and context. But I hadn’t the slightest idea what it had to do with the questions and issues I was struggling with.
The next afternoon I met with Father Bernard again in my guest room, a small room, 10 feet by 10 feet, with a bed, a desk and a chair. There was a small closet in the corner, a wooden rocking chair and a floor lamp. Father Bernard pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Well, did you read The Cloud of Unknowing”?
“What did you think of it?”
“It was very interesting, fairly easy to follow, lots of things I hadn’t considered before.”
“Kind of a different way of looking at prayer, huh? You know, it’s really a classic for the practice of contemplative prayer. So, do you think you’d like to give it a try?”
“Give what a try?”
“Um, I guess so.” (I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this, but I didn’t know what else to say.)
“Great. Several of the monks meditate at 6 a.m. in the basement of the monastery every day. Why don’t you come and join us tomorrow morning?”
“What?” A surge of acute anxiety rolled through my stomach.
“Why don’t you join us tomorrow morning? Is something the matter?”
“Well, I guess it feels like you’re asking a kid who’s in Little League to come and play in the major leagues!”
He laughed. “Really, it’s no big deal. We just sit or kneel for 25 minutes. People come and meditate with us all the time.”
“Well, O.K., I guess I’ll give it a try. But I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.”
“Good. We’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
End of the second session.
The next morning at five minutes to 6 I entered the abbey church and found my way through a door on the left into the cloister, where the abbot was waiting to lead me down a long hall. Another door on the left took us down some stairs and into a room that appeared to be used partly as a library, with bookshelves lining two walls, and partly as a meeting room. There was a conference table and a dozen chairs on the far side. About half the room in front of us was open space with a few long benches along the side walls.
A dozen monks were already in the room, some of them sitting on cushions, others on prayer benches with their legs tucked underneath them. A few others were still locating places to sit. They were in four straight rows, sitting about an arm’s length apart from each other.
Feeling very much the Little Leaguer, I located a prayer station in the back row, near one of the long benches, where I hoped no one would look at me. I sat and tucked my legs underneath the prayer bench. Once everyone was in place, we simply sat in complete silence, without moving, for the next 25 minutes. I was so nervous I was afraid to breathe, to cough or even to clear my throat. I could envision all eyes turning and staring daggers at me, thinking, “What a stupid, undisciplined rookie! Never come in here again! You’ve ruined our meditation.”
Somehow I managed to make it through the entire session without falling over, having a coughing attack, dying of asphyxiation from holding my breath or breaking down in uncontrollable sobbing.
After 25 minutes someone gently tapped a bell; the monks bowed, got up and left. I continued to sit—not because I was lost in mystical ecstasy, but because both of my legs had fallen asleep. I could not move. The abbot came over to me and told me the session was over.
“I know. I can’t move.” I started to giggle and laugh as he helped me reach for the bench behind me, crawl out of my position and lie on the floor until some circulation returned to my legs and feet.
“Well, how’d you like it?”
“Um, fine,” I said.
So began my first experience of contemplative prayer, about 20 years ago. I have been doing it ever since.
I was never quite sure why Father Bernard didn’t give me any guidance on the decisions I was trying to make at the time. But as the years pass, I think I’m coming to appreciate his wisdom. It really would not have mattered which road I took at that point in my life. They all were good choices, as Father Bernard had noted, but they would have led me in different directions. Carlo Caretto (in his book I Sought and I Found) recounts a story about St. Francis of Assisi that makes the point that God has work for us to do no matter what direction we may arbitrarily take in our lives.
Francis and a companion, Masseo, were walking through Tuscany and came to a fork in the road. Masseo asked Francis which road to take.
“Whichever one the Lord wishes,” replied Francis.
When Masseo asked him how he should know that, Francis told him to stand at the fork and spin around like a child at play. Becoming dizzy, Masseo fell down on the road pointing toward Siena, which they then took. When they arrived in Siena, Francis found he was needed to help bring peace to rival factions who were fighting in the city.
In whatever choices we make in life, God can be found; God has something for us to do there.
But as I age, it also becomes clearer to me that our lives have significance not so much for what we do, or what direction we may have taken, but rather for who we are. Contemplative prayer (sometimes called “centering prayer”) teaches us to sit in the presence of God, to let go of everything that distracts us so that we can identify with and just be in God’s presence. Abbot Thomas Keating calls this the practice of “resting in God.” The goal is to do nothing, to think of nothing, but simply to sit and be and accept that God loves us unconditionally, absolutely, for who we are, not for what we do. In contemplative prayer we are totally passive, receiving and accepting God’s grace, being aware of God’s graciousness in our lives, and realizing that we need nothing more.