Prayer and meditation for dummies

Monday 16 November 2015 — Port-O-Call: Plymouth Harbor — Vatican issues universal catechism (1992)

I turned the key in the lock of room No. 111 and entered. I had arrived at Miramar Retreat Center for the annual diocesan priests’ retreat. 

You know me, dear readers. I notice everything. My room was simple and neat. The walls were beige; the carpet, a darker shade of blue. The bedspread featured tropical palm trees on one side and generic stripes on the other. There was a desk and a blue upholstered reclining chair, with a pewter-colored floor lamp beside it. There was a large window (with beige drapes) overlooking the beautifully landscaped grounds, but the shrubbery blocked the view. No matter. There was a framed painting of a lighthouse on the wall. Of all the pictures in all the world, this one showed the Falmouth lighthouse (Nobska). I live in Falmouth. The picture was either a strange coincidence or the retreat house staff was exceedingly attuned to being hospitable. I immediately felt at home. 

I spied on the desk a small booklet. “What’s this?” I asked myself, and began to thumb through it. It contained the usual information: names and telephone numbers of the staff, housekeeping details, times of meals, checkout time, location of the main office, instructions in the case of emergency, etc. Unlike booklets in hotel rooms around the globe, this one also contained basic instructions on how to pray. 

There were one-line Bible quotes, pithy sayings of Spiritual masters, and a list of “symptoms” that your mind and heart were ready to enter into prayer. Then, on page 14, it began what I call “prayer and meditation for dummies.” It was a simple list of traditional Spiritual methods used throughout the centuries — just a paragraph or two on each. “Why do I need this?” I asked myself. “I am a seasoned priest. I am no dummy to the Spiritual life. Humph.”

The list began with classic Spiritual techniques used to prepare for prayer. It suggested clearing one’s mind of the clutter of constant self-talk. From our earliest childhood, there are unspoken words and endless thoughts always buzzing around in our brain. In order to prepare for prayer, one has to let go of these.

Repetitive methods were stressed in the booklet — a word or phrase that calms the mind and eliminates the self-talk. Awareness of one’s breathing enhances the exercise of repetition, it said. Some call this a mantra. You begin by speaking the mantra out loud, following the rhythm of your natural inhalation and exhalation. Then you move on to expressing the mantra internally. Finally, you pray your mantra in your heart, without any words at all.

The Eastern Catholic Church favors the “Jesus Prayer” for a mantra: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner” (or something similar). Another example of repetitive prayer is the universally known Rosary. What is called “Centering Prayer” is also quite popular these days. 

The goal is awareness of the presence of God in the moment, in the here and now. Some call this “mindfulness.” Once attained, you have arrived (as T. S. Elliot says) at the still point of the turning world. You are ready to be with God; to enter contemplative prayer. Pick one that works for you.

You might choose a well-known prayer (a single “Our Father” for example) — and take a whole hour to pray it.

You can just “be” in the presence of God, without word (spoken or unspoken), without thoughts, without feelings. Just be. Simply bask in the Divine Light. It’s called contemplation. It’s really not as esoteric as it sounds. 

One method culminating in contemplative prayer is “Lectio Divina.” I was trained in this method during my early seminary days. Lectio Divina literally translates as “Spiritual reading,” but that’s not the half of it. For your text, you might use the Bible, but “Lectio Divina” is not Bible study. You might instead use some Spiritual classic. I stayed with “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas á Kempis for a year. First you read (lectio) and then you ponder (oratio) a phrase or word that catches your attention; you pray over it. Then comes meditatio. You visualize (St. Ignatius was big on imagining yourself present in Gospel scenes). Lastly, you let all of that go and rest in God (contemplatio). 

This booklet put it all together in words even a dummy could understand. Thomas Merton wrote, “Let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!” Really?

It was already dark. I reached to turn on the floor lamp. Oh dear. The little plastic knob was missing. The metal stem was there, but no knob. I crawled around in the darkness on my hands and knees, feeling under the furniture. It was a sight to behold. I couldn’t find the knob. 

I bumbled down to the office to report the broken lamp. “Father,” said the receptionist very sympathetically, “Just flip that little switch on the wall.”

I felt like such a dummy.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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