By Kathy Berken
A number of years ago I attended a weeklong centering prayer retreat in upstate New York. I was at the tail end of a mysterious two-month illness that had left me physically and spiritually weak. I needed something to get back on track and decided that a week of quiet prayer would be good medicine.
Centering prayer is a contemporary form of an ancient tradition of contemplative prayer that was introduced to the Catholic Church in the 1970s by three Trappist monks: Fathers Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and William Meninger.
The retreat was held at Stella Maris, a former mansion donated by the Rockefeller family. The peaceful setting offered a place to rediscover my priorities, what was important in life.
Each day the 20 of us met as a group for five half-hour centering prayer experiences, liturgy, meals and discussions focusing on the question, “What is the most important thing?” I was there with laypersons, clergy and religious of varying faiths, so our discussion and prayer services took on a warm ecumenical feel. One couple had once rented out their home for a year to Fr. Keating. I thought that was pretty cool.
We took notes, bandied numerous ideas about, asked a lot of questions of each other, told our stories and filled dozens of pages on the easel pad. We were really engaging this question, and as each day passed, I felt stronger and healthier. The prayer practice centered me and the discussions enlivened my heart and mind. As you might imagine, our collective responses to the big question of what was most important were profound. We talked at length about relationship, God, love, community, health, family, religion, faith, spirituality, identity, education, virtues, commitment and, of course, Plato’s absolutes of goodness, truth and beauty. But could we whittle these down to just one thing that was most important above all the rest? That seemed an impossible task.
During our free evening, we all went out to dinner and continued our discussion over great food and drink. I was making some good friends and was rediscovering the spiritual significance of centering prayer. I did not want the retreat to end. The mansion was beautiful and comfortable, the property and the lake were peaceful, the participants were fun and inspiring and the experience was holy.
As life happens, we did come to our last day, our last meal, our last liturgy and our last discussion. The group’s moderator had taped all of those pages on the wall and asked us to discern the most important thing. What a monumental task! Each of us lobbied and argued for what we knew in our hearts was the best answer. My idea was God. I said that without God, we are adrift on the sea. I said that regardless of our individual image of God, God had to be most important because God encompassed everything.
Others thought that we can’t even begin to know God unless we have healthy bodies, minds and spirits. One said that without love we can’t be who God created us to be. Another said that without air, food, water and shelter we can’t even survive. We needed to arrive at a group decision, one agreement. We crossed out words, met in small groups to talk more and then returned to the large group. What is the most important thing?
Here’s what we decided: Nothing. Nothing is most important. We agreed that although the source of centering prayer is God, the process teaches us to eliminate images, concepts, ideas and human distractions so that our spirits can fully experience being with God in the present moment. Yes, the other things have meaning, but in the purely spiritual life, we discovered that nothingness is what opens us to more fully experience the indwelling holy mystery of God.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)