Bootcamp In Gethsemane

One of my Lenten practices this year is to give serious attention once again to meditation.

I say once again, since I’ve engaged in meditation on and off for some years. I guess you could conclude that it has been somewhat “unsuccessful.”

Although we are cautioned not to “expect” anything in meditation, I suspect we all do. After months of practice with no discernable “improvement” I get discouraged.

Yet, I know it is one of the most valuable practices in our spiritual journey. I decided, after reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on Mary Magdalene, reviewed here, that I would get her book on centering prayer and read it during Lent.

I’ve so far found it a rich land. She calls centering prayer, the “boot camp in Gethsemane”. I like the idea of that.

When we think of Christ’s “agony in the garden” referred to in the Gospel of Luke, we think of his intensity, so great that his sweat “fell to the ground like great drops of blood.” I take this as metaphor for the depth of his immersion in God.

We seek in Lent to traverse the agonies of Christ, to touch his deeply felt pain, his exquisite determination to do as God wanted, overcoming his natural human fear. We seek to fall into God in the same completeness that he enjoyed and achieved.

That is what makes our meditation efforts real “work.” But not work of endurance or exertion. It is more singular determination, to sit in radical openness to God. We learn that it is in this willingness to sit that God comes to us, and does his will upon us in the deepest places within us.

As Rev. Bourgeault says, we are largely unaware of this going on. It goes on in the continual turning toward God, in those brief moments before our thoughts intrude once again. As she reports, the great centering prayer teacher Thomas Keating replied to a nun whose first attempt was a failure in her eyes because  “ten thousand thoughts went through my mind”:

“How lovely. Ten thousand opportunities to return to God.”

And for me, this makes centering prayer wonderfully cushioning. It delivers from me any “need” to worry about progress. For I am told that most of what is accomplished is done secretly, in the depths of my inner being. There God explains and “I” put into practice the words of Jesus,

“Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.”



4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 23:17:32

    Meditation was a big topic in last evening’s Bible study–how it differs from prayer, or is it a different kind of prayer, and what we should expect (even though, as you say, we’re told not to expect anything so the experience takes us where it should go).

    Someone told a great story about being in divinity school and trying to learn how to meditate first thing in the morning. She said she followed the protocol she’d been given, but got so relaxed after she let her thoughts go she’d wake up never having realized she fell asleep. She said, “I wondered, does this count?”

    Nobody knew what to say, because I think as much as we try to pin down meditation, it’s very difficult to define what it actually is. That’s why I like the concept of “centering prayer” so much. It’s less ambiguous to me. I still find it difficult to pull off, as it requires reining in one’s thoughts. (And my head is like a rhinoceros stampede most of the time.) But it gives me somewhere to go in order to be taken away.

    I’ve not read anything by Rev. Bourgeault. Your endorsement is more than enough to send me packing to amazon!



    • Sherry
      Mar 17, 2011 @ 12:05:32

      I agree wholeheartedly, meditation is like reining in a constant stream of consciousness for me. But as she explains Centering prayer, I feel less “defeated” by it all. I feel that I’m not privy to all that goes on deep down, but it will be reflected in my life in ways that I can see if I keep vigilant–in a more peaceful, more friendly, more forgiving, etc.

      I’m not sure how to react to falling asleep, though I have done that myself a number of times. My biggest problem is never settling on a sacred word….I change my constantly, which I’m told is alright…when you hit the “right” one, you just somehow know.



  2. John Anngeister
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 23:31:15

    I love that remark by Keating about interrupting thoughts being ‘opportunities to return’ and find it applies to sneezes and coughs as well. Invariably I hear myself praying a thank you when one in my group makes a noise loud enough to get me back on track!

    The mind is made to follow thoughts, but I sincerely believe there is a blessing in making it follow the ‘word’ instead. For 20 minutes anyway. Like Tim says, it’s only a different kind of prayer. It doesn’t supplant anything, only adds a new tool to the shelf.


    • Sherry
      Mar 17, 2011 @ 12:06:39

      Exactly…I like that…a whole new tool to the shelf.! I can get so chatty in regular prayer, I end up defending my beliefs and actions and that sort of thing, like God isn’t already aware. This quieting is very good for me. And this is working in a way that already surprises me. I’ve really discarded judgment about it. I just let it work.


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