The diocesan moderator for spiritual formation and coordinator of the Catholic Contemplative Outreach of Central Missouri offers the following invitation to a contemplative retreat at Il Ritiro Franciscan Retreat Center in Dittmer:
I once heard a priest say, “prayer is not just for those who are religious.”
I thought his comment was meant to be comical until I thought about it and realized that it’s true.
For instance, many folks who are in 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous claim to be agnostic or even atheist, yet the 11th step in any 12-step program calls for members to pray and meditate.
Surely an agnostic or atheist could not be considered religious. But this need to pray, this urge to pray, would seem to be universal.
“I will give you rest”
“Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
What is also universal is human suffering.
Some graceful folks learn how to navigate around this suffering. Others are so blessed as to even heal from it.
Sadly, some poor souls get stuck in it.
Two of the greatest American teachers and spiritual guides from the 20th century, Abbot Thomas Keating and Bill Wilson, both knew a thing or two about suffering, and both helped countless people to find freedom from suffering and the bondage of sin and addiction.
Abbot Keating, a renowned Trappist monk, was a celebrated teacher and guide for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because he was able to clearly define orthodox Christian wisdom for the post-modern world in new ways.
In particular, he could extract the exquisite wisdom of the early desert mothers and fathers and interpret their meanings within the paradigms of modern psychological language.
It is a language that people in our day readily relate to. It brings this ancient wisdom to life and allows folks to integrate its meanings in ways they relate to.
As a result, they begin to value these venerable treasures.
Abbot Keating was fond of referring to “The Human Condition.” It was his way of describing that incredibly rich and compassionate but much misunderstood and often misrepresented theology of The Consequence of Original Sin.
Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, each in his own way, summarize this theology — this fallen state of ours — by imploring us to be mindful that we are plagued with illusion, concupiscence and weakness of will.
A human being is born to be happy and in fact, nothing less will satisfy (just observe a 2-year-old who is not getting what he wants).
However, because of illusion, we have no idea of how or where to find real, lasting happiness.
When we do find something we think will make us happy, we can’t get enough of it, which is concupiscence. (This fancy word is just about the best description of addiction you’ll ever find.)
Finally, once we realize that only right relationship with God (or a Higher Power) is going to bring us true and lasting happiness, we find our wills are too weak to pursue it.
“Let anyone with ears listen.” (Matthew 11:15)
Abbot Keating illuminates the teachings from modern psychology, which identify the basic, human instinctual drives for happiness, security/power/control and affection/esteem.
He then marries these up beautifully with classical, orthodox Christian teachings about the pursuit of holiness and the trials and tribulations encountered on the spiritual journey.
He examines the teachings about this path to holiness, classically described as a journey through the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages, and likens them to levels of consciousness.
This journey can be exterior, to be sure — that is to say that through the trials and tribulations of life, God has much to teach us — but it is also an interior journey.
Like Nicodemus in John Chapter 3, we, too, can be reborn in this new Spirit and new light from within.
We experience a spiritual awakening and we learn to listen with the ears of our hearts and to see with the eyes of faith.
He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31)
Most of all then, Abbot Keating invites us to consider contemplative prayer (or prayer and meditation) as an engagement with the Divine Therapist in the Inner Room (Matthew 6:6), where Christ instructs us to pray.
By the way, this divine therapy is available anytime and any place we seek it, and there is never a charge.
Bill Wilson is another remarkable teacher and guide. He, along with Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.
That fellowship has helped millions of individuals around the world recover from addictions and compulsions — conditions that were once considered hopeless.
Yet in 1957, Wilson wrote an extraordinary article entitled, “Emotional Sobriety, the Next Frontier,” revealing his years of ongoing struggle and suffering, even after he had found physical sobriety.
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)
For many years, Wilson suffered dreadfully from some of these instinctual drives within, and which he was not entirely conscious of.
These hidden demons were secretly influencing his thoughts and behaviors, and continuing to disrupt his life and the lives of those around him, and they do the same things to us.
In his writings, Wilson refers to them as, “these adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security and perfect romance, urges quite appropriate to age 17 that prove to be an impossible way of life.”
“How shall our unconscious, from which so many of our fears, compulsions and phony aspirations still stream, be brought into line with what we actually believe, know and want?” he inquires.
When Abbot Keating read this article and learned about Wilson’s prolonged depression and suffering, he said its writer:
“The poor little lamb, if only he would have had a daily discipline of prayer and meditation, I believe his troubles would have been greatly reduced and the peace and serenity he longed for would have been much quicker in coming.”
“For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17)
According to Fr. Keating, contemplative prayer will bring to light our unconscious, pre-rational, hidden motivations and values that can cause us and others so much distress.
The deep rest experienced in the Divine Therapy allows us to let go of these obstacles to grace, and creates space for self-knowledge, freedom of choice and the discovery of the Divine Presence within.
With a regular, disciplined practice of prayer, we begin to bond with this Divine Therapist, our trust and faith grows, and we are able to endure this journey.
In the end, both of these great spiritual guides had to learn that it is God’s grace that carries us on this journey.
It does indeed turn out that our wills are too weak to pursue holiness, but God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Contemplative Outreach of Missouri (www.cocemo.org) is offering a weekend retreat, May 31-June 2 in Dittmer, for the teaching of prayer and meditation and the opportunity to find likeminded soul-friends.
All are welcome, religious and non-religious alike.
Please visit the website or call (573) 864-1097 to learn more or to register.