Healing In Community
by Adam Gordon
This article started as an account of Centering Prayer amidst a global pandemic and a local tragedy. On May 25th, about two months after Minnesota’s stay-at-home order for COVID-19, George Floyd was killed during his arrest on a street in Minneapolis. With our city convulsed by grief and outrage, Carol Quest proposed daily morning Zoom gatherings for one week to pray for peace and unity for our heartsick community; months later, we continue to meet every morning at 7:00 to hold the silence in communion with one another, joined by Benedictine sisters from Saint Paul’s in Saint Paul, MN.
I was curious to see how this new experience of Centering as a group during times of crisis would be different from praying during more normal times. Sister Paula Haugen, former Prioress and over 30-year veteran of the practice, told me:
“I much prefer the group Centering Prayer process because I am so used to community prayer with my sister Benedictines. The whole process is so Benedictine: members so welcoming and helpful to any new person who comes in. They are so bonded around the mental and physical health issues arising in this stressful time. This has been a spiritual gift from God for me. I am hoping and expecting that we will continue to meet long after we emerge from the pandemic.”
I approached Sister Paula to learn more, she encouraged me to talk to Sister Virginia Matter, another member of our 7:00 a.m. Centering Prayer group.
Contemplation in the Time of COVID-19
I was curious to learn how the pandemic had shifted her Centering Prayer practice. Since March the Benedictine Center, normally the site of weekly retreats and workshops, had been closed to outside visitors. Sister Virginia replied that she had been given “the gift of group centering.” Now in a regular week, she joins the Minnesota chapter’s daily 7:00 am meeting, as well as its Thursday evening meeting on Meditation Chapel, and the long-standing Wednesday morning Benedictine Center meeting, all via Zoom.
“Gathering in this way feels so necessary right now, and performs the stabilizing function of placing us in communion with people from the local Centering Prayer community, and indeed, contemplatives from all over the world. It has been a gift to have that as a sustaining connection of community.”
I wondered how Virginia was handling the shift from primarily a solitary practice to a community practice?
“It’s a balance. When I practice alone and enter into Centering Prayer on my own time, it is very easy for me. There’s no talking beforehand – it’s just entering into a quiet space. I can get a little bit overwhelmed in online meetings because sometimes there’s a lot of talking. I hold off on joining Zoom until about five minutes before because the conversation can be loud and pull me away from Presence. It can take me longer to quiet down inside, to get my mind to quiet down.”
I had noticed this phenomenon, too – both through my many online Centering Prayer groups and in my church – where what used to be a private conversation in the pews is now broadcast to everyone! It’s not particularly conducive to entering into silence, and yet it’s so understandable – we’ve been separated from our normal levels of social interaction, and we’re so hungry for it. It’s holy chatter.
I also wanted to know if holding silence with a group of people felt qualitatively different than centering alone. I’m such an extrovert, my preferred experience of Centering Prayer has always been primarily in community. I imagined Sister Virginia was such a pro, there really was no difference for her.
“No, no, no, like anyone else my mind can be very busy. Sometimes I struggle with my thoughts or I struggle with the noise. Other times it couldn’t be easier to enter into silence. But I’ve just learned, like Thomas [Keating] says, to have no judgment. Every time you go back to your sacred word, you’re returning to God. So, I’ve just cultivated the attitude, ‘OK God, I’m here, we’re here, and whatever it is, it is.'”
And what about the change to your community? I know that a life of active service through hospitality is a cornerstone of your Benedictine spirituality. What does it mean to be cut off from the normal flow of daily visitors?
“There’s a lot of solitude, a lot of stillness. I’m probably doing more reading than I’ve ever done. You go to the main floor and there’s no activity. I miss very much just being able to have space for guests to come in and experience the quiet and spiritual nourishment and I’m sad that that’s not happening for people. Daily we hold everyone in prayer in our Community Liturgy of the Hours.
“As a member of the Benedictine community, my experience has been one of listening interiorly and listening outwardly.
“It has been a joy to know that my gifts have grown because of being in community. I would never be experiencing what I am experiencing as a person if I hadn’t been in community. I honestly don’t know if I would be a contemplative or not, or how I would ever have been introduced to .”
During the pandemic, we have all experienced profound changes to our accustomed circles of support, including disruptions to normal interactions of family, faith and community. The emergence of online Centering Prayer groups, like the Minnesota chapter’s daily 7:00 a.m. Zoom gathering, affirms our deep interconnectedness, and provides a virtual experience of shared silence and presence that nonetheless can still sustain and transform us.
Adam Gordon is co-coordinator of the Minnesota Chapter, and lead facilitator of the Saturday morning 12-Step Spirituality Centering Prayer group.