Episode 5: The Source of Centering Prayer with Carmen Acevedo Butcher

“We need to love ourselves. Contemplation and Centering Prayer brought me self compassion. That’s healing and such joy. I will be grateful my entire life for that”
- Carmen Acedvedo Butcher

On Today’s episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, we welcome internationally acclaimed speaker, author, poet and translator of spiritual texts, Carmen Acevedo Butcher. From a young age she immersed in the presence of prayer and her work has garnered interest from the BBC and NPR’s Morning Edition. Carmen has a linguistics background and holds degrees in medieval studies, and teaches at University of California, Berkeley. Today she shares her thoughts on Centering Prayer practice, self compassion, community with others, and how trauma can be turned into connection through meditation and contemplation.

What’s in this episode:
  • Carmen shares how her religious background and love of the outdoors led to the natural progression from Lectio Divina, or spiritual reading, with meditation, prayer, and contemplation.
  • Carmen shares that we don’t have to be whole but we can start on the path as we are, which brought her self-compassion.. She points out that Father Thomas Keeting’s repackaging of contemplative prayer from The Cloud of Unknowing makes it accessible to us today.
  • Carmen explains that experience and understanding with our intellect are two different things and shares the differences and connections between meditation, contemplation, and Centering Prayer from her perspective.
  • Self Compassion and invitation are the practice of Centering Prayer through trauma and desire for psychological healing. It is a relationship with God and transformative growing awareness of presence and how it might connect to depression and trauma.
  • Carmen shares that the relationship with the divine is synonymous with people we meet and it opens our hearts up to be ongoingly broken in a way that is congruent with love.
  • We must ask what meditation is to you? What are these practices to you? How we contemplate today differs from how we contemplate tomorrow. Not in the basics but making sure to stay open to the spirit happening.
  • Through her translating she has recognized God who came out to embrace her and it made her want to go out and embrace the world. Contemplation has helped her find the gold in her shadow and be someone who matures and recognizes when she's done harm and wants to go out and atone.

“Centering Prayer is not so much an exercise of attention as intention. It may take a while to grasp this distinction. During Centering Prayer, you do not attend to any particular thought content. Rather, you intend to go to your inmost being, where you believe God dwells.”
– Thomas Keating, Open Mind Open Heart 27

To connect further with Carmen Acevedo Butcher:

Visit her website: https://www.carmenbutcher.com/
Visit her Linktree: https://linktr.ee/carmenacevedobutcher
Check out her YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/CarmenAcevedoButcherPresence
Carmen’s translations:
Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence (Broadleaf) now available on Audible
The Cloud of Unknowing (Shambhala)
Opening Minds, Opening Hearts EP #5: The Source of Centering Prayer with Carmen Butcher

[cheerful music starts]

Colleen Thomas: [00:00:00]  Welcome to the first season of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts,  a podcast about the transformative practice of Centering Prayer. 

In each episode, we will talk to friends of  Contemplative Outreach about their personal practice. 

Listen in as our guests share insights about the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, how the practice impacts their work in the world, and their thoughts about how Centering Prayer connects to the living traditions of contemplation and meditation. We are your hosts, Colleen Thomas,

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:00:28] And Mark Dannenfelser,

Colleen Thomas: [00:00:30]  Centering Prayer practitioners, and contemplative life seekers who love to talk a little too much about how the practice of Contemplative Prayer transforms our inner and outer worlds. Our hope this season is to open the door for you to explore more deeply this powerful practice of Centering Prayer. 

[cheerful music ends]

Welcome to the Contemplative Outreach Podcast, Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. We're learning so much with every guest and we're excited today because Mark, we have a new friend with us.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:01:07] Welcome to the Contemplative Outreach Podcast, Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. I'm Mark.

Colleen Thomas: [00:01:13] And I'm Colleen.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:01:15] Hi, Colleen.

Colleen Thomas: [00:01:16] Hi, Mark. We're here again.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:01:18] Here again. Isn't this fun, this first season of this podcast?

Colleen Thomas: [00:01:22] It's so fun. I'm learning so much. I hope that our audience is as well.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:01:29] And we've been talking to some amazing guests, one of whom we have with us today.

Colleen Thomas: [00:01:33] We sure do. Today, our guest and friend of contemplative outreach is Carmen Acevedo Butcher. She's an internationally acclaimed speaker, author, educator, poet, and translator of spiritual texts. We're so delighted to have you. Welcome Carmen.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:01:55] Thank you.

Colleen Thomas: [00:01:56] Carmen, this is a podcast about Centering Prayer. We like to jump right in and get to know how our guests were first introduced to the practice, and you've spoken about your early life. And at a young age you had a preference for silence and reflection and just being in the natural world, you were especially drawn to trees. It sounds like you had a genuine attraction to contemplation. I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your first introduction to the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:02:34] Yes, absolutely. It was a long and winding road. You put it so well, Colleen, because it really started for me in the way that Thomas Keating talks about it. I was found, I feel I was found. It's like love came looking for me, especially during difficult early childhood days of trauma. So one of the things that I did do was go outside in nature and wander around. We didn't even have air conditioning, and this is a south, so it's pretty hot. So it was actually cooler outside on any given day. And I discovered the red tailed hawks, and I really relate to Mary Oliver in this. She said that nature saved her. And one of the things I discovered then was the real invisible, but very real companionship of the mystery or the ultimate reality, or however, one likes to put the divinity name. And then from that, I was also being brought up in the Southern Baptist Church.

And even though that had some really difficult things for me to handle later, one of the positives was an emphasis on, and I think this was especially because of my mother, a kind of Lectio Divina. And so I steeped myself in Bible verses, and that seems to be a real foundation for The Cloud of Unknowing. Because the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing says, be sure. He says, I'm just assuming that you're going to be doing the sacred reading of Lectio Divina. You're going to be steeping in scriptures. And so that sort of naturally leads to contemplation. I mean, if you spend even 20 minutes with just a simple verse like Jesus wept, I mean, amazing. And that's not even one of the ones I spent the most time with. But because of that, before I even had heard of The Cloud of Unknowing, I had experienced the natural progression from Lectio so reading and then on to meditation and on to the prayer, and then to the meditation, and then to the contemplation. It just had happened.

And so I'm actually really glad for that because I think sometimes we get lost in this quote steps when it's actually such an organic process. Then later I really sort of stumbled across Father Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, and different teachers in that sphere. But the reason I did, I think, is because earlier in graduate school I had stumbled across The Cloud of Unknowing. And in the cloud, of course, are the seeds, the real, what do you call it? Original material, the OC, the original content for Centering Prayer. And in this 14th century, spiritual classic anonymous talks about contemplation in ways that are actually very teachable. At least that's one of the points that Basil, you know, Meninger makes about how he said, you can actually teach contemplation. That's amazing.

And so I started, I'm not a good one because I have dyslexia. It was undiagnosed in my childhood, but I still have problems sometimes sitting still. I'm just going to admit it. So if it works for me, it can work pretty much. I always think for anyone, one of the ways that I did contemplation before I started really sitting was walking meditation. And I've since read for people who are dealing with trauma, that walking meditation is a really brilliant way to do meditation. So we don't need to feel bad about it, you know, whatever works. But with Father Thomas Keating reading his instructions on the psychological healing that's possible through contemplation, I gathered steam, I felt seen. I was like, okay, this is an actual path that can help me.

And in one of the places, Father Thomas says that sometimes when you're practicing Centering Prayer, you may need the help of a spiritual director. You may need the help of a therapist. You may need someone to come alongside you to help with the different unconscious material that comes up when you sit for long periods or when you contemplate for long periods. And I thought then, and I think now, I wish that were almost made more of, because not long after I finished the translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, I started seeing a therapist. And I know that doesn't sound like much these days, but for my generation, you know, we were always told, you just needed to read your Bible more or you needed to pray more. So for me, going to see a therapist was a huge step. That Centering Prayer and contemplation and the practice of the presence all enabled me to be brave enough to do. I can't say I wasn't scared, but it enabled me to go to therapy for a good while. And then to go back, once I came to California.

I really find Father Thomas Keating's repackaging of the actual prayer of the cloud, or the Contemplative Prayer from The Cloud of Unknowing to be very helpful in the sense that he makes, he and the others who were working with it alongside him. It really makes it accessible to us today. I think that's what you all want to talk about too, is how to make it accessible. But really the way that I came to Centering Prayer and to actually sitting a couple of times a day for about 15 or 20 minutes and then practicing other forms of contemplation, is through my disability and through my trauma. And so I love the fact that we don't have to be somewhere whole and ready to go, that we can start on the path where we are and come as we are and find great. What it brought me, what it has brought me is self-compassion.

And I just read Ruby Sales, the great activist and contemplative and wise woman said that one of the greatest needs we have today is to understand that in order to love our neighbor, we need to love ourselves. I mean, that is a scripture verse. But one of the things that contemplation, Centering Prayer and all the others brought me was self-compassion. And that's healing. That's such joy. I'm really great. I will be grateful my entire life for that.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:09:07] Carmen, thank you. I love when you said that the prayer found you in a sense that there's such an invitation there for all of us to just open our eyes and hearts and minds. You mentioned a few times prayer and contemplation and meditation. How are they connected? And can you say a little more about that? I know you've been talking about that. I'm just wondering some of that are technical terms, I suppose, but what's your understanding of it?

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:09:33] First I have to laugh because that question is like, so big.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:09:38] It's one, it's one I get all the time. So I hope, I'm hoping you'll give me something I can...

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:09:48] Can I just like, so I just have to admit that I am one of those people when I would read Thomas Keating, you know, he has the big yellow book. And I would just pour through it going, what's the difference between contemplation and meditation? And so then that makes me as somebody who's always clung to etymologies, to try to have words not move around on the page so much. So first of all, I want to say, if you're confused, great. Because I think that experience is one thing, and understanding it with our intellect is an entirely other thing.

And so for me, the main thing is the experience, although it does help to bring the intellect more into alignment with our experience. So when you look at the word meditate, it actually is anchored in the word for, it shares roots with medicine, and it comes from like to measure, like to figure out what you need. But it has a base root in healing. Meditate really is anchored in a kind of healing, an activity that is healing. And then I think also in the Old Testament where we read about meditation. I mean I grew up thinking that meditation was not for Christians. Because in the evangelical tradition where I was brought up, meditation was suspect, right? And you had to worry about it. The thought was that meditation was emptying your mind and something might come in and that's not really at all what meditation is. For me, meditation was at first either being in nature and meditating on the hawk, I'm on the same planet with this hawk that soars, lucky me. I mean, I'm not great and smart and what I'm like, odd.

And, you know, I feel my interconnectedness with this amazing creature I could never make or even with the daisies. And then meditation for me was first meditating on the wonders of nature. And who made the, I mean, how can we say we understand whoever or whatever, or however this was made. So for me, meditation started with nature really, and in silence. And then meditation for me was centered in scripture. So I spent, when I was especially depressed, for the first, I would say good, from 16 through my late 40s, I spent all that depressive energy of ruminating and repeating. I spent it, I tried to redirect that energy into scripture. Like obsessing is kind of a good way to look at it a positive obsessing in scripture.

So I would spend time with, come on to me, all you who are weary, and take my yoke upon you, the verses in Matthew about rest because I was desperate for rest. And when you spend for me anyway countless hours meditating, ruminating like a cow choose her cud. Like literally bringing the scripture in and just having it on a like a four by six card typed up. And going over the verse and going, where does this apply to me? And how can this help me? And just allowing your mind to race over scripture. And eventually, somehow scripture reaches out and brings that wild and untamed and really hyperventilating mind brings it into its peace somehow.

And so for me, meditation starts with nature and scripture, and then it becomes something more wordless. But I used to bring my questions to meditation. So I would be talking with God, and this is part of practice of the presence. I would be talking with God and I could be angry. I don't think we talk about this much, but I could be with this verse about, come on to me, all you who are weary and I'll give you rest. And I could be like, really? Where's my rest? Sometimes it would be, thank you so much for being with me. I'm grateful that I can see. I appreciate my blessings.

But other times it would be, where is my rest? And then sometimes I might be meditating on the verse, my God, why have you forsaken me? And that's Jesus on the cross. And I would be like, yeah, where are you? I don't think we talk about this sometimes, but meditation also includes these very existential questions of the heart. Otherwise it wouldn't have persisted if it didn't deal with the most difficult emotions and make space for them. So that's what it helped me do. It helped me make space. Or I might bring to a Bible verse like, why have you forsaken me? I'm really angry at this person. They did this to me. Other times it could be, I did this to this person. What am I supposed to do with that?

For me, meditation had all of these things in it. It's like the psalms, my meditation had all the emotions and made space for them, even before I went to counseling. Meditation was a space for me to feel my emotions, even if I didn't know I was, that was still useful. And then eventually, even without knowing about the steps, even before I met Gleego, you know, who's an ancient guy, talking about the steps of meditation, contemplation, eventually the words, you do this long enough, dyslexia, this meditation on scripture, this prayer where you're saying, help me understand this or help me with this. And eventually contemplation, the wordless happens. And you find yourself just, and then the thing that our minds don't really groove with so much, our sort of binary minds are like, wait, I want 1, 2, 3, 4. And the experience is actually 1, 2, 4, 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 4, 1, 4, 2, 1. And sometimes 1, 2, 3, 4, all the same time. And we don't know what to do with that. But eventually the wordlessness of contemplation happens. And then so I look up contemplation.

So what is contemplation? And the temp part has two possibilities etymologically. One is temp being to measure has a lot to do with measure, right? So it can be to stretch out a cord or a string, and you're going to make like a temple to make a space set aside for these questions and to honor the sacred in the world. So that's one. The other is the actual temp as in content or in attention. And that means to stretch. And so either way, contemplation sort of means like I'm stretching to God, or I'm making a space where I can be with God. And it doesn't really have to do with words. It is more what you were talking about, Mark, it is a gift. And this is what I think is a central paradox.

And I know Father Thomas talks about this a lot, Thomas Keating, that we meditate and contemplate and we must turn up, we must do, as Cynthia Bourgeault says, we must “do” the practice. I mean, it's like an athlete not practicing. If you don't practice, you can't run well, it's about making a space for this. But at the same time we're absolutely aware that this is a gift that we have been sought out for this that love comes looking for us. And this is the interesting thing to me, when you study the roots of The Cloud of Unknowing, which is the root of Centering Prayer. And the root of it is that the point of view of The Cloud of Unknowing is that God loves us and makes, God makes themselves available to us. God is a lover looking for us. And so it has nothing to do with legalism or this or that or tit for tat or. I mean, it's all to do with this lover saying, where are you? Come back.

Colleen Thomas: [00:17:40] And what is standing out to me from your distinguishing and at the same time, describing the relationship between these methods or practices or postures, is I think about Centering Prayer as a method of being in relationship. It's a means by which we spend time. And this language of the way Father Keating describes talks about the practice and the guidelines is that we are consenting to the presence of God. And it's this relational consent to I'll spend some time here with you, God and with myself. And so when you talk about self-compassion and when you talk about really your kind of invitation into the practice of Centering Prayer through trauma and a desire for psychological healing and even depression, I know that resonates with me and will probably resonate with a lot of people too. And one of Father Thomas's key teachings that really stood out for me early on in coming to the practice was about Centering Prayer as this practice that destroys this. He says, the monumental illusion that God is absent. Can you talk a little bit about this relationship with God and this transformative growing awareness of God's presence and how that might connect to depression and trauma?

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:19:14] That is beautiful the way you just put that. I think relationship is key. I like how you said it's a posture of saying, I'm here I'm listening. Because to me, these practices are all, for me, at least my ways of saying I'm trying to listen and I'm trying to listen to divinity, to love. And that always takes me to self-compassion and others' compassion. It's never just me sitting in a room and going, I'm going to get my life together. It's so not that. It's more how can I grow my self-compassion and become aware of my own sacredness so that I can love others better. Because the world I just heard today about digital redlining and such, to do with the way that Wi-Fi is not at all equitable in the world, and how low economic communities and communities with fewer white people in it have offered lower Wi-Fi capabilities at higher prices.

And so as somebody who contemplates, I'm always like, wow, what can I do about that? Not that I can immediately press any buttons, but it makes my heart more open to listen to my students at UC, Berkeley, because I have relationship. When you say relationship, and I think relationship with the divine, it's synonymous with relationship with whoever I meet every day or with the people I don't meet, but who I hear about who are having a hard time. And it kind of really opens my heart up to be kind of ongoingly broken really. Not in a way where I'm depressed, but in a way that is congruent with love.

But I love the fact that you said it's to do with relationship. Because I think when I was growing up, I thought that these kinds of practices where you sit on a cushion, you're kind of alone. As I've gotten older, I see it's all about, first of all, seeing how interdependent we all are. Like you said it, you said Father Thomas Keating says, it does away with the illusion that God is absent. And also it does away with the illusion that I'm separate. And so one of the things that has helped me tremendously is I even have an alert in my phone to remind me of this because I'm a human, I forget things and I don't mean just my keys. I forget some of the basic, the fundamental things like I am part of the human family and what I feel others feel, what I've experienced others have experienced. And what I've done, others have done good and harmful.

Just feeling this interconnectedness and not just because, you know, Rabbi Rami Shapiro loves to talk about, you know, it's this interconnectedness with all creatures. And he told me this story recently of he had this ant invasion at his home and he was just kind of like killing them to get them, you know, I mean, they're ants, as he said. But he was talking with one of his mentors who was saying, yeah, but those are sacred creatures too. So one of the things is this interconnectedness of realizing it with the egrets and the marsh or the marsh hawks, and with my students and with people I see on the streets. Because one of the things the whole world has going on right now is this people who have no home and just this sort of interconnectedness that if somebody doesn't have a home that is connected with me. So it's this sort of interconnectedness, this relationship that God is not absent and we're all connected. That gives me a totally different point of view for wanting to live and wanting to communicate. And it constantly reorients me because I have my own ideas about things.

Colleen Thomas: [00:22:57] Oh yeah.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:22:59] I have things I want to happen and I'm learning that. I mean, it's really a humbling thing that listening takes up more and more of my time. I love the way that you put that though. And Dr. James Finley, Jim often says, one of the things we're trying to do is make a space, in other words, set aside time. It's that temple, the contemplation is like where you said posture. We're like putting aside time to honor this relationship.

[solemn music starts]

Mark Dannenfelser [00:23:38]  In the Christian tradition, Contemplative Prayer is the opening of your mind and heart to God who is beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate contemplation. The method suggests four guidelines. 
One, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within you. 
Two, sit comfortably and relatively still close your eyes or leave them slightly open and silently introduce your sacred word. 

Three, when you notice you have become engaged with a thought, simply return ever so gently to your sacred word. 

And four, at the end of the 20-minute prayer period, let go of the sacred word and remain in silence for a couple of minutes. The additional time invites you to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.

[solemn music ends]

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:24:47] When I was trying to write the introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing, I kept having this extreme impulse of wanting to have the introduction just be two blank pages. And I was talking with a best friend of mine and I was like, this is messing with my, you know, when you're writing a book about The Cloud of Unknowing all your clouds, every day there are interesting clouds. And you go through the Bible and you make a study of the clouds in the Bible. And then when you go to write an introduction, you're like, what can I say? I can say no, because everything becomes that joke about the vendor. The monk goes to New York and says, make me one with everything to the hot dog vendor. And it's just everything becomes this one thing. And so I know our human minds want to make it into steps and we want to have absence and we want to have separation. We don't really want to, but it's just kind of how we're binarily programmed. But becoming un-programmed to me is one of the messiest, most delightful. It's worth it to me. So I love the way you put that. The question that you asked just then is worth much more than my response. That question is worth everything.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:26:02] Talking about interconnectedness so beautifully that the practice wakes us up to that in some ways. I'm aware of folks too who, and Colleen mentioned this before about people have experienced trauma and how a lot of traumatic experience, whether it's very personal or kind of corporate or social trauma, there's a sense of separation and disconnectedness. And I'm wondering how we kind of enter into these practices.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:26:28] For me, I think listening is really important. I think it’s one reason it really brings to mind to me communities, like I know Colleen, you work within a community that brings people into spiritual companionship. I know Keith Kristich does it closer than breath. I know that a safe community is, I think one of the biggest draws is having that safety of I'm not alone. I'm here with other people doing this and I'm seen and whenever I've taught classes like the summer with the shift network or different workshops and such, just the feeling that we're all here together and this is a safe space.

I think a safe community is one of the biggest. And the other is to have an acknowledgement that this is a valid experience. That an experience of trauma does not invalidate a person, but rather is a part of this person's human experience that it deserves respect and listening and that when people, I think I know when I feel seen and when if you share something and then someone goes, I'm listening to you, I hear you rather than trying to say, oh, that will be okay. Or I'm sure we can handle that, that openness of a container of holding the person there and allowing that to be present, the person's experience to be validated. To me that is absolutely huge. Another thing I think, and this is from that book, Mark, you recommended to me about Treleaven, what is his first name again? I forget?

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:28:07] Dave, David.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:28:09] David. That's what I thought I could, David. I read that book because you recommended it recently. It’s such a good book. David Treleaven’s book about trauma sensitivity in meditation and such. One of the things I'd done even before then was like, I've always had some difficulty when given instructions for meditation, like it'd be like, sit straight and shut your eyes. And I was always like, part of my trauma experience has been that I have a kind of hunched posture that I've worked with in everything. But sitting up straight isn't my strong, strongest point in life. And I've come to be very kind to myself in this. I mean a lot of people are beginning to say, sit comfortably. That's good, I like that. Sometimes they'll say, “Lie down”. For some people that's also helpful. Shut your eyes if that's useful to you. And if that's not comfortable for you, then lower your gaze or soften it. And then I would even add or go for a walk. I know you can't do that when you're having like, a workshop or something, but my kind husband can tell you I've walked ever since I've known him and even before then, every day, like at least an hour. And during graduate school when I was having the most severe of my depression and also insomnia of sleeping like one or two hours a night, I walked two hours a day and I would have these little bible verses with me on my little three by five cards that ended up being pretty tattered from being in my back jean pocket.

But I would say making space for a, and the other thing is I've often gone to workshops where they have a counselor there for if something comes up for someone. And I think that's very important to recognize that contemplation, meditation, therapy and or spiritual direction are all kind of part of the same community helping us all.

I really think that, I'm hopeful that in spite of the absolutely devastating collective trauma of the pandemic, which is ongoing with the new variants and such, you know, I had many students whose parents died as essential workers. I'm hopeful that trauma will become more a part of a normal conversation that people have. I'm hoping that, I know you two are both really wise people about this, how to handle this. I'm hoping that we will have more and more mainstream teaching of how to make trauma number one, not only not stigmatized, but safely discussed and safely handled as a part of the mainstream. And I think with long COVID and with other devastating impacts of the pandemic that maybe this will open up ways for us to talk about the other traumas, the racism, the marginalization, the LGBTQ, the marginalizing, just so many different traumas. I'm hoping that because one of the things when I was younger was you didn't talk about these things. It was like somehow your fault, your problem if you had a trauma, it was not discussed. It was more swept under the rug.

I think those of us who are concerned about this, we can all pretty much see that has not worked. And [inaudible 00:31:24]  is one of my favorite psychoanalysts. I mailed her a copy of my cloud once, you know, just because I love her book on prayer. And she talks a lot about when we leave trauma and these unconscious energies unrecognized and un-relationship. I would even say to use Colleen, you're, when we leave these un-relationship to make up a word, than they're kind of in the basement ready to burst out. And I think we now see the bursting out more clearly than I don't think it's newest. Exactly.

But so my hope would be that we would learn more and more how to make safe spaces for trauma really. And I'm really grateful for what the organization does, COI does for this. Because I think that you're also leaning into new ways to bring Father Thomas Keating's wisdom into now. And I think he would be delighted because he has so much wisdom around, you know, how he says Centering Prayer is divine therapy. I mean that to me is telling in the sense that it's all of a piece with the psychology and goes along right with what Kathleen Norris, I heard her speak once and she was talking about how the women mystics and the desert mothers, the desert fathers were our first psychologist. So I'm really grateful that this is all coming to the forefront because when you're desperate for healing as we all are, but when you're in those crisis phases, you really need people to come alongside.

Colleen Thomas: [00:32:54] You talked a little about the guidelines. We want to talk a bit about the guidelines so that people coming to the practice or people who are practicing for a long time and still maybe don't give as much attention to the guidelines as Father Keating or the cloud desired. And so you talked about sitting comfortably and that's one of the guidelines, but also the guidelines talk about choosing a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent. And in your translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, you explore the meaning of this word intent. The cloud says that the only thing we need in prayer is a naked intent. Can you tell us more about the root meaning of the word intention and maybe why it's such a important disposition in prayer and how it again was chosen and selected to be included in our guidelines for Centering Prayer?

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:34:07] That is one of my favorite questions of all time. So anonymous calls it a “nakkid ontent”. I just love it. A “nakkid ontent”. A naked intention. Yeah. And he talks about the one difference between what he teaches and what Centering Prayer does, you know. So every generation adds a little bit of understanding to things. So anonymous says it should be a word of one syllable and then we'll get to the naked intent. But he talks about you should choose one syllable. And he even says, don't look at the etymology. Because you're just using it as a finger pointing to the moon this word, this sacred word is just to remind you of, as you said earlier, Colleen, of your consenting. So you bring up a word, one syllable, he says, of course Centering Prayer says one or two or three or perhaps an image.

But I love the fact that you said naked intent because the intent, the “in” is obviously within, and then the “tent'' is the root also found in tension and in tendon and in attention. And I always tell students is when you are interested in someone, say you want to date them and you give them your attention, you generally speak in stretch towards them. Like to really listen. And so the tent, the ten or the tent part of it means to stretch. And we see that tendon is something that stretches and tension stretches us. And then attention the AD or AT part at the beginning of it means toward. So it literally means to stretch toward, and intention means to stretch within. I think that's beautiful. And it's a naked, it's not me going, how will I post this on Instagram? It's not that kind of attention. It's not me going, how does this make me look to me? This is raw. This is me saying I love you and here I am and here's what-. I just need relationship with you.

And so Brother Lawrence describes this naked intention. He's from the 17th century in France and he says, when you practice the presence, don't want anything God can offer, you just want God. And so that naked intention is that basic need of just wanting love, whatever that mystery is. And when I think we're all being honest about it, we got no clue. I mean really when this naked intention is this being with this love that is absolute mystery that we can sense and experience, but never explain, just know by love as all of the Augustine and all the wise people say. So I love that.

And so the sacred word is what we use or words. I mean, it could be a couple of words, right? As Centering Prayer says, but they should be short. The main point is the reason we want them to be short, right? Is because the longer, the more our minds get sort of jumping onto, it's like, you know, when Father Thomas Keating teaches about meditation, like you want, you're seeing the boats go by above you and you don't want to jump onto the boat.

Colleen Thomas: [00:37:18] No, don't get on the boat.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:37:19]  Don't get on the boat. So, I always think of myself as a deep sea diver and I'm watching the ships go by above. And the smaller little boats, you know, are kind of like that little sacred word in a way. But the good thing is the shorter the word, the less likely we are to jump onto it. And then if we pick one and grow accustomed to it. So I've had the same word for I don't know how many years, I've been doing Centering Prayer for decades and I don't even know how many, it would be hard to count up even before I quantified it and sat down and did it, I was still doing it with walking meditation. But the shorter the word and the more you become used to using it, you know, I've heard Cynthia Bourgeault talk about this before you get comfortable with one word, you might change it, but I've had the same word for forever and I keep it close to just myself. But it really helps me to say this word when a thought comes in to let go of the thought, just to let go of it, I don't judge it. I'm just like, oh look, there's a thought. We have thoughts. We're humans, we have thoughts. And I say this when I'm sitting, I say my word, I go, oh there, there goes a thought. I have one syllable, I'll tell you that. And I just say my one syllable word and I just let go of the thought. It just is my sign of consent, my finger pointing to the moon.

And I might say it, let's just be honest, I'm just a human, right? Like I always tell my students, I have to revise my writing just like you. It's not like I turn up to writing because I've written stuff before, I just write it the first time. So that story that Father Thomas Keating tells and that Cynthia Bourgeault tells very well of the nun who came to him once and said, I'm a failure at this Centering Prayer because in 20 minutes I've had 10,000 thoughts. And he like clapped his hands and said, great 10,000 opportunities to return to love. And that's how I take it. Like, you know, life is a mess. It's a glorious mess.

And so if I, in a time of sitting for 15 minutes, have to a million times, because I mean when I sit down to contemplate is when I would potentially have my best thoughts, you know what I'm saying? Or my most thoughts. And like I tried this with a class recently, just doing it in a secular way of having five minutes of silence where you just let go of your thoughts and you rest. And during those five minutes I thought, okay, what do I want to do during the class time and how do I want to do it? And what are the students thinking of this? And every time I just had to let go of it.

And I think one of my favorite sayings about contemplation is there's no failed contemplation except maybe not doing it, not making the space to do it. But however you do it, doing it success, like you know that you pray the way you can, not the way you can't. I just think we're all brought up on this school mentality of did you get an A? Did you do it the way you're supposed to? And I do think teaching is very helpful, but I think that failure and success are relative terms. Doing it is important.

Mark Dannenfelser: [00:40:24] You've spent most of your career and certainly who you are as a person to be working with these fundamental deep texts from the mystical tradition. And I'm curious about how your work translating really important figures from the contemplative tradition, including this latest work that just came out in August, this translation of the practice of the presence by Brother Lawrence. It's such deep material and beautiful material and so you're immersed in it. So I'm wondering how that impacts your own life and the work that you do as a writer, as a professor, as a spiritual guide. How do you feel that the text has worked you a little bit too in your life and in your work?

Carmen Acevedo Butcher: [00:41:11] That question actually makes me teary eyed because it's a misnomer in some ways to say that I translate texts, I mean I do do that, but they translate me just as well. It's been a huge gift to me in the sense that just reading The Cloud of Unknowing in middle-English is meditating, is contemplating even. And it's one of the ways that it has changed me is that it has gotten me out of my head. This sounds contradictory I know because to translate you really have to look words up. But one of the ways the experiences have changed me is that it's gotten me out of my head because one of the ways that I used to protect my heart was to intellectualize everything. You can really put a sort of fragile and not very effective defense against pain by retreating up into your head. And it's really not very effective and it certainly wasn't healing for me.

So one of the things it's done is brought my head into my heart and both into my body and my body into the world. And it has made me unafraid to have a voice, which for me was always, I mean, I wouldn't want people to know that too much, but I guess I've just revealed. But one of the things that I try to teach my students is honor your voice. And then one day I realized you're actually talking to yourself, girl, it has translated me. The Cloud of Unknowing actually helped me to start to deal with my shadow and my shadow selves in a conscious way. And then led to counseling with a wonderful counselor in Rome, Georgia. And then Brother Lawrence helped me to discover the gold in my shadow because he is so calm.

And I discovered I have a calmness in me because I've dealt with severe anxiety my whole life. And Brother Lawrence just kind of says, come sit a while with me. And during the pandemic first summer 2020, when I started translating him, I would get up at four in the morning because I was also teaching full-time that summer online. And no matter what kind of day it was, no matter what kind of day, no matter what the news was with the collective grief that was going on in the world, every morning I would get up at four and think, oh, I get to be with Brother Lawrence this morning. He's so calm. He's just so calm. And meeting him in his calmness, I discovered that I have a calmness in me who would've thought it.

And that has been such a gift to me that I will spend the rest of my life being grateful. When I spent time with The Cloud of Unknowing, it changed me. And when I spent time with Brother Lawrence, it changed me. And every morning before I translated, or every evening, whenever I was doing it, before I translated those, I always have a brief prayer. 

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And that brief prayer is something like, please help me hear what you have in these texts and please help me to channel them to be faithful to them and to bring your love through them to others.

Colleen Thomas [00:44:12] Thanks for joining us on this episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. 

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This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana.

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