Episode 6: Embodying Centering Prayer with Mark Kutolowski
"The more time we spend in stillness the more space there is for things to shift……The question becomes - How can every moment be oriented with the attitude of receptivity and consent to God? It becomes not just 20 minutes but becomes 24 hours, some being pure silence and some being action."
- Mark Kutolowski
Today, on this final episode of the first season of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, our guest is Mark Kutolowski. He is an oblate of Saint Benedict and a Centering Prayer instructor committed to supporting the revitalization of Christian contemplation. Mark and his wife are the co-directors of Metanoia of Vermont, a lay contemplative homestead and ministry that seeks to nurture the way of Christ through work and prayer in relationship with the land.What’s in this episode:
- Mark shares how he came to the practice of Centering Prayer and why it became an anchor and core practice in his life, leading him to share it with others.
- Mark has had contact with some of the important architects of Centering Prayer. He shares how this revealed the unity in spirit and connection to the presence that comes with praying with others. He tells a particularly moving story about praying with Father Thomas Keeting.
- We are one in spirit, but we are different expressions. Mark shares that the invitation of the spirit is to connect with God but we must also allow the energy to come into our flesh and the divine light must shine into our bodily expression. This will look different in each body, each culture, and each stage of life, but it will be unique and a blessing in its diversity.
- Mark and his wife named their ministry Mentanoia because it means to change, to expand or go beyond the heart and mind allowing our perception to transform. Mark believes this is the single most important word in the whole Christain tradition.
- He discusses thoughts on why the practice of Centering Prayer is 20 minutes twice a day and what can be gained from this practice. He believes that prayer isn’t separate from the rest of life. It simply gives us a chance to focus on the Divine. The relationship is always there, it’s life breathing and in everything we do.
- He shares his thoughts on incarnation, ascent and descent, suffering, Christianity, and how the divine embodies us.
- Physical work with our bodies is like a bridge to move from Centering Prayer into daily life. For example, being present with our kids is another way to consent.
- He shares how a river is a monastic symbol, the place where the life and spirit of God move in our spiritual and physical world.
“The practice of Centering Prayer deepens our awareness of the oneness of all creation and our compassion for the whole human family."
- Contemplative Outreach Guiding Principle
To connect further with Mark Kutolowski:Visit his website - Metanoia of Vermont www.metanoiavt.com
Visit Mark’s Substack https://metanoiavt.substack.com/
Opening Minds, Opening Hearts EP 06: Embodying Centering Prayer with Mark Kutowolski [cheerful music starts]
Colleen Thomas [00:00:02] 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 [00:00:36] And Mark Dannenfelser,
Colleen Thomas [00:00:37] 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]
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:00] Welcome to Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, a podcast by Contemplative Outreach. Well, I can't believe we're about to do our last episode of this first season, and we've already covered a lot of ground talking about the method of Centering Prayer and its origins, early contemplative texts that the tradition comes from and all kinds of things.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:20] Yes. And about living the contemplative life. And our guests have really shared some amazing expressions of life, well lived and rooted in prayer and actions and [indiscernible 00:01:34].
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:35] Yeah. And as this first season is coming to close, I'm already looking ahead to next season.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:42] I know.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:43] It's so exciting. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves into next season now, let's be right here, right now, because we have a wonderful guest today on today's episode.
Colleen Thomas [00:01:53] Yes, we do. Today our guest and friend of Contemplative Outreach is Mark Kutowolski. Mark is a teacher, a writer, a retreat leader, and perhaps most important for our conversation today, the integral connection between contemplative prayer and the body. We're so excited to have you. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Kutowolski [00:02:17] Thank you, Colleen. And thank you, Mark, it's a joy to be here with you.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:02:20] It's wonderful to have you here, Mark. We really want to hear about work that you're doing and the life that you're living in rural Vermont with your wife Lisa. And it's very intentional, contemplative life that you're living. Before we get to all that, we always ask our guests about their specific experience with Centering Prayer, and we'd love to hear how you discovered that, how you came to that, and what it's meant for you in your life. I just wonder if you could just say a little bit about that.
Mark Kutowolski [00:02:46] Certainly. Yeah. I grew up in a Catholic family and going to mass most every Sunday. And so religious faith was a part of my upbringing. And when I was 20 years old, I had a series of mishaps, blows, including a physical injury that led me to withdraw from college for a semester. And as I started to recover through some family friends I heard about a Benedictine monastery that was about two and a half hours away from where I grew up. And so when I was well enough, I went down to go on a retreat at the monastery. And during the time that I was there that winter, it was Mount Savior Monastery in Elmira, New York, and the Prior Martin Bowler gave a workshop on Centering Prayer. And so that was really a very grace time for me because I had that, the whole context of the silence and the stillness of the community, learning about the prayer practice and a little bit of time to start practicing it on a daily basis with a structure that was supporting me.
And over the years since then, the experience of encountering God in the stillness and the silence of Centering Prayer has become something of a guiding star or center of my faith that allowed a lot of the other journeys that I've been on to fall into place always in context or conversation with that silent presence of God in our midst among us and within us. So the method has been an anchor. I was fortunate to be exposed to it relatively early in life. And it's always been a core discipline or a practice, both for myself. And then as I began teaching about the contemplative life and spiritual practice with others, Centering Prayer is so often a key that unlocks that receptive stance that can make so much of the rest of our spiritual lives. Itt's been a tremendous gift to me, but also as a way to share the contemplative tradition to other people that are interested.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:04:40] That's a beautiful way to learn the method at a monastery that's teaching it. I know you've had a fair amount of direct contact with some of the architects of the Centering Prayer movement, including our own Thomas Keating. And in 2016, I think it was, you were invited to the monastery at Snowmass, Colorado, where Keating was. And it was a gathering of new leaders in the contemplative movement who were meeting with each other as well as with many of the founders of some of these methods. And it was Keating who called this kind of gathering. I'd love to hear more about your experience there and what happened for you in meeting with Thomas specifically and with this group of new up and coming or already existing leaders in the contemplative movement.
Mark Kutowolski [00:05:32] It was a wonderful joyful gathering. And one takeaway I had from the time was that it made very revealing to me what we talk about. We speak about the unity in the spirit. And there were about 20 of us somewhat younger folks, we were probably mostly clocking in around 35 to 40 years old. And even though we just met one another, there was this tremendous sense of unity and connection of that shared commitment to the presence of God that unites us even though we didn't know one another on the personality level so well of where do you live or what do you do? And so I really came away with being very encouraged about the unity that comes from prayer with others. And certainly it was a joy to be with Father Thomas close to the end of his life.
The moment from that time that stands out to me the most was, I think it was our second to last day, but the last full day we had, and we each went around the circle and spoke, I forget what the prompt was that we were gonna be speaking of, but when Father Thomas spoke, it was the neatest thing because as he began speaking, the wind outside the monastery picked up and was blowing quite strongly. And he was speaking with this, like, increasing passion that almost seemed more than what his body would've been holding at that stage of life. And then the moment he finished the wind went completely still. And it was just one of those beautiful moments that I've experienced these in retreats that I've led in natural places where it felt like the natural world in creation and in this case, this elder in the spirit speaking synced up. And so the inner and the outer worlds were united in that moment. And that's a moment that I'll keep with me and celebrate in my heart for the rest of my life.
Colleen Thomas [00:07:16] Wow. Just imagining that experience and thinking about the gift of being in the presence of Father Thomas and so much of what I've read, you write about this embodied practice and I wondered how did you see Father Thomas as embodying contemplative prayer? What does that look like in him, in a person?
Mark Kutowolski [00:07:41] My understanding is that there's a unity in the spirit that we all share in this prayer or in other approaches of prayer when we open to the spirit of God, that spirit is one, and we are one in that spirit. And we are many diverse expressions in our bodies. Our bodies are all different and all unique. So the expression of the spirit in our embodied life is different in each person. But what I've discovered is that the invitation of the spirit is not just to connect with God at the level of spirit, but actually to bring that spiritual essence or energy into not only into our mind, into our thought, into our emotional field, which Father Thomas wrote so extensively and beautifully about the healing of our emotional systems, but to also allow that energy to come into our flesh or our tissue and to allow that divine light to shine even into our body and into our bodily expression.
My experience has been that there are ways that we can consent to that as well, to learn to keep our body open to the movement of the energies of the spirit into our body. I think this happens organically for many and I think Father Thomas late in life, I did see that in him, in that his whole body being consumed by the spirit and speaking with Brother Erik Keeney, who's also passed from our midst now. But his time with Father Thomas in the last few weeks of his life, it really sounded like that was coming forth in this significant way, even as his physical body was wasting away. The spirit was shining through in a very radiant fashion, but I really believe it's quite unique in each person and we can all learn to cooperate with it. But it's also, unlike Centering Prayer, which I think taps us into something that's universal and there's going to be one method for all. It will look different in each body, in each culture and each state of life that we find ourselves in, what that looks like for the spirit to come pouring forth into our body will be unique and blessed and beautiful in its diversity.
Colleen Thomas [00:09:36] Yeah, and I'm hearing you talking about what father Thomas talked so much about the emotional programs and I'm thinking also about the name of your farm, Metanoia and I think most people are more familiar with penitence Metanoia’s Greek origin word for penitence and it means changing your mind. One of my favorite ever Keating talks, he's talking about repentance and he says, “It's as though we can hear Jesus asking us, ‘Will you kindly change the direction in which you are looking for happiness? Will you kindly change the direction in which you are looking for happiness?” And that directional change is different for all of us. We're not all starting from the same place. How did you come to the name Metanoia? How does your Centering Prayer practice inform your perspective of Metanoia?
Mark Kutowolski [00:10:39] I think the term Metanoia is the essence of Centering Prayer. And as I've come to understand the word, and it's part of why we chose it, is that the name for the ministry is that the “meta” is both change and there's layers of the word, it means change, it also means expand or go beyond. And the “noia” can mean mind, it can also mean that sort of the heart mind or the part of our being that sees things spiritually. So change the direction that you are looking for happiness is the way Father Thomas translated metanoia. And I think it's one true translation. The translation that I've come to work with is to transform the eyes of your heart. So it's that spirit to be able to see the reality spiritually, to allow our perception to be transformed.
And that I really think is what happens with faithful commitment to Centering Prayer movement and Centering Prayer. Each time we find that we're attached to some outer thing as having ultimate value and we turn and we let go of the object of our consciousness and rest in that stillness and presence of God. We are both changing the direction, we're looking for happiness and we're also slowly allowing God to transform our spiritual perception so that we begin to live in and embody and enter into a deeper encounter with that stillness and silent presence of God. And that changes everything in how we see and interact with all the rest of life. Metanoia really, I think it's the heart of Centering Prayer and of course it's the heart of Jesus's teachings. It's the one thing that the gospels say, “He went around from town to town teaching this Metanoia for the realm of God is already at hand.” So it's the single most important word I think in the whole Christian tradition.
Colleen Thomas [00:12:25] Yeah. And you know about the practice with our Centering Prayer guidelines, they do suggest that we pray for 20 minutes twice a day. And we know this is a suggestion and not a strict rule. Father Thomas was pretty suggestive about the 20 minute practice twice a day. This comes up in our conversations about other methods of prayer is why not five minutes or 10 minutes and what's to be gained twice a day practice that's suggested. I'm curious, I think we're both curious, what's your perspective and what's your experience been committed to the 20 minutes a day, twice a day?
Mark Kutowolski [00:13:09] I remember Father Thomas speaking of and saying that the first 20 minutes was maintenance in terms of our spiritual life and the second 20 minutes was deepening. And that it took about that much stillness, the 20 minutes of just the processing or sort of the unwinding of our various movements of our heart and our minds and our thoughts throughout a given day. And that the second 20 minutes then allowed us to begin to deepen in way that would facilitate that feeling of past conditioning and programming and even emotional wounds of a lifetime, to use his words. And I can just say that I found that it's true and that you get out of it what you put in, if you put in five minutes a day, twice a day, that's definitely better than nothing. And we do what we can, but the more time we spend in stillness, the more space there is really for things to shift.
I think the temptation for many of us in the modern world, and I think most people I found that start a practice of Centering Prayer or any other meditation method begin with what will this do for me and as a self-help technique or how can I gain some peace? And we all start with ulterior motives and it's not bad in and of itself, but the later invitation that I think really comes from the spirit of Christ is how can you allow me to live in you and you to live in me? And that's a different question. And that question asks our entire being. And once we start taking that stance, 20 minutes twice a day is actually a very small ask. And it's actually amazing that in that little amount of time we can actually see that effect of a reorientation of all of life.
But I think it does. And what we found in our life here is that we can have those two 20 minutes, but then the question is how can every moment be oriented, maybe not every moment spent in stillness, but every moment oriented with that attitude of receptivity and consent to God. So it's not just about making it 20 minutes, it's how can we actually come to 24 hours. Some of those being pure silence and some of those being action. The model that we've taken up is the ideal. And to be honest, we don't always hit it every day either in the busyness of life here, but we have the two 20 minute periods in the beginning and the ending of the day, and then we have two 10 minute periods mid-morning and mid early evening to five minute periods, mid late morning and early afternoon, and then a two minute period right before lunch. So there's these check-ins throughout the day of that silent prayer that are designed to infuse the day. So we're never too far away from that check-in with a stillness and then ideally allowing that stillness to flow into our manual labor or whatever other work that we're asked to do.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:15:47] And Mark, it sounds like you're talking about prayer as a lifestyle and a discipline in that what you were saying before about Metanoia being a change, but also being this expansion that starts to happen and that it enters into all aspects. It's not just, like you said, a self-help thing where, okay, now I can feel a little bit more at ease or calmer or less anxious or something. It's something much bigger, it's more expansive. I'm thinking about Contemplative Outreach as a community, have these guiding principles that Father Keating really helped to structure and worked as a group. But one of them I'm thinking of is this principle that states the practice of Centering Prayer deepens our awareness of the oneness of all creation and our compassion for the whole human family. And it sounds like that's what you're talking about, is this oneness, that it's all one and it's not I pray over here and then I go to work and beat people up at work or something and then I come back and pray. I just wonder if you could say more too about that life that you've so intentionally you and your wife created happens to be in Vermont, but it has these rhythms and these disciplines that are infusing your life and your lifestyle in a particular way.
Mark Kutowolski [00:17:06] Yes. Well, well first just to say about that idea of prayer infusing all of life, prayer is not separate from the rest of life. When we sit down to pray, it's simply giving ourselves a chance to focus and become more clear about our relationship with the infinite one, with the divine presence. We have that relationship all the time. We can't not have it. So it's simply a time of concentration, of clarification we might say, but it does not stop when we open our eyes. It doesn't begin when we close our eyes. It's always there. So yes, absolutely. Our experience with our life and a rhythm it's really like a sort of breathing, you might say that the time of silence and stillness is like the in breath of returning to that source of infinite love that is so tenderly caring for us and of all human beings and all of creation. And then the out breath is getting up from the chair or from the kneeler or the cushion and tending to the rest of life. And it can be things that seem “unspiritual” being on a Zoom call or working on a text on a computer. It can be things like tending to plants in the garden or sharpening a tool. Whatever it is, everything that we do is in relationship with form, but all form is also in relationship with that infinite source of love. So we're never separate from that.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:18:27] The created world is important to you and part of my own sort of Christian upbringing in some ways that was separated in certain places and discussions about that and thinking about that. There's the created world which is very nice and all that, but it's really about your escape plan from that.
Mark Kutowolski [00:18:46] Right. Yes, yes. And I think, again, to use that metaphor of breathing, I think there's a place of the movement of ascent that is going from our immersion in matter and form moving into that realm of pure spirit. But equally so I think in the Christian life there's the movement of descent, which is movement from the experience of the spirit of God into the world of form. And of course the two great celebrations of the liturgical season. Easter is the celebration of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, which is a movement of ascent. But then we also have Christmas, which is all about the descent of God, to use that the hymn, Let all mortal flesh keep silence, from the realm of endless day into our particularities into our particular human body, into the experience of hunger and thirst and darkness and uncertainty and oppression actually in the case of Jesus's physical life, one of the very first experiences he had was being made a refugee escaping from persecution. So into this very embodied and even messy wounded human condition that's equally necessary and essential to the Christian story, God descending. And then if we participate, if as I do believe that salvation is about participating in the life of God and being taken up into God's own life in our life of prayer, it equally includes our descending into engagement with matter and creation and trying to be a blessing and of service in the physical material order of things. It's not a one-way direction, it's both.
Colleen Thomas [00:20:22] I love that we're talking about this in this Christmas season, this the movement of descent. And as I was reading your reflections on embodied prayer and practice, it comes up for me that because you talk about the lack of embodied prayer practice and tradition in the Christian tradition and the importance of marrying our practice with our traditions, having explored other eastern forms of practice and prayer, I just found myself thinking like, why do we have such difficulty as the Christian body with this flesh, with this body? What have you found is our resistance to being of this world in this body when so much of our tradition is rooted in this story of incarnation? Why do we wrestle with this so much?
Mark Kutowolski [00:21:25] I could see responding to that, trying to give sort of a historical why did that happen, which is always going to be somewhat speculative. And then there's sort of a personal of what have I seen in my own life and in the lives of others I've worked with? Without getting too much into the history, I would just say that it seems like one of the challenges with Christianity is that so much of the Christian tradition has co-evolved in dialogue over the last several centuries, but it really, even more so with a western world where there has been a theme of moving away from the body and an over-identification with mind and rationality and control over nature and a feminine and the practical, the embodied, the domestic, all these are spheres that are seen as sort of less than by some very dominant strains in Western thought.
I think Christianity has sometimes gotten caught up into that, even though our origin story centers around incarnation and embodiment and presence and suffering, which is also another aspect of embodiment of being present with the woundedness and the incompleteness of life. I think part of why, but to make it more personal, I find for both myself and for many people that have tried to support in their spiritual lives, part of the resistance is it's painful. And when we have unhealed wounds, both emotionally but even physically in our bodies, one of the defense mechanisms is to disembody that is to move our center of consciousness and awareness to the life of the mind. And if we have a spiritual practice, sometimes even to the spirit as separate from the body, as a little escape hatch or kind of a way to go and hide in this realm of stillness and peace and not have to face the pain that we're experiencing in our body and in our emotional field.
And so much of the Christ path is an invitation to suffer. And I like to always emphasize that the word suffering means both feeling pain, but it also means to allow. So you hear that the King James version of the Bible suffer the little children to come to me. It means “allow them”. So the archaic sense “to allow”. So when we allow God's presence and even just stillness to move into our flesh, we often experience pain and it takes a tremendous amount of courage and an awareness of God's love holding us and sustaining us to stay in that pain. When we don't stay in the pain we contract and as escape into mind and into a disassociation with the body, and oftentimes then we end up transferring our pain to other people rather than transforming our pain through being present with it in our body and suffering it. I think you see that a lot in our political landscape right now where we've lost an understanding of how to suffer with the tragic aspects of life. And so there's a tremendous effort to blame and to transfer the pain onto our opponents whichever side we may be in any divided situation. So to suffer, to allow, to be with is both necessary to become whole and also difficult and challenging to do if we don't feel supported and don't feel connected and able to do so.
Mark Dannenfelser [00:24:30] Okay, love you talking about that. It seems like such an important aspect of the practice and the desire to live this deeper contemplative life that we are going to be met with our suffering on some level. And of course, Keating spoke so much about that and developed this whole idea of the divine therapist and that work needs to be happening in us, or we won't go deeper. It's too painful. And as a trauma therapist, this is very interesting to me because how do we hold the pain and turn towards it without it so overwhelming us or shutting us down or as you said, kind of disassociating us so that we can move through and yet not be completely shut down by it. And I just wonder if that comes up for you and you work with people in spiritual direction?
Mark Kutowolski [00:25:23] It does. And Mark, one of the places where I think in an ideal world, and I try to work this with individuals, but we would have a body practice and awareness that somebody could undertake alongside a practice like the practice of Centering Prayer and a body practice that focuses on bringing spaciousness and opening and softness to our body. And that is something that I've been exploring in particular with relationship with the some older slavic, body practices and traditions that I've come across in my journey and not very well known in the wider sphere, but it's a body system that kind of co-developed or co-evolved with eastern Orthodox practices in Russia. But what I find when people do a body practice, we gain some softness and looseness in the bodily tissues. It becomes easier to face that pain.
You're coming at it from two sides. There's conditioning the body to be soft and loose and open, and then the stance of having an open mind and an open heart that we take in prayer, they compliment one another tremendously and together they allow us to experience the pain that arises. Again, like you're saying, without it overwhelming the system and becoming sort of re-traumatizing or overwhelming. And nature is the other tool that I find is very useful. So as we're going through some of these experiences, if we have painful emotions that arise in the ability to go out and let our own heart be held in that wider beauty and presence of the created world, it's very helpful. So when we have guests on retreat here, it's a huge asset that they can go for a walk and be with the cascading streams and be with the maple trees and the birch trees and the fields. And there's a sense that creation itself can hold our pain as well. So both intentional cultivation of the body and engagement with the created order provide these other resources that can help us as these painful things arise, as well as perhaps more subtle experience of God's presence and stillness, which also of course sustains us as we encounter these things.
[solemn music plays]
Mark Dannenfelser [00:27:24] 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]
Mark Dannenfelser [00:28:33] It's beautiful. It's such an important aspect and Mark, such an important voice in the ongoing evolving practice and contemplative movement. At Contemplative Outreach we're always asking ourselves this question about part of who we are as a community is to hold the legacy of Thomas Keating and the important contribution that he's made to the contemplative tradition as well as understanding that this is a living tradition that keeps moving in certain directions. I'm curious, your thoughts about that kind of, for Contemplative Outreach and the place that Centering Prayer itself as a method holds in that tradition kind of going forward. Do you have thoughts about that?
Mark Kutowolski [00:29:16] I do think that Centering Prayer as a method emphasizes this consent and this opening to the silent presence and action of God that is unchanging. There's an aspect of the infinite nature of God that was the same that St Paul and other authors were trying to articulate in the first century as Thomas was trying to articulate in the 20th century and the wider context of culture and language and our self-understanding as people is different in every century and every generation. I do think there's both the need to turn towards that spirit, which is infinite and unchanging and that Thomas in his life and in his teaching, and to recognize that which is bound in time and space and some of the teaching that Thomas brought forth say around the divine therapy and purification he borrowed from both some of the ancient tradition writings of John of the Cross and from mid to late 20th century psychology. Mid to late 20th century psychology is bound in time and space and some aspects of it feel a little dated to me right now, but that's just the nature of things.
John of the Cross's analogies from the 16th century also don't speak exactly clearly to me right now, nor do Athanasius’s from the fourth century which we're reading Athanasius right now and advent. So it's just recognizing what is particular and needs to be reexpressed in every generation and dialogue with the spirit and what is universal. And I do think the Centering Prayer method is tapping into something that is universal in the Christian experience and then how we explain it, how we understand it, how we live with that in our own mental and cultural worlds will look different in the 21st century as we continue to move through time and space than it did for Father Thomas with great reverence and respect for what he was doing. It will have a changing face if it continues to be a living tradition.
Colleen Thomas [00:31:11] Yeah, and you're very clear, I mean, in your chapter Embodied Contemplation the book, you straight up ask, what about the body and what about the body? And that I think that's a great challenge for us as contemporary Christians to be held to that.
Mark Kutowolski [00:31:29] Yes, I believe that's one of those realms that could be brought forward more, again, with more clarity in this next generation.
Colleen Thomas [00:31:37] Do you have any sense of how Father Thomas might respond to this conversation about the body or had he responded to you about it in your times meeting with him?
Mark Kutowolski [00:31:51] I'm thinking of that last gathering we had in 2017, he was both fascinated by both things that many of the people there were working on that were not realms that he had personally studied and fascinated by. And it was also no longer his time to be trying to work more in that way with mind and with writing about them. So there was a sense of blessing and have at it folks, but also this is not my space to go into it this time. I did feel that sense of a blessing and encouragement and going back my first time when I met Father Thomas was some years earlier in my twenties and I brought to him a very complicated question that I rambled on and on about Centering Prayer and the healing that was going on and things with the body that I was just starting to explore. He listened to everything that I'd said and then sat for maybe 30 seconds and then he said, “Oh, Mark, really everything that I'm teaching is just to encourage people to pray. And if you find another way leads you and people that you're working with into prayer, that's wonderful.”
I said, but the important thing is that it draws us into the prayer. There's a level of which it can be that simple too, that what we find reduces our obstacles to entering more deeply into prayer. Colleen Thomas [00:33:09] Yeah, and I'd be remissed if we didn't, I find myself wanting to hear a little bit more Mark too about just your life on the farm and some bit of this conversation that we wanted to have too about your work and you world on the farm and our work being an extension of our prayer and how we manage this and what are you and your wife wrestling with or what's coming up for you all at Metanoia right now?
Mark Kutowolski [00:33:42] So one of the places that we're trying to do, like I mentioned earlier, of moving from the silence of prayer into the outer world and physical work is one of the places that we try to hold out. Another is study or work with the mind, but we find that the agricultural labor and sort of physical labor with our bodies, it's a sort of an easier or a more organic way of moving from the stillness of prayer. I think it's more difficult to go from prayer to sitting in front of a computer screen and doing things that take a lot of executive function. So the practice of having some simple physical labor that's in conversation with land and with our own bodies really helps to build that bridge of extension from prayer into daily life. And for us, we have two children right now, one who is two and a half, and one who is creeping up on six months old.
And being with them and being present with them is another extension and expression. There's a lot of needing to consent to what the needs of the moment are and turn to being present to our children. And the prayer becomes a grounding to then carry that same stance into the relationship with our children. And we've found that, particularly when we've traveled to visit family, and if we get off of our prayer routine, it doesn't take very long for our parenting to degrade that we really rely on the prayer to be generous in our response to our children as well. So this question of what does it look like to live the contemplative of life in relationship to children and to family is another thing that we're constantly sitting with and trying to understand and live out. We've been playing with the symbol of the river.
There's a monastic kind of symbol of the mountain in the desert as these places where we go to be a part and to be with God alone and above the tumult and the busyness of the world. And it's a beautiful image. Those are beautiful images and a great deal of richness in the Christian tradition and even in scripture, another image that really hasn't been mined so much that we think deserves to be explored a little more as the image of the river. That is the place where the life and the spirit of God moves. It's in the low place, it's in the place where people gather, where there's community. It's a more feminine image rather than the more masculine image of the mountaintop. And what does it look like to live a contemplative spirituality kind of in the thick of life with our work, with our physical world, with our families, with our relations. And that's to me is so the image of this sort of spirituality of the river comes forward. And of course there's scriptural references to that as well. So that's something that we're playing with and kind of wrestling with. And occasionally we'll find that we catch ourselves trying to be monks or nuns. That is like, and then why is our daughter's needs, why are they getting in the way of my stillness.
And as soon as we say, we gotta catch ourselves and say, that's not my vocation. My vocation isn't to be a Trappist monk. My vocation is to try to live in that spirit of prayer here. And that means setting down the stillness sometimes and holding her when she needs to be held or tending to whatever she needs. And this also is contemplation, but it looks different. That's part of our experiment here is what does it look like to live it out in this way?
Colleen Thomas [00:36:44] Yeah. And that's how we started too. What does it look like? How do we see the contemplative life? This whole concept of Metanoia, and it makes sense to me that for Father Thomas who lived the monastic life with this natural rhythm of prayer and labor and work and community, and decades later we're so much more isolated. I can speak for myself, I'm a single woman, no children, live alone. And yeah, prayer to me is a movement from showing up now in front of Zoom or in my personal time back into a very technical, logistical world. And it makes sense that Father Thomas maybe, perhaps didn't need to think as much about embodied practice as we do now. It's a buzzword now, but we've become so attached to our devices that it seems like the spirit is trying to usher us back into a time where there was less separation. Mark Kutowolski [00:37:53] Yes, I do think that's one of the results if we're faithful to the stillness enough is the desire. And it's difficult, it's challenging with the demands of each of our individual lives, but how do we then shape our life in a way that our outer life can resonate more with that stillness? And there's no easy answer and it's unique for each person, but I think with the technology that we have, there are so many conditions in our world that can make it more difficult to enter into that stillness and that presence. And so I think there is this real invitation to struggle to reclaim a life of wholeness, and that the wider culture is not gonna make it easy for us. And I think that's one of those areas that Father Thomas didn't quite see in his life from his experience, how challenging that might be, that maybe it's not just adding Centering Prayer into our daily life, but Centering Prayer may ask us to then change our daily life to live a life of greater connection and intimacy with both God and other people and creation.
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Colleen Thomas [00:38:52] 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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