Toxic Shame and Contemplative Prayer


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All of us who practice Centering Prayer and study the works of Thomas Keating know about the process of healing that occurs through consenting to God’s presence and action within.  Ray Leonardini has been going inside prisons for years, sharing Centering Prayer and the dynamic of healing in weekly groups with 30-40 prisoners.

The gentle expanding awareness that comes with spending time in silence loosens up repressed experiences, allowing them to come to awareness, a process Thomas Keating named “unloading of the unconscious”.  Human beings in childhood are vulnerable to the wounding of shame, which Ray calls the “Soul Slayer” (p. 1).  Shame can be so profound that one internalizes deep hatred of oneself—“the sense that we have lost our right to exist” (p. 21).  A human being experiencing toxic shame goes into hiding, in an attempt to escape unbearable situations.

Sitting in silence releases the miracle that one begins to realize God is in there too, hiding with me.  God’s relentless and total love of human beings means that God chooses to come find me, chooses to become vulnerable, and hides with me from the ugliness acted out by people who will do anything to get away from their pain.  When I feel most alone, when I’m hiding out, feeling inadequate, rejected, and abandoned, feeling like I have no right even to exist, right in that place I discover a Divine Presence who sees me and knows and experiences what I experience.

This little book distills the story of a group of long-time practitioners in Ray’s weekly Centering Prayer group who met in a small group, creating a safe, listening place to share and support each other in this experience.  With Ray’s encouragement, they also considered scripture stories, beyond literal meanings and into a new view of who they are and who God is in their lives.  With profound respect and insight, Ray articulates the process of accepting vulnerability and coming out of hiding that happens for these men in this sacred space of communion with each other and with God.  The pain expressed in this book can trigger the reader’s own pain, so it is not an easy read, but the book is also a hopeful account of finding what previously seemed impossible—intimacy with God.