Tom Agness and Cheryl McElhatten will present “Introduction to Centering Prayer” from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 18, with follow-up sessions from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb, 25, March 3 and 10. We invite you to embrace the All-Embracing. Centering prayer is a silent method of Christian prayer that moves us from active modes of prayer – vocal, mental and affective – into a receptive prayer, or, Resting in God. We provide teaching, practice and support for transformation in Christ, both in ourselves and others. “Be still and know that I AM God.” Psalm 46:10. To register, click here.
Tom Agness is a Presenter of the Introduction to Centering Prayer, in addition to being an orthopedic nurse at Rochester General Hospital for more than 20 years. In 2008, he was commissioned by Contemplative Outreach Ltd., an international ecumenical organization whose primary mission is to “Share the Prayer.” In 2015, Agness, along with Dorothy Lindsay, helped form a local chapter called CO_RNY; Contemplative Outreach of Rochester, NY. The group gives not only introductory workshops on centering prayer, but also “Days for Centering Pray-ers” and a yearly retreat, all at Mercy Spirituality Center.
Cheryl McElhatten is a Presenter of the Introduction to Centering Prayer who was commissioned by Contemplative Outreach Ltd. in 2016, a facilitator of a CP practice group in Greece, a Liturgical Pastoral Musician-Music Educator from 1976-present, a Lay Associate of the Sisters of Mercy since 2009, and a Member of the Coordinating Team of the Rochester Chapter of Contemplative Outreach. She helped to form the CO_RNY and currently serves in several roles.
To learn more about centering prayer and what attendees can expect to learn in the sessions, Jane Sutter Brandt, a volunteer with the Mercy Spiritual Center, talked with Tom and Cheryl recently. Their discussion has been edited for clarity.
Jane: What is centering prayer?
Cheryl: Centering prayer is a relational prayer; you’re going deeper and deeper and deeper to our God, our source, our creator, our universe. It’s a method of prayer where you might set up a special space in your home to practice, and sit silently in a chair for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. When you sit, you may get a zillion thoughts going through your head but the beauty of this prayer is you learn to let them go, let them pass away. How do we do that? Simple. You ever so gently return to your sacred word, like a feather on a cotton ball.
Tom: The sacred word doesn’t have to be God or Jesus, it can be peace, or yes, or whatever you choose. We sit silently for 20 minutes and every time we become engaged with a thought in our head or a distraction like a dog barking, we return ever so gently to our sacred word. That’s why it’s a receptive prayer because returning ever so gently to our sacred word is the only activity we do in the entire prayer. Whatever else happens in the prayer is up to God.
Jane: How did this method of prayer come about?
Tom: In the 1960s and 1970s, Rev.Thomas Keating was the abbot of a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts. Keating kept meeting Catholics who had left the Church looking for a deeper, more contemplative spirituality. They found it in Eastern religions, and they would say to Keating: “Here’s our method of prayer. Where’s yours?” He asked two monks to do research on Catholic contemplation, and they came up with this simple prayer, centering prayer, based on the book The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous monk in the 14th century.
Keating tried teaching this method to priests on retreat, hoping they would bring it back to their parishes, but it didn’t catch on. But where it did was with lay people who came to the monastery for retreats. When Keating retired to Snowmass, Colo., in the early 1980s, he was invited to do workshops in churches, and people just flocked to it. It grew from there.
Jane: How have you each benefited personally from your practice of centering prayer?
Cheryl: I’ve been practicing for about eight years or so. Centering prayer validated my image of God, and it helped to broaden my image of God. Through this practice and the teachings of Father Thomas (Keating), which he created in the wave of the spiritual reawakening of the Second Vatican Council which seemed to touch off a deep contemporary hunger for spirituality, I’ve learned that I am created in goodness and I am good. For me, I’ve received a deep healing that I am loved, and the more I do this, the more I begin to feel love. I used to be very passionate about all kinds of things, good things, but I’m not in the fight anymore. It’s about embracing all. For me, it’s to be loving—to try to be the change I would like to see. I notice gifts of the Spirit in my daily life not during the prayer.
Tom: I was introduced to centering prayer in 1994 by Rev. Bill Trott, my spiritual director. I love its simplicity and subtlety. It’s been such a grace to my wife, to my family, to my life. When I sit down in prayer, and I’m silent, I never know quite what is going to happen. Every prayer is a little different. I let go of my agenda and open myself to the Presence and action of God within me, which is really a description of Grace. Over time, the effects of the prayer extend to daily life, which makes every day an adventure!
Jane: What can people expect when they attend the “Introduction to Centering Prayer”?
Tom: The Introductory Workshop has four conferences: Prayer as Relationship, The Method of Centering Prayer, Thoughts and the Use of the Sacred Word, and, Deepening Your Relationship with God. We do practice Centering Prayer and ask for people to share their experience. We do this so that people realize even when they pray privately, it’s communal. It’s a form of liturgy.
Jane: What happens in the three follow-up sessions?
Cheryl: The beauty of the three follow-ups is that people have had a chance to practice centering prayer at home. They can come to the follow-up and ask questions, such as “Am I doing this right?” We’ll also show DVD’s of interviews with Father Thomas Keating that will give insights into what’s going on when you participate in centering prayer. What goes on in the inner room? (Matthew 6:6.)
Tom: Our local chapter of Contemplative Outreach has several prayer support groups in the Rochester area and one in Auburn to help them in their practice.
To register for “Introduction to Centering Prayer” and the follow-up sessions, click here.
Books on topics such as faith, spirituality, the saints and more can make great Christmas gifts. Here are recommendations we received from our Mercy Spirituality Center friends.
In The Manger by Max Lucado. “Our Women's Faith Sharing group is reading this book for Advent. We chose this book for the inspirational messages for the season.”—Rochelle B.
I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers. “I was having a difficult time understanding different political points of view without taking them personally and even had a spat with a family member concerning our opposite views. This book has a faith-based and grace-filled approach to dealing with political conversations, using Bible quotes, research and personal experience to open my mind and show me various perspectives.”— Bonnie Kieffer
The Flowing Grace of Now by Macrina Wiederkehr. “The book’s format is a reflection for every week of the year, encouraging you to look for—and at—the teachers in your life. Will be welcome in January!”—Kathy Vernam
Sensible Shoes by Sharon Brown and the series. “I loved this book, which is a lighter, easier read. I could relate to each character in the book and what each struggled with spiritually.”—Linda Demme
My Life with the Saints by James Martin SJ. “I really enjoyed this book. It was a great gift for our pastor, but I'd recommend it for anyone. The book and the author are very real and help us to think about how the saints can help us to find our way.”—Jane Daly Seaberg
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “Such a poignant story.”—Connie K. Duff
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. Recommended by Rhianna Brandt Bangs
Nearer My God by William F. Buckley, any book by Matthew Kelly, and A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. Recommended by Gary Brandt
Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. “This is a daily reader that I often go back to, and I have given as a gift.”—Annette Meade
The Will of God: Understanding and Pursuing His Ultimate Plan for Your Life by Charles F. Stanley. Recommended by Bob DeMallie.
Rediscover the Rosary by Matthew Kelly. “His Gospel selections, meditations and prayers for each mystery have turned my praying of the rosary into a deeply spiritual experience.”—Jane Sutter Brandt
Spiritual director Susan DiVita will present “Journey into the Exquisite Soul” from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Mercy Spirituality Center. Engaging the work of St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle” and Caroline Myss’ “Entering the Castle,” we will journey into our sacred interior and become open to encountering the presence of God within. By exploring our own inner rooms in the light of God’s love and grace, we discover the way toward peace, joy and healing. To register, click here.
Susan DiVita is a spiritual director certified by the Haden Institute in Asheville, N.C. She is a graduate of Caroline Myss’ Educational Institute’s Sacred Contracts and Entering the Castle programs. She is currently in the Dream Work Training program with the Haden Institute.
To learn more about Susan and her work, Jane Sutter Brandt, a volunteer with the Mercy Spiritual Center, talked with her recently. Their discussion has been edited for clarity.
Jane: Before we talk about your upcoming program, please tell us about you.
Susan: I’ve had an interest in healing for a long time, and when I was in college, I got a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. I was thinking about med school or becoming a physician’s assistant when my husband and I decided to start a family and that became my priority.
Jane: How did you get interested in St. Teresa of Avila and her book “The Interior Castle”?
Susan: I was watching the Oprah TV show one day, and she had Caroline Myss on it. Caroline talked about her new book “Why People Don’t Heal”, so I picked that up, and I was captivated. I started studying with Caroline around 1998, at first doing workshops on tape. In 2005, I was thinking about attending her program called “From Intuition to Mysticism”, which has since become “Entering the Castle”.
I printed out the information to show my husband, and I had placed it on an ottoman, and when I looked over at it, there was a hologram coming off the paper. It was in the shape of a sphere, and it was purple and white and sparkly with some kind of design running through it. And then it was gone. I remember thinking, well, that’s interesting!
I had talked to my husband before about the program but we both just kind of let it go, but after seeing that hologram, I took the paper up to my husband, who was at his computer, and I asked him what he thought about the program and right away he said, “Let’s sign you up.” That’s nothing that he would ever have said.
Jane: That’s remarkable. So then you signed up for the program. What was it like?
Susan: It ended up being five years of really intense study. The Interior Castle became my interior path, my spiritual path. It helped me to heal a lot of emotional baggage from my early life. I have had a considerable amount of physical pain my whole life, so this helped me to manage it. I considered it healed, it didn’t own me any more.
Jane: For the uninitiated, can you give a brief explanation of what is meant by “the interior castle”?
Susan: The interior castle is a journey within the soul where you can dialogue with God, surrounded and filled with grace, in order to know your true self better and focus your attention on healing, guidance, meaning, and purpose. Through the use of self-examination and contemplation we make our way along a path well-traveled by the mystics throughout the ages.
Jane: If I attend your program on Dec. 3, what can I expect?
Susan: I really hope that people who attend and go through the exercises will encounter that silence within, where God resides, perhaps even create a sanctuary for themselves, where they can go when the outer world becomes chaotic. It can be a prayer space where they can be alone with God without interruption.
To sign up for Journey into the Exquisite Soul” from 9 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 3, click here.
So we return once more to fall, the season many claim as favorite for its bright, crisp days, “'cooler nights good for sleeping,” as my mother used to say, abundant farmers' markets (fresh apples—truly a gift from God!) and riots of coloring leaves.
But there is also a note of melancholy as we leave behind summer ease and fun, isn't there? Those bright leaves fall. The air changes from crisp to cold, and we move from sweaters to parkas.
This mix of delight and loss offers us a spiritual invitation. How might we engage the gifts of the season with gratitude and still hold them lightly? Here are three suggestions:
Gratitude. To be honest, I have sometimes resisted the idea of listing the things I'm grateful for. The “put on a happy face” mentality has led to a world of harm and spiritual disconnection in my opinion. But the practice of turning our thoughts to what we are thankful for helps draw us out of ourselves and we become more aware that God is ever-present even in times of struggle. I like to use a routine habit to remind me to pause and say thanks—every time I refill my water bottle. What would remind you? When you walk through the door at home? Tuck under the covers before sleep? Pour coffee in the morning? You get the idea.
Take time with nature. St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that God dwells in all creatures. “In the elements, giving them existence, in the plants, giving them growth, in the animals, conferring on them sensation, in humans, giving them understanding.” This fall, take a walk in the woods or spend some time sitting on your patio. Let your senses and imagination become absorbed with some element of creation; perhaps the play of shadow and light as clouds move across the sky or the movements of birds at your feeder. Maybe you are a tree-lover—spend some time with a particular favorite. What does the spirit bring to your attention? What might God's good creation have to say to you? Rest in the quiet and explore. When you are ready, close with these comforting words from Theresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing, God alone is unchanging.”
Meditate with music. There are many lovely popular songs and hymns about fall. Spend a little time finding a couple that speak to you; it's a pleasant chore! When you have what you need, settle yourself in quiet somewhere you won't be disturbed. In front of a window is one choice or maybe you prefer to listen with eyes closed. Either way, let the words and melody speak to your spirit. What images are evoked? What might you want to bring to the conversation with God? One of my favorites is Leaves Don't Drop (They Just Let Go), by Carrie Newcomer. www.youtube.com/watch/leavesdontdrop.
Where will you experience the Spirit this fall? Please share your ideas.