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.