Deeper in Prayer

Garrison Institute to host evening of Christian contemplation

The Garrison Institute is often perceived as being focused on Buddhism. But among its earliest spiritual advisers was Father Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk, scholar and author who was the best-known advocate of the modern tradition of Christian contemplative prayer.

That tradition is embodied in what is known as “centering prayer,” and on Wednesday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. the institute will host a free event, open to the public, to open a five-day silent retreat.

“When the Institute was founded, the intention was to have a broad, multi-faith approach to contemplative practice,” explains Jane Kolleeny, the retreats and business development director for the institute, which since 2003 has occupied a former Capuchin Franciscan monastery and seminary. “We have strived to offer a diversity of retreats, representing all the world’s religions,” including Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well as Buddhism and Hinduism.

She noted that Keating taught retreats at the institute, but as he grew older, asked that one of his students, David Frenette, lead a centering prayer retreat. About three years ago, the institute invited Mary Anne Best to lead the retreat, and this year she will be joined by Father Carl Arico and Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler of an organization called Contemplative Outreach.

Father Thomas Keating, who died in 2018 (cac.org)

Centering prayer is derived from Thomas Merton’s description of “finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being.” It is viewed as an extension of ancient practices of silent prayer and contemplation that seek to enrich and deepen personal spirituality in the Christian tradition, but not as a replacement for traditional prayer, although some critics have framed it that way.

In practice, the prayer is simple. Practitioners sit comfortably and quietly with eyes closed, choosing a sacred word to symbolize the intention to remain open to and in “the silent presence of the Lord.” Upon becoming aware of any distracting thoughts, images, words or feelings, adherents are encouraged to gently return to their sacred word. It is suggested that the practice be entered into twice daily for 20 to 30 minutes.

Adherents argue the discipline is not so different from Buddhist mantra meditation or Sufi traditions. It also resides firmly in the Roman Catholic practice of reciting the rosary or even the more formal, participatory practice known as Lectio Divina. It was the 17th century Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal who noted, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

The institute’s Nov. 6 event will also include a video of Keating, a Q&A with retreat leaders and compline, a short service of evening prayer in the monastic tradition.

To register for “An Evening of Contemplative Prayer,” see garrisoninstitute.org. The Garrison Institute is located at 14 Mary’s Way, off Route 9D, adjacent to the Philipstown Recreation Center.

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