Our Kamloops contemplative group has evolved through several incarnations over the years. Initially we were simply four people in our local parish who were getting together weekly to share our stories and to “pray”. That was some twenty-five years ago. Four years into our existence I found myself at a week-long workshop-retreat on Centering Prayer given by Cynthia Bourgeault and was profoundly affected by both the practice and the teachings upon which it was built. After what was, for me, fifty years in the spiritual wilderness I felt that I was being given an utterly new way of approaching and even entering the Mystery that we called “God”.
When our group commenced meeting again that fall, the other folks had the courage to leap into the void with me and we began meditating at our weekly gatherings. As anyone who has done the practice knows it was not an easy undertaking. Simple, yes. Easy, no. We had differing responses to the practice: I took to it (*seemingly) like a fish to water; someone else had monkey-mind; one found that her thoughts were utterly relentless; and another found it distressing in the extreme – all but impossible given his personality. Nonetheless, we each of us persisted.
Flash forward five years we decided to open the doors to the wider Christian community (through personal invitations as well as church bulletins) in the hopes that this contemplative meditation/prayer practice might find some fertile soil outside of our small group. To that end we asked Cynthia to come and meet with us and give us her advice. Out of that time together, we decided to begin meeting twice a month as a larger group. That group came to be made up of people active in many Christian spiritual traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Baptist and Quaker). Over time it has also included Unitarian Universalist and others.
We’ve continued meeting twice a month for an hour and a half for the following fifteen years. (Monday evenings seem to be when most people are free, and we hold them on the second and fourth Mondays of each month from September through May regardless of whether they fall on a holiday or not – moving the Mondays to accommodate for holidays proved too confusing for folks.) We held our gatherings for a long time in a small Roman Catholic church after which we moved to the local Anglican cathedral – where we now meet.
The structure of the two Mondays has varied over the years – although our bedrock every time is twenty-five minutes of Centering Prayer and as much chanting as we can manage. We began by doing multi-yearbook studies on Cynthia’s first Centering Prayer book, on Kabir Helminski’s “Living Presence (aided by Lynn Bauman’s workbook) and on The Gospel of Thomas (using Lynn Bauman’s translation and commentary). There have been shorter explorations of other books as well – in particular “The Cloud of Unknowing”.
What we discovered over time is that there seemed to be a desire to go deeper than a head “understanding” of what the texts were saying. To that end we would break off into groups of four or five and apply the teachings to what we were experiencing in our own lives. While there was a good deal of discussion there were two difficulties: one was that while some people were more extroverted and willing to share, others were more introverted and reluctant to do so; the other was the issue of having to have one person in the group act as a leader – which put undue pressure on that person.
After much trial and error, we’ve come to something that works for us. What we’ve been doing for the past half-dozen years is the following: Our fourth Mondays are almost exclusively meditation and chanting – two twenty-five-minute sits are broken up with a walking meditation plus chanting at the beginning, the end and between the two sits. We discovered that people wanted more and more silence. And simple chanting,chanting, chanting.
Our second Mondays have one twenty-five-minute sit along with chanting at the beginning and the end. The rest of the time is spent doing Lectio Divina. Typically, it’s the Gospel reading for that Sunday –although all that’s required is that the reading is from scripture. The format is whatever the individual leading the evening chooses – but, again, silence is key. One format is: reading once through when we simply be with the reading followed by silence of a couple of minutes; the next reading (from either the same translation or a different one) is followed by more silence but this time we engage with our senses and feelings; after the final reading we speak the word or phrase that struck us and ask “What’s moving inside me? Inside my heart?” People can then choose to speak to whatever emerges from that place.
We can ask questions of ourselves, identify what we’re feeling or speak directly to God or to Jesus. There are no rules here beyond those of voluntary participation, confidentiality and no crosstalk. Perhaps something that someone else says might speak to what you’ve needed to hear. Perhaps you’re lost or frustrated. No rules. We simply open to the movement of God in our hearts – as best as we are able at this moment.
At the end of each gathering we have prayers of intercession/thanksgiving followed by chanting the Aramaic Our Father.
There have been times during the group’s evolution when “thlipsis” was the order of the day. It hasn’t always been easy. We’re human beings attempting to move beyond the small, narrative selves of personality and into our True-Selves-in-Christ. It’s a leap – and struggle and conflict do arise. The issues that people have raised have, almost exclusively, to do with the format of our gatherings. We’ve actually used Survey Monkey to make certain that we were moving in the direction which the group wanted to head. It’s an ongoing discernment.
We also gather one Sunday a month to hold what we call a “Eucharistic Communion”. It follows the typical Mass structure (chanted Kyrie; chanted Psalm refrain; Gospel read twice; Lectio; reflection by the presider and others as they see fit; Communion; and a chanted Aramaic Our Father– the fewer words the better). The presider is typically a lay person. The Communion itself includes chanting the Hebrew blessing over the bread and before drinking wine – which, presumably, Jesus intoned at the Last Supper.
Finally, we hold a year-end celebration – beginning with a Eucharistic Communion followed by a potluck supper and much joy and reverie.
Whatever it is that happens in our little contemplative community one thing is for certain: It is authentically responding to the moving of Spirit. Of that I am certain.
*My experience of Centering Prayer must wait for another day.
P.S. We also have a library of eighty-plus titles purchased over the years on the Christian contemplative Wisdom tradition. Teachers include Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, Matthew Wright, Michael Fish and others.