May 1, 1999

on the Way
by Jan Harris
One of the essential ingredients for a healthy human life is having meaningful relationships with other human beings. Of course, it's wonderful if those relationships are healthy -- but, even if some of them are not, one's mental health is still enhanced by the presence of other people in our lives. If some of those other people are companions to us in our everyday physical and emotional lives -- sharing with us over a meal, enjoying a play, listening to music, watching a sports event -- then we are aware that we are not completely alone on our journey through life. Over the past couple of months, it has been demonstrated to me how vital it is that we also have companions on our spiritual journey, particularly if we are venturing into the contemplative life.

For many of us, the contemplative life is completely unfamiliar territory, and there are very few guidelines available. Maybe it's not part of our faith tradition, or perhaps we don't know anyone else who lives it. It feels strange to us and, because of our previous church experience, we might be too preoccupied with "doing it right." It is a life that we long for, and somehow know will begin to fill the gnawing hunger we feel for God, but we still have lots of unanswered questions.

We also find that when we do dare to go to a "quiet day," or a meeting at which "contemplative prayer" is practiced, we feel that no one else has our doubts -- that everyone else is an expert. We feel inferior, that we should just give up, that perhaps God just isn't calling us to intimacy with Him after all. So, it seems to me, especially as we begin this journey, that it is most important to find others who can be "spiritual companions" to us.

In 1990, when we at Union Life magazine began to publish material about contemplative prayer, we individually purposed to practice it daily. We began with a commitment to read M. Basil Pennington's Centering Prayer thoroughly, and then to set aside a period of time each day for our personal practice of silent prayer. In addition, we regularly met to practice it together, and then to talk about our experiences. Some time during those first few weeks I came across a copy of Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart at a local bookstore. We found that the section in that book that addresses the questions people ask at contemplative prayer retreats was especially helpful -- for, lo and behold! we all had the same questions!

Since that time, each of has settled into a consistent private practice of centering prayer. In addition, whenever two or more of us are working together on Union Life, we try to take the time to "sit together" in silence, as well as to share our experiences: doubts about "doing it right," questions about our "busy, busy" thought-life, physical responses (like crying uncontrollably), frustrations with not living up to our "intention" to be with God in silence, etc. We find that the commitment to the practice and the sharing time together has been tremendously helpful.

Each year that I have been in Australia over the Christmas/New Year period, I have met with several small groups of people whose life journey has led them to practice contemplative prayer. Extended meetings and/or retreat experiences with the same people each year has accomplished some of the same things I mentioned above. Sharing of the journey always seems to be very, very helpful.

This year, my time in Australia was shorter than usual, but I did spend eight very busy days in one area to which I have been five or six times before. I did one weekend retreat, plus several "quiet day's" or "quiet" afternoon meetings. Many of those who came I had met in previous years -- so the sharing before and after each time of "contemplative sitting" was rich, honest, and thoughtful. These were people who were seriously pursuing our "Lover God," and who were obviously finding Him to be very, very present in their lives. They were beginning to glimpse the depths of His unconditional love; beginning to grasp the truth that it is our intention that is important, not our performance; and also beginning to see that they wanted and needed to be companions to each other along the way.

The theme that became obvious at the end of each meeting was the oft-repeated request by the participants for a local group that could get together regularly for a time of simply "sitting in silence" with the Lord, and a little time to share with each other afterwards.

Keeping this in mind, we here at Union Life want to be a "link" for those who are seeking this companionship along the way.

Look in our "Coming Retreats" section. There you will find not only our own retreats, but speaking schedules of others that may be of interest to you as you seek to live the contemplative life.

In our "Links" section you will find other suggested resources. Or you can write or FAX us for information about contemplative prayer groups meeting in your area.