Early morning rays were beginning to filter into the small chapel at the Jesuit Retreat Center. There were about 40 chairs crammed into a small space, half of the facing chairs split by an aisle leading to a small altar at the front of the chapel. As I entered, the room was already full. I had to scramble over several people to find a space to sit. I was there to do twenty minutes (or was it thirty?) of centering prayer.
Jesuit Center, Wernersville, Pa.
I was attending a silent retreat that was put on by Kairos School for Spiritual Formation, Lancaster, Pa. The Jesuit Center, where Kairos held the retreat, is in Wernersville, Pa. Every nook and cranny of the retreat center is an invitation to be present to the Other. Not only inside the building, but the woods, pond and gardens nestled in the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania invite the visitor to prayer and contemplation.
The real purpose of my attending the retreat was not silence or presence, but signing. My sister, Sharon Clymer Landis, had been trained in spiritual direction by this school, and was asked to do a book signing for our new book, The Spacious Heart. Sharon asked me to join her so I agreed. Part of my payment for the overnight stay and two meals allowed me to take in any of the sessions that appealed to me.
On a whim, I decided to attend the crack-of-dawn centering prayer activity. I barely arrived when a man introduced the concept for any of the uninitiated. He told us to take a word, a phrase, a short portion of scripture, or some means to bring us back to the center (Center) when our thoughts wandered. While dressing I was listening to a requiem mass on my iPod. The words “Mother Mary, full of grace, have mercy,” were echoing in my mind through the music of the mass as I got ready to center myself in prayer.
Now I am not Catholic nor do I believe in Mary’s intercession on our behalf, but the music was so gorgeous I could not get this short musical phrase and words out of my head. Somehow, being surrounded by mostly women in a Catholic retreat center, these words seemed to make sense, so I used them as my centering medium.
Except for the occasional cough, the silence in the room, despite the presence of nearly 40 people, was so thick you could slice it with a knife. I often do centering prayer alone at home. I learned the practice of centering prayer at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation in a small class of maybe five participants. I had never been in the presence of so many people at one time sitting in silence.
Time stood still. The hunger for God in that small space was palpable. I was moved to tears. When the chimes sounded signaling the end of the twenty (thirty?) minutes, I could hardly believe it. I wanted to remain in silence, united with forty other souls basking in the eternal embrace of God’s love. Slowly people got up to leave, breaking my reverie. It was time to get back to the tasks at hand.
Our church (I’m not just referring to my denomination) is being torn apart by many issues dealing with the interpretation of scripture. There are workshops, conferences, meeting after meeting, sermons and Bible studies “discussing” the issues. It seems that little progress is made toward unity. In fact, it seems that the extreme sides of each debate gets increasingly more rigid in their “correct” interpretations. I wonder what it would be like for us to throw out our heavy agendas and to sit together with each other in silence for thirty minutes. Not once during a meeting or a conference, but continually until the voice of God becomes clear.
We were not trying to solve any issue, but there we were, nearly forty people from some ten different dominations, sitting together in a packed room united by silence; seeking God’s presence, feeling his embrace and eternal love. The sweet fragrance of the Spirit permeated the room. My God-likeness was connected by silence to forty other God images. I was born anew. Would churches and church conferences have enough patience to do this?  
Oh, and we sold and signed 23 books. Yes, we do mention Centering Prayer in the book as a way to develop a Spacious Heart. Could there be a spacious heart for a church or conference of churches?