Our day at the monastery starts with Centering Prayer. We meet in the Oratory-a kind of small chapel- with an organ, a cross, a small lectern and a large candle at one end. There are four rows of chairs facing one another across a center aisle. One one wall there is an icon of Jesus looking all business-like and yet nice and patient. . . . The Oratory is silent, the large candle is lit and we file in for what begins our new day. Taking our seats we get comfortable and wait. When she is sure all are in, one of the Sisters closes the Oratory doors and we begin. Sister reads a short prayer and then rings a Tibetan bowl once. We start 20 minutes of concentrated meditation.
What you choose to “center on” is up to you. The Rule of Benedict-as do many methods-recommends one clears one minds of all thoughts and focuses on a word or phrase either from the prayer just read or to just pick a word of phrase on your own. It is understood that this will be hard and almost impossible to do at the outset. It takes practice, lots of practice. I have chosen to take a phrase from the Bible, the Book of Isaiah; “God is the Strength of my Heart”. I like the way it sounds, that end part, “The Strength of my Heart”. So I do what I learned in yoga class and focus on the bridge of my nose while I repeat the phrase endlessly in my head. It’s hard. I have been doing this for years in yoga and in other situations. And it’s never NOT hard. Sister has told us to acknowledge any intruding thoughts but not to dwell on them, just push them softly away like with a feather duster. I keep dusting and I keep trying to focus on my nose. At one point my eyes cross with the strain of it. . . . I keep my hands “open to the universe” on my knees and sit up straight to encourage the flow of breath in and out. I have been doing this for days now and I don’t think I am improving. I have to remind myself of Sister Lynne’s admonishment when I apologized the other day for not getting my row hoed faster, when she said gently, ”It’s not a race.”
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After Centering Prayer comes the Intoning of Praise for the Word given to us by the Anonymous Author of the Psalms, to God, and to Jesus. . . . We then pray the Psalms in a back and forth in a ping-pong action from one side to the other. I found the tradition bizarre the first few days, now I find it hypnotic. The songs [Psalms] are sung in unison with whichever side you happen to sit on that day and the Leader (Sister Lynne today) interjects with a solo here and there. The voices and rhythm of the call and response and repetition are sung in a high octave with peaks and valleys of notal expression. I am surprised by how my heart feels a physical pulse with the notes as they seem to crystallize and hang in the air between the two sections.
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For additional excerpts from Sarah’s on-going blog, click on this link: A Confirmed City Girl looks for God in a Monastery