Last weekend, I went to a retreat on Centering Prayer sponsored by a local church. On the face of it, it seemed harmless enough. I mean what possible problems could arise from just praying silently with a room full of strangers? Right? Wrong!
The other participants were, mostly like myself, sincere God-fearing women. There were a handful of men, including the leader, a cheerful monk from Toronto. He had us sit quietly and let our minds "just be" in the presence of God. Whenever our minds strayed, which was often, one need merely say one's "love word" to bring it back. The point was not to push thoughts away or to empty one's mind. The point was to welcome all thoughts and feelings and simply refocus each time one arose. Sounded very much like Eastern mindfulness or Vipassna meditation, which I have been doing for years. He wasn't asking us to give up our free will or hands ourselves wholeheartedly over to the God of His understanding. Harmless enough.
Until the priest-in-charge of the church opened his mouth. I might have known that trouble lurked beneath the surface of this jolly minister. He looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Abby Hoffman with his hippie sandals and the shock of white curls on his head.
The group was talking about obstacles that arose during prayer and the priest raised his hand and said, quite unabashedly, that he couldn't help but having erotic thoughts enter his mind the whole time and wasn't it time we stopped looking for ecstatic "God" experiences and just allowed our minds to be as human as they really were.
Human! Here we were, a room full of post-menopausal women, and I doubt any of us were thinking of anything besides what we were making for dinner that night. But I knew where he was coming from. I'd heard it all before. The shock value of a man of the cloth admitting to carnal thoughts permitted us lowly laymen (women) to do the same. The only problem was most of us WERE having epiphanies and the like.
Wierwille, my former cult leader, used to do the same thing then he'd sleep with as many women as he could find. I'm not saying that's what this minister did but it was awfully suspicious behavior. Of course, it took me a whole day to register why I felt so vulnerable and upset. It took my husband to point out that perhaps that man had touched on one of my triggers and that made me feel very anxious.
So, once again, an innocent stroll into the murky swamp of religion turns up alligators and snakes. But it turned up other things too. The beautiful flowers of compassion and birds of paradise. I did happen to have a transcendent experience, though, we were reminded, that is not the goal of centering prayer. Nevertheless, as I was sitting there, I had an overwhelming sense of Presence. Something or someone holding my heart in the palm of its hand, like cupping a fragile robin's egg. I was reminded that for all my spiritual aspirations, I am still wounded, and can be triggered at any moment in any place. I still have to watch out for those wolves in sheep's clothing. Happy Easter.