Each year participants in our School for Contemplative Living stop doing things. We gather for a retreat to practice stillness. We gather in spiritual community. We sit. This year is no exception. Some of us will gather at St. Joseph Abbey, and some of us will gather at Rosaryville. Others might attend retreats elsewhere, thanks to the excellent resources offered by Contemplative Outreach and other groups around the country.
Sitting is devalued and dishonored in our culture. We won’t be at all surprised if someone smugly asks, “So you all just sit there?” What can we say? How can we answer such a question other than in simple, non-defensive honesty: “Yes.” For we do in fact leave our jobs and our doing, and even pay money, to sit together for several days. Over these extended days we do a lot of sitting.
In our Rosaryville retreat, sponsored by Contemplative Outreach, we will sit for an hour at a time, three times a day, practicing centering prayer together for five days. And in between those group practice hours we will do a lot of sitting individually. We will pray in a variety of ways with reading, writing, walking, eating, seeing, listening: all in silence. A few people will even swim in silence. (Thank God for a pool in the steamy days of July).
Part of our listening will be to hear a teacher on centering prayer and lectio divina (sacred reading meditation). Each day we will learn from this presenter by sitting and listening in silence. In the evenings we might even speak for a few moments to ask her questions. We will be seeking clarity for our learning. Then we will fall back into absolute silence together.
We will learn new things about contemplative practices which feed our souls. But our primary learning will come through personal experience. Sitting turns out to be more than “just sitting there.” For us, this is a practice of the presence of God. Sitting together in this way, with this purpose, deepens our reservoir and fills us with God. This filling is not under our control. We are simply open to the presence in our sitting. We are trusting ourselves to God, practicing the first Great Commandment for a few days: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
A month from now our annual sitting will be done. We will resume our personal practice of the presence of God each day and our group practice of the presence each week or month. We will sit in our own homes, in churches, universities, hospitals, etc. We will also return to our doing in the world. We will bring our filled reservoirs with us as we serve the world. In this way we will practice the second Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
When we sit and serve in these ways, how we live in this world is transformed. Our work is not as frazzled, usually. (Though I have to admit we got pretty frantic for a few moments this afternoon when twenty extra people from the streets of New Orleans showed up for the hot meal we were serving). We have a greater ability to radiate loving-kindness as we greet our street friends or engage in other ministries. And people can always tell if you are radiating love or being an irritable do-gooder. The imperfect principle is that sitting to practice God’s presence helps our serving.
So if you are looking for a meaning and purpose for your life, I recommend two simple spiritual practices in tandem, and in this order: sit and serve. It’s not a bad place to start. And if you are ever in New Orleans for a visit, stop by to sit and serve with us. Who knows, a gate of heaven might just open up before us all since God seems fond of those who sit and serve.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.