God’s wildness can’t be captured, controlled, or boxed into easy formulas. So how do I connect with the Loving Presence when I really need that, when the outcome means everything? How do I hold space within me for sacredness to appear? And how do I deal with my resistance and fear of empty space? Clearly this is inner work.
Practicing inner stillness often puts me in touch with a larger Presence, who we call God. That Presence seems to be waiting at the center of my being to offer tranquility for facing the stresses of this life, and guidance much wiser than that of my fearful small self. My contemplative practice is a way of inviting this Presence.
One way to begin developing the courage needed to hold space for the Sacred is through surrender practices like centering prayer. Centering offers me extensive practice in letting go of a million thoughts, feelings, impulses, memories, analyses, and all the busy noise that the mind produces. My centering is practice in surrendering all that commotion so that I can find my way to the still-point at the center of my being. The practice of holding space for the sacred hinges on my willingness to let go of my imagined sense of control, and the mind’s many diversions, so that I can come to rest in my True Home at the center.
Through daily contemplative practice my inner eyes and ears begin to open. By settling into this inner country, where there is no other thing to cling to, I am sometimes blessed to find there is a spark of the Divine at my very core. The gate of heaven is actually within.
Discovering that the gate is within means I can return there wherever I go. This is how I began to learn the gate of heaven is everywhere.
I was sitting in the waiting room outside of the visitation stalls at the Parish prison before having a phone visit with my friend. He had been a resident there for six months of a one-year sentence. I had worked with him in psychotherapy for a while after he had been charged with a crime.
Then I had invited him into the Mankind Project men’s group where men work on our lives in community. He had gone through the initiation weekend we call the New Warrior Training Adventure. He had begun to build some trust in the follow-up group which met every other week. In time he worked on his life and began his own transformation. Eventually he shared with us about the formation of a life mission. Then he was convicted and sentenced.
I was waiting to go in and see him during the weekly visiting hour. I had thirty minutes to wait while another visitor saw him, and eventually realized this was an opportunity to hold space for the Sacred right there. For a second I felt self-conscious about meditating in that place with other visitors and the staff all around. Then I thought, “What better place?” I needed some time to center myself in hopes that I could drop my concerns about what to say and just radiate loving-kindness during our visit.
On that Friday, I learned that the gate of heaven is really everywhere, even in a prison. After 20 minutes of practicing the centering, breathing in and out of that sacred center, I was allowed to go in, sit on a stool, see my friend through a thick glass window, and talk with him over a phone. Instinctively, I put my hand up to the glass on my side and he did the same on his side. In that moment, I felt the Great Love present between us. It no longer mattered what we said really, for the gate of heaven was right there. Right there!
Can you sense the magnitude of what I am saying? Thomas Merton wasn’t being metaphorical or symbolic about that gate. He was speaking from the mystical-literal truth: the gate of heaven really is everywhere. That moment of connection between two men in the oddest of circumstances was really just one of the millions of ways in which the eyes of the heart can open. We realized we were standing at the very gate of heaven, even in a prison.
That prison was a place of nothingness, of absolute poverty. I could not sustain my myth of power and control there. Neither could he. We had to depend on the appearance of undeserved grace. My part was the simple act of opening my heart. God did the rest.
The art of holding space for the Sacred within hinges on my willingness to let go of the need to feel in control. I must release the pressure I feel to do something productive in just the right way. I must surrender so that I can fall into God through grace. I am learning God can appear right there in life’s darkest places if I can get out of my own way.
So here is a very short sermon. There is a common myth among us saying, “I can’t take time for God because I am too busy.” I say you should hold onto that myth as long as you can. You can wait to begin a daily experience of God’s presence until you really need that. As long as you can keep up the pace of striving alone in this world — or even trying to serve God without spending any real time with God — then go for it! Don’t try a more contemplative life out of duty, or guilt, or someone pressuring you. That won’t last. Wait until you must find the gate and know the Presence every day. At least that’s how I landed here.