St. Paul Pioneer Press, 15 Aug 93

Meditation revolutionizes mainstream church prayer

By Clark Morphew, Staff Writer

Ann McGlynn, a 40-year-old educator, rises early once a week and by 6:30 a.m. is comfortably seated on a pillow in a meditation room at the St. Paul Priory in Maplewood.

McGlynn, of North St. Paul, and about a dozen friends listen to readings and calming music. Then, using Zen-style meditation, they silently concentrate on their breathing for 40 minutes.

If a distracting thought comes to mind, they recite a mantra, or holy word, to erase it. Their technique borrows from Zen Buddhism and Hinduism, but this is no group of Eastern mystics.

Most of them are Catholics. They are part of a quiet revolution within mainstream churches to find spirituality and self- understanding through ancient meditation practices.

Instead of leading groups with memorized prayers, a new breed of spiritual directors teach people to hear the inner voice of God. They help people to unravel the ``chaos'' in their lives, to stand on their feet and to take responsibility for themselves.

``I think they have the same complaints people come into therapy with,'' said Sister Mary White, a spiritual director and a psychotherapist at St. Paul's Priory, a home for Benedictine nuns. ``They say they're not praying well, life is flat, they're not feeling much excitement. They have a deep hunger, but they don't know how to express it. We want people to see that much of what they're doing is prayer. But they're praying like children and not like adults.''

In this new style of prayer, participants ``rest with God'' and turn negative memories and thoughts over to divine grace, spiritual directors say.

The technique is called centering prayer.

``We want to help people relax and give them new forms of praying,'' White said. ``Mainly we teach the centering prayer, a form of letting go. We let go and sort of bracket our thinking. We surrender those negative thoughts. When the negative thoughts come, we gently insert a sacred word, such as `abba,' as a sign of our desire to rest with God. We do that for 20 minutes, twice a day.''

The spiritual direction movement began when two Trappist monks in a monastery in Spencer, Mass., noticed that thousands of young people during the 1960s were making pilgrimages to India and the Orient in search of a guru. They wondered why these young people, mostly Christians, did not come to monasteries to enrich themselves spiritually.

One monk, the Rev. William Meninger, resurrected the ancient centering prayer method and reworked it for ordinary people. Meninger and another monk, the Rev. Thomas Keating, received permission from their order, which requires silence of its monks, to move to the outside world with their centering prayer seminar.

Working through congregations and retreat houses, the two monks found an enthusiastic response and a new movement was born within Roman Catholicism. The centering prayer process has spread to Protestantism, as well.

The Rev. Julie Neraas, 39, a Presbyterian pastor and spiritual director, says the Protestant traditions have not taught people how to pray.

``Many of these people are at the margin of the church, but they want to have a community where they can pray,'' Neraas said. ``These people will tell us, `My church doesn't seem to be that interested in these things -- they're interested in social action but not in prayer.' ''

Practitioners may be on the fringe of the church, but that's where change usually begins in any organization. And the movement has rapidly spread from monasteries to rank-and-file Christians.

Those who practice the meditative style of prayer sometimes are dissatisfied with the role their congregations have played in their spiritual growth. They are seeking more than Sunday morning worship.

For instance, when Jerry Palms was about 30, he sensed a need for something more than his traditional Catholic faith. He gravitated toward the Zen Buddhist Center on the shore of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. There he learned Zen meditation.

Now Palms, 46, combines Christianity with Zen to form a unique prayer life. On many evenings he leads meditation sessions at the Zen Center, but on Sundays he worships at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. In addition, most days he does 20 minutes of meditation in his home.

``The meditating time is a foundation for living,'' Palms said. ``I'm not trying to cultivate extraordinary powers, like walking barefoot on coals. Zen Buddhism emphasizes the ordinary things of life. It focuses on attentiveness or mindfulness. It encourages compassion or tenderness. And it teaches a capacity for love.''

Most meditative prayer sessions in the Twin Cities occur at retreat centers such as the Cenacle in Wayzata, where Joyce McFarland leads groups and does some spiritual guidance.

``We're not there to solve their problems,'' McFarland said. ``We're there to listen, to encourage, to challenge, to accept and to empower.''

``In my personal relationships ... we encourage them to claim their own power, their own goodness and operate out of that,'' she said.

But it is not only Buddhist meditation techniques that are making their way into Christian prayer. Some practitioners also use yoga and other methods associated with Hinduism.

Chris Turner, 24, a student from St. Paul, recently returned from India, where he spent five months studying and meditating at Shantivanam, a monastery in Thanirrpalli, India.

Turner said he found a way of life that he had been searching for since he was 13, when he began experimenting with yoga. His interest in Christianity waned because he thought the church would not approve of meditation, he said.

``For a long time these techniques have been concealed in the church, but that's changing today,'' Turner said. ``People are experiencing other religions. Today people want an inward experience of their spirituality.''