April 2002, Presbyterian Men's Breakfast
Amazing personal prayer experiences at silent retreats

Psalm 73 says, "I will tell of all your works at the gates of the city of Zion." Dobson Hall may not exactly be the gates of Zion. But then again, wherever the happy throng on their way to heaven is gathered, especially at a pancake breakfast, that is the gate of Zion. So, at the risk of going over the top, I want to share some amazing personal prayer experiences with you here at the gates of Zion.

I have seldom spoken about these things. But, Jack felt guilty because he thinks I do so much research on interesting topics he suggests for these Breakfast events. Jack asked if I would talk about something that took no research, like my retreats with the Trappist monks in the mountains of Colorado.

I've mentioned these mostly silent retreats before. But I never revealed the extraordinary happenings during these retreats. And now it's time. I think it is important to talk about powerful, even mystical prayer experience because it is exactly this meaningful personal experience our kids look for. They often look outside the church. But the Lord has extraordinary experiences in mind here within the gates of Zion.

So, at the risk of sounding like a nut, I'm going to read you some contemporaneous notes I took right after a several events of deep prayer. And that is what silent retreats are about - an opportunity to get alone with God in deep prayer. Retreats are useful, very useful. Often during an ordinary week our praying tends to be rushed, or very specific…"Lord help me with the test. Lord, get me through this horrible meeting without losing my temper. Lord, don't let that dog bite me. Lord, let the traffic be light today. Lord, make world peace happen. Lord, help my children. Lord, help me." These are all good prayers. And then on Sundays especially we give God the prayer of Praise. We sing praise hymns and anthems, we recite Psalms and statements of praise. God likes to hear that.

But that's us talking to God. There is another kind of prayer, very ancient, as old as Religion itself. Prayer where we listen to God talking to us. Scripture tells us God is broadcasting all the time. The problem is we have our receivers turned off or we're listening to other programs. God uses angels, or ordinary people, sometimes visions, revelations to get our attention and speak to us. This is what the prophets heard and saw. Why them? Because they were tuned in.

This is all hard to explain. People have been unsuccessfully trying to communicate the reality of the spiritual dimension for centuries and I am no better at it. Scripture points to truth and reality of what we can't see with our limited five senses or get to with our limited brains. Scripture uses what we call METAPHOR, but it should be called METAUP. Metaphor compares what is known to something else that is knowable. METAUP uses images and words to point to what is unknowable to our physical senses. In a sense, it points to what is behind the commandments, what is the meaning of it all.

We can tune in to the divine, personal broadcast in this other kind of prayer. The kind of prayer where we turn off our minds, and especially turn off our mouths. During this prayer, we settle in close to the Lord. We become attentive to hear and see what the Creator and Guide has to say to us. Formal retreats are a good way to carve out the space of time-and-place to shut ourselves up and listen. And it isn't easy to create the quiet. I don't mean the quiet of ambient silence. That's one thing. The real quiet is the quiet that comes from turning off the racket between our ears.

So, that's the purpose of a silent retreat. To shut up to our own internal dialogue, and listen to and experience… what? Ah, there's the mystery.

These are my own very personal prayer experiences. There's no "message" in them for you, nor any "teaching." What I hope you do hear, though, is the possibility of a different prayer experience, one that gets away from our conscious thoughts and lets us feel - in our body and soul - the presence of our loving God. These personal experiences opened my eyes, ears and senses to that prayer possibility. That's why I'm sharing these diary entries.

West Park, NY -
Next day we did three centering prayer sessions in the morning, Eucharist, than another period of centering prayer. This last was particularly notable. I was only aware of the emanations of light during the first part of the prayer then the time was gone. The gong sounded, but I couldn't get up. I could barely open my eyes. When my eyes were open I still felt in another state. I could not get up. I was aware of everyone leaving. I was aware Michael Cooper, a Jewish Episcopal priest, was still in the crypt also. He was seated on a floor cushion with his back to the room, as was his custom. I still couldn't leave. Then I forced myself to stand. I stood and looked at the crucifix on the altar in the front of the crypt. I was flooded with the meaning of the cross, the light and God's love for me and the world. Not in words or pictures, but in light and love. I found myself on my knees. Then my knees and forehead. Then I was laid out flat on the tile floor with my arms stretched out fully before my head. I had a brief thought of the high priest prostrate on Yom Kippur. All this was beyond my control or will to control. Then I felt and almost heard a physical release. I felt it most in my legs and knees, but it was through all the joints in my body. I melted onto the tiles and rug. I had never felt such absence of tension. I understood the Psalm, "My bones were as wax."

It was as if a 20 Watt bulb had been lit in total darkness.

Snowmass -
Then I saw the face of Jesus - first as an outline of light, then fine resolution of the left eye and mouth - the mouth somewhat like the "Russian" icon, but the eye unlike any I'd ever seen. And it changed. And it looked not at me, but glanced up but was at me. Overwhelming.

I saw a face - old, brown/tan, first from the side at the temple, then fuller from a three-quarter view. The mouth had a short, rough cigarette or stubby cigar in the in the mouth. Lit. This was an old, "Turkish-Syriac-Caspian 'Aizerbajani' face. It was mine. And my ancient ancestor.

Then I had an image of spectacular rays emanating from the central light of God. But it was in pixels of an unusual vertical type. I wondered at this. Then an angel with a quirky face, and body posture made a wry, witty, light - but profound comment. "We did it like this so you'd see it was more accessible." I laughed. I saw God as Buddha - like for a moment. Mainly the smile. Good humored, even giggling. Pleased. Humorous. Enjoying. Blissful.

Then, " Take my yoke upon you. My burden is light. It's easy." "Rest, let me do all the work."

Then I had a dialogue with God or Jesus. All I will tell you about that private dialogue is I got answers to questions I didn't know how to ask.

….Last night God appeared to me when I closed my eyes, as a tiny black and white monk or penguin in the corner of a huge stone castle gate. I recognized him. I said, "God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me." Each time I asked it, He grew larger and closer until he enveloped me. In a friendly, cheerful way. I still think he was appearing as a penguin. And he laughed about it. He is playful and wants me to have fun - and to understand he will come when called. No fooling.

It is now 12:30 PM - after lunch. I have already "forgotten" the details of the wonderful sense of God's presence during the morning sits. His presence was immediate. I "remember" only the sense of well-being, and mirth. Oh yes, he told me he had immediately - the morning after my arriving at St. Benedict's - had taken away my unhappiness and let me feel the mirth and hilarity which I have now. This morning he also asked if I wanted him to take away my fear(s). I said yes. He took it away and in its place he put yawning and the ability to have sleep and rest. Wow. He also reminded me how light his burden was. Take it easy. Have fun.

Then I stopped at the meditation room on the way out. There were three icons and a kneeling bench. The icon propped in front of the bench was the Russian "Father, Son & Holy Spirit." I knelt and gazed. I was transported and understood. After a time I rose and looked at the one on the wall to the left. It looked primitive and crude at first. Face of Christ, halo, big dull eyes. Then I gazed at it and understood. He was present. Not the picture. The picture made my spirit see him gazing at me. Speaking to me in silence. He taught me, and I knelt. When it was time, I rose and looked at the third; Jesus being taken from the cross. I was told emphatically, "It isn't time yet for you to pray this."

I left the meditation room. Glanced at my watch. 9:15. No wonder no one was around. It was "Retreat Day" which we were to structure for ourselves. But the "sits" were still scheduled, and were to start at 9:15. And it was a mile away across the valley. I began the most important walk of my life. It took 2½ hours and 2500 years. The sun was bright and hurt my eyes. I pulled my hood way over and looked down at the road. I started to walk and immediately slowed to "meditative" pace. One foot, wait, then slowly the other foot. Wait. Slowly the next step. Time slowed. My feet found the natural line of the road. Like the rhythm of a hill when skiing. I didn't need to look. I thought of my circle of friends at prayer, and somehow joined them. Immediately the Lord was there. It was as if he continued on the road with me after Emmaus. We had a talk. He spoke in my mind. I spoke in my mind. Every once in a while I laughed out loud. He is a very, very good friend.

"Am I a Catholic?" I asked. "More than most," he said. I laughed and laughed.

Occasionally I stopped and looked back and around and ahead. My ski parka hood was up. It felt below 10°. Ears and nose nipped. My gloves were not quite warm enough. I put my hands into the opposite sleeves. I saw my shadow on the road. It was the shadow of a monk, me.

The walk was very slow. The thought came to mind, "Oh, I don't want to miss being in the circle of friends at lunch. I should join hands with them at silent grace", but everything in the world is happening here. Now. I can't alter this walk.

I was outside of time and space. Yet there as well. It was delicious sweetness. Towards the end of the walk on the long upward slope, I was getting mentally tired from how much I was trying to hold and remember. I had just looked down at the snow, and saw him, and the atoms and stars all inside one snowflake. He laid a good one-liner on me.
"I don't get tired, I have all the energy in the world." I guffawed and hawed at the one.

I asked when the end of the world would come. He shrugged and said, "I don't know." Another great one-liner.

As I neared the retreat house, I knew it was time to stop now. I said So long for now. He said, "Talk to you later." I pulled my hands out of the sleeves, pushed down the glove cuff and looked at my watch. Both hands on 12:00. I'll make the silent grace.

So, these little "stories" are just a way of expressing the full, even sensual, impact on ME of some intense, quiet, prayerful retreats. It's a form of prayer that we easily tend to neglect. I urge you to keep this sort of prayer as something to add to your spiritual repertoire, particularly if your prayer is seeming a bit stale and routine.

There are many "methods" to help you explore. I got interested through "Centering Prayer" and "Contemplative Outreach." But there are other groups and methods, all of which are fine. The point is explore this "interior prayer" and see if it's something that should be part of YOUR spiritual life.

Here is a typical invitation to a retreat. This one is by Eugene Sutton, Canon of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC

"Resting in God: Prayer for Everyday Life The deepest hunger of our lives is for communion with the living God. And yet in our daily busy lives, and with the constant demands upon our time, space for God and for the spiritual journey have become a hope, not a reality. How do we find rest for our souls, bread for the journey of life? In this brief retreat you will reflect on the nature of prayer as a relationship with God, and explore the levels of relationship that you can grow into. You will learn and experience centering prayer as a way of praying beyond words and thoughts. And you will rest in the interior silence which is the root of all prayer."