Todd Friesen is lead pastor of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He leads spiritual retreats, offers spiritual direction and teaches centering prayer. Todd is a member of the Mennonite Spiritual Directors Network.
On my flight from Chicago to Denver, my talkative seatmates clearly thought I was out of my mind:
“You’re not going to Snowmass to ski, but to pray? For 10 days?”
I began to wonder if they were right after a snowstorm grounded my connecting flight, and I found myself on a crowded van climbing over icy mountain passes. It was pitch dark by the time I arrived at St. Benedict’s Monastery, and so I just went straight to bed.
But the next day, I began to discover why I had sensed God calling me to this holy place. After stepping out into the early morning darkness, I lifted my eyes to see the dazzling Milky Way Galaxy overhead and suddenly saw a star shoot across the sky. Gathering in the chapel to pray, our group watched the rising sun slowly illuminate the nearby snow-capped mountains. Walking to morning worship, I lifted the earflaps of my winter hat and heard a silence so deep and full that it made my ears ring. At the monastery, the monks warmly welcomed us into their worship life and the abbot was soon calling each of us by name.
Our group of 20 traveled from as far away as Ireland to participate in this 10-day Centering Prayer retreat. Eight of these days were spent in Grand Silence, a time without speaking or eye contact. Its purpose was to wean us from all our usual distractions and to help us come into God’s presence in an especially receptive way. We spent almost four hours each day in prayer, interspersed with worship at the monastery, delicious vegetarian meals, and free time for reading and hiking.
Thirty hours is a long time to sit silently before God in one week! I soon found the Holy Spirit bringing my whole life — like a movie — before my mind’s eye. There were many wonderful memories. But I also discovered 47 years of accumulated regrets, resentments and sorrows. As taught by Centering Prayer, I tried simply to let these painful memories come … and let them go to God. (Our retreat leader later added: “And don’t forget to wave them goodbye!”)
For the first few days our prayer times, though silent, were still quite noisy with coughing, restless bodies, and anxious breathing.
But then, the silence slowly began to deepen. And after three days of emptying, we began to experience exquisite moments of being filled with “the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
On our last day, after the Grand Silence ended, many in our group shared how we had each discovered in some new way that God really is love — a love that is not only embracing and comforting but also purifying, healing and liberating. We shared that, once we got a taste of the sweetness of God’s love, all we wanted to do was empty ourselves of whatever else was separating us from fuller union with God.
During the retreat, Jesus’ image of “the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13) became precious to me. In my journey toward God at the center of my heart, I often found myself arriving at this gate. It is so narrow that everything else has to be left behind in order to pass through it. There is actually only one “thing” that can pass through it: love!