God Is Love

Reflections on a Contemplative Outreach Retreat at the Garrison Institute

By Mary Anne Best

Last November, fifty-one of us journeyed to the Garrison Institute to experience God is Love: The Heart of All Creation, a new video and book series by Fr. Thomas Keating. This series and our being together offered us a time apart: to listen, to reflect, to be still, and to come to know deeply that everything in the universe—everything our senses observe and everything technology uncovers—is prophetic witness of the Divine. Our teachings were about cosmology, evolution, higher levels of consciousness, and the possibility of transformation —from a Christian perspective. I was privileged to serve as one of the retreat leaders.

A bedroom at the Garrison Institute, formerly a monk’s cell.

A typical day began with some of us walking in the early morning darkened hallways to participate in “yoga/prayerful movement.” Christianity is an incarnational religion; our bodies are sacred. We can move them in prayer, in preparation for a day of sitting in prayer, and to move into all those parts of ourselves that we don’t want to! As I passed the empty offices and the Meditation Hall, I was reminded of Thomas Merton’s “Firewatch” —his essay on of passing through the monastery on the night watch. The rooms that may go unnoticed during the day and now when they are empty, have something very urgent to say, so that I want to linger in them and listen to the silent presence of all those novices and monks that inhabited these walls in days gone by. I feel their presence, their yearning, their prayer. It permeates the walls, the grounds, the very air at the Garrison Institute. It is an atmosphere of holiness and intentionality.

The rhythm of our days included more than three hours of Centering Prayer daily, viewing two short videos by Fr. Thomas, unstructured periods of silence and solitude, meetings in spiritual companionship, the practice of Visio Divina (finding the presence of the Divine through art), and short periods of wisdom sharing after viewing the videos—all in a container of silence. We concluded each day with a choice of attending a Catholic Mass, a time of Lectio Divina (listening to the word of the Divine through Scripture), or silence and solitude.

The grounds bespeak a history of intentionality, beauty, and nature in its finest expression. Situated across the Hudson River from Westpoint, it beckons one into another world—a world of peace and hope and restoration.

As we gathered for our closing circle, faces that came filled with looks of anxiety only a few days before were now at ease, filled with light—the light that comes from deep silence, the light that is always there but that we usually miss because we turn our attention elsewhere.

For over 30 years, Contemplative Outreach has been committed to renewing the Christian Contemplative tradition in ordinary life. The foundation of this work is through the practice of Centering Prayer and leading a life based upon contemplative values. As Fr. Thomas Keating, the founder of Contemplative Outreach, says in Open Mind, Open Heart:

Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a conversion initiated by God and leading, if we consent to divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond to everyday life with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through and beyond everything that happens.

Garrison is a perfect place to know that this is, indeed, so. We are very blessed to have such a sacred place.

Mary Anne Best is the finance and development director of Contemplative Outreach. She is also an editor and coordinator for the development of new works of Fr. Thomas Keating, organizes and directs Centering Prayer retreats, and is a principal writer for online courses and the Contemplative Life Program (CLP). She will co-lead an upcoming retreat at the Garrison Institute, “Into Unity Consciousness: The Christian Contemplative Journey,” on June 13-17.

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