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The Welcoming Prayer
Submitted by Gordon Peerman D.Min on August 26, 2016 - 10:21am
It was good karma indeed when I showed up at Yale Divinity School back in 1973 and had my very first class on spiritual practice with the Roman Catholic teacher Henri Nouwen. After introducing himself, Henri invited us to put down our writing pens, close our eyes, and simply listen to the morning soundscape. He then had us sense our bodies from the inside, and mark the movement of our bodies with the rhythm of the breath of life. After we opened our eyes, he told us we would not have to take notes that semester in his class. He would (and this will date me) mimeograph each of his lectures, so we would be more free to be present to ourselves and to one another. He hinted that this presence to ourselves and to one another would be the foundation of his class on spiritual practice.
I want to pass along to you what I caught as Henri’s core teaching about the life of prayer. One day Henri simply held out a closed fist, and invited us to do likewise. Then he said that the essence of prayer is moving from this life stance of the closed fist to the attitude of the open hand, and invited us to open our closed fists along with him into a community of receptive hands. This was a direct transmission which I have never forgotten, and even in writing this I remember the shift in the atmosphere of the classroom as we together shifted from the felt sense of closed and resistant fists to the felt sense of open and receptive hands.
The Buddha, interestingly, 2500 years before Henri Nouwen had taught much the same thing. The Buddha said the whole of the dharma was about clinging and non-clinging. Maybe the Buddha also enacted his teaching, like Henri, by demonstrating the movement from the closed fist to the open hand.
I’m re-reading Phillip Moffitt’s Dancing With Life, for now the fifth or sixth time. Each time I work through the text I catch something I’ve heard Phillip say before, but freshly, and am again inspired in this life of practice we share with one another. This morning I found myself reflecting on the First Noble Truth, this from page 71: “Non-suffering is having a relaxed, composed mind that is fully present with whatever is occurring in the moment. And it is the capacity to be in relationship to whatever is arising such that you’re able to respond from your deepest intentions. And it is a feeling of relatedness in your life that is free from aversion to suffering.”
“Free from aversion to suffering.” Recently I made a presentation to the annual gathering of Contemplative Outreach of Middle Tennessee, which is the local arm of the organization that teaches the Christian contemplative practice of Centering Prayer. My topic was “How Do We Pray Without Ceasing?” St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians encourages his readers to “pray without ceasing,” but he doesn’t exactly leave detailed operating instructions on just how to do that. Subsequent Christian practitioners, the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries, as transmitted to us by the writers Evagrius and Cassian, give lots of practical help, and the deposit of their wisdom is embodied in the method of Centering Prayer.
One of the reasons I found myself attracted to Buddhist mindfulness practice is that mindfulness gave me a way to pray without ceasing, both on and off the meditation cushion. Because mindfulness is both a way of paying attention with relaxed embodied awareness to whatever is happening, and it is the intention to be present moment to moment with loving awareness, it offers a way to open the fist of resistance and aversion. As Phillip teaches, mindfulness is a willingness to bear the inevitable sufferings that life brings our way. I learned from Phillip to ask myself, “Am I willing to bear this suffering, this stress, this unsatisfactoriness?” Christian practice speaks of walking the way of the cross and of a willingness to bear one’s cross, but I have to say that I did not have a way to access the true nobility of bearing my suffering until mindfulness practice showed me how to be compassionately present to the “ouch” of the way things are. I have a lot of gratitude to my Buddhist teachers for showing me how to walk the path of Jesus.
In the modern formulation of Centering Prayer, Christian contemplative practitioners have adopted what they call “the Welcoming Prayer” as a way of praying without ceasing. The Welcoming Prayer has three movements: focusing, welcoming, and letting go. Focusing is directly experiencing the felt sense of any moment in the body, moving away from the mind’s reactivity to the moment to the body’s response. Welcoming involves noticing any resistance to the moment, opening to that resistance, and being unconditionally present to whatever is happening in the body and mind. Finally, letting go is, in reality, watching how our identification with suffering self-liberates when we are willing to bear and be with our sufferings unconditionally.
Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk most associated with the teaching of Centering Prayer, has written what he calls the Welcoming Prayer. In particular, out of his own experience Father Thomas knows that we struggle most with welcoming moments that threaten our desires for power and control, for affection and esteem, and for survival and security. I find that the Welcoming Prayer is an invitation to move from the closed fist of aversion and suffering to the open hand of receptivity and non-suffering, to inquire whether I am willing to bear my cross, my suffering. Perhaps it will be of help to you. You might like to try it out for yourself.
The Welcoming Prayer
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it's for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons,
situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem,
approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation,
condition, person or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and
God's action within. Amen.