On behalf of the members of Contemplative Outreach in Southeast England Jill Benet and Steve Pearce went to Miami at the end of September to attend the Annual Conference of Contemplative Outreach. Under the title "30 Years of Grace and Gratitude" this was held to celebrate the 30th anniversary of CO in conjunction with Extension Contemplativa Internacional, the Spanish language branch of the network which began in the US and has subsequently spread all over Central and South America. The full conference was attended by about 170 delegates from all over the world including Britain, Ireland, Canada and Australia as well as the USA and Latin America. For the enrichment day a further 100 people from the Florida area joined us.
Jill and Steve with Fr. Carl Arico (left) and Gail FitzPatrick-Hopler, president of Contemplative Outreach
On the first morning we had three lectures on deepening the practice of each of the three supports of the contemplative life: Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina and the Welcome Prayer. During these talks CO President Gail FitzPatrick-Hopler introduced a prayer of the breath - being aware of your breath, breathe in God and breathe out love. This was also mentioned the following day by keynote speaker Fr. Bill Sheehan, another founder member of CO. In his version you breathe in acceptance and breathe out surrender; he also pointed out that you can do this for a few quiet seconds at different times throughout the day. On the subject of the discipline of Centering Prayer he had this to say: "People on retreats used to say to me that they always did their first sit of the day but the second one was often impossible to fit in. When I was young and foolish I used to reply, 'Do the best you can.' Now I'm old and crotchety I feel it's a crime; get your priorities right." After telling us of the chapter of accidents that lead to his being at the first ever Centering Prayer retreat in 1983 Fr. Bill projected us into the next 30 years pointing out that it is the delegates at the conference who will be responsible for carrying it forward. He drew our attention to the fact that, after 30 years of the teaching of Thomas Keating a new generation of teachers and writers is emerging to continue the Christian Contemplative Tradition, mentioning Cynthia Bourgeault, Martin Laird and Kess Frey. His encouragement, enthusiasm and lifelong dedication to all those who practice Centering Prayer was wonderful and inspiring.
Every session of the conference was bracketed by a period of chanting led by Marú Ladrón de Guevara who had a vocal style that reminded us both of Joan Baez. There were Spanish and English lyrics to every chant which we sang turn and turn about.
Contemplative Outreach in the USA is now on a cusp where founder members Carl Arico and Gail FitzPatrick-Hopler are looking to pass the torch on. It is entering a new period of discernment about it's future organisation. The Circle of Service is to be divided into a smaller body responsible for governance (i.e. defining overall policy) and another for management (i.e. implementation of the policy).
J. David Muyskens, who was wonderfully supportive during the creation of Contemplative Outreach East and South East England, is passing the post of International co-ordinator to Fionnuala Quinn who has always given us sound advice. Fionnuala has been very active as a Regional Coordinator for Ireland over the last 7 years and for many years before that was part of the Centering Prayer movement in New Orleans where she lived. Now based in Dublin she has trained and supported many new presenters and Centering Prayer continues to grow throughout Southern Ireland. We look forward to working even more closely with her and benefiting from her expertise.
Jill and Steve with Sr. Fionnuala Quinn (centre), the new International Coordinator
Some changes have been made to Centering Prayer teaching materials. Those who are familiar with the 6-week follow up to the Introductory Day will find that these DVD's are no longer being reproduced. They are replaced by the videos from the Centering Prayer Training Course which is available from Sounds True (soundstrue.com). Alternative materials have also been recommended for use on retreats; we will give more information about this as it becomes available. The Welcome Prayer booklet from the Contemplative Life Program has also been newly updated.
On the evening of the enrichment day we were shown a new film about the life of Fr. Thomas called “Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence”. It was made by his nephew, Peter C. Jones, over a period of 10 years and is very moving and beautiful. As always Fr. Thomas teaches and inspires throughout. The DVD is available from the US website (contemplativeoutreach.org) but we shall have some viewings in London shortly.
Most of you will be aware that, at the age of 91, Fr. Thomas no longer takes an active role in Contemplative Outreach so he wasn't present at the conference. However, he was there in spirit and surprised us with a call from St Benedict's monastery which was broadcast to the whole assembly. A video message followed which concluded 30 years of Grace and Gratitude with this blessing:
“Let us enjoy the presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and allow ourselves to be loved unconditionally and so be inspired to meet the real needs of everyone in the human family, past, present and to come.”