Abbot teaches ancient prayer as the center to life, love and holiday bliss



HILTON HEAD ISLAND — The stress of the holiday season often overshadows this joyous time for Christianity. One may try shopping early, preparing meals sooner, going daily to church, or taking a long bubble bath, and the stress probably still lingers.

Trappist Father Basil Pennington, abbot of Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga., recently spoke at St. Francis by the Sea Church. Close to 400 people from the community were drawn to the seminar on centering prayer.

“I think the turnout here is an indication of the spiritual hunger,” said Sister of St. Mary of Namur Sister Kathleen Kane of the people in the community.

Father Pennington shared the process of lectio divina, a form of prayer used by the earliest Christians. It involves opening the heart and mind to the words in Scripture, listening to the Lord and incorporating the biblical message into one’s life on a continuous basis. Early Christians found that prayer should not be reserved for a set time of the day, but entwined throughout the entire day.

Lectio divina, or sacred reading, begins with reading Scripture for five minutes a day or perhaps longer. It’s important that the mind and heart remain open to hear the Lord. While reading, pick a passage or word that stands out. Then carry that phrase throughout the day while meditating on its meaning in your life.

Father Pennington said, “We want to experience the Lord as a friend.”

So, as a friend, we listen to his advice for us and apply it to our lives. Through talking with God in prayer, he becomes a part of our lives.

While he knows his children, through listening and reading, we come to know him and move beyond an acquaintance relationship to a stronger bond like that of close friends. When the heart is open and accepting of the Lord, his path for us becomes much clearer, explained the abbot.

In the third part of lectio divina, after meditation and prayer, is contemplation. Like a friend whose simple presence can renew our spirit, God lives in us always ready for us to turn to him to restore our faith.

Father Pennington suggests taking 20 minutes a day for contemplation. He said, “If you can find time to eat, you can find time to be with the Lord.”

Sit in a comfortable position, and close your eyes. The abbot stressed that this is not a Zenlike meditative state, but a turning inward to sit with the Lord. Find a word that will effectively call the mind to the Lord, for example, peace, love, Lord, light. The priest said that the mind will wander; so try to keep turning back to the Lord through using the word in perhaps a repetitive fashion.

In contemplation, the abbot said, “We’re fulfilling the first commandment, loving God with your whole heart and whole mind.”

Throughout this process of coming to know the Lord, memories are created that help to form a peaceful state based on our knowledge of God’s love.

“Divine faith enlightens the mind that tells us we can go in and enjoy God at the center,” Father Pennington said.

For people who seek such a relationship, keep the Bible in a convenient place to read for five minutes, perhaps on the breakfast table or on the nightstand. Find a meaningful passage, and reapply it to daily circumstances to discover where it fits in your life. Talk with the Lord, and make time for contemplation.

While reducing stress during the holiday season was not the purpose of the abbot’s visit, he did say, “You’ll have the best Christmas because the tension that comes with the holidays you will have released each day.”

Getting started

During the session, Father Pennington paused for a word from his “sponsor.” He read from the Gospel of John, perhaps a good passage with which to begin your meditation:

“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

“I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another” (John 15:10-17).