What contemplative practices do you reach for during difficult transitions? In this month’s We Conspire series, discover diverse practices to help us stay hopeful and grounded. Mary Jane Yates of Contemplative Outreach reflects on two practices that bring her the deepest sense of connection.
“The transition from eternity to time
Is full of suffering, fears, and little deaths.
But, in the transition from death
To eternal life,
The silence of pre-existence
Bursts into boundless joy.”
— Thomas Keating, The Secret Embrace
These words by Father Thomas Keating as he was nearing his death hint at the value of contemplative practice in helping us negotiate the difficult transitions of life. His words remind us that the human journey is inevitably full of sufferings, fears, and little deaths. Yet this journey can also be marked by boundless joy as we commit ourselves to connect with the silence of pre-existence.
I connect with this silence in two ways: Centering Prayer and the practice of wandering or sitting outside in nature, also known as “Terra Divina” or ‘’Nature Therapy.” These practices have sustained me through many difficult transitions in my own life and I am grateful to share some of this experience.
“The human journey is inevitably full of sufferings, fears, and little deaths.” —Mary Jane Yates
Looking back, I realize I started practicing Terra Divina at a very young age, as I think many of us do. At the time, my 2-to-5-year-old heart was trying to make sense of some of the human absences in my life. Reflecting on this now, I know the “silence of preexistence” was very much present to me in the rustle of mango leaves and smell of rain before many hot afternoon thunderstorms. But it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I again started to take seriously the healing effects of contemplative time in nature.
I had not yet heard about Centering Prayer but noticed a growing thirst for the silence and loving presence that seemed most alive to me when I was outdoors. At the time, I was going through a painful divorce and learning to single parent three young children. And while I had many supportive human friends, it was my time alone in nature that brought me the deepest sense of connection with the one(s) whose presence goes beyond thoughts, feelings, and words.
My experience of the hope generated by this Presence was greatly enhanced through my discovery of Centering Prayer in 2007, a practice which then sustained me through many more of life’s transitions, including the illness and death of my second beloved partner in 2020.
“I was going through a painful divorce, and it was my time alone in nature that brought me the deepest sense of connection with presence.” —Mary Jane Yates
Working as administrator for Contemplative Outreach has also brought me the privilege of witnessing the hope and groundedness fostered by this practice in the lives of many others. Thomas Keating’s passing in 2018 was obviously a difficult time for many in our community, and we are now facing another painful transition with the pending closure of our beloved retreat house at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass.
Thanks to the commitment by so many to daily practice, the response I am hearing is one of confidence that the vision and mission of Contemplative Outreach will continue to thrive and grow all over the world, regardless of these difficulties. This kind of groundedness is captured beautifully in these words Fr. Thomas:
“To hope for something better in the future is not the theological virtue of hope. Theological hope is based on God alone who is both infinitely merciful and infinitely powerful right now. Here is a formula to deepen and further the theological virtue of hope with its unbounded confidence in God. Let whatever is happening happen and go on happening. Welcome whatever it is. Let go into the present moment by surrendering to its content…The divine energies are rushing past us at every nanosecond of time. Why not reach out and catch them by continuing acts of self-surrender and trust in God?” —Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable
Reflect with Us
Consider taking 10 minutes today for Centering Prayer or Terra Divina. How did your body feel before practice? How do you feel after? Share your reflection with us.
Mary Jane Yates resides in Treaty Six territory near Edmonton, Alberta. She is a commissioned Centering Prayer presenter and trained Nature and Forest Therapy guide. She has served as Administrator for Contemplative Outreach since March 2020.
We Conspire is a series from the Center for Action and Contemplation featuring wisdom and stories from the growing Christian contemplative movement. Sign up for the monthly email series and receive a free invitation to practice each month.