In the space of a week, I have lost three men who I have considered mentors in my life. Two of them were Catholic priests with whom I studied Centering Prayer in Snowmass, Colorado: Father Joseph Boyle and Father Thomas Keating. The third, Eugene Peterson, was a retired Presbyterian pastor, whom I met only once.
Each one of these men has played an important role in helping me to shape my pastoral identity. On this All Saint’s Day, I would like to share just one thing I learned from each of these saints.
For a some of the toughest years of my life, I was a regular at St. Benedict’s at Snowmass. I went there to go deeper into the practice of Centering Prayer, the practice of silence, and to train as Centering Prayer instructor. I wasn’t the only protestant—but I did get chastised once in a while for singing too loudly during the chanted prayers in chapel. (One monk told me they could always spot the Methodists).
Father Joseph was the abbot at St. Benedicts. He wasn’t directly involved in the retreats, but I saw him each time we shared worship with the monks. He had a certain presence that seemed to radiate compassion. At the end of compline each evening, Father Joseph would stand at the door, holding an aspergillum to anoint each person with holy water as we left the chapel in silence. I can’t remember what words he said, if any, but it was a moment that left its mark. It was a blessing. Intimate. Personal. Prayerful. A moment of intention and connection as individuals and as community. It taught me the power of bestowing blessing.
Father Thomas Keating was the original abbot of St. Benedict’s. He was one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement and wrote the books from which we studied. I had begun the practice of Centering Prayer before visiting the monastery. We exchanged letters, and I was able to meet with him each time I went to Snowmass on retreat. There are so many things I learned from Father Thomas, that it is hard to share only one. But one thing I try to remember every single day, is that “God is present in every moment, no matter its content.” It doesn’t matter if I am having a great moment, an anxious moment, an angry moment, or a despairing moment. God is present. God is present. God is present.
Eugene Peterson was the author of the translation of the Bible called the Message. He was a pastor, a seminary professor, and a prolific author. I have half a shelf of his books. He grew up in Montana, returning there with his wife to live in the Flathead Lake area when he retired. I met him at a pastor’s retreat, and found him to be gracious, a person of deep faith and a servant’s heart. He was a scholar, and a contemplative. Even now, this is an unusual combination. In one of his books (I can no longer remember which one) he shares his thoughts on what it was like for him to be in pastoral ministry. He never wanted to serve in a congregation that was larger than his capacity to call everyone by name. In a culture where even pastors are tempted to believe that bigger is better, he chose relationship.
It has been a lot of years since I have spoken in person to any of these three special men. But today, I lit a candle for them, and said thank you. I pray that I will continue to live into the lessons they taught me. And I hope in some way to be the bearer of the light they brought into the world.