Weekend prayer retreat on Martha’s Vineyard


Centering Prayer is “an antidote to the frenzy of modern day life,” says Peggy McGrath, organizer of a retreat in Oak Bluffs this weekend that will focus on the practice. “It is a cultivation of silence as an approach to the divine mystery.”

A contemporary term that Christians use to describe an age-old practice, Centering Prayer is a form of deep healing meditation, not unlike similar practices that can be found in religions as diverse as Buddhism and Hinduism, Ms. McGrath says. “It is an effort to put yourself into the heart of the mystery,” she says. “An opening in silence and an invitation for that mystery to live in your heart. It is the prayer of the heart.”

This weekend’s retreat starts with a short session at 7 pm Friday evening, followed by a five-hour session on Saturday. It is the latest chapter in a process that began when Ms. McGrath, a Catholic from Oak Bluffs, started to pray together with Susan Kelly, an Episcopalian from Edgartown. The two women credit their respective pastors, Michael Nagle of the Good Shepherd Parish and Vincent Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, with supplying the enthusiasm and support that was needed to transform an intimate spiritual connection into an ecumenical effort that reached out to the Christian community Island-wide.

There is no charge and it is “open to all seekers.” Bringing people of many faiths together to pray, says Ms. McGrath, “is done as a response to Christ’s prayer that all may be one. The fact that we have fractionalization among Christians is passé. We want to take the gifts of all and bring them together in prayer beyond doctrine”

The weekend’s event is a follow-up to a one-day retreat held this past February, which was attended by more than 50 people and which led directly to the formation of three local Centering Prayer groups that continue to meet weekly. Both new and returning participants are encouraged to attend all or any part of this weekend’s retreat.

The retreat will be led by Ethel Fraga, a Centering Prayer presenter and retreat leader with an organization called Contemplative Outreach, which is “committed to supporting people who are trying to live prayerfully in the world,” as Ms. Fraga explains it.

Along with short meditation sessions, the weekend will feature three talks by Ms. Fraga. The first, on Friday evening, deals with the actual practice of Centering Prayer, which proponents say should be practiced for 20 minutes every day. “It requires a lot of faithfulness,” Ms. Fraga says. “You have to be willing to be still at least once a day. I encourage people to be very gentle with themselves, despite the fact that the mind will always want to be busy.”

The second talk, on Saturday morning, will focus on a practice called Welcoming Prayer. “The content of this practice teaches people to gently examine what comes up during the day — both things that delight and disturb them — and learn to be willing to use them all in a transformation of love,” Ms. Fraga says.

The focus of Saturday afternoon’s talk will be on Prayer of Compassion or Loving Kindness. This type of prayer, says Ms. Fraga, “Helps people to be aware of the beauty of living with an open heart, and to be non-judgmental and compassionate to themselves, their loved ones, and even to those who press their buttons.” She goes on to explain that it is the same principle that she has taught in a stress-reduction course offered by another organization.

Although the retreat is co-sponsored by two Christian churches, and the talks will draw from teachings in the Christian faith, Ms. McGrath emphasizes that the retreat is open to all. After all, she says, the revival of Centering Prayer in the Catholic Church was due in part to an ecumenical impulse. In the 1960s, when young people were turning away from the church and traveling to India and elsewhere in search of enlightenment, the Vatican encouraged a group of monks to consult with Buddhist and Hindu monks. They discovered that eastern meditation was similar to an ancient Christian prayer form. Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk, among others, is responsible for the introduction of the modern Centering Prayer movement.

“We’re at a state in our evolution where you cannot turn off your brain, but you can try to let go of any conflictive emotions,” Ms. McGrath says. “And you rediscover in your core that peace and goodness that is you — you alone with the divine mystery which is common to all denominations.

“I think the Vineyard is fertile ground for this. We want to be good to our bodies, good to our neighbor, good to nature. These are all threads of the same cloth, and I think that they come together on the Vineyard in a very powerful, very beautiful way.”

Centering Prayer Retreat, Friday, Nov. 5, 7 to 8:30 pm; Saturday, Nov. 6, 10 am to 3 pm. Good Shepherd Parish, School Street, Oak Bluffs. No fee and all are welcome. Bring a brown bag lunch. Dessert, beverages provided. Preregistration encouraged but not required. To register or for more information, call Peggy McGrath (774-563-0875) or Susan Kelly (508-627-9946).