“Teaching Contemplation”

 Originally Published on OMIWORLD.ORG

For many years, Fr. William SHEEHAN, at one time the provincial of the former Eastern Province of the U.S. and also a formator for many years, has been teaching a method of contemplation, Centering Prayer, whose meaning was summarized by St. Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century as “the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love.” The Oblate was the subject of an article on the internet blog “Crux” (http://www.cruxnow.com).

Fr. Bill Sheehan, OMIIf Father Bill SHEEHAN were your parish priest, the pews would be packed for every Mass. As it is, he’s in huge demand all over the country to lead retreats where everyone sits for hours a day, eyes closed, in a silent prayer known as Centering Prayer. And his retreats are packed.

“He’s the best of the best. There’s a light in him and a sweetness and gentleness that you’re very drawn to,” says Nancy Nichols Kearns, a long-time Centering Prayer practitioner and volunteer with Boston’s chapter of Contemplative Outreach, Centering Prayer’s umbrella organization.

Bill Sheehan himself is more modest. “I just think people are searching for something deeper, and sometimes they don’t even know how to articulate that,” he said at home in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he is a priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. “I’ll be flying to a retreat wearing my Oblate cross, reading or preparing. Inevitably the person next to me will ask, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing?’ ‘I’m going to a retreat center in Amarillo (Texas),’ I’ll say. ‘Oh?’ I’ll tell them I’m a Catholic priest and I’m giving a retreat there and then, boom, Catholic, not Catholic, Christian or not, they want to know all about it.”

There’s a fascination there, a curiosity, maybe even a holy yearning like the one he finds among those making his retreats for a day, a weekend, a week or more. At the start of each retreat, he asks participants why they’re there and what they’re looking for. “They’re looking for silence,” Sheehan says. “And they’re looking for a deeper relationship with God. There’s just that attraction.”

As someone who’s felt that attraction, too, I’m amazed there aren’t Centering Prayer groups in every Catholic parish around, particularly now, when we hear so much about the need to slow down, unplug, live “mindfully” in the moment, and meditate. Centering Prayer offers a path to all that. More important to Catholics, as its co-founder the Trappist monk Thomas Keating has said, it offers the chance to experience the presence of God — even if you’re no paragon of perfection yourself.

Perhaps Centering Prayer has struggled in parish acceptance because it’s relatively new and unknown to many priests. Or perhaps it’s because the tradition-bound Catholic Church is not the first place would-be meditators would look for guidance.

Thus, in 1975, Centering Prayer was born. Sheehan met Keating and the prayer just a few years later. Keating was wondering then if laypeople, not just nuns and priests, could move into this tradition and invited Sheehan to join a small group at a 14-day retreat at the Lama Center in the mountains of New Mexico.

“Back then, there was no electricity, no indoor water, just outhouses and an outdoor shower. Inside at night it was all candles,” Sheehan remembers. “For the first time, my life was reduced to utter simplicity, just the basics, and it was fine. Then to be plunged into the silence and several hours of prayer throughout the day, with Thomas (Keating), well, it was a very powerful experience.”

That was more than 30 years ago. In 1986, Contemplative Outreach Ltd was formed to share the teaching of Centering Prayer. It is now practiced by tens of thousands in nearly 50 countries and, as I said, in a smattering of American Catholic parishes.

Sitting across from Sheehan in his Lowell office, I can see in his face and hear in his voice what decades of “showing up” has done for him and his own love story. I want what he’s got.

Bill Sheehan is not far from 80 years old. He doesn’t look it. His blood pressure is terrific, he tells me, another “fruit” of all that prayer. “How long can I do this?” he says, referring to flying all around the country giving retreats. “I don’t have a clue. But I say that as long as I’ve got something on the calendar, I’m going to be okay. I’ve put dates down for 2016, and I’ve got some in 2017.

“Let me tell you: At my age, someone’s always asking, ‘Are you retired?’ And I say, ‘Not quite.’ I tell them I’m spending most of my time hanging out with people who are searching for God.” (By Margery Eagan. Full article at http://goo.gl/KX1kJm)