The Welcoming Prayer: a powerful, transformative practice

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Anticipating my annual retreat has become an essential part of the experience. Having encountered an excellent spiritual director a number of years ago, I have been returning to her and the same retreat center in Houston for a week each year during the winter months.

I anticipate the climate — warmer than here in Detroit — and can even feel the sun as I imagine walking the bayou for miles or making my daily visit to my favorite place, the labyrinth.

Everything is familiar, which helps me enter the retreat space more easily. On the first day, I usually survey the property to see what changes have occurred among the trees and to admire the flowering shrubs and (if lucky) the beautiful bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush flowers.

My anticipation was mounting, but as I rode the SuperShuttle from the airport, I was rather startled to discover I had a sore throat. It came on instantaneously. I had survived the winter without any colds, and now, just as I was to begin my retreat, I had one.

Although I was aware that there was renovation at the center, I had no idea to what extent. When I arrived, the sound of sledgehammers reverberated and dust rose in the air. Now, with the sore throat, a deep, horrible-sounding cough began. Rain was also in the forecast. Things were not going the way I anticipated.

How was I to handle these feelings of frustration and disappointment? As I prayed that first morning, I was drawn to the Welcoming Prayer to help me.

Mary Mrozowski developed the Welcoming Prayer, or Welcoming Practice, as it is also known, in the late 1980s. She integrated the focusing work she was learning through biofeedback, an attitude of deep inner surrender, and her experience of Thomas Keating's teaching on the "false-self system."

It is a simple but extraordinary powerful prayer flowing from Centering Prayer, which invites us to let go and surrender into God dwelling within us. Every time a thought or an idea enters our mind, we simply say our chosen word and let go of the thought. This transformative prayer invites us to address the false-self programs we all have, which cluster around our needs for security/survival, affection/esteem, and power/control.

In the Welcoming Prayer, this attitude of surrender is carried into daily life and helps us catch the false-self programs before they sink their teeth into us. It does not operate out of our head, but rather invites us to be in touch with the feelings in our bodies as our starting point.

There are three movements to the Welcoming Prayer: focus, feel and sink into; welcome; let go.

First, focus, feel and sink into what you are experiencing in your body at this moment. Get in touch with the sensation, be it a physical pain or an emotion. You do not analyze it. You simply feel it.

This can be difficult at first if you are not used to sensing how you feel. Too often, we have learned not to express our feelings but to keep them under control. We forget that our experiences are carried in every cell of our body.

Spending time scanning our bodies when we begin to feel something and following its movement is a very important part of the Welcoming Prayer. We are accessing the unconscious through our body. This does not come easy for me, and I have to consciously practice sensing or feeling my emotions.

On retreat as I began the Welcoming Prayer, I could feel my frustration as a churning in my stomach and a slight tightening of my throat.

Second, welcome, embrace what is happening within you. You say, "Welcome, pain," "Welcome, anger," or whatever the feeling is.

This counterintuitive teaching works. By focusing on the feeling and embracing it, you actually release its hold on you, removing its power to hurt you. You are staying present in the now, regardless of what is happening. You align yourself to the indwelling Spirit whose energy and power is always there for you.

One important distinction: You are only welcoming the physical or psychological content of the moment; you are not welcoming an external situation. For example, you wouldn't say, "Welcome, cancer," but rather, you would welcome what you are feeling because you have cancer, so you might say, "Welcome, fear."

The belief is that if you are aligned with where Divine Being can flow to you, then once you are in right alignment, you can then decide what you are going to do in the outer world.

On retreat, after sensing where my feeling was in my body, I prayed, "Welcome, frustration."

Third, let go when you feel it is time. The feeling begins to recede, and you can consent to let go of that emotion/feeling as well as the root of such obstacles. You can simply say, as I did, "I let go of my frustration."

Mary Mrozowski, however, encourages you to say two additional sentences that serve as our consent to being transformed by dismantling our emotional programs for the healing of our unconscious. They are: "I let go of the desire for security, affection, control" and "I let go of the desire to change what I am experiencing."

The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault comments that what is so important about this last sentence is that it removes our fix-it mentality and returns us to unconditional presence. She writes that in this prayer, awareness and surrender come together, creating something new in us where Christ's spirit illumines our darkness and we begin to glimpse our true self.

These last two sentences became part of my retreat, and I sense they will continue to be in my prayer in the months ahead.

The Welcoming Prayer is a powerful, transformative practice, one that might serve us well during these first months of President Donald Trump's administration. As we get in touch with the strong feelings and can release ourselves from a false-self programmed response, I believe we will be aligned with God dwelling within us and can decide what course of action to take.

Other insights as to how to approach this time that reflects a more contemplative approach, even though not addressing the Welcoming Practice directly, can be found in a resource and process guide I developed, "Finding Our Balance Post-Election." In this, I reflect on what is happening, drawing on my experience with engaging impasse, communal contemplation and exercising contemplative power.

If you are interested in learning more about the Welcoming Prayer, I highly recommend the following resources from which I drew on for this reflection: Cynthia Bourgeault's books The Heart of Centering Prayer and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening as well as The Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go.

[Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her religious community, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, as well as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.