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A Contemplative Prayer Ministry Grows in the Pandemic

The first time St. Peter’s, Bennington member Mary McGuinness was invited to practice contemplative prayer – a set of traditional Christian practices that include centering prayer and lectio divinia – she didn’t immediately jump at the chance. “I just thought it was a form of meditation, and I already did meditation,” she says. “I learned that in yoga, so I kind of ignored it.”

Now, years later, McGuinness is commissioned by a global network called Contemplative Outreach and has helped establish and lead an ecumenical contemplative prayer group that she says has brought people comfort and healing during the pandemic.

“One of the things that eventually attracted me to contemplative prayer is that you don’t have to even have a faith experience – just as long as you believe in something greater than yourself, you’ll find a path. It’s taught in prisons and used in AA meetings during the mindfulness step.”

The Rev. Justin Lanier, former St. Peter’s rector, introduced the parish to contemplative prayer. Lanier, who studied with Thomas Keating, a founder of Contemplative Outreach, formed a group drawn from people at St. Peter’s and other local faith communities. While Lanier soon accepted a new call in Pennsylvania, members of the group wanted to continue.

“So we said, well what about forming a chapter of Contemplative Outreach?” McGuinness says. In January of 2020, the Bennington Chapter was formed, and McGuinness traveled to Florida for intensive training. Seeking to broaden its membership and participation from other congregations in the diocese, the group scheduled an inaugural workshop at St. James, Arlington in April 2020.

But that workshop never took place. “Well, then COVID hit,” McGuinness says. Even in the early days of the pandemic, however, the group was determined to grow. The rescheduled workshop took place in May 2020 on Zoom and the group found a new online platform to host its meetings. “The Meditation Chapel is a wonderful site,” McGuiness says. “It’s all free – the only stipulation is you have to do some sort of meditation to reserve the chapel. It’s 24/7 from all over the world.”

The online group, which usually includes about sixteen people, meets on Friday mornings at 11:30 a.m. “It’s definitely a Vermont group, it started in Vermont,” says McGuinness. “But once you’re online, anybody can join, and some from other places have. One woman joins us from England. It’s really nice to share different backgrounds and experiences.”

The original St. Peter’s prayer group continues to meet as well. “We chant evening prayer, do centering prayer, and then lectio divina,” McGuinness says.

It was these Wednesday evening gatherings that first brought Liz Luca to the parish. She had been introduced to contemplative prayer at Christ Our Savior Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, Vermont, but that group had stopped meeting. “I continued with it myself, but I didn’t know of anyone in the area who was doing it.”

As it turned out, Luca’s acupuncturist alerted her to the St. Peter’s group. “She knew I was doing contemplative prayer, but there was nobody else around,” Luca says. “She’s the one who told me that Fr. Justin Lanier and St. Peter’s does centering prayer.” Soon, Luca found herself attending each Wednesday evening gathering as well as book studies and Sunday services at St. Peter’s.

“It’s fascinating the way the Holy Spirit works,” Luca says. “The Wednesday evening numbers began to build up. There were ten of us coming when Fr. Justin left, and it’s a real tribute to Mary — she kept it going after he left, and even when the pandemic hit. Wednesday nights have picked up, and the newer Friday group has been fascinating to watch. Those numbers, again, started out small in March – maybe five people from this area. And now, you have new people from all over, internationally – it’s just wonderful.”

Both McGuinness and Luca say that contemplative prayer has been particularly valuable during the pandemic because it is, by nature, ongoing and long-lasting. “Any sort of meditation is going to bring about a moment of a sense of peace and calm,” McGuinness says. “But centering prayer, in particular, is a tool for an ongoing spiritual path. So I say, thank God for centering prayer. I wouldn’t have made it through this time without it.” Luca agrees that the growth often experienced by centering prayer practitioners helps build resilience for hard times. “It has to do with you as a person,” she says. “It helps you to grow and deal with life.”

Congregational leaders interested in starting their own contemplative prayer groups may email McGuinness, visit the Bennington chapter’s Facebook page, and explore online resources to learn more. Anyone is invited to join the online group on Fridays at 11:30 a.m.

“Mary was dedicated to getting this started, and introducing it to a lot of different people,” Luca says. “And people did come, and it turned out it was actually easier to do online – you can reach so many more people that way. She persisted. It was her persistence and her perseverance that did it.”

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