Finding the center

FRESNO, Calif. — Under a canopy of trees at Woodward Park in Fresno, Calif., people from various faiths come together to practice contemplative prayer and meditation as a way to reduce stress, enhance peace — and live out their faith.

The "Mediation in the Park" interfaith gatherings bring together Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. They sit in lawn chairs, listen to instruction on each religion's practice, then try them out, from their chairs and on walks together. Everyone leaves feeling refreshed.

"We all are looking and trying to connect with our inner self; we just may have different methods," says Veena Kapoor, a Hindu who teaches raja yoga meditation at the gatherings. "It lends itself to connecting with nature and the feeling of reaching out to the world."

Contemplative prayer was practiced in the Early Church for centuries before it fell out of favor at the time of the Reformation. In recent years, spiritual seekers are returning to the ancient practice in Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant forms.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, the contemplative prayer and meditation gatherings have become fixtures at Woodward Park since 2008. Previously called "Interspiritual Peace Meditation" events, they are held the fourth Saturdays monthly and average 15-20 people.

"Our purpose is to cultivate a relationship of intimacy with God and to consent to the divine presence within and all around us," says Everardo Pedraza, coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of Central California, which oversees the gatherings and is a chapter of the Contemplative Outreach international organization. The group was founded by a monk, Thomas Keating, who sought to recover the contemplative dimensions of Christianity.

At Woodward Park, the Buddhists, Christians and Hindus come with open minds to differences in theology and ways of practicing contemplative prayer and meditation.

Zen Buddhism and raja yoga teach that contemplative meditation is practiced with eyes slightly open.

"We can be in a meditative state even while doing things — and we don't move around with eyes closed," Kapoor explains.

With Christian contemplative prayer, eyes are closed.

"No one is trying to convert the other," Pedraza says. "As friends, we come together and simply teach from the authenticity of each tradition. In that common ground of silence, we share a bond. That's what brings us together and unites us in sharing this ministry with others."

Contemplative Outreach of Central California also holds semiannual retreats for Christian contemplative prayer, called centering prayer.

Centering prayer requires participants to direct their loving attention to God for 20 minutes at a time — and to try to let go of all other thoughts, feelings and ideas. If distractions arise, participants are trained to say a word — such as "peace" or "Jesus" — that can help them redirect their attention.

"The intention is to connect to God's presence and action in our lives," says Cathy Wingert, who teaches a centering prayer group at 6:30 p.m. Mondays at University Presbyterian Church. Another centering prayer group meets at Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.

A group at University Presbyterian Church also practices Lectio divina (Latin for "divine reading"), using the Psalms, and ends with a contemplative form of Communion where the liturgy is different and flows with the silence and Scripture reading.

Susan Quinn, a retired Fresno art teacher, says practicing centering prayer is an important part of her life. She says it helps her to let go of situations that, if she dwells on them, could cause stress.

"I'm more peaceful and more able to recognize the things that used to really take over," she says. "I'm more easily able to unhook from that.

"After you do it for a long time, you're able to have that pattern where you bring yourself to that quiet, which is presence with God."

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