When we are on retreat, we often bring a number of distractions with us. Henri Nouwen says that the real inner turbulence happens when we enter the quiet.
Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure.1
Learning ways to deal with these distractions is extremely important to our time apart. Although primarily developed to welcome God into our day to day circumstances, the Welcoming Prayer is an effective technique to help us deal with distractions while on retreat. You can use it at the beginning of the retreat to cleanse your heart and your mind. You can also use it throughout your time alone whenever distractions re-surface.
What is The Welcoming Prayer?
So what is the Welcoming Prayer? Some have described it as a means of “letting go.” Letting go of our worries, cares and distractions that we brought into the retreat. But it is more than that. It is not just about letting go of where we are but entering into where we want to be. Not just a time of releasing but a time of entering into God’s presence. When we practice the Welcoming Prayer we consent to God’s presence in our body, soul and spirit. Each of these dimensions of our being is addressed as we learn to pray the Welcoming Prayer.
Our bodies react to the distractions, worries and cares that we bring into the retreat. We feel tense. We can feel things that we carry in our gut. As Judith MacNutt says: “We carry our issues in our tissues.” The Welcoming Prayer includes attending to our bodies and what we are feeling.
I am using the term soul to include our mind, will and emotions. The Welcoming Prayer is a way to let go of the racing thoughts, the stubborn will and the raging emotions within. And it is a way to welcome Jesus into our minds, will and emotions.
Our spirits are where communion with God takes place. Jesus said that those who worship God must worship Him in “spirit and in truth.2 Some have called our spirit, the Holy of Holies in our bodies. The place where God’s Spirit dwells. Paul said that Christians are “one spirit with Him. 3 The Welcoming Prayer is a means of acknowledging and welcoming that indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit into our spirit.
Is the Welcoming Prayer an Ancient Christian Practice?
As defined here, the Welcoming Prayer is a relatively new spiritual discipline. However the idea can be traced back to the practice of Maranatha in the early church.4Maranatha is an Aramaic phrase meaning “Come, Lord.5 Although not definitive, this phrase’s appearance in the early documents of the church hint at it being a phrase that was used both individually and corporately to invite the Lord to come both eschatologically (in the future) and in the present. The Welcoming Prayer was developed by Mary Mrozowski in the late 80’s. Jean Pierre de Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment and the work of Thomas Keating were pivotal for Mary in creating the Welcoming Prayer. Both have been very influential to us at the Center for Renewal, helping us to learn to create sacred spaces in the present moment.
During a retreat, if you experience distractions or negative thoughts, these simple steps will provide a framework for you to attend to it, to accept it, release it and most importantly move on. The steps are quite simple6 There are three phases to the Welcoming Prayer. You might go directly from one to the next in a single, relatively formulaic prayer sequence. Or you might find yourself staying with one step as Jesus does His interior work. Using Cynthia Bourgeault’s labels, the three steps are:
- Focus and sink in.
- Let go.
Focus and Sink in
Initially we need to pay attention to what is going on in our body, in our soul and in our spirit. My wife calls this step “Let it surface.” We are trying to understand the source of the distraction. What is our felt sense?7 How does the distraction manifest itself in our bodies…or where do we feel it in our bodies? In the pit of our stomachs, a sudden headache, a (literal) pain in the neck? Are you tense, fidgety or anxious? What thoughts are racing through your mind? What emotions are you experiencing? Where is your spirit in relation to God’s Holy Spirit? Does your spirit experience being joined with His Spirit? That’s the focusing part.
“Sinking in” is where we purposely attend to what God has brought to mind through our body, soul and spirit. Take time with it until you can articulate (no matter how imperfectly) what it is. Each experience is imprinted in our body, soul and spirit. It has a location, it’s own zip code so to speak. During this step we attempt to identify where it is located.
In the Welcome step we speak directly to God and to God’s presence in our spirit with a word of Welcome. My wife calls this step “Embrace it.” We make a space for Him. We give Him time. Saying the word “Welcome” is the action of embracing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. What I welcome is not the feeling, the emotion, thought or distraction but God’s activity in them. It is an active conscious embrace with ourselves and the situation in the present moment. It is not about passive acceptance or tolerating.
Finally, we let go of the specific thoughts, feelings, emotions, distractions that we started with. As Cynthia Borgeault says: “Don’t move to the Letting Go step too quickly. The real work in the Welcoming Prayer is actually accomplished in the first 2 steps. Stay with them – rather like kneading a Charlie horse in your leg – going back and forth between “focusing” and “welcoming” until the knot begins to dissolve of its own accord.8 Be specific and pause as you release these. The Holy Spirit may have more to say. It is important to say the letting go sentences because it gets to the root of obstacles in the unconscious – and allows the Holy Spirit to begin the dismantling and healing process. As I stated earlier, it is not just letting go but we are handing them to Jesus.
“It is the most difficult thing for us to let go. We have a mind that tells us that we’re always right; everybody else is wrong, but we are right. Then we have emotions and feelings that sort of validate those thoughts. And what we need to do is to let go of whatever is happening on an interior level and surrender so that we can see reality and what is actually happening instead of perceiving through our thoughts and feelings.”9
Examples of The Welcoming Prayer
Once you can articulate what is going on, form a prayer that:
- Welcomes the work of the Holy Spirit
- Welcome what the Holy Spirit has brought to you right now (be specific)
- Acknowledge that God has brought these distractions, thoughts and feelings for such a time as this for your healing and to facilitate becoming more like Jesus.
- Articulate a prayer of relinquishment that let’s go of all that the Holy Spirit has brought to your mind.
If you like written prayers, Thomas Keating has a wonderful Welcoming Prayer.
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it’s for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and
God’s action within. Amen.
Mary Mrozowski’s adds these specific words to be prayed every time as part of the letting go:
I let go of my desire for security and survival.
I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire to change the situation.
It takes time to make this a regular practice. Write out Cynthia’s 3 steps and memorize them. Then write down the prayer of Thomas Keating on an index card and begin practicing that until it becomes part of your rhythm. As I said in the beginning this is a practice that is intended for use in our day to day life. My wife has taught this prayer to a number of women who have found it very helpful to use throughout their day.
To learn more
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault; See the chapter on the Welcoming Prayer
1Henri Nouwen Making All Things New
2John 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
31 Corinthians 6:17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
41 Corinthians 16:22, Revelation 22:20 as well as the Didache (The Teaching of the 12 Apostles).
5There is some debate among scholars if it means: “The Lord is Come.” But that certainly doesn’t make sense for the passage from The Revelation.
6Developed by Cynthia Bourgeault who has worked closely with Thomas Keating
7Using the terms from Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing “ the unclear, pre-verbal sense of ‘something’—the inner knowledge or awareness that has not been consciously thought or verbalized—as that ‘something’ is experienced in the body. It is not the same as an emotion.” From Wikipedia viewed July 2015 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focusing
8Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cynthia Bourgeault
9Open Mind Open Heart Worshop, October 1993 Mary Mrzowski.