I am excited to share with you my interview with Nicholas Amato.
A Catholic priest since 1970, Amato has served more than 20 years as a pastor. He is a graduate of the Shalem Institute in Washington, where he served as adjunct faculty member and is also an Associate of Mepkin Trappist Abbey in South Carolina leading contemplative retreats there.
Over the years, he has served on the Spiritual Formation staff of Saint Luke Institute in Maryland and is the co-creator of the Mepkin Priest Wellness Program. He has studied in Rome and Jerusalem. His full-time ministry includes leading days of recollection, retreats, and parish missions. He has Masters degrees in Counseling and in Theology, and a Doctorate in Educational Administration.
His prior work on spirituality is Living in God: Contemplative Prayer and Contemplative Action published by WestBow Press, 2016. You can check out my review of Living in God here.
Visit Nicholas at Words Worth Noting.
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Now on to the interview:
What prayer methods do you practice on a daily basis?
- I live the Cistercian Rule as an Associate of Mepkin Trappist Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina so the daily schedule is heavily contemplative.
- Upon rising at 4:00 am, I begin with a short passage from one of the following: Rohr’s daily meditation, readings for the Mass of the day, or my notes for the coming Sunday’s homily.
- I then sit in silence for 30 minutes with deep breathing and the use of a mantra to get me into the silence. I use the Insight Timer app for opening and closing gongs and tracking my time, since it’s easy for me to get “lost in space.”
- Morning Examen of 10 minutes includes thinking of things I am grateful for and asking what I would like this day from God.
- I then pray the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours using the Divine Office app. On Mondays and Fridays, I pray it with a priest companion with whom I live.
- On Tuesdays and Thursdays the two of us alternate being the main celebrant for a mass at the dining room table
- In the evening, I complete the Examen I began in the morning by asking myself 3 questions: Where was God operative today? Where have a failed? What resolution would I make for tomorrow?
- After the Examen, I sit for a second 30-minutes session with breathing and a mantra, and then pray Evening Prayer and Night Prayer, the latter two, again on Mondays and Fridays, with my priest friend.
- The last words on my lips as I get into bed are taken from Night Prayer: “May the all-powerful Lord grant me a restful night and a peaceful death” to which I lovingly add, “Whichever comes first!”
- With that, I close my eyes and I’m gone, trusting I’ll either wake up in heaven or in my bed at home.
What is the difference between contemplative prayer and centering prayer?
- They are one and the same
- Names come from different eras
- Lectio divina is a third related term
- St. Teresa of Ávila distinguishes 3 types of prayer: Verbal/Vocal, Meditative, and Contemplative
What does Jesus have to say about prayer?
- Jesus prayed all three ways: Verbal/Vocal in the temple and at home with his parents on Shabbat, Meditative when teaching in parables to those following him, and Contemplative when leaving others to go off alone to be “with the Father.”
- It seems he spoke most directly about Contemplative Prayer when in Matthew 6:6-8he says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
How has your prayer life evolved over the years?
- As a youth and young adult it was mostly Verbal/Vocal
- As a young adult and seminarian there was lots of Meditation
- In the early 1970’s I began Centering Prayer with the teachings of Fr. Basil Pennington at Spencer Abbey, Massachusetts
- Today I practice all three, with most time spent in Contemplation, then Verbal/Vocal and some Meditation
How does contemplative prayer help people?
Contemplation, when we are able to dispose ourselves to it, offers us the opportunity of seeing our ego-based ways of experiencing ourselves yield and give way to a deeper, centered-in-God way of being. Thus, I am able, with God’s grace, to transcend the limitations of my ego. While this desire for transformation is real, being able to die to self and live in God, if only for brief moments, can be challenging.
The mind is tenacious in clinging to ego and finds it difficult simply to rest. It’s simply too risky for the mind to do so. When preparing to go into the silence, I will often think of my ego as a child who at times needs comfort and soothing. The adult in me is then able to tend to “him” so he can give up the illusion of being someone apart from God. It does take patience and practice.
What advice do you have for beginners to contemplative prayer?
- Take Teresa of Ávila’s advice to heart: “Pray as you can, not as you ought” and build from there following a proven mystic.
- Recall contemplative moments from your past to demonstrate that you do indeed have a contemplative streak.
- Use meditation or verbal/vocal prayer as springboards to practice contemplative prayer.
- An equation that may prove helpful is: Longing + Practices = Portals to Contemplative Prayer
- Join our Tuesday morning Contemplative Prayer Group for a half-hour of weekly prayer together in silence.
What one or two mystics have had a huge impact on you and why?
- Teresa of Ávila for teaching me the three types of prayer and how to deepen each.
- John of the Cross for linking my own passions and emotions, and my love of poetry to Contemplative Prayer.
Can you share a little bit more on tracking actions in our life as a way of discerning how God is influencing our life? You mention this as one thing your book Living in God discusses whereas other books do not.
What I have found in learning from others how to pray more effectively is that folks are usually looking for how their prayers — usually verbal/vocal ones — are being answered. What I have found is that with contemplative prayer I’m neither asking for favors to be granted nor looking for answers. I’m looking only to be in God’s presence to honor and savor the Lord.
Fast forward. Praying contemplatively over several years I found friends and small groups to which I belong began telling me independently of one another that I seemed different. What surprised me a bit was that they were telling me this independently of one another so I began to ask myself, “How did those specific changes they note come about?” I realized that the only thing that had changed in my life, since the changes were first noticed, was that I was now committed to morning and evening sessions of contemplative prayer.
Using the image of driving a car is a helpful analogy. It is both more effective and safer driving to look through the front window of the car than through the rear view mirror. Thus, I decided to look at how changes are taking place before me rather than looking back. Each day after my session of silent prayer, I began recording my mantra or sacred word, write a sentence describing the experience, and creating an intention based on the word or the experience.
The intention would grow out of my experience at prayer and get expressed in a concrete actions for the day. Thus, if my word(s) was “free to love” and my experience was “feeling affirmed and supported by God,” then my intention might be, “The first person I meet today I will take time to affirm in some small way.” I recorded these three items (word, experience, and intention) and over time began to see how my contemplative prayer was indeed influencing my life.
To return to the opening analogy, you might say I was now driving using the front window looking at the day before me rather than the rear view mirror seeing only what has been.
Why should we go on a contemplative prayer retreat?
- In responding to this question I’m not sure I’d say anyone “should” go on a contemplative prayer retreat.
- However, if you’re longing to pray in the very presence of God and experience that presence, and if your life is busy and filled with noise and activity, and if it is difficult to calm yourself either because of the environment, relationships or an over active mind, then a contemplative retreat may be just what the doctor ordered.
Can you tell us a little bit about your next book project?
- My next book, Reclaiming the Joy Beneath Your Stress will be published by Uptown Press and be available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and Goodreads websites this winter.
A summary of the book
Are you under a great deal of stress? Have you tried pausing and turning to a way of praying that offers concrete results? This book moves beyond the recitation of rote prayers, meditation, or simply breathing exercises to the powerful grace of presence. In this presence, new resources for dealing with stress and the laying hold of an inner joy are realized.
The overall theme
The reader will have gained practical tools for moving from a daily experience of the stresses associated with family, career, relationships, or senior living. It will take you to moments of reclaimed joy that, with practice, could become a new way of living out each day.
What makes this book different from other books like it
There are many spirituality books on prayer and many psychological books on stress, but few that integrate the two disciplines. And the few that do, the prayer is more verbal/vocal or meditative prayer. It is difficult to find resources in this joint discipline that deal with contemplative prayer and stress reduction. This book attempts to have the interaction of nature and grace be grounded in the joy that comes from contemplation.
What readers will take away
The reader will come away with a handy guide for understanding the stresses in life and practical ways to contact a deeper inner experience of joy.
Thank you Nicholas for your wonderful interview! I encourage you to check out his book Living in God and we look forward to his upcoming book, Reclaiming the Joy Beneath Your Stress!
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I use a Prayer Rope after each Centering Prayer Sit.
Centering Prayer is a silent prayer practice that can move you toward a profound relationship with the Spirit of God within. It is a way of praying that opens the door to the Divine Indwelling—the ground of our being. With Centering Prayer, Father Thomas Keating and his colleagues Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler and Father Carl Arico present the first online course in this method for deepening your intimacy with God and ultimately consenting to the presence and action of the Divine in all aspects of your life.
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Since the time of the Desert Fathers in the third century, Finley begins, Christian mystics have practiced meditation as a way of opening to the direct presence of God in daily life. Legendary seekers such as Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Meister Eckhart explored how meditation can lead us beyond the closed horizon of the ego, to an interior and holy refuge that is always available to us. On Christian Meditation, James Finley offers a gentle introduction to this all-transforming way of life, and the ever-deepening realization of oneness with Christ it leads us to. (Based upon his book, Christian Meditation.)
Check out my review of Christian Prayer Methods by Dr. Philip St. Romain.
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