By Eric Martin
The Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat’s biennial Marian Lecture was held in Perth on 4 June, presented by Dr Bonnie Thurston, who is an international speaker and New Testament scholar.
Dr Thurston, an author and award-winning poet from Western Virginia in the United States of America, was ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1984 and has served as co-pastor, pastor, or interim of five churches and twice in overseas ministry.
The lecture, titled “After the Angel departed- Seeking God: Hints and Glimpses of the God Within”, was presented in the Champagnat Chapel at Newman College, Churchlands, and focussed on the rich Christian tradition of contemplation in prayer and on being attentive to the “hints and glimpses” of God within.
“Each person’s experience and appreciation of prayer is unique,” Dr Thurston said.
“Each person’s prayer is an intimate relationship with God, and leads to the freedom that is based in the truth of that relationship.”
Dr Thurston drew from her recent book For God Alone: A Primer on Prayer, which speaks of contemplation as “the prayer of waiting, the quietening of the heart to rest in joy in the presence of God”.
This finds resonance in the life of Mary, a woman of contemplation who “pondered all things in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
As Marists, Catholics are constantly reminded that “the Spirit speaks God’s love ever afresh into our world” and to be attuned with the “desire to be continually open to its movement and urgings, to contemplate the world with the eyes and the heart of God”.
The practical ways in which they can do so, through prayer and contemplation and the intercession of Mary, were highlighted within the context of the book.
For God Alone introduces three traditional trajectories of Christian prayer: oratio, meditatio, and contemplation (oration, meditation, and contemplation), illuminating “voiced prayers”, prayers of thought and intellect, and prayers of quiet or listening.
Dr Thurston reminded attendees that with prayer, there are no experts, all are beginners (and will always be so) and that there is no such thing as a wrong way to pray to God.
She probed deeply into the theology and practice of prayer, with particular weight on the latter.
Newman College’s Vanessa Strohmeier said the some 70 attendees came from other schools and different religious groups (such as the Marist Society).
“It was a wonderful turnout – she (Dr Thurston) was a warming, natural and down-to-earth person as she spoke about prayer and Mary the Mother of God,” Mrs Strohmeier said.
“It was delivered just beautifully. So many people came up afterwards and thanked us for organising this lecture,” she shared.
“People said that they felt privileged to be invited and attend – I think they really enjoyed it and would love to be invited to attend more lectures like this.”
What is unique about Dr Thurston’s work is that it is based on the teachings of renowned American priest Fr Thomas Merton, who incorporated material from both Eastern and Western traditions into his theology for monastic renewal.
Fr Merton was of the opinion that: “Both Christianity and Buddhism look primarily to a transformation of human consciousness, a liberation of the truth imprisoned in man by ignorance and error”.
He believed that a Christian monk had a great deal to learn from the ancient monastic codes of Asia about helping others to form and articulate the inner life, stating on 12 December 1964: “I have no hesitation in saying that the Buddhist view of reality and life is one which I find extremely practical and acceptable… It is by no means foreign or hostile to the spirit of Christianity, provided that the Christian outlook does not become bogged down in a slew of pseudo-objective formalities as I am afraid it sometimes tends to do”.
The clear teachings of Buddhism on ways of fostering spiritual growth – its language and teaching – were of particular use to Merton in training novitiates in Jerusalem: Zen Buddhism has “a preference for the concrete and ordinary, it is often high-spirited and a bit irreverent”.
These views appealed to Merton and were a happy, culturally alternative corrective to Catholicism’s systematic theology and doctrine – Merton had an intrinsic distrust of the structural aspects of religion, stating that: “The time for relying on structures has disappeared”.
The practical, internal dialogue of the eastern monastic, argued Merton, has much to teach Western religious about realising an internal transformation through prayer and contemplation, rather than relying on the external manifestations of religion to effect a meaningful change.