For me, there is almost nothing as relaxing as reading a good British mystery.
The murder mystery genre belongs to the Brits, from Agatha Christie to P.D. James and beyond. Even some American authors, like Charles Todd and Elizabeth George, create solidly British characters who do their sleuthing in old manor houses and busy London clubs.
In suggesting these mysteries to a friend, I assured her they were “gentle.”
What’s gentle about murder? Well, these whodunits involve copious amounts of tea-drinking, and often, the victim’s shaken friends are offered a glass of sherry to steady them. Sure, someone is dead. And by the middle of the book, someone else will probably be dead, too. But somehow, you know order prevails.
I’ve never had a murder mystery nightmare, but the other morning, after my time of centering prayer ended, I did have a thought that cropped up from a mystery I’d just read.
For those unfamiliar, centering prayer is a method of prayer in which you become still, pushing away thoughts and the intellectualizing that keeps the mind busy.
Often, prayer does involve putting our thoughts and feelings into words to share with God. But centering prayer is a method of prayer that takes you beyond that, to the place where your mind falls silent and open to God. As Psalm 46:10 tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Trappist Father Thomas Keating, a teacher of centering prayer, echoed many great mystics when, in his “Invitation to Love,” he wrote, “Silence is God’s first language.”
Is centering prayer easy? On the surface, it would seem so. In the morning, one finds a quiet place, perhaps finishes coffee or tea and closes one’s eyes. We strive simply to put ourselves in God’s presence, and not to “think.” Be still. Don’t struggle for words. Perhaps have one word, like “peace” or “grace,” which you repeat every time you find thoughts cluttering your mind.
The human mind being what it is, it’s harder than it sounds — rewarding but challenging. If you happen to be a thinker, or a person who can’t sleep at night because you’re always figuring things out and demanding answers, it can be really challenging, but a good path forward.
Years ago, a spiritual director told me to swat at those intruding thoughts as if they were mosquitos. My current spiritual director suggests a gentle push. Sometimes I visualize pushing an intruding thought along down a sleepy river, and then try not to dwell on the current.
The other morning, when I ended prayer (I set a timer), I felt frustrated, wondering if I had really tried and why my mind seemed so cluttered. I was blaming myself, making this all about me instead of God’s grace.
Suddenly, in my mind I found myself in a forest thick with foliage. I was running, fleeing from something. I quickly realized my pursuer was God. In “The Hound of Heaven,” the poet Francis Thompson wrote in 1890 of that feeling: “I fled him, down the nights and down the days …”
But unlike the murder mystery I’d recently read, in which bad guys hunted good guys, this chase was about the One following me — gentle and inviting. I felt the presence of the One who waits for me, like the Prodigal’s father, always merciful, and I realized that just by showing up to centering prayer, I was in the right place. I was received with love.
It’s good to journal after prayer, and that day I wrote that the world would be a better place if everyone tried centering prayer. Order might prevail in the real world then, and not just in a British mystery.
Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.