Contemplation In Focus: 1 Person, 1 Practice: Thomas Keathing + Centering Prayer
In following up the Contemplation Tree Post Here I am going to begin a series on Contemplatives and Contemplation Practices. Many will be from the Christian tradition but sometimes it will include other people from other practices who have great resources for accessing inner silence and mindfulness.
Much of the following information has been extracted from outside sources and quoted directly into the post. This is only because I feel to get at the essence of the practice and one of its modern day champions is to hear it from the people that know both best! I will share one anecdote from my life and experience of this wise practitioner, teacher and advocate for the practice of Christian Contemplation.
After a little over a year into my personal practice of Christian Contemplative prayer, primarily through small groups which met in rectories or tiny chapels in the NYC tri-state area, I was so spiritually hungry. I wanted to know as much as I could, learn as best I could, and immerse myself in this world of silence and God that, in a short time, had impacted my spiritual life and stamina for being present with God in profound ways.
Through a woman I connected with by email and then in-person, one of the many Teresa’s who would and continue to pop-up in my life when I need them, she directed me to Father Keating’s site where I found his upcoming lecture, close-ish to home, in Upstate New York.
By the time I had registered the full weekend immersion was full but there were openings on the one Saturday to participate in the retreat for a day. I asked my reluctant mother to join me–her, like my husband, have trouble sitting still for God (which is ok too).
When we arrived it felt like the perfect place for me to experience Fr Keating’s teachings–like a painting of a medieval monestary on a hill in the middle of the wide green hills of upstate New York, it is how I could imagine the ancient Christian mystics practicing their prayer…in hallowed and echoing hallways made of grey stone.
Inside the main hall, as big as a gymnasium, was where the main retreat was held. Hundreds of people crowded side-by-side on creaking aluminum folding chairs. The room was, as were all the rooms I had practiced Christian Contemplative Prayer to that point, peppered with grey hair and white hair, and I was the youngest by about two generations. I could see the thoughts behind their gracious smiles as we passed them, finding our way to a couple of seats in the back: Oh, isn’t that nice, that woman brought her daughter.
I loved old novels as a child, the mystic spaces of castles and misty moors always danced through my head, and the living experience of Father Keating did not disappoint on mystic or imaginary levels. He sat in the center of the room in a comfortable chair, graciously welcoming without words even being necessary. He is one of a few people I have encountered in a lifetime whose radiant soul glows so brightly and warmly that it is both comforting and blinding to be in their presence. He had that thing–that wisdom thing.
And with wisdom he had the capacity for silence even amid dialogue–something I have never had but always envied. That ability to not give oneself over to time or the pressing nature of immediacy but, like a fisherman waiting patiently for the soft tug of their fishing line in the water, he was patient with his speech, not saying the first thing but waiting for the tug of the God-filled word, that, while it lacked in immediacy was full of grace.
At the end of the day, after multiple 20 minute sittings for prayer, some quiet time after lunch to wander the monasteries grounds rich with hidden contemplative coves and stained glass chapels, anyone who wished could get their book signed by Fr Keating. I waited on line, impatiently, as my mom perused his library of books for sale. The woman in front of me explained how far she had traveled, three states away and hundreds of miles, just to see Keating in person. She was giddy, I was giddy, it was spaz-tastic. While I never have been and probably never will be the person who waits on line for the prototypical celebrity autographs, the few books I have gotten signed are my own brand of celebrity–the sacred change-makers. Father Keating definitely qualified.
When I got up to the front and it was my turn he was surprised to look up and see a, then, twenty-something face looking at him with eager hands clasping his book. For a moment I couldn’t think what to ask him and then the question that, asked first hear, has been broached to many other wise Christian contemplatives and writers I have met: why do young Christians not make their way to these kinds of places, kinds of people like him, and the rich ancient and spiritually satiating practice of Contemplative Prayer.
He didn’t have an answer–in all his wisdom and presence and pausing for the grace in response he said he didn’t know. And since them I have gotten the same response from so many sage spiritual persons. What I have realized and I began to consider after that beautiful day in the greenery of that monastic hilltop, was that the answer wasn’t there and wouldn’t be there. That the practices have been passed along, like rites and rituals in Christian history, and it is up to those of us, coming of age, into our adulthoods, selfhoods, and faithful relationships with God to continue to legacy of our contemplative tradition.
My experience with Fr Keating only fanned the flames of the work that, about six years later has taken flight virtually and for about three years has been implemented at a local level–often the questions that even the wisest people cannot answer require an answer to a call from within.
I thank Fr Keating for his wisdom, his teachings, his presence in that room and in my life since then as a resonance of something ancient ringing in the distance. His work, his words, and his silence were the greatest catalyst for the journey in my own contemplation and activism for the practice that, now, widens its wingspan, preparing for flight. Where to? Not sure. I only know he gave me the tools for flight.
CONTEMPLATION NEWSLETTER AND FACEBOOK PAGE INFO…
If you want to sign up for the periodic NEWSLETTER on Christian Contemplation via my own advocacy project : THE SOCIETY FOR YOUNG CHRISTIAN CONTEMPLATIVES feel free to email me at crookedmystic(at)gmail(dot)com and/or like my FACEBOOK PAGE of the same name.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION…
Below is the compendium of information from outside sources (because they do say it best) on Thomas Keating and Centering Prayer.
In considering my little anecdote and the idea of spiritual journeys taking flight–what is your journey? Has anyone come into your life that provoked your spiritual growth or action/advocacy for a certain calling? Do you feel you have a calling to a particular field of work or ministry? Who do you admire? What do you admire about them? Has their inspiration led you to do or be a part of something to help others?
Fr. Thomas Keating is a founding member and the spiritual guide of Contemplative Outreach, LTD. He has served on Contemplative Outreach’s Board of Trustees since the organization’s beginning and is currently serving as the Chairman of the Board. Fr. Keating is one of the principal architects and teachers of the Christian contemplative prayer movement and, in many ways, Contemplative Outreach is a manifestation of his longtime desire to contribute to the recovery of the contemplative dimension of Christianity.
Fr. Keating’s interest in contemplative prayer began during his freshman year at Yale University in 1940 when he became aware of the Church’s history and of the writings of Christian mystics. Prompted by these studies and time spent in prayer and meditation, he experienced a profound realization that, on a spiritual level, the Scriptures call people to a personal relationship with God. Fr. Keating took this call to heart. He transferred to Fordham University in New York and, while waiting to be drafted for service in World War II, he received a deferment to enter seminary. Shortly after graduating from an accelerated program at Fordham, Fr. Keating entered an austere monastic community of the Trappist Order in Valley Falls, Rhode Island in January of 1944, at the age of 20. He was ordained a priest in June of 1949.
Image c/o Contemplative Outreach, LTD
In March of 1950 the monastery in Valley Falls burned down and, as a result, the community moved to Spencer, Massachusetts. Shortly after the move, Fr. Keating became ill with a lung condition and was put into isolation in the city hospital of Worcester, Massachusetts for nine weeks. After returning to the monastery, he stayed in the infirmary for two years. Fr. Keating was sent to Snowmass, Colorado in April of 1958 to help start a new monastic community called St. Benedict’s. He remained in Snowmass until 1961, when he was elected abbot of St. Joseph’s in Spencer, prompting his move back to Massachusetts. He served as abbot of St. Joseph’s for twenty years until he retired in 1981 and returned to Snowmass, where he still resides today.
During Fr. Keating’s term as abbot at St. Joseph’s and in response to the reforms of Vatican II, he invited teachers from the East to the monastery. As a result of this exposure to Eastern spiritual traditions, Fr. Keating and several of the monks at St. Joseph’s were led to develop the modern form of Christian contemplative prayer called Centering Prayer. Fr. Keating was a central figure in the initiation of the Centering Prayer movement. He offered Centering Prayer workshops and retreats to clergy and laypeople and authored articles and books on the method and fruits of Centering Prayer. In 1983, he presented a two-week intensive Centering Prayer retreat at the Lama Foundation in San Cristabol, New Mexico, which proved to be a watershed event. Many of the people prominent in the Centering Prayer movement today attended this retreat. Contemplative Outreach was created in 1984 to support the growing spiritual network of Centering Prayer practitioners. Fr. Keating became the community’s president in 1985, a position he held until 1999.
Fr. Keating is an internationally renowned theologian and an accomplished author. He has traveled the world to speak with laypeople and communities about contemplative Christian practices and the psychology of the spiritual journey, which is the subject of his Spiritual Journey video and DVD series. Since the reforms of Vatican II, Fr. Keating has been a core participant in and supporter of interreligious dialogue. He helped found the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, which had its first meeting in the fall of 1983 and continues to meet each spring. Fr. Keating also is a past president of the Temple of Understanding and of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.
Perhaps the biggest testament to Fr. Keating’s dedication to reviving Christian contemplative practices is his choice to live a busy, public life instead of the quiet, monastic life for which he entered the monastery. Fr. Keating’s life is lived in the service of sharing the gifts God gave him with others.
Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.
Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.
The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to contemplative prayer, is the Indwelling Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. The effects of Centering Prayer are ecclesial, as the prayer tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love.