Father Thomas Keating’s parting wisdom for a divided church and country

Trappist Father Thomas Keating, who was one of the principal architects and teachers of the Christian contemplative prayer movement, died at age 95 Oct. 25 at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass. (CNS photo/courtesy Contemplative Outreach)

On Oct. 26, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., died at the age of 95 at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Mass. Though he was known only to a relatively small circle during his life, his loss is being felt by thousands who like me, met him, studied his thinking and counted him as a gentle guide to our most personal challenges and a soaring guide to the aspirations of the spiritual life. But beyond the impact on those of us who knew and loved him, he left us a powerful but unlikely solution to our current national crisis: centering prayer.

Father Keating was a member of one of the most austere and rigorous Christian religious communities—the Cistercians—and the strictest version of that community, known as the Trappists. Trappists are men and women monks like many others: They dedicate their lives to vigorous physical work, observe a strict schedule of chanting the Psalms, usually six times per day, live mostly in silence apart from others, and believe their vocation to be one that leads to deeper love of God and healing in the world. Father Keating entered the monastery at 21.

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“I joined the Trappists,” he once told me, “because they were the most demanding, and that’s what I wanted.”

Father Keating left us a powerful but unlikely solution to our current national crisis: centering prayer.

But it was not the strict order of the monastery that captured Father Keating’s passion. Instead, it was the goal of all those disciplines and practices: to lead human beings to experience the unconditional “love beyond love” that is God’s presence within us and to have that love lead us “to respect and befriend and love one another.”

“Holiness,” he said at a retreat, “does not consist in any practice but in a disposition of heart...trusting to audacity in [God’s]...unconditional love. Only that can bring…[us] into full emotional or spiritual maturity.”

Father Keating and his fellow monks decided to try to teach an ancient way of developing a loving disposition of the heart. It was a practice that was deeply rooted in the history of Christianity and of many other religions, but to many believers it was new and original. They called it “centering prayer” and suggested that it was not just for monks; it was for everyone.

“Holiness,” Father Keating said, “does not consist in any practice but in a disposition of heart.”

Centering prayer involves sitting in silence and gently letting go of all thoughts and sensations while repeating a sacred word when thoughts arise. It emphasizes assent to the presence of God. Its goal is a personal relationship with God whose love is constant, trustworthy, gentle and safe. The changes we all seek in our lives and our world begin within: The sacred place of transformation is where you are.

Coming as he did from the Christian tradition, Father Keating drew on the overlooked insights of great spiritual masters of that tradition—the consciousness genius of the anonymous 14th-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the remarkable simplicity of the spiritual path of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the transcendent unifying vision of the 13th-century monk Meister Eckhart, to name a few.

But because he saw through the false certainty that can warp all religions, he believed this path to God was open to Buddhists, Jews, other Christians and people of all religions or none at all—to anyone who sought the source and experience of unconditional love.

“People are unhappy with authority these days, and I understand why. But they shouldn’t be unhappy with direct and intuitive practices of direct relationship with God.”

“Everyone is religious just by coming into being,” he said. “We already are most of what we want to be, but it’s unconscious to us and our reason doesn’t function enough to let us see it.... So we learn listening, waiting and trusting, and these are the ways of contemplation that allow us to see.”

Centering prayer has grown dramatically since Father Keating and his fellow Trappists first taught it in the late 1970s. Today, there are several aligned organizations dedicated to the practice and hundreds of thousands of individual practitioners, as well as thousands of small community-based groups. Father Keating saw that centering prayer could help fill a void left when traditional religions focused too much on ideas and authority structures, especially when those ideas and authorities promote violence or division.

“People are unhappy with authority these days,” he said to me just a few months before his death, “and I understand why. But they shouldn’t be unhappy with direct and intuitive practices of direct relationship with God.”

If there is one thing our country needs right now, it is what Father Keating tried to teach: a disposition of the heart that leads us to love and respect one another. And even more, we need the calm and presence and silence that will help us reduce the toxicity in our public discourse and become present to the gentleness and goodness within each of us.

“Focus on trust. When you trust that we are all part of something beautiful beyond our wildest imagination, you will find healing.”

Perhaps most important, we need a way to infuse our national discourse with the kind of inclusivity and spiritual wisdom that marked Father Keating’s life. We can be Democrats, Republicans or independents; we can be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or have no religion at all; we can be from cities or suburbs or rural areas. But no matter what identity we carry, we can each start to make the change our country needs by making ourselves into agents of transformation and healing from the inside out. The wholeness we hunger to see in our country we must first welcome into ourselves.

I was lucky to spend an hour with Father Keating two months before his death. In our last conversation, he emphasized trust. He heard my confession and stopped me when I said I was struggling to trust in these times of fear and violence and division. “Focus on trust,” he said. “When you trust that we are all part of something beautiful beyond our wildest imagination, you will find healing.”

As we neared the end of our time, he gave me an instruction in prayer: “Keep returning to silence. It’s God’s first language, and everything else is a poor translation. And say just one Hail Mary, but say it slowly so you can feel the unconditional trust that made it possible for Mary to allow God’s love to take over her life.... Meet her and understand her model of trust in God and let her heal you.”

I left him moments later. “Til we meet again” were his final words to me, yet another expression of a man who trusted in the totality of God’s love and who taught prayer as an act of surrender, an act of presence, an act of love. Have the audacity to trust that we all belong to God: It may seem like an unlikely call to action in 2018, but it may be the only call that can start the healing in our divisive and fearful times.

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Michael Barberi
1 month 3 weeks ago

Great article. We all need these thoughts and the audacity of trusting in God to lead us to love in all things and to the healing we all need.

Dutch Brewster
1 month 3 weeks ago

Holiness is separation, not inclusivity, a politically charged term that itself divides. No man comes to the Father except through the Son; our goal is to do the Father's will, putting to death the deeds of the flesh, and while that is a matter of the heart, it takes shape in practice. In Christ, we can do all things; without him - and certainly against him - human endeavors will fail. I don't know whether a better country can be achieved, but if you want to love the Father, and your neighbor as yourself, walk in the spirit and keep the Father's commandments.

Jim Spangler
1 month 3 weeks ago

Father Keating was a wonderful holy Priest. His advice is rich in experience and is not relevant. The only way that I have been able to remain in this Church for the last four months or so is by centering on the Crucifix and on the Scripture. We can no longer look to the hierarchy to be a moral compass, or we can no longer trust them in leadership. They are two busy trying to come up with excuses and means to cover up and protect the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, and Priest involved in sex abuse and or cover up of same. The silence is deafening and must stop now. The Laity are very angry. Even centering my prayer brings anger, but how could McCarrick move up through the ranks .

Kat Beaulieu
1 month 3 weeks ago

Fr. Keating has changed the consciousness of many of us that have rested in God through Centering prayer. His great quality of humility models for us a new way of being in our divided world. My father died last week and I can attest that my centering prayer practice helped keep me present, loving and trusting through my dad’s difficult 8 months of hospice care. I hope that the seed that Fr. Keating has planted through his own death will now help Centering Prayer grow and flourish .

Monica Doyle
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thank you for sharing how Centering Prayer helped you prepare for your father’s death. That is very encouraging to me as my mother is over 90 and has dementia. I, too, hope that the seed planted by Fr. Keating’s death will grow and flourish.

Monica Doyle
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thank you for telling me his loss is being felt by thousands, because I am one of those acutely feeling his loss. And yet I know his life’s work will probably become more well known now that he has moved on to greater life. ( A seed must fall to the ground and die.......). He taught us the effects in daily life from a consistent practice of Centering Prayer. What can help us on a personal level can also help us on a national level. One person at a time.

John Mack
1 month 3 weeks ago

Wonderful truth. So centering prayer offers a way to escape from one's religion without necessarily leaviing that religion. But ... of course there's a but ... is centering prayer even possible without first having at least the idea that God is a God of lovingkindness towards all of humanity? Many religionistas do not believe this at all.

Robert Helfman
1 month 3 weeks ago

A well written and insightful article. One needs maturity to perceive the interpersonal dimension of spiritual life, one that manifests even in solitude-one's attitude of the heart towards others. It is there on finds God within. It is possible to understand the broadly inclusive point of view Fr. Keating describes as CENTERING PRAYER if one regards the importance of a loving attitude more important than attempts to justify oneself through rote scripture parroting or self-serving religiosity.
I still cannot accept totally the Catholic understanding of Mary as an adult convert because while she should be venerated it is too easy to slip into idolatry when the Holy Spirit is the sanctifier. In fact, were the Church give the Holy Spirit the role it should have in the Body of Christ renewal would be possible.
This does not mean I inveigh chapter and verse to show where the church went wrong. It does suggest that the wisdom needed to bring about the reform and renewal needed today is available if only we are willing to listen.
Still, one can respect the tradition of Marian piety and give it its due insofar as it has meaning in the Catholic tradition. One hopes for something more-if we are to "do whatever he tells you" (Mary at the wedding as Cana) then we should receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (Gospel

Robert Helfman
1 month 3 weeks ago

A well written and insightful article. One needs maturity to perceive the interpersonal dimension of spiritual life, one that manifests even in solitude-one's attitude of the heart towards others. It is there on finds God within. It is possible to understand the broadly inclusive point of view Fr. Keating describes as CENTERING PRAYER if one regards the importance of a loving attitude more important than attempts to justify oneself through rote scripture parroting or self-serving religiosity.
I still cannot accept totally the Catholic understanding of Mary as an adult convert because while she should be venerated it is too easy to slip into idolatry when the Holy Spirit is the sanctifier. In fact, were the Church give the Holy Spirit the role it should have in the Body of Christ renewal would be possible.
This does not mean I inveigh chapter and verse to show where the church went wrong. It does suggest that the wisdom needed to bring about the reform and renewal needed today is available if only we are willing to listen.
Still, one can respect the tradition of Marian piety and give it its due insofar as it has meaning in the Catholic tradition. One hopes for something more-if we are to "do whatever he tells you" (Mary at the wedding as Cana) then we should receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (Gospel

Simon Baldwin
1 month 2 weeks ago

Good Post !!

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