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