In spiritual circles, Father Thomas Keating is famous around the world as one of the three Trappist monks who launched a modern revival in what they called Christian Centering Prayer. Keating and his colleagues—Father William Menninger and the late Father M. Basil Pennington—met the thirst for mysticism in the 1970s with a roadmap back toward the Desert Fathers in the 3rd Century and to the wisdom accumulated by a millennia of mystics who followed this path as well.
At that time, Baby Boomers were in their 20s and millions of Americans were turning toward the East for what they thought was the only source of instruction in deep, transformative meditation. These three monks knew differently. They were steeped in these traditions themselves. They saw the exodus of young people toward the East. And they were wise enough to wave the flag of Christian mysticism, once again.
The problem they faced was that, after World War II, bright young men and woman seeking a mystic experience were drawn in yet another direction. Their “Moses” in the 1940s and 1950s was the brilliant writer Father Thomas Merton. In 1941, Merton became a Trappist and published a sensational best-seller about the experience, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” in 1946. Keating already had taken vows in 1944, then Pennington came along in the wake of Merton in 1951. Menninger followed in 1963.
That was a terrifically enriching movement if … well … if you were Catholic, and a man, and wanted to sign away your life in a full-time monastic vocation.
In the 1970s, Keating and his friends woke up to the fact that millions of restless men and women were seeking spiritual solace outside monasteries and even outside the church. Keating especially has been reaching out ever since to an ever-wider audience.
Now, Keating, the senior of the three in age and in tenure as a monk, has taken another remarkable step. He has worked over a long period of time with a multi-media company called Sounds True to produce—a monastery in a box.
This kit may seem expensive, but it’s an elaborate, carefully prepared guide into the mysteries of Centering Prayer, complete with a series of lectures by Keating on DVD, audio CDs, a very attractive set of prayer cards and a workbook, too. Over a series of evenings, I watched most of these lectures, which run nearly 8 hours from start to finish and really are designed to be watched over a period of weeks. They’re a high-quality video production, but they’re essentially Keating himself simply talking with a crowd about the universe, faith, the purpose of humanity and the way all of those vast realms can interconnect through prayer.
Now, at this point, you’re either scratching your head because this seems just too weird as a concept—or maybe you view this as a commercial cheapening of monastic wisdom. But, if you’re as drawn toward innovative concepts in sharing spiritual wisdom as I am, you’ll be hooked. Pennington died in 2005. Keating is 86 and recovering slowly from a heart ailment. Soon, the founders of this modern movement will be gone. What better way to capture the original vision than this monastery in a box?
So in our ReadTheSpirit 10 Best Bets for Holiday Shopping …
No. 6: FATHER THOMAS KEATING’s Multi-media Training Kit called
“CENTERING PRAYER: A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God”
CLICK HERE to order a copy of “Centering Prayer: A Training Course” from Amazon. (NOTE: The Amazon listing prominently mentions the Audio CDs in this kit and doesn’t mention the DVDs and other materials—until the product description lower on the page. But, yes, this is the kit in all its glory.)
AND, since it is Wednesday, HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH FATHER KEATING:
DAVID: I know that you’re recovering from a heart ailment, so I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us about this new training kit. You’ve been an innovator for decades and this is another pioneering effort.
FATHER KEATING: We’ve talked about creating this guide for several years. I was impressed with the great commitment of the leadership of Sounds True to sharing the transformative process in all the world’s religions. I was glad that they agreed to make us a part of their new vision. They are trying to put these introductions and essential elements from a number of world religions into packages like this.
I had seen something they’ve been doing with Buddhists, so I was aware of what they could do with a multimedia presentation. I was interested especially in providing an exemplar of how to present these ideas using senior teachers in each tradition.
DAVID: Normally, Centering Prayer is taught in person, right? It’s not something that people can pick up easily from a book, reading in isolation. It helps to have some personal guidance.
FATHER KEATING: The introduction to Centering Prayer sometimes is presented one on one. Or, people sometimes join a group that already exists. For many years we have presented training programs to help spread the movement.
We couldn’t do all of this training ourselves, so we’ve trained trainers. Many people now are involved in teaching and leading groups. We may find that this new Sounds True presentation is helpful with people who already have some experience in this. The resources may help us to reinforce over time what the original practitioners were trying to convey. Then, some people may also use these DVDs in place of a live presenter to share some of the talks with new people.
DAVID: I got hooked on your talks. I know that the kit is designed to unfold over a period of weeks. There’s quite an elaborate outline here of how to use each of the pieces on a daily basis. But, I have to admit, I was really mesmerized by your talks and kept watching them, one after another, on the DVDs.
These appear to be talks you’ve polished over the years. You’ve got a very natural style in talking with this audience.
FATHER KEATING: Much of the stuff I gave in these talks are versions of talks I’ve given in other places and with other groups. Over the past 25 years we’ve developed a lot of material and, of course, one’s thoughts continue to unfold through the years, so I’ve had quite a bit to share.
DAVID: As we publish highlights of our conversation in the pages of ReadTheSpirit,
I plan to share with readers a brief summary of your movement. I’m not
sure how many Americans know the basic story of what you and your
colleagues achieved starting back in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, we were working at Spencer, Massachusetts, at St.
Joseph’s Abbey where I happened to be the abbot. We knew pretty well
that there was a growing importance in forms of meditation and we took
part with a number of other teachers, including some Buddhist and Hindu
teachers, who were active at that time in Massachusetts. It was a time
when the ecumenical movement was the center of attention.
We had been exposed to various methods that we greatly admired, and we
saw the benefits of forming a kind of stable daily practice. The
Eastern sense of this was that you built your daily practice over time.
And we saw that these methods were attracting many young people in the
late 1960s and early 1970s toward the Eastern traditions. We wanted the
Christian tradition to be represented in this marketplace, as well, so
that people wouldn’t assume they had to go to India to find a guru.
But, at that time, the Christian contemplative tradition was not
immediately available to people. Our idea was to make this tradition
available in a method that would encapsulate our method of
DAVID: In the early years, your monks reached back to a number of ancient sources. Some reached back to the medieval era and they also
reached way back to the 3rd and 4th century.
FATHER KEATING: There is evidence that prayer was interpreted in this
way by the fathers and mothers of the desert, who understood the
teachings of Jesus on prayer in this sense. A great deal of wisdom
accumulated there over 50 to 100 years.
Some of this wisdom was taken back to the West and inspired many
monastic rules, including the Rule of St. Benedict, which became the
sort of master plan for monks in the West. That’s the tradition we came
from after several reforms. We’re part of the Cistercian order, which
is a reform of the Benedictine tradition. There was another reform by
the Cistercians called Trappists and that’s the kind of monastery so
many young people were looking for right after the Second World War.
But the contemplative tradition was largely lost to people in Catholic
schools and parishes. And the Protestants didn’t have any really strong
tradition in this area that they preserved and passed along. So we
found that this method we were teaching applied equally to Protestants
as well as Catholics.
We thought that we should make this method available especially to
people who felt called to ministry or social action or helping
professions where their lives could be so demanding and draining. We
felt they needed a stronger base for living, a stronger interior
resource, so they wouldn’t become burned out and discouraged.
Our hope, then, was then to recapture the whole tradition beginning
first with a method—instead of beginning with a long period of research
or theological education or abstract types of concepts that we didn’t
think would appeal to people. Remember that so many young people were
experiencing the immediate benefits of beginning the practice itself in the
Eastern traditions. We weren’t in competition with those traditions,
but seeing their popularity—and the way they helped
people—made us realize that the transformative process itself is an
essential process in human living.
DAVID: What you’re talking about here—beginning with a method or a
discipline—runs deeper than it may sound as people read about it here.
FATHER KEATING: Yes, we knew it would take time. We knew that there
were many comparable persons around the world teaching spiritual
practices: Buddhists and Hindus and Sufis in Islam and Native Americans
and Jewish mystics.
At that time, mysticism was not a very favorable word, however—at least not in
Christian circles. But we saw that there was a great hunger in the
world. We saw that there was a search for meaning and this
extraordinary attentiveness to Eastern traditions, which is still going
on, of course.
We are seeing that contemplation—or deep meditation—is innate in human
experience. This is something that people can share at the deepest
level with other people around the world.
We have been trying to bring back a full understanding of the
essence—the best part—of the Christian contemplative tradition that
appears all through the ages in the great centers of these practices:
the Carmelites, the Dominicans, the Franciscans—and of course the monks
of the Christian East, who suffered so much in the Communist years but
managed to survive in many places.
DAVID: One of the most striking aspects of your teachings—and this hit me immediately as I began to explore your new kit—is that you are fascinated by the cutting edge of science. You seem to embrace everything you can learn about scientific research into physics and astronomy and so on.
FATHER KEATING: Science now is a book of revelation for us. It tells us many things about God we never knew before—how Creation works and how sublime is the universe. We see now how infinitesimal Creation is—and how immense Creation is at the same time.
Our whole cosmology has changed in the last 50 years so revelation through science has become religion’s best friend, it seems to me. Scientists are sincerely seeking the truth so we now have any number of frontiers we never had available before and that need to be taken into account—psychological studies, family systems theory, various forms of pathology. All of these can be explored and reinforce insights from spiritual teachers in earlier ages who didn’t have the vocabulary of science to explain these things.
This is a remarkable period of revelation. Now you can get Spirituality 101 rather easily and also the profoundest insights into psychology—insights that were never available even to the most advanced spiritual people centuries ago. It’s not up to science to prove the existence of God. But science call tell us so much about how things work—as far as science can work it out. We’re finding out all kinds of new things about how the brain works. We’re finding out how evolution works and how higher forms of life developed, culminating in human intelligence and freedom that makes the whole shebang conscious so we can be partners with God of the Creation of the world and the world’s preservation.
So, science and religion both are about God. I think this was understood in past centuries, but without the tools to make it fully practicable. Think about what they said in the past: The teaching of some of the fathers was that there were two books of revelation—one was the Bible and one was Nature. But now we know that this second book—Nature—isn’t just about a beautiful sunset. It’s about quantum mechanics and infinitesimal particles. You know Teilhard de Chardin said that Christ is present in every subatomic particle.
Suppose if everybody believed that!?! You couldn’t possibly have wars anymore if people truly understood the sacred was in even the tiniest particles in the world.
I want to know how science and religion can collaborate in moving humanity little by little into a future in which we can be fully human and respond to conflict not by cutting off people’s heads or persecuting them—but by dialogue, listening, cooperation and above all by love.
That seems to me what life is all about, isn’t it? This is why I think the religions of the world need to collaborate and share in ways they have not been able to before.
DAVID: This kind of thinking stems from another basic assumption in your teaching. You see a basic goodness in people. Some readers who may not know too much about your tradition may suspect that a Trappist monk would teach that people are basically evil and that we must flee from the inherent evil in our lives.
You teach about the need to recover our basic goodness. That’s going to be startling for many people to hear.
FATHER KEATING: According to the Book of Genesis, God made everything good and at the conclusion of making the first humans—God saw that it was very good! So revelation itself seems to affirm this goodness. Now there are other parts of revelation that speak of Original Sin and there are those in the Christian tradition who felt that we’ve made such a rejection of God that human beings are sort of sinful and rotten through and through—right to the core.
But there is a strong tradition that maintains—nothing can destroy the image of God in us. No matter how much we have rejected God or ourselves, we are always redeemable.
The problem with all of the emphasis on those negative ideas—guilt and shame that come from feeling we’ve offended God—is that this can stunt the development of a healthy self identity as we grow. There are even people who want to add the insult that some sins are unpardonable by God—and that gets pathological. However well intentioned people may be in teaching this way, it isn’t an approach that’s required by scripture.
I don’t go into all of this in the talks on Centering Prayer and there are larger theological implications to all of this that takes some time to consider. But we do want people to see that through these methods we’re teaching, people can come through the silence to an awareness of our true goodness.
What you’ve picked out in this question is very important. The conviction of our basic goodness leads to our awareness of God’s love for us because God has placed this basic goodness within us. This can give enormous psychological assistance to those battered with low self-esteem. That’s an epidemic in the highly competitive culture in which we live today.
We feel that if people will use this method of increasing their capacity for interior silence—it will awaken the dynamic energies of the image of God within them. This also will reveal the dark side of our personalities, but that doesn’t need to terrify us, because we can do away with that. Attachments to false goals are destroying us and destroying our society. But they can be set aside, if people have the interior assurance of God’s love.
DAVID: I’d like to leave readers with at least a little news about your health. So many people care about you.
FATHER KEATING: My own health is as good as you can hope at age 86 and a half. I did have some pulmonary embolisms, but I have good doctors treating me properly. They tell me that with my recuperative powers and the medication they’re giving me—all will be well.
Meanwhile, as I get well again I’m enjoying more meditation and prayer. I’m taking six months with no travel so that I can really rest and relax.
It’s time for me to enjoy spending more time just drinking deeply in the silence and the Divine presence. It’s a good time. I am well.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)