More than 50 years ago despite parental protestations, Thomas Keating joined an austere monastic community in order to develop a personal relationship with God. Twenty years later, he co-founded a contemplative practice, "centering prayer," which helps non-monastics achieve that very same goal through the discipline of quieting thoughts and feelings in order to experience the presence of God.
As a student at Yale in the early 1940's, Keating experienced a religious conversion while reading Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea, a line-by-line exposition of the four gospels. He realized that union with the divine is not only possible but available to all.
"That insight," says the 74-year-old Trappist monk, "was the seed that has continued to grow all through my life. What I am doing now is trying to share that insight with those willing to look at it." Specifically Keating has become a kind of Johnny Appleseed of the soul who, along with a cadre of clergy and lay people, is sowing the seeds of centering prayer across the country.
Keating defines centering prayer as "a very simple method in which one opens one's self to God and consents to his presence in us and to his actions within us." Centering prayer is a meditative method, but where Buddhist Vipassana meditation or Christian meditation, as developed by Benedictine monk John Main, use a point of focus such as concentration on the breath or repetition of a mantra, centering prayer relies more on intention than attention. Releasing any distractions caused by thoughts or emotions, the practitioner simply "waits for God." Beyond words, emotions, and thoughts, centering prayer is, says Keating, like "two friends sitting in silence, just being in each other's presence."
Keating is tall, lanky, and bespectacled with unruly wisps of fine hair atop his smooth, near-bald pate. He has a calm and gentle demeanor that belie his insatiable curiosity and strong will. These qualities propelled him, despite strong family objections, to join the monastery right after graduation from Fordham in 1943. He rose through the Trappist ranks from novice-master; to superior for three years at a newly forming community in Snowmass, Colorado; to a 20-year stint as the progressive abbot at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts; and finally to leadership of the centering prayer movement.
Keating's explanation of why he has dedicated himself to promoting centering prayer: "The only way to preserve any gift of God is to give it away."
People use the word "hunger" a lot in relation to values, ethics, and a meaningful life. Do you see a hunger for spirituality in our culture today?
Definitely. It was that hunger that originally prompted us in the 1970s to see if we couldn't develop a method in which to express the Christian contemplative heritage. The young people who were checking out the monastery then expected a method because that is what they experienced from Eastern teachers. The movement to the East was very strong among Roman Catholics. So I asked myself, "Why is this? Why don't they go to Christian monasteries?"
What was the reason?
They had never heard of Christian contemplative practices. Nor did most cloister communities think of themselves as having an obligation to share monastic prayer.
Centering prayer was first taught to Roman Catholic religious and clergy as a point of renewal, following the Second Vatican Council. Our thinking was that they would teach the method to lay persons. But our plans were changed by the Holy Spirit. Through experience we saw that not only were Catholic lay persons taking possession of their contemplative heritage but little by little more and more persons took part from other denominations.
In centering prayer, the sacred word is not the object of the attention but rather the expression of the intention of the will.
How can the repetition of a single word set an intention?
It's very easy when you think of it. When you get married, you say "I do." That is an expression of intention that has all kinds of consequences in your life. In centering prayer, you only keep saying the sacred word until you feel that your intention is established in your will. With time you begin to sense when this is the case.