2016-06-30
Reprinted from Common Boundary magazine with permission of the author.

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.

Reininger, who is also a co-founder and trustee of Contemplative Outreach, an organization dedicated to teaching the prayer to lay men and women, points to Keating himself as a good example of centering prayer's effectiveness. Since they began their collaboration 16 years ago, Keating, he says, has been transformed. "As the material passed through him, it restructured him. He stopped being this Marine Corps colonel, this abbot. He was always gentle, but the guy had a will and a half. I saw him become as gentle as a baby's love."

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 many meditative approaches, one focuses on a sacred word or sound, or on the breath. Centering prayer uses a sacred word, doesn't it?
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.

Psychological Aspects

While engaged in centering prayer, what do you do when thoughts and emotions come up?
The object of centering prayer is not to get rid of these thoughts, it is to let them come then to let them go. That's the way the psyche gets rid of undigested material: by bringing it to our awareness. If we acknowledge the thoughts and feelings, they normally disappear.

Does this unloading of unconscious material occur only in the time of prayer or afterwards? And how do you suggest dealing with this material?
While doing centering prayer, the practice is to let go of any thought or perception. The priority is to be as silent as possible and when that is not possible to let the noise of the thoughts be the sacred symbol for a while, without analyzing them.

Now psychologists will say, "You ought to handle it [the emotional material] while it is fresh." Our answer to that is that it is more important to learn interior silence. A lot of this stuff doesn't need to be processed. Maybe 80% of it is just junk. It is passing through your mind on its way out. You can just wave goodbye.

So during periods of prayer, you recommend just letting feelings and thoughts go. What about afterwards?
Feelings that are more serious and persistent need to be looked at and perhaps worked with. If it is a serious enough feeling, you may need the help of a therapist or a very psychologically knowledgeable spiritual guide. But therapists should grasp the fact that deep meditation releases things in the unconscious that might take years to unload in therapy. Some of these feelings are significant and some are superficial.

How did you come to be able to articulate the psychological processes that go on with regard to one's spiritual practice?
I was deeply imbued with the Christian tradition, which has a lot of psychological insight into how the spiritual journey evolves. The dark nights of St. John are really the purification of Freud's unconscious but from a wholly different perspective and different motivation.

Psychotherapy is what God has been secretly doing for centuries by other names; that is, he searches through our personal history and heals what needs to be healed--the wounds of childhood or our own self-inflicted wounds. He preserves whatever was good in each stage of life and brings it to full flowering through the graces of spiritual progress and divine union. If you want to call this higher states of consciousness or if you want to call it advanced stages of faith, hope, and charity that is up to you.

Although you refer to God as the divine therapist, you do advise people to take advantage of psychotherapy.
Absolutely. Some people whose psyches are very fragile would be well advised not to do centering prayer until they had established another practice that reassured their faculties and their emotions that God is safe or at least is not as dangerous as they might have thought.

Negative God Image

Many people have an internalized image of a harsh, critical, judgmental or even sadistic God. If you assume that God is going to punish you, you are not going to be able to "rest in God."
Exactly. Most mainline Christians have a pretty monstrous idea of God that involves hell and punishment. If you feel that God is a judge, then you are ready to bring down the verdict of guilty for your least fault. We didn't know how to teach children religion so we gave them the Commandments instead of fostering the idea of God as a loving father and protector who is merciful and who loves us. That is the good news of the gospel. I'm afraid we got into the habit in many Christian denominations of teaching the bad news first.

How can one work with a negative internalized God image?
Throw it in the wastebasket. Learn that it isn't God. One of the values of centering prayer is that you are not thinking about God during the time of centering prayer so you are giving God a chance to manifest. In centering prayer there are moments of peace that give the psyche a chance to realize that God may not be so bad after all. God has a chance to be himself for a change.

Spiritual Fruits

Talk a bit about the spiritual fruits of centering prayer.
In centering prayer, you let go of any perception when it catches hold of your attention. You constantly let go by returning to the sacred word. At some point, the will begins to habitually turn to God during the prayer; it doesn't need a sacred word any more to affirm its intention. It is no longer attracted to the thoughts that continue to go by. Now the grace of God in Christian spiritual development is capable of touching the will but leaving the other faculties--like imagination or memory--free and so they may roam around and persecute you while the will feels a certain peace and union with God.

The first experience of God as contemplative prayer is analogous to perfume. It is analogous not because you smell something but because of the attraction without a mediator. You smell what you smell. If roses are there, you smell them; if God is there, you enjoy it. But reflecting on the experience usually diminishes it. So you let it come and go; you don't get attached to it. Unfortunately when the prayer of quiet is flowing you want to hang onto the experience for as long as you can. The false self transfers its idea of happiness to experiences of God, which is an improvement, but is still not God. So God has to detach us from the experiences of God in order to give us the experience of intimate union.

The prayer of quiet will expand when the will is grasped by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit. This stage is all laid out very beautifully and charmingly in St. Teresa of Avila's "The Interior Castle." She distinguishes a level of union in which the imagination is grasped and so one is no longer persecuted by thoughts going by. Formerly, those faculties were free to wander and they do so in prayer. Now the divine action is so strong that it puts them to sleep. It leaves them inactive. They can't move, that's the prayer of union. In full union, the intellect and will are grasped and one loses consciousness of the self and is filled with joy.

But still this is only the beginning. After that God has to detach us from our attachment to those gifts and that is when the dark night of spirit occurs. The divine therapist begins to work on the roots--the false-self system and the values that we put in the emotional programs. Hope has to be in God alone and not in anything we have ever done. Love has to be pure so that we are seeking God not for our own satisfaction or reward but just because God is God. You just can't enter into pure love without being completely detached from anything you want for yourself.

So the journey takes a while. It is an incredible project; only God could have thought it up: to bring something so wounded to that kind of freedom. To do God's will all the time and not even think of a reward or what happens to oneself is a marvelous project. I recommend it.