Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ's compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now."
- St. Teresa of Avila
In God...An Interview with Fr. Thomas Keating, OSCO
The increasingly popular contemplative practice of centering prayer can bring
about profound spiritual and psychological growth, says Father Thomas Keating.
50 years ago, despite strong parental objections, Thomas Keating joined an
austere monastic community in order to develop a personal relationship with God.
Today, through the centering prayer movement, which he co-founded in the early
1970s, he is helping non-monastics achieve that same goal.
defines centering prayer as a contemplative practice, "a very simple method
in which one opens oneself to God and consents to His presence in us and to His
actions with us." When Keating uses the word "contemplation,"
however, he is not referring to rumination or reflection. He is using the term
in its classical sense: being with God. Thus, through centering prayer one moves
beyond images, emotions, and thoughts. According to Keating, it is like
"two friends sitting in silence, being in each other's presence."
student at Yale in the early 1940s, Keating, the scion of a wealthy but not
particularly religious Park Avenue family, found his Roman Catholic worldview
sufficiently challenged by a freshman philosophy class to seriously investigate
the roots of his faith. While in the library reading Thomas Aquinas's Catena
Aurea, a line-by-line exposition of the four Gospels by the great Church
fathers, he experienced a profound conversion: He deeply grasped the fact that
Christianity was a contemplative religion. He realized that the spiritual sense
of the Scripture was much more important than the literal and that union with
the Divine was 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."
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 and
spreading Christian contemplation across the country. Well read in both
philosophy and psychology, Keating has, since the early 1980s, been devising a
system that attempts to detail the journey catalyzed by the practice of
centering prayer. Centering prayer is akin to other meditative methods, although
most, like Buddhist Vipassana meditation or Christian Meditation as developed by
Benedictine monk John Main, use a point of focus such as concentration on breath
or repetition of a mantra.
prayer relies more on intention than attention. The practitioner lets go of
emotions, thoughts, and sensations, and consents-or intends-to be in God's
presence. (See box, page 31.) The daily discipline of setting aside two
20-minute periods of prayer involves both receptivity and active participation.
On the one hand, one is "waiting for God" - or as Gregory the Great
put it, "resting in God." On the other hand, surrendering in this
manner sets in motion a profoundly transformative process, what Keating refers
to as "divine therapy."
taped lectures and his books Open Mind, Open Heart; Intimacy with God; and
others, he describes the inner changes that occur, including the process of
letting go of the false self (a self-image that impedes one's relationship with
God) in favor of expressing one's true self (our "basic core of
goodness"). Keating is so convinced that a spiritual life involves
ever-deepening levels of growth and awareness that he often startles those
raised in a traditional Catholic setting with his definition of sin as "the
refusal to grow, to choose to stay as we are."
lanky, and bespectacled, with unruly wisps of fine hair atop his near-bald pate,
Keating has a gentle demeanor that belies his insatiable curiosity and strong
will - qualities that propelled him to join the monastery right after graduation
from Fordham University in 1943. He rose through the Trappist ranks from novice
master to superior for three years at the then-embryonic community in Snowmass,
Colorado, to a 20-year stint as the progressive abbot at St. Joseph's Abbey, the
Trappist motherhouse, in Spencer, Massachusetts. Finally he became a major
figure in the centering-prayer movement, or as Gustave Reininger - a Los Angeles
film producer, writer, and co-founder and trustee of the organization
Contemplative Outreach puts it, he took on a second career as "abbot of a
monastery without walls."
contemporary form of centering prayer was discovered, initially taught, and
developed during Keating's tenure as abbot at St. Joseph's. He had been involved
in reforms resulting from the Second Vatican Council's call for spiritual
renewal in the Catholic Church, and he had also observed that young Catholics
were leaving the Church in droves to join Hindu ashrams and Buddhist sanghas. In
1971 he attended a meeting of Trappist superiors in Rome, where, addressing the
monks, the late Pope Paul VI invoked the spirit of Vatican II. The Pontiff
declared that unless the Church rediscovered the contemplative tradition,
renewal couldn't take place. He specifically called upon the monastics, because
they lived the contemplative life, to help the laity and those in other
religious orders bring that dimension into their lives as well.
came away from the meeting determined to make a contribution. He asked the monks
at St. Joseph's to search for a method rooted in Christian tradition that would
make contemplative prayer more accessible to those outside the monastery. The
novice master at St. Joseph's, William Meninger, found a simple technique in the
14th-century Anglican classic The Cloud of Unknowing. Meninger called the
method "The Prayer of the Cloud" and began teaching it to retreatants
at the abbey guesthouse. Another St. Joseph's monk, Basil Pennington, began
teaching it to religious men and women. At the first workshop given to the
Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors
of Men, Pennington frequently quoted his friend and correspondent Thomas Merton,
who often when writing abut this type of prayer, would use the term
"center." For example, in Contemplative Prayer Merton says,
"We rarely pray with the 'mind' alone, Monastic meditation . . . involve[s]
the whole man, and proceed[s] from the center of man's being." By the end
of the workshop, participants were referring to the technique as "centering
centering prayer draws thousands of Catholics as well as Episcopalians,
Methodists, and others to workshops and retreats. At one 1997 workshop alone,
led by Keating and Gustave Reininger, 550 people squeezed into a San Francisco
Episcopal church. Ten-day retreats at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass,
Colorado, where Keating now resides, are filled a year in advance; the New York
Open Center offered a four-month program of prayer days and workshops on the
method last spring; and the Boulder-based audio-cassette company Sounds True
recently released a 24-cassette series of lectures by Keating on "The
Contemplative Journey." The movement has also spawned two organizations,
Contemplative Outreach, which Keating co-founded and leads, and the Mastery
Foundation, with which Pennington is associated. They are dedicated to teaching
the method among the laity and those active in the church ministries,
Keating deserves much credit for developing the format of centering-prayer
retreats and a paradigm of the psychological and spiritual changes that occur as
a result of practicing the method, others have been instrumental in developing
and disseminating the teaching. Nonetheless, much to his and others' chagrin,
Keating has emerged as a centering prayer guru. As Reininger explains,
"There are needy people who want to make more of him than he is. Thomas's
whole point is, 'Don't identify with me, identify with what you deeply, deeply
are.'" One way to discourage such projections is to give teaching
opportunities to others and to lessen one's visibility. Unfortunately, health
problems have forced Keating to do both. He suffers from chronic fatigue
syndrome, and although he seems vital when delivering lectures and sermons,
associates say he is still "fragile" and needs to conserve his energy.
He does so by limiting travel and giving only one lecture or workshop a month.
the organizational focus on creating a structure to survive the retirement or
death of its leader and the training of teachers to handle increasing calls for
workshops and retreats, there is another, perhaps more important legacy for the
movement to consider: the fruits of the practice. In this regard, Reininger
attests to the transformation he's seen in Keating since they began their
collaboration 14 years ago. "The guy I met changed before my eyes. As the
material passed through him, it restructured him. Doing [centering prayer]
changed not just his attitude but who he was. 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."
himself shies away from touting his spiritual development or professional
accomplishments. When asked about the symmetry of his desire as a young man to
know God and his current work feeding that desire in others, the monk responds
simply, 'The only way to preserve any gift of God is to give it away."
I hear people using the word "hunger" a lot in relation to values,
ethics, and a meaningful life. Do you see a hunger for spirituality in our
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 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 do you think was the reason?
They had never heard of Christian contemplative practices. Nor did most
cloistered communities think of themselves as having an obligation to share
monastic prayer. The mystique of the cloister had gotten thoroughly embedded in
people's minds, so much so that if you said grace twice a day or said morning
and evening prayers, your spiritual director thought that you had a
contemplative vocation and would urge you to enter a cloister. I don't know
whether that was a way of getting rid of contemplatives or whether it was just
St.. Joseph's Abbey asked ourselves if there wasn't a more methodical way that
we could present the contemplative Christian tradition. 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 in turn
teach the method to lay persons. But our plans were changed by the Holy Spirit.
Through experience we saw that not only were lay persons taking possession of
their contemplative heritage, but little by little more and more persons from
other denominations took part. When I retired and came to Snowmass, I had no
intention of teaching centering prayer. But then I was asked to offer a
centering prayer workshop in the local parish. About 80 people, who were very
involved in a wide variety of Christian and other faiths, came to that event. It
didn't take long to realize that this was an ecumenical movement. The Spirit was
I understand that centering prayer groups exist not only in Catholic parishes
but in Episcopal and Methodist churches, too.
Oh, yes. There is, for example, a Methodist project in the Upper Room in
Nashville [an interdenominational Christian organization sponsored by the United
Methodist Church]. I should point out that as in Buddhism, Christianity has
several contemplative methods. The methods of contemplative prayer are expressed
in two traditions: centering prayer, which we represent, and Christian
Meditation, designed by John Main, which is now spreading rapidly throughout the
world under the charismatic leadership of Father Lawrence Freeman. The John Main
approach is a little different than ours, but both go in the same direction:
moving beyond dependence on concepts and words to a direct encounter with God on
the level of faith and interior silence.
How do the methods differ?
I don't know that I represent the John Main method fully because I haven't done
it myself, but it is rooted in the experience John Main had in India. He learned
a mantra from a Hindu source and translated that into a Christian context,
finding sources in the early Christian tradition that reinforced his
understanding. He offered his practitioners the discipline of saying the mantra
"maranatha" nonstop for 20 minutes or half an hour. You can also say
some other word - there is some flexibility there - but the point is that one
never stops saying the word unless it stops saying itself. In that way it
resembles the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in which
"Lord Jesus God have mercy on me" is said over and over again both
during and outside of prayer periods until it says itself almost independently
or arises spontaneously.
Both the John Main method and centering prayer use sacred words, but they each
take a different tack with regard to use of this word, don't they?
Centering prayer involves attention, but a general loving attention without
particular content. The sacred word is not the object of the attention but
rather the expression of the intention of the will.
How do you make a word a symbol of intention?
In the introductory workshop people take a minute or two to think of a word that
expresses their intention to consent to God's presence and action. It could be a
sacred word, or it could be some other. The sacredness of the word is not in the
content of the word but in the intention to be in God's presence that you invest
In my experience, setting an intention has always been extremely powerful, but I
usually do that by stating clearly what I intend. 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. But it's only two words. In centering prayer, we intend to
consent, not to do something. It is a receptive attitude that doesn't require
any effort. So centering prayer differs from John Main's method, at least as I
understand it, in this way: Instead of doing something constantly, you keep
saying the sacred word only until you feel that your intention is established in
your will. With time you begin to sense when this is the case. You feel a sense
of peace when you are not struggling with temptation. Of course, one's
psychological experience of centering prayer varies from day to day. It can be
very consoling. It can also be Purgatory or worse because when psychological
rest occurs-when the body rests, the emotions rest, and the spirit rests-the
body, which is the warehouse of undigested emotional material, begins to feel
permission to evacuate primitive experiences, especially of early childhood.
They take the form of thoughts or emotions that bear no relation to the
immediate past. 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 is the way the
psyche gets rid of undigested material: by bringing it to our awareness. If we
just acknowledge the thoughts and feelings, they normally disappear.
Does this evacuation occur only in the time of prayer or afterward? And how do
you suggest dealing with this material?
In the introductory workshop, we talk about the experience of evacuation during
the time of practicing centering prayer. In that case, the practice is to let go
of any thought or perception. The order of 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. We suggest letting go of
thoughts gently, without pushing them away. Now, psychologists will say,
"You ought to handle [the emotional material] while it is fresh." Our
answer to that is that it is more important to learn interior silence. You will
remember the feeling afterward, and you can process it in ordinary daily life.
During prayer is not the time to get into it, because you might lose your
grounding and confidence in God. Also, a lot of this stuff doesn't need to be
processed. Maybe 80 percent of it is just junk. It is passing through your mind
on its way out. You can just wave goodbye. On an ongoing basis, however, one
does need to raise these questions in one's support group because once the
unloading process begins, it can become quite pervasive. The first experience of
unloading is usually tears, especially if one does a lot of centering prayer
like in our 10-day intensive, where we do the process for four or five hours a
day. Beginners-and by beginners I mean those in the first 10 years-have some
dramatic unloading. Their dream patterns change dramatically and so on. With
some prudent bodily exercises like Thai chi, the energy tends to get balanced.
The loss of sleep, the little pains here and there, and other inconveniences
tend to dissipate. But what does come are somewhat painful emotions. The psyche
seems to remember them just the way you experienced them as a child. If you
experienced fear, you are afraid; if you experienced panic, you feel panicky.
So to deal with the evacuation or unloading process during the periods of
prayer, you recommend acknowledging the feelings and thoughts and letting them
go. But what about afterward? Psychotherapy generally aims for an integration or
transformation of such feelings and emotions.
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 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. I think probably all thoughts in
contemplative prayer have a certain element of unloading, even those that don't
bother you. That is why we say, "Don't resist thoughts." In
contemplative prayer, not thinking is the important thing.
Your work contains a great deal of psychological knowledge. How did you come to
articulate psychological processes that go on with regard to one's spiritual
I was deeply imbued with the Christian tradition, which has a lot of
psychological insight into how the spiritual journey evolves, including
knowledge of the unconscious, although no one called it that. The dark nights of
St. John are really the purification of Freud's unconscious but from a wholly
different perspective and motivation. In dialoguing with others and in comparing
the Christian tradition with developmental psychology, the evolutionary model,
the perennial philosophy, and contemporary anthropology, I automatically
synthesized them. Psychology is really about spirituality if it is understood
rightly. The transpersonal people are on the right road even if they are in the
minority in the profession. I saw psychotherapy right away as 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 dine 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
Although you refer to God as the divine therapist, you do advise people to take
advantage of therapy.
Absolutely. Some people whose psyches are very fragile would be well advised not
to do centering prayer until they have established another practice that
reassures their faculties and their emotions that God is safe, or at least is
not as dangerous as they might have thought.
That's a good point. Many people have an internalized image of a harsh,
critical, judgmental, or even sadistic God. The whole point of centering prayer
is to "rest in God," but if you assume that God is going to punish
you, you're not going to be able to relax.
Exactly. This is a problem for many pre-Vatican II Catholics and, I would think,
for fundamentalists, given their teachings. 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 this 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.
And if fear arises?
Let it go, along with every other thing that arises. If one has an obsession or
an emotionally charged thought that is diseased, not thinking is one of the best
healing methods there is. 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.
Centering prayer gradually heals the emotional wound of thinking and feeling
about God in a way that is unhealthy and certainly untrue. In the periods of
centering prayer, people experience God in a new way. God has a chance to be
Himself for a change.
You're well known for participating in the East-West religious dialogue. How did
you start this dialogue with Eastern meditation teachers?
A lot of the young people who came to the guest house at St. Joseph's Abbey in
Spencer, Massachusetts, were doing Transcendental Meditation or were involved in
Hinduism with various swamis, like Satchidananda. I also had a lot of contact
with the Tibetan Buddhists, and we lived just down the road from Barre, where
the Vipassana people [the Insight Meditation Society] are. I knew some of the
great masters that came to teach there, like Achaan Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw.
They would come down to Spencer just to see what it was like. I had a chance to
talk with them and many other outstanding teachers. I have had wonderful
contacts with various Hindu folks. A Zen master, Roshi Sasaki, stopped by on his
own initiative to see what we were up to. He was on his way to Europe to see
what monasteries over there were doing when he heard about us. He came and gave
us a number of sesshin, maybe twice a year for about 8 or 10 years while I was
abbot there. Not all the monks went, but those who were interested -a
What is sesshin?
Sesshin is seven or eight days of mostly sitting [in meditation] interspersed
with teisho, a presentation by the roshi on a particular text or theme, and
dokusan, a private interview with the roshi. The private interview isn't
spiritual direction. You don't discuss whether you should eat meat on Friday; it
is much more profound. It focuses on a koan, an unanswerable question that
frustrate s the intellect so that you have to answer not with reason but with
the body, a gesture, or words that show that you have understood the particular
experience the koan is designed to awaken. If you don't, the roshi rings the
bell and you get out. It is very simple. The question is: How much are you
willing to change?
Did you also participate?
I did because I had great admiration for the roshi's spiritual attainment and
wisdom. The teishos were wonderful; [they provided] a whole different
perspective on ultimate reality, truth, and the false-self system.
a great deal from the roshi, especially how dependent on the intellect we are in
the West. Zen really begins where the intellect ends. Not that it despises the
intellect, but Zen recognizes its limitations and
works on developing the intuitive faculties and moving to a union with all
reality. Certain experiences of that unity can't be expressed in words but only
in koans, in poetry, or in symbol.
Did your experience with Zen inform your Christian faith?
Yes, it enriched it. I read the Gospel from a different perspective and saw the
truth of Zen in much of the Gospel. Buddhism is a very advanced religion. Roshi
Sasaki, who is still functioning at 89 in Mount Baldy in Los Angeles, thought
that Zen could help Christians become better Christians. He saw-and I would
certainly adhere to his insight-that there is a certain Zen quality in all
religions. It is a fundamental religious attitude. Centering prayer is very rich
but quite diffuse and tends to put the emphasis on grace in a way that perhaps
needs to be balanced by the Zen attitude, which is that we have to do something,
too. Actually, St. Ignatius expressed it well when he said, "Act as if
everything depended on you, and trust as if everything depended on God."
Well, how do you do that? That is a koan. You could spend a lifetime trying to
figure out how to do that. What the world religions all have in common is [the
fact that] transcendence is the name of the game. This means first having a self
and then surrendering it, opening oneself to union with God, which is a gift.
In reading your books, I thought that you saw God as immanent as opposed to
transcendent. Did I read that incorrectly, or is this another koan?
That is what it is. [God is] infinitely transcendent and infinitely immanent.
That is the extraordinary part: God couldn't be closer, closer even than
consciousness. But the Christian articulation of that mystery is a little
different from [that of] the East. The Christian would say you are not God,
whereas the Vedic tradition says that you become God. I think we may be talking
about the same experience of divine union, but our belief system requires us to
say that you may be so united to God that you can't distinguish yourself from
Him but that He nevertheless remains ontologically-that is,
metaphysically-distinct. That theological disagreement could simply be the
result of having an experience and trying to articulate the inexplicable
according to your particular belief system.
although it sounds different, it may be the same thing. But we don't have enough
experience to say that for sure. We have to have a lot more people in that state
and be at a good stage of dialogue to precisely understand each other's terms.
We started a little group called the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, where
teachers from various spiritual traditions got together and just talked about
what helped them the most. This gave us a chance to see a religion through
somebody else's eyes, someone who has really been through it and now embodies
I've often thought, Wouldn't it be marvelous to have someone who has done
centering prayer for 20 years, someone who has practiced Vipassana meditation
for 20 years, and someone schooled in kabbalistic practice for 20 years all come
together to talk about their experiences?
That is what we do, but the group is only about 15 years old. [It consists of]
people who are completely dedicated to their spiritual path and to articulating
it. We've come up with an awful lot of things that we agree on completely, and
then there are things that are distinctive. We have also become great friends.
We even have one person who is nonaligned - he keeps us all honest.
We talked earlier about the psychological processes that occur as a result of
centering prayer. What about the spiritual fruits?
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 anymore to affirm its intention. It is aware that it is not
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 so they may roam around and
persecute you while the will feels a certain peace and union with God. St.
Teresa said that if the will doesn't understand its state and tries to chase the
thoughts away, it will lose its union with God, which is very delicate. So it
needs to put up with the noise. She also gave another example: When grace
touches the will, it is like a Pied Piper who blows on a little whistle and all
the little ruffians and children who are running around soon settle down and
take their seat and become quiet because of the charm of the music, the music of
silence. That is the intuitive intellect, which is knowing God but not through a
concept. It is knowing Him through love.
Have you ever had an experience like that?
Yes, it is quite common. It is really the first touch of the divine presence
within. The first experience of God in mysticism or 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 if you reflect on
the experience, that usually diminishes it. So you let it come and you let it go
and don't get attached to it. Unfortunately, attachment is one of the hazards
because when the prayer of quiet is flowing, you want to hang on to the
experience for dear life as long as you can. The false self, until purified,
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. But the prayer of quiet can
expand. 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 so one is no longer persecuted by thoughts going by.
Formerly, those faculties were free to wander. Now the divine action is so
strong that it puts them to sleep, leaves them inactive. That's the prayer of
union. In full union, then, 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 value that we put in our
emotional programs. Faith has to be purified; 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. One
realizes that this is not punishment on God's part, nor is He playing hard to
get. It is the nature of reality. You just can't enter into pure love without
being completely detached from anything you want for yourself. So the journey
takes awhile. 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.
Simpson is editor of Common Boundary. Her last interview, with Alice Walker,
appeared in the March/April issue.