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


Resting In God...An Interview with Fr. Thomas Keating, OSCO
by Anne A. Simpson

Interview: The increasingly popular contemplative practice of centering prayer can bring about profound spiritual and psychological growth, says Father Thomas Keating.

More than 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.

Keating 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."

As a 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."

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 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.

Centering 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."

In his 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."

Tall, 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."

The 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.

Keating 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 prayer."

Today 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, respectively.

Although 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.

Beyond 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."

Keating 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."

Common Boundary: 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 culture today?

Thomas Keating: 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?"

CB: What do you think was the reason?

TK: 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 ignorance.

We at 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 calling people.

CB: I understand that centering prayer groups exist not only in Catholic parishes but in Episcopal and Methodist churches, too.

TK: 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.

CB: How do the methods differ?

TK: 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.

CB: 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?

TK: 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.

CB: How do you make a word a symbol of intention?

TK: 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 it.

CB: 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?

TK: 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.

CB: Does this evacuation occur only in the time of prayer or afterward? And how do you suggest dealing with this material?

TK: 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.

CB: 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.

TK: 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.

CB: 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 practice?

TK: 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 you.

CB: Although you refer to God as the divine therapist, you do advise people to take advantage of therapy.

TK: 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.

CB: 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.

TK: 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.

CB: How can one work with this negative, internalized God image?

TK: 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.

CB: And if fear arises?

TK: 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.

CB: You're well known for participating in the East-West religious dialogue. How did you start this dialogue with Eastern meditation teachers?

TK: 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 significant number-went.

CB: What is sesshin?

TK: 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?

CB: Did you also participate?

TK: 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.

I learned 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

deliberately 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.

CB: Did your experience with Zen inform your Christian faith?

TK: 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.

CB: 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?

TK: 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.

So 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 it.

CB: 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?

TK: 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.

CB: We talked earlier about the psychological processes that occur as a result of centering prayer. What about the spiritual fruits?

TK: 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.

CB: Have you ever had an experience like that?

TK: 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.

 Anne Simpson is editor of Common Boundary. Her last interview, with Alice Walker, appeared in the March/April issue.

Common Boundary, September/October 1997