FATHER THOMAS KEATING, OCSO, co-founded the centering prayer movement in the 1970s when he was abbot of a Cistercian monastery, St. Joseph’s Abbey, in Spencer, Mass. He and two other Trappist monks, William Meninger and Basil Pennington, began holding retreats to teach this method of prayer, which draws on contemplative church teachings such as those of the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. Keating co-founded Contemplative Outreach, a worldwide nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging the practice of centering prayer and Lectio Divina (praying the scriptures). Now in his 80s, Keating is still teaching and speaking on the riches of contemplation for those seeking a deeper experience of Christian faith. The author of several books on contemplative spirituality, Keating’s latest book is Manifesting God (Lantern Books). He was interviewed last year at Sojourners by associate editor Rose Marie Berger.
SOJOURNERS: Why is contemplative prayer an essential part of Christian life?
KEATING: Contemplative prayer is the movement of becoming acquainted experientially with God, beyond the confines of rational dialogue. It is deeply embedded in the gospel and in the Christian tradition. Jesus’ suggestion about how to pray is a formula for contemplative prayer. In Matthew 6:6 he says if you want to pray—if you want to relate more profoundly with God—enter your inner room. Next, close the door, which is an invitation to turn off the internal dialogue. Then he says, “Pray to your Father in secret.” That could mean a solitary place, but such were rare in Jesus’ time for everybody except the very rich. Nobody else had private rooms; you were lucky to have a roof over your head. It’s metaphorical language inviting us to become at ease and present to the divine indwelling, which is the life of the trinity within each of us. The kingdom of God is within you, as well as all around you.
You might define it as the intuitive knowledge in love with God. And so, this formula that Jesus suggests is clearly three steps into ever-deepening levels of interior silence. Then he says “your heavenly Father will reward you.” Actually that word “reward” isn’t very appropriate here. Someone who’s praying—in secret, that is, having actually reached a contemplative disposition that’s habitual in prayer—is not interested in reward. I discovered in the Aramaic Bible that [the word translated as “reward”] really means “blossom” or “flourish.” This suggests that silence is the seedbed in which the Holy Spirit places the mustard seed of divine love. It takes root, and grows, and you blossom.
What is blossoming? The growth of faith, hope, and love—the virtues and especially the fruits of the Spirit listed in the Beatitudes and by Paul in Galatians 5. Contemplative prayer is a process of activating the gifts that we received in baptism.
SOJOURNERS: Do you see the recovery of that type of prayer as particularly essential in the United States?
KEATING: I’m in favor of it in every country, actually. Every culture is deeply distorted by the human condition, and self-interest, and what the Bible calls the “old man,” in Paul’s words. Which in psychological terms might also be called the false self—which is the only self we know, but it’s the self that embodies all of the consequences of the Fall and hence is a program for unhappiness, for human misery.
SOJOURNERS: Many practitioners of contemplative prayer are Catholic. Why has this practice been largely lost in many of the Protestant and evangelical traditions?
KEATING: My observation is that at the time of the Reformation, the contemplative tradition as a practice was at the lowest ebb ever. So the Protestant Reformation unfortunately didn’t have a tradition to take with it. So, whatever it has experienced in the way of mysticism has been somewhat limited to certain pockets of renewal.
The list [of contemplative practitioners] is long for Catholics—but it’s not nearly long enough. It’s barely scratching the surface. The whole thing has fallen out of Christianity. That’s why thousands of young people and not-so-young people went to the East in the 1960s and ’70s, looking for a spirituality they couldn’t find here.
Now the evangelicals are in a special situation: They’ve had a lot of experience that is very significant, but no roots in the tradition. So they give the impression of having thought that nothing happened in Christianity from the death of the last apostle until they came along. They have a great contribution to make from their renewed perception of certain values in the gospel. But they would be greatly enriched if they became aware of the contemplative dimension, which is a deeper rooting of activity—at least, spiritual activity—in its true source, the experience of God, not just on the level of sense experience, or the devotion that is based on being born again. “Born again” is a wonderful gift, but it’s not the end of the journey—it’s just the beginning. I think that most serious evangelicals are aware of that. And they’re beginning to read about the contemplative tradition.
SOJOURNERS: How do you respond to people who are put off by contemplative prayer because they associate it with New Age spirituality, or with a narcissistic spirituality that is just about a personal relationship with God with no outward focus?
KEATING: Yes, this is a problem. Centering prayer looks a little like navel-gazing. Such criticism has been directed at contemplatives for centuries. What’s new is to call it New Age. It’s not New Age; it’s so Old Age that everything else is post-contemplative prayer. To this we simply say that we don’t teach what you think we do. We’re convinced that, if you can get an established practice and the mustard seed of divine love is sown in that seed of silence, where there is less resistance than in ordinary, daily levels of consciousness, you’ll begin to take part in whatever ministry is appropriate. You cannot sit on divine love. But you can think you’ve got it, and go out there and then kill yourself with zeal and actually get burned out, if you don’t have the inner resources to deal with tragedy, persecution, neglect, failure, and all the other things that accompany the gospel in its preaching as well as in every other human endeavor.
SOJOURNERS: Why is contemplative prayer important for socially and politically active Christians who very much see their ministry as out in the world—serving the poor, serving as peacemakers in situations of conflict, serving in prison?
KEATING: It’s important for life. It’s important to be whole. It’s an essential part of holistic health. Science itself is beginning to recognize that meditation has substantial effects on health. Not just mental health, but physical health, because it reduces tension, high blood pressure, the usual ills that come from stress, or pain that we resist—suffering might be defined as pain that we resist. If we accept it, it’s like anything else in life. It comes, and it goes, and it’s inevitable, to some degree.
Centering prayer isn’t the only way into contemplative prayer. We’re putting an ancient prayer practice of the Christian tradition into a contemporary form and language, because people today like how-to methods. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way in. The ancient practice of prayerful Bible reading, called Lectio Divina—reading the book we believe to be divine—is still the main focus in monasteries. The evangelical tradition, which is so biblically oriented, is a marvelous base for contemplative prayer. You don’t have to do anything except set aside some time after the meeting or before the meeting just to be still. Which is what the Psalms recommend: Be still, and you will know that I am God.
All we’re asking or suggesting is 20 minutes twice a day—you’ll still have a full day’s work. Centering prayer is not in opposition to all the good works of mercy or social action and justice. It will enhance one’s capacity to function, especially in difficult ministries, by the activation of the fruits of the spirit.
We’re trying to introduce a resource to give strength and perseverance to difficult ministries. We didn’t deliberately set out to encourage people to do any specific ministry; we felt that they would find their own. And this is what’s happened.
SOJOURNERS: When you speak of “we,” are you referring to the Contemplative Outreach work that you’re doing?
KEATING: Yes. Contemplative Outreach was founded in 1984 to support those that we had taught to do centering prayer, because it needs an ongoing education and support system. We’ve tried to provide monastic means without either calling them monastic or insisting [practitioners] be like people in the monastery. But centering prayer is basically a distillation of monastic spirituality—a dose of solitude and silence, simplicity of lifestyle, and a discipline of prayer. That needs the context of a community. Centering prayer is not just a method of prayer; it’s a way of life. It’s a countercultural procedure. It doesn’t talk loudly, but it challenges the presuppositions at the base of social injustice, at its roots, beginning with one’s self. So, if one connects with it, it inevitably leads one to do all one can to end that injustice elsewhere.
We have groups working with the homeless. We have a program to offer retreats for AA groups. We’re in at least 90 prisons. Almost any social justice or peace work could benefit from this—centering prayer would simply deepen it by rooting it in the gospel, in a way that’s experiential and resourceful.
The heroic exercise of service can also lead to a contemplative state. For some people, nature is a way to God. Or conjugal love. Or art. But centering prayer is available in the literature of the Christian tradition, and people are living it today. So why not consult it? And oddly enough, science has finally started to ask us if contemplative experience is for real. The answer is yes. Judge for yourself.