Archive for October, 2020

The Freedom of Consent

October 30th, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part Two

The Freedom of Consent
Friday,  October 30, 2020

Over the past two weeks Cynthia Bourgeault has generously shared her thoughts on the poems and spiritual legacy of Thomas Keating. Today, I (Richard) want to emphasize Thomas Keating’s final message, the subject of Cynthia’s commentary in yesterday’s meditation. I have edited the text very slightly for greater clarity.

Perhaps it was his many decades of “consenting to God’s presence and action within” that allowed him to glimpse a new world. Thomas’ final message was the following:

Dear friends: In the universe, an extraordinary moment of civilization seems to be overtaking us. . . . It’s a time of enormous expectancy and possibility.

We are called to start—not with the old world contracts, now that we know that they are all lies—but [with] what we know as the truth. . . .  So I call upon the nations to consider this as a possibility: that we should begin a new world with one that actually exists. This is the moment to manifest this world, by showing loving concern for poverty, loving appreciation for the needs of the world, and opportunities for accelerated development. We need to find ways to make these really happen. I make this humble suggestion, that now arms-making is of no significance in the world. It hinders its progress.

This will allow and offer the world the marvelous gift of beginning, [of] creating, of trusting each other, of forgiving each other, and of showing compassion, care for the poor, and putting all our trust in the God of heaven and earth. I leave this hope in your hands and hearts, coming as a real inspiration from the heart of God. What does [God] care about who has this or other lands, when the power to begin with the truest history is coming from religion as expression of the Source that has been realized for centuries? Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Indigenous, and Christianity—all religions—oneness is their nature. Amen. [1]

Richard again: In this injunction to the world, Father Thomas Keating says what he has been given to know. The only path forward for the survival of our species and perhaps even our planet is a path of nonviolence, of contemplation and action prioritizing justice and solidarity, an affirmation of Oneness and the interconnectedness of all things, which science confirms, and spirituality has always known on its deepest level.

I think the real purpose of the spiritual journey is to expand people’s ability to do good by liberating them. This is what Jesus did, after all—free people from their pain, their sin, their “uncleanness,” and even their deaths. Then he sent them back to their families and to society to live in relationship and live lives of freedom and wholeness. As a devoted student of Jesus and lover of God, Thomas Keating did the same through the gift of Centering Prayer; he helped people connect to an inner stillness and experience of God that liberated them from egoic strongholds—so they could become free and whole. His final words help us imagine the possibilities for ourselves and our world.

Everything Matters

October 29th, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part Two

Everything Matters
Thursday,  October 29, 2020

Only the Divine matters,
And because the Divine matters,
Everything matters.

                                                             —Thomas Keating, “What Matters”

The simplicity of the final poem in The Secret Embrace speaks eloquently of what I (Richard) know more deeply to be true with every passing year. It’s the incarnational message at the heart of the Gospel: everything belongs! It is a Christ-soaked universe. As we near the end of this series, Cynthia Bourgeault shares her understanding of Thomas Keating’s final legacy to us.

In October 2018, two weeks before he died, Thomas Keating emerged briefly from four days in what appeared to be a coma to deliver an extraordinary final message beamed straight to the heart of the world. [1] Acknowledging that “an extraordinary moment of civilization seems to be overtaking us,” he urged the human family to scrap old approaches based on religious or political dogma and “begin a new world with one that actually exists,” a world whose truth is guided by “silence and science” and whose heart is revealed in a universal resurgence of human compassion and creativity. “We need to find ways to make these really happen,” he said. “I leave this hope in your hands and hearts coming as a real inspiration from the heart of God.”

Two momentous years later, his words seem more prophetic than ever.

Of the many insights Thomas Keating has given us in these poems, two gifts stand out in particular. The first is that he has completely reframed the traditional Christian notion of God, offering us a powerful new roadmap with which to make spiritual sense of our contemporary world. In this short poem of eleven laser-like words, Thomas smashes through centuries of theological barricades separating God from the world and contemplation from action, offering instead a flowing vision of oneness within a profoundly interwoven and responsive relational field.

To have this universal wisdom affirmed so forcefully by one of Christianity’s most revered elders creates a powerful new incentive for a compassionate re-engagement with our times. Practically speaking, the map affirms that our actions, our choices, our connections bear more weight than we dare to believe. We are neither isolated nor helpless but immersed in a great web of belonging in which divine intelligence and compassion are always at our disposal if our courage does not fail us.

The second gift awaiting us in these poems is their powerful reaffirmation that the access route to all new beginning comes by leaning into the diminishment, stripping, and emptiness. Not by trying to distract ourselves, anesthetize ourselves, or use our spiritual tool kit to re-establish the status quo. New beginning is intrinsically disorienting and anguishing; it builds on the wreckage of what has been outgrown but not yet relinquished. As the veils are lifted and our familiar reference points dissolve, it is only on the timeless path of surrender (a.k.a. “letting go,” “consenting to the presence and action of God”) that we find our way through the darkness and into the new beginning. Godspeed and know that we travel the path together!

An Interspiritual Guide

October 28th, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part Two

An Interspiritual Guide
Wednesday,  October 28, 2020

Our true nature is stillness,
The Source from which we come.
. . . .
The deep listening of pure contemplation
Is the path to stillness.

All words disappear into It,
And all creation awakens to the delight of
Just Being.

                                                    —Thomas Keating, “Stillness”

From Richard: In the title of my book Dancing Standing Still, I was trying to capture the harmonious balance between action and contemplation. If we try to move without being attuned to the music of God and our True Self, what we do will not be beautiful, helpful, or possibly even worth doing. And, of course, we cannot follow the “tune” of either of those sources without aligning ourselves with them through committed practice. Cynthia Bourgeault interprets this poem by Thomas Keating in that light, though she says it much more eloquently than I.

This poem seems to meet people wherever they are, from beginning meditators to folks who’ve been on the path for decades. Thomas returns once again to his earlier assertion that silence is not simply an absence. On the contrary, it is personal, intimate, filled with aliveness and subtle relationality. Most of us, I imagine, still use the words “silence” and “stillness” pretty much interchangeably, both designating an absence of external noise and a state of inner emptiness. For Thomas, the two are subtly different from one another—and distinctly different from our usual perception of emptiness.

For Thomas, stillness is not even remotely a void. We tend to think of it as motionlessness, but in a quantum universe whose nature is to be in constant motion it really comes closer to dynamic equilibrium. It is T. S. Eliot’s “still point in a turning world,” [1] the Sufi dervish’s fierce inner repose as the outer world goes flying by, the Buddhist’s “effortless action.” It does not imply lack of motion, but the harmonious balance of opposites. You are neither imposing nor resisting, but simply present, flowing in oneness with whatever is. You are the dancer at one with the dance. You are still.

We have been trained to think that the purpose of stillness is to lead us to “pure contemplation,” long regarded in mystical theology as a highly exalted state. But here Thomas turns the table on traditional theology; in a dynamically interactive universe the purpose of contemplation is to lead us beyond all stages, states, and roadmaps—beyond empty silence and stillness—into that great, flowing oneness which is our own true nature and the true nature of all that is.

Thomas himself specifically comments on this point:

The contemplative state is established when contemplative prayer moves from being an experience or series of experiences to an abiding state of consciousness. The contemplative state enables one to rest and act at the same time because one is rooted in the source of both rest and action. [2]

Flowing oneness again. Flowing out from the Sacred Embrace, “The Source from which we come.”

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace Part Two

October 27th, 2020

Falling Away from I AM
Tuesday,  October 27, 2020

To be nothing
Is to consent to being a simple creature.
This is the place of encounter with
“I AM that I Am.”

When there is no more “me, myself, or mine,”
Only “I AM” remains.

Then the “I” may fall away,
Leaving just the AM. . . . 

                                                                —Thomas Keating, “Out of Nothing”

In her latest book, Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the significant position Thomas Keating held in her life as a teacher and spiritual father [1]. Their relationship makes her reflections on his poetry a poignant example of how to be a compassionate witness to the suffering and transformation of someone we love. Here Cynthia describes Thomas’ journey through all the dark nights a human can experience:

In this poem, one of the last in the collection, there can be no doubt that Thomas Keating is indeed talking about an elusive third dark night, what Bernadette Roberts called “the experience of no-self.” [2] Its radical stripping is far deeper than the dismantling of our “emotional programs for happiness” that occurs in the Dark Night of Sense. It is even deeper than the fruit of the Dark Night of Spirit, which is the dissolution of the separate self into unitive consciousness. Thomas is here alluding to a third and yet more fundamental dissolution: the collapse of the self-reflective mechanism itself, that unique property of human consciousness which makes me realize “It is I who am experiencing this.” Oneness is attained not through an even more intense experience of union, but through a simple suspension of the subject/object polarity that created the perception of twoness in the first place. There is a whole new operating system at work now.

As Thomas writes, “When there is no more ‘me, myself, or mine,’ / Only I AM remains.”

When there is no fixed point of reference to “take it home to,” to make it about “my experience of I AM,” then there is only the bare “I AM.” Then even that may shed its skin. “Then the ‘I’ may fall away, / Leaving just the AM.” . . .

Those who have reflected on the biblical account will quickly catch the double meaning of the repeated use of “I AM” in this poem. It describes not only our own self-reflexive awareness; it is also the name by which God reveals Godself to Moses in the wilderness. “Who shall I tell them has sent me?” asks Moses. To which God replies, “I Am that I Am” [Exodus 3:14]. (In Hebrew, YHWH is the sacred, unutterable name of God.)

Thomas Merton said something quite like this shortly before his own death. He stated,

You have to experience duality for a long time until you see it’s not there. . . . Don’t consider dualistic prayer on a lower level. The lower is higher. There are no levels. Any moment you can break through to the underlying unity which is God’s gift in Christ. In the end, Praise praises. Thanksgiving gives thanks. Jesus prays. Openness is all. [3]

That, I believe, is the real teaching awaiting us in this poem and manifest in Thomas Keating’s own life.

A Silent Love

October 26th, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part Two

A Silent Love
Monday,  October 26, 2020

Nowhere is my destination.
And no one is my identity.

My daily bread is powerlessness.
Temptations can be overwhelming.
Gone is every hope of help.

An abyss opens up within me.
I am falling, falling,
Plunging into non-existence.

Is this annihilation?
Or, is it the path to the Silent Love
That we are?. . .

                                                                  —Thomas Keating, “The Last Laugh”

Cynthia Bourgeault continues to lead us through The Secret Embrace, a book of poems composed by Father Thomas Keating at the end of his life. Today she engages with what I (Richard) believe is one of the most challenging poems in the collection. Cynthia writes:

In both its poetic and spiritual subtlety, this poem, excerpted above, marks a later stage in Thomas Keating’s journey. Though he clearly attained to “unity consciousness” by the final decade of his life, I believe this poem is a living confirmation that, in the words of Christian contemplative mystic Bernadette Roberts (1931–2017), the unitive stage of the journey is itself a passage. [1]

Contrary to what most of the saints and mystics seem to imply, the stage of “union with God” is not a permanent state or a spiritual rank acquired. It has a beginning and an end. In “The Last Laugh” we are witnessing the end of a journey, as the final veil of separate selfhood—“self” consciousness itself—is drawn back to reveal at last the riddle of the true self.

As the poem opens, Thomas is clearly in liminal space, midway between tedium and transfiguration. Dark night and unitive dawn are no longer all that different; reality simply is as it is. All emotional drama has dropped out, since there is no longer a fixed point of selfhood to be “happy” or “unhappy” about a situation. “Nowhere is my destination and no one is my identity,” he remarks simply, and while this may sound awful to our egoic minds, still fixed on defining ourselves by “who we are” or what lies ahead, there is also a solemn freedom here: no longer any buttons to be pushed, no dog in the fight. Time no longer rushes on into the future, but rests comfortably in a more spacious now.

Final union or ultimate annihilation, he wonders. What if they turn out to be the same? The line is pretty startling. “Annihilation” is a very strong word in the Christian spiritual vocabulary. You don’t find it used often, even in classic descriptions of the Dark Night of the Spirit. It is more frequently mentioned within the Sufi tradition, where fana—total annihilation—means something way beyond simply the death of the ego self. It is more like the extinguishing of our most primordial sense of selfhood or “I-ness.” Toward that abyss Thomas finds himself now rapidly plunging.

And then, out of nowhere, the turn . . .

It all begins with that tiny word “or.” Linger over it. It is as sacred and subtle as that moment when outbreath turns back into inbreath and the cycle miraculously begins again.

Or, is it the path to the Silent Love / That we are?

And you realize that the final veil of selfhood is actually a bridal veil, but now you are standing in the nuptial chamber. With a joyful laugh, you let it go.

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part Two

Spiritual Development
Sunday,  October 25, 2020

Before we continue exploring Thomas Keating’s poems from The Secret Embrace under the helpful guidance of Cynthia Bourgeault, I want to offer a basic overview of the stages of spiritual development that I have used for years with spiritual directees and in teaching settings. I believe Thomas modeled all these stages, which are not as easy to see in most of our lives.

1. My body and self-image are who I am.

At the most basic level, this is what Thomas Keating called our “programs for happiness.” These are the needs for security and survival, esteem and affection, and power and control. Though we may “transcend” to other levels, our egoic selves will always “include” these impulses, particularly under stress.

2. My external behavior is who I am.

We need to look good from the outside and to hide any “contrary evidence” from others, and eventually from ourselves. The ego’s “shadow” begins to emerge at this time.

3. My thoughts and feelings are who I am.

We begin to take pride in our “better” thoughts and feelings and learn to control them, so much so that we do not even see their self-serving nature. For nearly all of us, a major defeat, shock, or humiliation must be suffered and passed through to go beyond this stage.

4. My deeper intuitions and felt knowledge in my body are who I am.

This is such a breakthrough and so helpful that many of us are content to stay here, but to remain at this level may lead to inner work or body work as a substitute for any real encounter with, or sacrifice for, the “other.”

5. My shadow self is who I am.

This is the first “dark night of the senses”—when our weakness overwhelms us, and we finally face ourselves in our unvarnished and uncivilized state. The false self has failed to bring us all the way to God or the Oneness we seek. Without guidance, grace, and prayer, most of us go running back to previous identities.

6. I am empty and powerless.

Some call this sitting in “God’s Waiting Room,” but is more often known as “the dark night of the soul.” Almost any attempt at this point to save ourselves by any superior behavior, morality, or prayer technique will fail us. All we can do is to ask, wait, and trust. God is about to become real. The ego, or separate self, is dying in a major way.

7. I am much more than who I thought I was.

We experience the permanent waning of the false self and the ascent of the True Self as the center of our being. It feels like an absence or void, even if a wonderful void. John of the Cross calls this “Luminous Darkness.” We grow not by knowing or understanding, but only by loving and trusting.

8. “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).

Here, there is only God. There is nothing we need to protect, promote, or prove to anyone, especially ourselves. Our false self no longer guides the ship. We have learned to let Grace and Mystery guide us—still without full (if any) comprehension.

9. I am who I am.

I’m “just me,” warts and all. It is enough to be human without any window dressing. We are now fully detached from our own self-image and living in God’s image of us—which includes and loves both the good and the bad. We experience true serenity and freedom, but it is quite ordinary and also quite sufficient. This is the peace the world cannot give (see John 14:27) and full resting in God. “To know oneself in God and to know God in oneself,” as both Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Ávila put it.

What the Mystics Know

October 23rd, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part One

What the Mystics Know
Friday,  October 23, 2020

Today I pause Cynthia Bourgeault’s reflections and offer a few words about the essential role of contemplation in the lives of honest spiritual seekers like Thomas Keating and Cynthia herself.

To many people, contemplation is an old-fashioned word, but it simply means the deliberate seeking of God by an inner dialogue. The soul grows closer to God through our willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of feelings, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of culture. It is a journey into the nothingness of true faith, where the ordinary rules of thinking, managing, explaining, and fixing up the smaller self do not apply. Contemplation shouldn’t be used to spiritually bypass what is real, harmful, or unjust in our lives or the world around us. However, with steady practice it will eventually give us the ability to stay present to what is, and meet it with wisdom, compassion, and courage. All the major world religions at their more mature stages recognize the necessity of contemplative practice in some form and under different names.

I’m not sure that most people in the Western world have ever really met the person who they themselves really are. Most of us have lived our lives with a steady stream of ideas, images, and feelings that we cling to—thinking they are our very essence. But in reality, at that level, I don’t have the idea; the idea has me. I don’t have the feeling; the feeling has me. We have to discover who this “I” really is. Who are we at the deepest level—behind our thoughts and feelings or others’ thoughts and feelings about us?

At every moment, all our life long, we identify ourselves either with our thoughts, our self-image, or our feelings. We have to find a way to get beyond those things to discover our “original face,” the one we already had before we were born. Even with great practice, most of us will only glimpse or abide in our True Self for moments at a time while we are alive. Mystics seem to finally and fully abide there, which I hope encourages us to keep going.

We yearn for “breach menders” who can “restore our ruined houses,” as Isaiah says (58:12). We long for great-souled people who can hold the chaos together within themselves—and give us the courage to do the same. I pray all of us know such people in our lives and that we be granted such people on the world stage. And I am confident such people have gone before and paved the way for us—the mystics and saints of all genders, cultures, and faith traditions, those both known and unknown.

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace Part One

October 22nd, 2020

The Dark Nights
Thursday,  October 22, 2020

His silence is a kiss,
His presence an embrace.

But now he is fading, fading.
And I am alone
 . . .

—Thomas Keating, “Loneliness in the Night”

I don’t think anyone can get to my (Richard’s) age without deeply empathizing with the sense of loss and grief—personal and spiritual—that Thomas Keating articulates in this poem. Cynthia Bourgeault does an excellent job of describing the spiritual dark nights that both Thomas and John of the Cross (1542–1591) put so beautifully into poetry. Cynthia writes:

The sense of joyful, flowing oneness that so marks the final years of Thomas Keating’s life didn’t “just happen.” For most of us—including for Thomas himself—it comes at the end of a painful season of stripping and purification that has classically been called “the Dark Night of the Spirit.”

The name itself comes from the 16th-century Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross, who up until this point has been the unquestioned authority on this excruciating passage. In this series of poems, Thomas Keating presses boldly into this forbidding terrain.

John’s classic spiritual roadmap actually specifies two dark nights. The first, called “the Dark Night of Sense,” typically comes fairly early in the journey. John saw its purpose chiefly as strengthening our capacity to endure temptation and weaning us from our dependency on spiritual consolations (the sweetness and even sensuous pleasure that often accompanies those early days of conversion). In Thomas’ contemporary psychological rendition, this first dark night relentlessly exposes our “emotional programs for happiness,” the hidden agendas and compensatory needs that drive our “false self system.” It thus accomplishes the first stage in the dismantling of the false self.

The second dark night comes much later in the journey and entails a much more radical and painful stripping that cuts to the very roots of the “false self system,” overturning the fundamental psychological and neurological hardwiring that drives the illusion of a separate selfhood. Its painful cost is that everything goes dark—“for the duration”—as we become increasingly unable to steer by the old binary operating system in our brains that always wound up turning God into an object (albeit a holy object) and in fact prioritized our experience of God over direct, unmediated union. Until the new operating system fills in, we are rather helpless, like chickens in molt, unable either to fly or lay eggs.

Believe it or not, this poem comes from a time far earlier in Thomas’ life. He once joked to me that he hadn’t written a poem since grade school. This is the poem! Even then, he was able to name the experience of the loss of tangible presence and withstand his solitude.

Something at first so concretely, robustly present is suddenly “fadingfading.” The substantial becomes insubstantial, presence fades to absence, and loneliness and longing dominate the emotional color palette. He is already intuiting, even as a young teenager, that the release from the loneliness and longing will not come from fulfillment of the original desire, but rather, through a mysterious inner alchemy that draws apparent opposites into an inner symbiotic unity. These are indeed the classic dark night waypoints, which Thomas returns to again and again—fundamental insights first glimpsed when he was still hardly more than a child.

Story from Our Community:
As I read today’s message [on Celtic Spirituality], I was transported back in time and distance to the cliffs of Tintagel [England], where I stood many years ago, looking westward. . . Reading today’s offering, I wept—it was so familiar and I haven’t heard it in so long! Reclaiming my role as a mystic, at 82, after a lifetime of “being in the world” with what that involves, I’ve always been drawn to the spiritual dimension of life. Now thanks to the most recent CAC meditations, I am closer to Home than I’ve ever been before in this lifetime. —Sarah K.

The Secret Embrace

October 21st, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part One

The Secret Embrace
Wednesday,  October 21, 2020

Before being born into the world of time,
The silence of pre-existence was all absorbing.

The transition from eternity to time
Is full of sufferings, fears, and little deaths.

But, in the transition from death
To eternal life,

The silence of pre-existence
Bursts into boundless joy.

All that can be manifested emerges
From the endless creativity of
That Which Is.

The Secret Embrace
The Source of all creation
Infinite Transcendence
Never be revealed.

—Thomas Keating, “The Secret Embrace”

Today we include the title poem, “The Secret Embrace,” in its entirety. Cynthia Bourgeault comments on one aspect of it in particular:

It is remarkable to trace how Thomas’ understanding of God evolved over the last three decades of his life. In the 1980s, when his first books and videos were beginning to appear, God was still very much framed within the classic Western model with God as “he”—a father figure. Thomas’ initial focus during the early years of his teaching was to shift that image away from a fearsome father, the wrathful God who has caused so much misery and woundedness for Western seekers, to a “divine therapist”: supportive, trustworthy, and a hundred percent behind us in our journey of transformation.

But by the end of his life, Thomas is in a very different place. God co-inheres and interpenetrates everything, the ocean-in-drop and drop-in-ocean, constantly exchanging in a dance of endless fecundity. God is not the “author” of creation, removed and overarching; the whole thing is God. There is not a single place in all creation where God is not, because God is creation itself, endlessly outpouring, endlessly receiving itself back. From top to bottom, we live and move and have our being in a participative reality, every fractal joined to every other fractal in a symphony of divine becoming pouring forth from that infinite wellspring.

In fact, with one singular exception, Thomas does not actually use the word “God” in this entire collection of poems. It is always “the Divine,” “I AM,” or “the Source.” He clearly did not want what he was trying to say here co-opted back into conceptions of a distant, male-gendered Being sitting up there in the heavens. He wanted us to keep our eyes on the big picture.

But more important, he wanted us to swim in the ocean.

Some may say that Thomas took a turn late in life toward a more “Buddhist” approach to divinity, but I believe this is not really accurate. We are not talking about a theology here, but a level of consciousness, universal across all the religions and accessed primarily through the consistent practice of meditation. To see oneness, it is necessary to see from oneness, with the eye of the heart, not the binary skew of the mind. From his decades and decades of faithful Centering Prayer, along with some very courageous and painful inner work, the rewiring of brain and heart that supports this seeing was gradually accomplished within him. These poems are its joyful fruit. They are tiny cameos of what non-duality looks like when approached from a uniquely Western and Christian perspective.

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace

October 20th, 2020

The Sound of Silence
Tuesday,  October 20, 2020

The silence of the Creator is thunderous,

Drowning out everything else,

And hiding in endless creativity.

—Thomas Keating, “Out of a Stone”

One of Thomas Keating’s greatest legacies will surely be his development and teaching of Centering Prayer, a Christian form of silent meditation. It has been my (Richard’s) preferred method of prayer for decades and I recommend it to anyone seeking to enter more deeply into the mystery of God. In today’s meditation, Cynthia Bourgeault explores a profound teaching on silence found within Keating’s poem “Out of a Stone,” excerpted above.

A theme that continues in all the poems contained in The Secret Embrace is that silence is not absence, but presence. It is a “something,” not a nothing. It has substantiality, heft, force. You can lean into it, and it leans back. It meets you; it holds you up.

That’s hardly how it’s understood in our culture at large, of course, where silence is typically seen as “vacant space,” waiting to be filled up with content. We try to cram every “empty” moment full. Even when we begin a meditation practice, this preference for content remains, and we will often approach silence as a kind of inner desert, a place of inner uncovering, which we enter to hear “messages from God.” It’s the messages that most grab us at the start; we’re all ears for whatever new insight emerges out of the silence.

Gradually, as we progress in Centering Prayer—or in any meditation practice, for that matter—we begin to reorient. Centering Prayer’s instructions to let go of all thoughts, regardless of content, directs us back to the silence itself, and we gradually learn the shape of the new terrain. As we stop grabbing for content, we gradually discover that silence does indeed have depth, presence, shape, even sound. As we mature in Centering Prayer, the perception that the emptiness is in fact the presence becomes more and more palpable. Thomas Keating encourages us that this “sound of silence” keeps right on growing. By his own later stage in the journey, it has become “thunderous.”

In fact—says Thomas—this “thunderous” silence is actually the most intense, concentrated “dosage” of divine presence we can bear face-to-face. In a paradoxical way, the dance of creation, beautiful and enchanting as it is, is like a veil over the face of the naked presence of God—like the veil that hides the Holy of Holies in the temple. These two faces of God—veiled and unveiled—live in symbiotic unity, and out of that unity everything pours into existence in a cascade of sheer delight.

For Thomas, creativity is “the diffuse shining of God” (to borrow a striking image from that other celebrated contemporary Thomas, Thomas Merton). [1] It’s what allows us to know our Creator not only in the “thunderous” silence of [God’s] direct presence, but in the dance of life itself. Either or both ways are fine, for they spill unceasingly into one another. From this “veiled embrace” between pure silence and joyful creativity at the very heart of all creation, flows life in all its beauty, goodness, fluidity, and magical wonder.

A Poetic Legacy

October 19th, 2020

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part One

A Poetic Legacy
Monday,  October 19, 2020

Can the Creator of all lure poetry out of a stone?

Or cause a stirring of Divine Love in a human heart?

All is possible for the Creator of all,

Who loves to manifest the impossible

In endless configurations.

—Thomas Keating, “Out of a Stone”

Cynthia Bourgeault was a close friend and colleague of Father Thomas Keating. Over the past year, she has devoted much time to studying and praying with the eight poems offered in The Secret Embrace. She calls this volume of poetry written in the last months of his life “his final gift to the world.” Today Cynthia describes why she believes the poems are so important:

First, these poems offer an intimate window into the last stage of Thomas’ own spiritual journey, as he emerged fully into what he liked to call “unity consciousness.” Others might call it “non-dual realization,” “the unitive state,” or oneness. Basically, it means seeing the world as whole, seamlessly interwoven, dynamic, coherent, radiant, precious, creative, and compassionate; knowing yourself as belonging to and suffused in this oneness. This state is well known in all the great spiritual traditions, and he stands on the shoulders of John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Genoa, and others. Thomas’ version gives us a beautiful glimpse of non-dual realization shimmering through a contemporary Western lens.

Second, and more movingly, he allows us to glimpse the costly road that must be travelled in order to arrive at this state. It does not fall like a ripe fruit from a tree or open itself like a lotus blossom. It comes at the end of a fierce struggle, a journey of deepening self-knowledge brought through deepening dying to self. In Christian teaching, this final passage has traditionally been known as “the Dark Night of the Spirit,” and it is a wilderness journey indeed, overturning not only most of our familiar reference points, but even the structures of consciousness through which they are maintained. “Dying to self” proves itself to be something like an onion skin, peeled back to reveal still further layers of dying—until finally there is nothing left except the All.

Many of us on the Centering Prayer path know a fair bit about that first layer of peeling back the onion—the dying to false self, perhaps courtesy of Thomas himself. His early and most influential teaching was all about “dismantling the false self.” But what is the false self? As Thomas voyaged bravely through his last three decades of life, his answer to this riddle shifted steadily toward the non-dual.

Third and finally, Thomas draws on the metaphor of journeying into the unknown, which has pressing relevance for our own world just now. In this season of planetary upheaval, Thomas’ courageous spiritual work has deep wisdom to offer us as we begin to wrap our collective hearts around what is required next. However far any one of us is destined to travel on this wilderness journey, learning to lean into the diminishment, to live with paradox and unknowing, and to celebrate the creativity without dissociating from the pain are all vital survival skills as we humans collectively feel our way into the new beginning.

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace
Part One

A Christian Contemplative
Sunday,  October 18, 2020

I first met Father Thomas Keating (1923–2018) in 2002 when he came to Albuquerque to speak at a conference on Centering Prayer [1] with me. I knew of his work and of Contemplative Outreach, the organization he had founded, but our paths had never crossed. As a Trappist monk, Keating had a life more circumscribed than my own as a friar. While Franciscans are called to be “in the world,” the Benedictines, Trappists, and other cloistered orders have vowed to be “not of it.” Our emphases balanced one another; Thomas was more inclined to “contemplation” while I gravitate, by temperament, more toward “action.” As the name of the Center for Action and Contemplation implies, both of our vocations are integral parts of the Christian contemplative tradition.

I had the pleasure of going to St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado for retreat a few times, even in the last years of Thomas’ life. Each time I was impressed with his deep spirituality and his commitment to living “on the edge of the inside” of his own tradition within the Catholic Church. His passion for sharing the practice of contemplative prayer with a wider audience of Christians was truly admirable. He knew what was his to do and he did it, despite the criticism that he must have received from many of his peers who were more used to their quiet, secluded existence.

Thomas Keating made his religious vows well before Vatican II, a full generation before I did. I believe he showed great courage in heeding the call of the Second Vatican Council, “opening the windows” of the monastery, and offering Centering Prayer to the world. Prior to that, contemplative prayer was the exclusive “gift” of the monastic orders, and some may have preferred to keep it that way. He made the ancient practice of contemplation an accessible, relevant, and transformative method of prayer for thousands of Christians by using everyday language and his own brand of humor. At the same time, he also validated the practice with modern believers by integrating modern psychology and the teachings of the 12-Step Programs.

For the next two weeks, guided by the wise mind and open heart of CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault, the Daily Meditations will focus on Father Thomas Keating’s final publication, The Secret Embrace, a short collection of poems written and gathered almost entirely in the last few months of his life. Thomas was a longtime teacher, colleague, and friend to Cynthia; her insights and skill will help us understand the deeply spiritual and deeply human themes of these poems and the contemplative journey itself.