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A Christian Contemplative

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.

References:
[1] Centering Prayer: Keating describes Centering Prayer as “a contemporary form of prayer of the heart, prayer of simplicity, prayer of faith, prayer of simple regard; a method of reducing the obstacles to the gift of contemplative prayer and of facilitating the development of habits conducive to responding to the inspiration of the Spirit.” See Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th anniversary ed. (Continuum: 2006), 185.

Image credit: “Outside in” (detail), James Turrell at House of Lights, Tohka-machi, Niigata, Japan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: His silence is a kiss, / His presence an embrace. —Thomas Keating, “Loneliness in the Night.”
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