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A Poetic Legacy

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.

References:
Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “Out of a Stone,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem I.

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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