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Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two
Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part Two

A Silent Love

Monday, October 26, 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.

[1] Bernadette Roberts, The Path to No-Self: Life at the Center (State University of New York Press: 1991). The Preface, Introduction, and first chapter describe “viewing union as a transitional rather than a definitive stage” (p. 7) of mature spirituality.

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at

Epigraph: Keating, “The Last Laugh,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem V.

Image credit: Alta Pink (detail), James Turrell, 1968, installation.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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”
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