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The Sound of Silence

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part One

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.

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia,” Ramparts Magazine (March 1963), 69. See In the Dark before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, ed. Lynn R. Szabo (New Directions: 2005), 68.

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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