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Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part One

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part One

Saturday, October 24, 2020
Summary: Sunday, October 18—Friday, October 23, 2020

I believe Thomas Keating 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. (Sunday)

In this season of planetary upheaval, Thomas Keating’s courageous spiritual work has deep wisdom to offer us as we begin to wrap our collective hearts around what is required next. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Monday)

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. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Tuesday)

God co-inheres and interpenetrates everything, the ocean-in-drop and drop-in-ocean, constantly exchanging in a dance of endless fecundity. —Cynthia Bourgeault (Wednesday)

For most of us—including for Thomas Keating—the sense of joyful, flowing oneness doesn’t just “happen.” It comes at the end of a painful season of stripping and purification that has classically been called “the dark night of the spirit.” —Cynthia Bourgeault (Thursday)

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, but mystics seem to finally and fully abide there, which I hope encourages us to keep going. (Friday)

 

Practice: Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is simply sitting in silence, open to God’s love and our love for God. Today, CAC Living School faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault provides a brief overview of the Centering Prayer practice.

  • It is preferable to find a quiet place to sit comfortably where you will be undisturbed for the period of time you are setting aside for your centering prayer. That said, you can still proceed with your practice even if the environment and conditions are not ideal.
  • There are a variety of meditation benches, cushions and sitting accessories widely available, but sitting upright in a standard chair is perfectly fine.
  • The prescribed daily practice is a minimum of two 20-minute sits. If at all possible this amount is most recommended to start and maintain a dedicated practice. A timer or nearby clock is helpful to time the sitting period.
  • An aid to help in returning to the essence of the practice is to select and use a sacred word or short phrase that can act as a placeholder or symbol for your intention.
  • Aiming to stay relaxed but attentive, close your eyes, and start your practice period rooting in your basic intention of open availability to God.
  • Each time you notice yourself becoming absorbed in a thought, and without making a problem of your distraction, gently release your attention from the thought and inwardly say your sacred word. Your sacred word is not constantly repeated like a mantra, but only used as much as required to bring yourself back into alignment with your original intention.
  • In the context of this practice, a thought is defined as anything that brings your attention to a focal point. This could be an idea, vision, memory, emotion, or dwelling upon a physical sensation. If it captures your attention, it’s considered a thought, and by letting go you are renewing your intention and consent for “God’s presence and action within.”
  • As you continue in the prayer period and thoughts inevitably arise, use your sacred word to gently and quickly clear your mental debris, and to return to open awareness and availability.
  • When the allotted time is up, slowly open your eyes. Without rushing, take a few minutes to allow yourself to come back to your usual state of consciousness.
  • If planning longer periods of sitting, many find a very slow meditative walk after each 20 minutes or so helps to keep the body more comfortable and alert.

Reference:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Method and Practice of Centering Prayer, The Wisdom Way of Knowing at https://wisdomwayofknowing.org/resource-directory/centering-prayer/

For Further Study:
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, foreword by Thomas Keating (Cowley Publications: 2004).

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016).

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

Thomas Keating, Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps, with Tom S., interviewer (Lantern Publishing and Media: 2020, ©2009).

Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, 20th anniversary ed. (Continuum: 2006).

Thomas Keating, The Secret Embrace, artist Charlotte M. Frieze (Temple Rock Company: 2018). A limited number of copies available at https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/product/thomas-keating-the-secret-embrace/

Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015).

Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer, Thomas Keating and others (Lantern Books: 2008).

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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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.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2015), 20, 79, 83.

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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Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace, Part One

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 “fading, fading.” 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.

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, “Loneliness in the Night,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem III.

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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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.

But
The Secret Embrace
Of
The Source of all creation
With
Infinite Transcendence
Can
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.

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, “The Secret Embrace,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem II.

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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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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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.”
Read Full Entry

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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