1 March 2019
The power of prayer
The boy survived and after recovery said, “I’d skip out early in the morning before school and go to Mass. I knew my parents wouldn’t approve, so I never told them.” That five-year-old would live into his 90s and become a Trappist monk, author, lecturer, and a priest who re-introduced meditation and centering prayer, not only to the Catholic church, but to other Christians worldwide.
Thomas Keating was born to a prosperous family on March 27, 1923 in New York and named Joseph Parker Kirlin Keating. He was one of four children born to Cletus and Elizabeth (Kirlin) Keating. His father was a successful maritime lawyer. Thomas was not raised in a religious home. Cletus was a lapsed Catholic who objected to organised religion and his mother did not attend worship services but did read from the bible regularly.
In spite of his secular upbringing, he had what he called a “spontaneous attraction” to religion and after his illness his interest in spiritual matters grew. He attended Yale University where he studied religion and was drawn to Christian mystics. Seeking to deepen his faith via academic study, he transferred to Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx where he graduated in 1943.
Thomas Keating expected to be drafted in World War II but received a deferment to continue seminary studies. In 1944, at the age of 20, he entered the strict Cistercian (Trappist) Monastery Our Lady of the Valley in Rhode Island. He was ordained a priest in 1949 and selected the spiritual name ‘Thomas’ because of his admiration for St Thomas Aquinas.
In 1950, a fire destroyed the monastery so the monks moved to St Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts. A decade later Father Keating was selected as the Abbott, a position he would hold for 20 years. When Pope Paul VI encouraged priests and religious scholars to renew the Christian contemplative tradition, Fr Keating was one of the first to respond and began to develop what he would call “centering prayer.” He was guided considerably by Eastern spiritual practices.
Fr Keating’s inclusion of practices and insights from Eastern religions made him a controversial figure in the Trappist community. A vote was taken on whether he should continue as Abbot but because he only won by a narrow majority, Fr Keating decided to resign. The freedom from administrative oversight liberated him to further develop centering prayer and enabled him to work with leaders of other religions.
In Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr Keating describes centering prayer as a discipline “designed to withdraw out attention from the ordinary flow of our thoughts. We tend to identify ourselves with that flow. But there is a deeper part of ourselves. This prayer opens our awareness to the spiritual level of our being.”
A vital aspect of centering prayer was the practice of silent meditation. Fr Keating offered careful instruction on how to meditate in order to “establish interior silence”:
- Be seated comfortably “so that you won’t be thinking about the body.”
- Choose a place which is relatively quiet or a time when you are least likely to be disturbed.
- Gently close the eyes because “you tend to think of what you see.”
- Set a timer allowing minutes as the “minimum times necessary to establish interior silence.”
- Focus thoughts upon a “single word of one or two syllables with which you feel at ease.”
- Bring the palms together with fingers pointing upward as a “symbol of gathering all the faculties together and directing them toward God.”
- When the time is up, sit silently for an additional two minutes before opening eyes.
His approach to meditation was both gentle and compassionate. Asked for advice if during meditation you fall asleep, Fr Keating said, “If you doze off, don’t give it a second thought. A child in the arms of a parent drops off to sleep occasionally, but the parent isn’t disturbed by that so long as the child is happily resting there and opens its eyes once in a while.”
And when asked about dealing with emerging thoughts during meditation, Fr Keating said to simply let “all perceptions pass by, not by giving them a shove or by getting angry at them, but by letting them go. This enable you gradually to develop a spiritual attentiveness that is peaceful, quiet and absorbing.”
At conferences and retreats, Fr Keating often invited questions from participants. His responses became an effective way of instruction as well as inspiration. Here are some examples of those question and answer moments:
- How can you pray in deep silence and peace when you are very upset about something?
- In such circumstances you cannot hope to pray in silence without some kind of buffer zone. You may have to run around the block, do physical exercises, or some suitable reading. Otherwise, as soon as you sit down and try to be quiet, you will think that you are sitting under Niagara Falls instead of beside the stream of consciousness.
- What do you think of drugs as a means to induce mystical experiences?
- Some seem to find spiritual experience through certain psychedelic drugs. It’s much more desirable, however, to have a built-in discipline than to depend on drugs, which don’t always work as desired.
- I have heard that if you fast, meditation is enhanced.
- For some, fasting will enhance the experience of centering prayer It might have the opposite effect on others. If your hunger is so intense that it preoccupies you during the time of prayer, fasting is counterproductive. The principle to follow during centering g prayer is to try to forget the body. Simplicity of life, not extremes, fits in better with this kind of practice.