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October 25 — Thomas Keating

Today’s Bible reading

Now when the Lamb opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. — Revelation 8:1 (NET)

More thoughts for meditation about Thomas Keating (March 7, 1923 – October 25, 2018)

Thomas Keating, was an American Catholic monk and priest of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. He was born into affluence and privilege in Manhattan, walked away from it all when he entered an austere monastic community in Rhode Island, and was rewarded with spiritual riches.

As he told the story: “At 5, I had a serious illness. I heard adults in the next room wondering whether I’d live. I took this very seriously, and at my first Mass bargained with God: ‘If you’ll let me live to 21, I’ll become a priest.’ After that, 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.”

Keating was known as one of the principal developers of Centering Prayer, a contemporary method of contemplative prayer called centering prayer that emerged from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Over the years, his thoughts crystallized into what friends said became one of his favorite sayings: “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.”

Keating went to the Buckley School, a private school on the Upper East Side, and Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts before entering Yale. As he studied Christianity, he was drawn to the mystics and came to believe that the Scriptures call people into a personal relationship with God. Eager to explore his spirituality, he transferred from Yale to an accelerated program at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx. He graduated in 1943. He expected to be drafted in World War II but received a deferment to enter the seminary. In 1944, at the age of 20, he entered the strict Cistercian Monastery Our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, R.I. He was ordained a priest in 1949.

“I felt the more austere the life, the sooner I would achieve the contemplative life I sought,” he continued. “I spent the next five to six years observing almost total silence.” In 1950, while Father Keating was in Rhode Island, the monastery burned down and the monks moved to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, in central Massachusetts. He left Spencer in 1958 to help start a new monastic community, St. Benedict’s, in Snowmass, Colo., not far from Aspen. In 1961 he was elected abbot at St. Joseph’s and returned to Massachusetts, where he served in that capacity for the next two decades.

In 1971, after the Second Vatican Council, at which Pope Paul VI encouraged priests and religious scholars to renew the Christian contemplative tradition, Father Keating was invited to Rome. This led him, along with William Meninger and Basil Pennington, to develop the practice of centering prayer.

But his enthusiasm for this approach led to tensions within the abbey, and a vote on whether he should remain as abbot was evenly split. He decided he did not want to remain in a house so divided and moved back to Snowmass. It was a liberating move for him. He began organizing conferences with representatives of other religions, including the Dalai Lama, imams and rabbis.

During this period he focused more on centering prayer, holding workshops and retreats to promote it to clergy and lay people. He helped found Contemplative Outreach, a network of people who practice centering prayer, in 1984 and was its president from 1985 to 1999.

“Centering prayer is all about heartfulness, which is a little different from mindfulness,” the Rev. Carl Arico, a co-founder of Contemplative Outreach. “It goes to the relationship with God, who is already there. It’s not sitting in a void.”

Father Keating wrote more than 30 books and created various multimedia projects; one of his most popular is “Centering Prayer: A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God,” which consists of a workbook, DVDs and audio CDs. One reviewer called it “a monastery in a box.”

Want more?

“A Big Experiment“: A brief history of the beginnings of the Snowmass Conference and the Eight Points of Agreement that came out of the initial years of dialogue.

“Father Thomas Keating is a Rebel With a Cause,” March 2018.  A look back at the history and evolution of Thomas Keating.

Video: Thomas Keating: from the mind to the heart.

Video: Thomas Keating: A rising tide of silence  Amazon • iTunes • Google • Vimeo

Suggestions for action

Check out the work of Thomas Keating preserved in the work of Contemplative Outreach. Here is a link to their guides to contemplative practice.