Centering Prayer as Divine Therapy

November 27th, 2007

Father Thomas Keating has devoted a lifetime to understanding and teaching the practice of Centering Prayer. In this conversation, he explores the techniques and the benefits of this modern application of an ancient spiritual discipline.

Thomas Keating:

Centering Prayer as Divine Therapy

by Kate Olsen

Call the office of Contemplative Outreach in Snowmass, Colorado and you’re likely to hear the taped message: “The retreats for 1995 are full, the retreats for 1996 are full, except for October. . . Little did Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and a founder of the organization, know a movement would grow out of his desire to bring the richness of the contemplative experience to people outside the monastery. Through a method called “Centering Prayer” that he and his associates developed, he hoped ordinary people could experience the essence of the Christian contemplative tradition once thought to be available only for monks and nuns. There are now some 28,000 practitioners across the country and in several foreign countries.

It was during a time of deep questioning while a student at Yale that Keating, now 72, read a set of commentaries on the four Gospels by the Church Fathers and decided to pursue the contemplative life. Against the wishes of his family, he entered the Trappists in 1944. It was the most austere order he could find, and in those days it was thought that the more austere, the more likely it would lead to a deeper contemplative life.

Twenty years later he was the abbot of a large Cistercian monastery, St. Joseph’s Abbey, in Spencer, Massachusetts. The Second Vatican Council had sparked a spiritual awakening and raised many questions about the monastic life. It was also a time of deep searching outside the monastery. Thousands, many of them Catholics hungry for a spiritual path, were flocking to India in search of spiritual teachers. Keating wondered why they weren’t looking to the monasteries that were plentiful in this country. He set out to put the contemplative monastic tradition into a form that might inspire those who were seeking spiritual experiences through Eastern meditation techniques to look within their own tradition.

He and two other monks in his community, Fr. William Meninger and Fr. Basil Pennington, began holding retreats to teach Centering Prayer, a method based on the fourteenth-century English classic The Cloud of Unknowing. The method seemed to meet a real spiritual hunger, especially for those looking for a deeper experience of faith.

After twenty years as abbot of St. Joseph’s, Keating “retired” in 1981 to St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado where he continued to offer retreats in his method. To help people deepen and integrate their experience, he developed a conceptual background for Centering Prayer which he presents in a series of books – Open Mind, Open Heart (1986), The Mystery of Christ (1987), Invitation to Love (1992), and Intimacy with God (1994). Here, he brings together the Christian contemplative tradition with insights from contemporary psychology – using the language of psychology, for example, to explain the healing of the unconscious affected during the “dark nights” of St. John of the Cross.

The primary teaching of Centering Prayer is basically very simple, says Keating, and can be expressed in two words: “Do it!” It will then do you. We talked with Father Keating last summer at St. Benedict’s Monastery before he left for a five-month retreat.

Trinity News: You’ve spent much of your life in prayer and devoted to the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. What is contemplative prayer?

Thomas Keating: Contemplative prayer is the opening of mind and heart, our whole being, to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. It is a process of interior purification that leads, if we consent, to divine union.

TN: How does Centering Prayer bring you into this dimension? And what are the roots of this prayer?

TK: Centering Prayer is another word for a kind of prayer for a kind of prayer that has been around from almost the time of the apostles. In other times it’s been known as the prayer of silence, the prayer of faith, the prayer of simplicity, the prayer of simple regard, pure prayer. It is a method designed to facilitate the development of contemplative prayer by preparing our faculties to with this gift. It isn’t meant to replace other kinds of prayer – it simply puts other kinds of prayer into a new and fuller perspective.

TN: You’ve said that Centering Prayer brings a person face-to-face with the “false self,” which you define as “an image developed to cope with the emotional traumas of early childhood which seeks happiness in satisfying the instinctual needs of survival and security, affection and esteem, power and control. What does this “false self” have to do with the spiritual journey?

TK: Just about everything. As we evolve toward self-identity and full self-consciousness, so grows the sense of responsibility, and hence guilt, and so grows the sense of alienation from the true self which has long ago been forgotten in the course of the early growth period. This whole process of growth normally takes place without the inner experience of the divine presence. That is the crucial source of the false self. The young adolescent arrives at full self-reflective self-consciousness without the experience of God’s inner presence which is the true security, the true love, and the true freedom. It’s at this point that the Gospel addresses us with the word “repent.” This doesn’t mean do various kinds of physical penance, but it means to change the direction in which you are looking for happiness. Because, dear heart, it’s not going to work. It can’t possibly work and it’s killing you. It’s destroying your capacity to relate to God, and to yourself and to others, and it’s going to get worse unless one takes oneself in hand and undergoes a discipline to dismantle the emotional programs for happiness that can’t work an to replace them with the values of the Gospel. There’s nothing basically wrong with you, it’s just that your basic goodness has been overlaid by emotional programs for happiness which are aimed at things other than the ultimate happiness which is your relationship with God.

TN: In your book Invitation to Love you quote Paul’s lament in Romans: “I don’t understand myself at all. I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to do – what I hate. I love to do God’s will, so far as my nature is concerned. But there is something else deep within me that win the fight and makes me a slave to sin that is still within me.”

TK: That’s what I mean by the “false self’ and its various programs for happiness that can’t work. What Paul calls the ‘old man” is the false self. Today, you’d have to add the “old woman” so the two of them are in bad shape. It’s not that the basic goodness of God’s presence has in any way been tarnished by this evolution which is basically born out of survival needs. It’s that the survival needs that were necessary for a child are no longer necessary as an adult and especially in light of the values of the Gospel. By the gift of grace we have the means to be converted, if you want to use that word. To be converted means to change from looking for happiness in symbols of our emotional programs in the culture – it can’t be found there and will lead to human misery – and to begin to look for happiness where it really is: in our relationship with God, in our service of others, in our respect for nature, and in our sense of belonging to the universe. In other words, the spiritual journey is the journey to the true self that never developed, because this false self came in as a necessary means of dealing with the immediate problems of life for a fragile little being who is just a bundle of emotional needs and who had no reasoning faculty available to moderate the desperate way it clung to those apparent possibilities for happiness.

The human being is geared for happiness. It’s not a choice. Even the worst things that we do have at their core a desire for happiness. If we are not in contact with God in some way and experiencing that presence, then we begin to produce substitutes for God. This is what the Old Testament means by idols. Someone who has wealth as his or her idea of happiness is worshiping a false God. Someone who has fame as the object is worshiping a false God. Someone who is looking for worldly symbols of security in our culture is not going to find it. Because that’s not where it’s at.

One of the great advantages of Centering Prayer is that it’s like taking a vacation from the false self for twenty minutes twice a day. As the prayer continues in which we let go of thoughts for twenty minutes, we begin to experience a deep rest on the spiritual level which even reaches down, when it gets habitual and profound, the body. The body then begins to feel free to evacuate the emotional junk of a lifetime that has been stored in the body.

TN: In your writing, you call this process “divine therapy.”

TK: I call it divine therapy because it’s not just a relationship, a friendship, but it’s also a medicinal relationship. Jesus said, “I am a physician, and those who need a doctor should come to me.” Contemplative prayer is really the healing of body, mind, and spirit.

Kate Olson has a longtime interest in covering the spiritual dimension of people’ s lives. She began her career at Psychology Today magazine in 1978 and, since 1981, has been with public television’s MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour where, as a producer, she specializes in covering religion. She first encountered Thomas Keating while developing a story on the burgeoning retreat movement in this country. She attended a ten-day retreat in Centering Prayer as part of her research.

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