Remembering Fr. Thomas Keating: A Mission of Unconditional Love Beyond Love
On October 26, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, Thomas Keating, died at the age of 95 at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Like many great masters of the spiritual life, he was known only in a relatively small circle during his life. But he left us a powerful but unlikely solution to our national crisis: we need to learn how to pray!
Keating was a member of one of the most austere and rigorous Christian religious communities—the Cistercians—and the strictest version of Cistercians known as the Trappists. Based on the Benedictine order founded 1500 years ago, Trappists are men and women monks like many others: they dedicate their lives to vigorous physical work, observe a strict schedule of chanting the psalms usually 6 times per day, live mostly in silence apart from others, and believe their vocation to be one that leads to deeper love of God and healing in the world. Keating left his family and entered the monastery at 21. “I joined the Trappists because they were the most demanding, and that’s what I wanted.”
But it wasn’t the rituals and demands of the monastery that captured Keating’s passion. Instead, it was the goal of all those disciplines and practices: to lead human beings to experience the unconditional “love beyond love” that is God’s presence within us. And with that experience, to have that love lead us “to respect and befriend and love one another.” “Holiness” he said at a retreat, “does not consist in any practice but in a disposition of heart…trusting to audacity in (God’s)…unconditional love. Only that can bring…(us) into full emotional or spiritual maturity.”
So Keating and his fellow monks decided to try to teach an ancient way of developing a loving disposition of heart. And that way was both deeply rooted in the history of Christianity and of many other religions, but to many believers, it was new and original: they called it “centering prayer” and suggested that it wasn’t just for monks; it was for everyone.
Centering prayer is a practice of silence much like the meditative practices of Buddhism and other traditions. It involves siting in silence and gently letting go of all thoughts and sensations while repeating a sacred word when thoughts arise. It emphasizes assent to the presence of God. Its goal is a personal relationship with God whose love is constant, trustworthy, gentle, and safe. The big change we all seek begins within—the sacred place of transformation is where you are.
Coming as he did from the Christian tradition, he drew on the overlooked insights of great spiritual masters of that tradition—the consciousness genius of the anonymous 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the remarkable simplicity of the spiritual path of St. Therese of Lisieux, and the transcendent unifying vision of the 13th century monk, Meister Eckhart, to name a few.
But because he saw through the false certainties of all religions, he saw the same path in his frequent collaborations with Buddhists, Jews, other Christians, and people of all religions or none at all—with anyone who sought the source and experience of unconditional love. “Everyone is religious just by coming into being. We already are most of what we want to be, but it’s unconscious to us and our reason doesn’t function enough to let us see it…So we learn listening, waiting, and trusting and these are the ways of contemplation that allow us to see.”
Centering prayer has grown dramatically since Keating and his fellow Trappists first taught it in the late 1970s. Today, there are several aligned organizations and hundreds of thousands of individual practitioners and thousands of small community-based groups. Keating saw that centering prayer could help fill a void left when traditional religions focused too much on ideas and authority structures, especially when those ideas and authorities promote violence or division. “People are unhappy with authority these days,” he said just a few months before his death, “and I understand why. But they shouldn’t be unhappy with direct and intuitive practices of direct relationship with God.”
If there’s one thing our country needs right now, it’s what Keating tried to teach: a disposition of the heart that leads us to love and respect one another. And even more, we need the calm and presence and silence that will help us reduce the toxicity in our public discourse and become present to the gentleness and goodness within each of us.
Perhaps most importantly, we need a way to infuse our national discourse with the kind of inclusivity and spiritual wisdom that marked Keating’s life. We can be democrats, republicans, or independents; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or no religion at all; we can be from cities of suburbs or rural areas. But no matter what identity we carry, we can each start to make the change our country needs by making ourselves into agents of transformation and healing from the inside out. The wholeness we hunger to see in our country we must first welcome into ourselves.
Such is the challenge of our time. We may not be able to find sweeping policy solutions to our problems though there are policy changes we need. We may not be able to find commanding political leaders to solve our problems though transformational political leaders we need. But we can face the personal, communal, and even spiritual challenges in ourselves and in our communities. To solve those, we are each and together the ones we are waiting for.
I was lucky to spend an hour with Fr. Keating two months before his death. At our last conversation, he emphasized “trust.” He heard my confession and stopped me when I said I was struggling to “trust” in these times of fear and violence and division. “Focus on trust” he said. “When you trust that we are all part of something beautiful beyond our wildest imagination, you will find healing.”
When we neared the end of our time, he gave me an instruction in prayer. “Keep returning to silence. It’s God’s first language and everything else is a poor translation. And say just one ‘Hail Mary’,” he said, referring to the Catholic prayer that asks the help of Mary, the Mother of Christ. “But say it slowly so you can feel the unconditional trust that made it possible for Mary to allow God’s love to take over her life…so you meet her and understand her model of trust in God and let her heal you.”
I left him moments later. “Til we meet again,” were his final words to me, yet another expression of a man who trusted in the totality of God’s love and who taught prayer as an act of surrender, an act of presence, an act of love.
It may seem like an unlikely call to action in 2018 America, but it’s a call worth hearing nonetheless: “the change is within…silence is God’s first language….trust to audacity…respect and befriend and love one another … love beyond love…trust”
I am lucky to have found a teacher like him to guide me. We all belong to God.
Timothy Shriver is chairman of Special Olympics and co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the world’s leading school reform organization in the field of social, emotional and academic learning.
This essay was featured in the Nov. 25th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.