As I looked around for more insight into how to go about contemplative prayer, I decided it was time to become familiar with Father Thomas Keating. I have seen him on YouTube clips explaining Centering prayer, Lectio divina and Contemplative prayer, but it seemed to me I was missing something. I could not figure out how all of these forms of prayer were related to one another, and if it really was as simple as Father Keating seemed to be saying. Beyond the prayers I had related questions such as: how could I identify a true divine connection? And then what?
It turns out, I found Father Thomas Keating’s book, Open Mind Open Heart, exactly when I was ready for it. I know this because everything fell into place, and after years of struggling with how to pray, and why pray, and what is prayer anyway, I feel less confused and more confident that prayer really does work. Amazing how it all accumulates until one small object becomes just the right amount for a true break through! When you are ready it all opens to you. It sounds like something your religious grandmother would say: when you are ready… it will happen. But, it is not meant as an excuse to sit back and do nothing until you are ready. Being ready implies you are doing something to get yourself in position to receive something. So it takes some intention — just not the kind of intention that propels one forth in the world to dominate. Opening oneself to prayer is different than the intention of making yourself greater again or maybe even for the first time. It is not about puffing up your persona. It is also not allowing yourself to be weak, ignorant and irresponsible. Prayer is not a way to say I give up, or I give in to the world because it is all in God’s hands now…. Unless we can truly listen to the divine we run the risk of always doing exactly what we want or ignoring what needs to be done, and then attributing it to the divine. We need to know how to listen and how to respond.
I appreciate Thomas Keating taking the time to write this book because he not only speaks clearly about the how, but also about the why — and he keeps it real. He writes about the end point of prayer as unity with God, but he does not just stop there, he explains what that means:
“Then everything begins to reflect not only its own beauty but also the beauty of its Source. One becomes united to everything else in which God dwells. The insight into Christ dwelling in every other person enables one to express charity toward others with greater spontaneity. Instead of seeing only someone’s personality, race, nationality, gender, status, or characteristics (which you like or do not like), you see what is deepest — one’s union or potential union with Christ. You also perceive everyone’s desperate need of help. The transcendent potential of most people is still waiting to be realized, and this awakens a great sense of compassion. This Christ-centered love takes us out of ourselves and brings our newly found sense of independence into relationships that are not based on dependency, as many relationships tend to be, but that are based on Christ as their center. It enables one to work for others with great liberty of spirit because one is no longer seeking one’s own ego-centered goals but responding to reality as it is.
“Divine love is not an attitude that one puts on like a cloak. It is rather the right way to respond to reality. It is the right relationship to being, including our own being. And that relationship is primarily one of receiving. No one has any degree of divine love except what one has received. An important part of the response to divine love, once it has been received, is to pass it on to our neighbor in a way that is appropriate in the present moment. (103)”
Basically, these tools: Lectio divina, centering prayer, and contemplative prayer, are in fact meditative tools to bring about transcendence. The reasoning that supports them is the same as in Buddhism. It is not just a way to relax and deal with the world. It goes deeper than being happy — if happiness is only defined as gaining — all the time. It means you rise up and act out of your true nature, which is, as the buddhists say, basic goodness. And, what the Christians say is Christ. No single religion holds a monopoly over love and basic goodness. For this reason Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches to follow your religion. You need not convert to Buddhism if it makes you uncomfortable. If you use the tools correctly, hold them in your heart as a sacred path, then you will awaken. It is all anyone could want on this earth, to awaken.
Indeed prayer is a form of preparing the mind to be mindful. Many books have been written by contemporary mindfulness experts. For example, Eckhart Tolle skillfully tells us how to live in the here and now. However, it helps very little to say things like we need to live in the now, if there is not an understanding of what it means to live at all. Uprooting mindfulness from what is sacred turns mindfulness into mere attentiveness. For living in the now does not prohibit one from plundering and looting — why would it? Living in the now could be a dangerous philosophy if it implies just having a good time, or paying more attention to detail as you take away the basic rights of groups you happen to dislike. It essentially means we will seek out pleasure at any cost. Responsibility is painful. Most of the time being responsible means you are going to need to sacrifice something. If you are responsible to your children you will probably find yourself giving up/sacrificing a great deal of your own desires. Responsibility demands a response, and thus after we learn to live in the now, we must know how to respond, and we must have an idea of, as Father Keating writes: “the right way to respond to reality (from the quote above).”
What prayer does finally, is open your heart and mind to something that is beyond all the chatter and noise of everyday life. It is not a method to get wishes granted. It is a way to establish a true connection to something outside of all the emotional upset that makes up our lives. You no longer get tossed around in the storm. You stand firmly rooted. And best of all:
“The triumph of grace enables people to live their ordinary lives divinely (104).”
Perhaps, living an ordinary life is where it all breaks down for many people. Perhaps, we want to live extravagant lives or simple lives with no worries. Why would anyone want to live an ordinary life? It is interesting how Father Keating juxtaposes two quite opposite concepts: ordinary and the divine. An ordinary life lived divinely is no longer ordinary. Here the transcendent, God, Goodness, the divine, opens up to everyone and you can live your life, as ordinary as it seems, divinely. Amazing! It is a lot of power.
Thomas Keating presents within the pages of this slim book (148 pages, which includes a glossary of terms), some guidelines on how to go about centering prayer in order to build the foundation of a strong contemplative practice. There are suggestions that range from the amount of time to devote to praying to picking a sacred word. Father Keating’s style is conversational as the book is structured in keeping with a question an answer session, but it never meanders or loses sight of its primary purpose.
Lastly, what truly intrigued me was this idea of releasing unconscious energies through prayer (p.15). Sitting in silence, as anyone who has meditated for more than a few minutes knows, can bring into consciousness repressed thoughts and even traumatic experiences. It could also make one feel elated. Thomas Keating gently urges us to let go of it all. It turns out, you are not praying to have an experience, but rather to make a connection with the light that is deep within you. Namaste.