The world lost a master academic and fearless champion for prayer. The great Cisctercian monk and Catholic theologian Father Thomas Keating passed away in November, 2018 at the age of 95. He was quite a man and his story was told in the documentary honoring his life by his nephew Peter Jones, “A Rising Tide of Silence”.
Keating was gifted with the ability to marry intellect and reason with spirituality and faith. Keating’s teaching on Centering Prayer along with Basil Pennington and William Meninger inspired tens of thousands of people to join the contemplative movement.
He was revered the world over for his interfaith dialogue and ability to translate mysticism from the Christian perspective. He garnered respect from the leaders of all the world’s major religions.
Born to a wealthy family in New York City, he attended the finest schools at Buckley School, Deerfield Academy for high school, and Yale and Fordham for college. His father had plans for his only son to follow in his footsteps in the family business, but Thomas had other ideas.
Early on in his life he was sickly and almost died from a serious illness. As a boy he prayed to God “If you let me live to be twenty-one, I’ll become a priest”. He survived and had this deep and abiding connection to the life of prayer. True to his word, Keating became a priest against his parents’ wishes.
His journey to the monastery was fraught with spiritual unrest. It was during WWII, that he discussed with a priest going into service or serving in the capacity of ministry. Realizing that the world was in peril of an evil threat from Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Keating struggled with his decision, noting that he felt as though he was letting the side down when it came time to enlist in the army. But his pull to the spiritual was strong and was witnessed by others. His spiritual mentor informed him, “This war was not for him” thus alleviating some of Keating’s anxiety. The priest saw something in his student that needed to be cultivated through the discipline that Catholic Holy Orders could provide and his service to humanity would be from the pulpit.
Keating rose through the ranks of the monastics, became the Abbot at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts and later set up shop at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Snowmass, Colorado.
Although there were hardships in the monastery and his strict, rigid disciplinarian tendencies wore on some of the novices and alienated other monks causing splits in the order, Keating was committed to a life of Christ and helping others to be honest in finding their vocations.
He understood implicitly that life requires an unconditional relinquishing of one’s will to God’s will and this beautiful surrender was mastered through exploring techniques from the early Church Fathers, but he was also open to the techniques of Eastern Religious traditions.
He noted, ”The slightest movement towards this presence activates the presence of God within us”. His open heartedness to this movement inspired him to recognize that God’s call is open to us in all aspects of life and in traditions/cultures foreign to him.
His practical applications of prayer have led many to listen. Keating calls it “Consenting to a presence that is already in our hearts”. He believed that we transcend the different interpretations by looking at other faiths. We transcend other faiths by recognizing the truth that is God.
He reminded us, “Silence is God’s language — God’s first language”. Like any language, it needs to be learned and through the act of attaining understanding something in us grows.
The scriptural cornerstone for Keating’s Centering Prayer teaching came from Matthew 6:6. “If you want to pray, enter your room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. The Gather who sees in secret will reward you in secret.” Keating reaped the rewards of inner reflection.
Keating is one of the most practical theologians I’ve encountered. His psychological understanding of the fragility of the mind and pragmatic spiritual disciplines bode well for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the human condition. His ability to translate an individual’s psychological needs and spiritual needs are a tremendous asset to those who minister to others.
Keating was highly attuned to the nuances of scripture. He grasped the timeless message of Jesus’ teaching and related it with a flair for wit and an uncommon sense of unity consciousness. He recognized that “Just by the nature of our birth, we are on a spiritual journey.” He went on to state, “The spiritual journey doesn’t require going anywhere because God is already with us and in us.”
St. Paul reminds us that each of us is endowed with certain spiritual gifts. When it comes to Keating, it’s hard to know if his greatest gift lay in the foundations of his prophetic message or ability to heal a heart. Like the disciples, he traveled the world as a spiritual healer, instilling the gospel message in the hearts of all who heard him. Like Jesus, he saw the Christ in others and helped others encounter Christ in their own lives by recognizing the accessibility of Jesus’ message through the depths of prayer and contemplation.
When you encounter one who knows truth, you see it in the poetry of their lives – the way they move, and speak, and in the humble manner of encounter. Keating was one of those people.