What Thomas Keating taught me about our current struggles


Last week, I had the opportunity to visit with Fr. Thomas Keating at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, CO.  It was an extraordinary privilege to have time with him, as part of a Shalem group with Matthew Wright, Bo Karen Lee, Jessie Smith, and Tom Bushlack from the Trust for the Meditation Process.  We were there as part of the New Contemplatives Exchange, and we’ll share in many future conversations.

To have time with Fr. Thomas, to reflect on the vital role of the contemplative lineage within the broader Christian tradition was an experience I will never forget.  After asking each of us to share some of our own context, we reflected together on the dynamics of participating with and in God in our world–the call to a deeper awareness of the immediate presence of God that the contemplative lineage nurtures and which our various practices of meditation encourage.

Fr. Thomas shared his thoughts on how we are invited to share in the Divine life of the Trinity.  I immediately thought of the collect from the Book of Common Prayer for the Second Sunday after Christmas:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully
restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may
share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share
our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.  BCP, 214.

In such a sharing, such an encounter in this intimacy of God, there is a space where the dynamic movement between God and ourselves–nurtured and empowered by the Holy Spirit to partake in the union between the Creator and the Incarnate One–diminishes the rigid boundaries between “us” and “God.”  There is a closeness, a proximity, a mutual indwelling.

Now, Fr. Thomas was careful to say that such an existence or relationship is not numerically one, because God is ultimately beyond our knowing.  There is an ultimate mystery which cannot be penetrated, yet in this moment of intimacy we are invited to “share the divine life” as the collect imagines.

After he shared these thoughts, I looked at him and said, “Well, that’s a lot to live up to.”

He laughed with a twinkle in his eye and told me, “Well, you don’t live up to it at all.  The path to this intimacy is through dying to the self.”

At the heart of the Christian contemplative tradition is the profound call to die to the self: self denial, ascesis, spiritual discipline.  The path of self-emptying opens our spiritual hearts (as Tilden Edwards would describe) and we are suffused with, permeated by, the Spirit of Christ that draws us ever closer to God–and closer to our neighbor.  Love of God and love of neighbor are intrinsically linked in the Christian tradition–and this contemplative posture of self-denial lies at the heart of what authentic Christian practice aims to be.

Yet we easily forget this.  We live in an environment in which a “popular” form of Christianity seems to support a rampant individualism–that all that matters is my personal salvation and that Jesus wants me to be happy, wealthy, and fulfilled in life.  The reason this particular strain is so popular is that it reinforces the cultural assumptions we hold so dearly.

God wants us to be fulfilled, yes, but how we lose sight of what true fulfillment is.  The question is with what are we being filled?  Are we being filled with the Spirit of Christ that calls us to lay down our life for our friend?  To love our neighbor as ourselves? To die to self in order to be filled with this dynamic Divine reality of love that permeates all existence–but which we are often to self-occupied to see?

After these days in Snowmass where the New Contemplatives Exchange was gathered to take up the lineage from our teachers Tilden Edwards, Laurence Freeman, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating–and many others who hold space within this broader contemplative tradition–my heart is enticed by this intimate experience of kenosis–of self-emptying.  And it is this posture that I believe can ground our painful conversation around race, oppression, fear, and anxiety.

Some have said that the conversation around race is a complicated one.  This is not true.  The situation of racism is perfectly clear: it is a sin and must be named as such.  The image of the Crucifixion stands in judgment of any human-imposed frameworks of injustice and oppression.  Any of them.  The reconciling work of God in Christ reaches into every aspect of life and every heart and of all creation.  All are equalized in the loving eyes of God; only through our sinful, egotistical eyes of greed, power, and self-centeredness do we humans create warped systems of economic and social oppression.  Thus, it is vitally important to understand just what is complicated.

The circumstances of racism are not complex.  It is quite simple in its sinfulness.  The complexity arises within communities when we continue to fail to yield to the loving intent of God’s grace and insist on grasping and propping up any sinful illusion of our position over and against any other human being.  When we commit sins within our daily lives, do we have the humility–the humanity–to confess them and seek forgiveness and thus reconciliation, or do we grasp onto our power and insist on our rightness in the face of injustice?

Do our feelings of shame and embarrassment–our vulnerability–break our hearts open to seek reconciliation, or does our heart harden like Pharoah and become vindictive, prideful, and even violent?

This dynamic is, of course, experienced within communities and even the whole world as well.  When we become aware of moments of injustice and sinfulness, of oppression, does our collective heart break open to experience God’s grace through our vulnerability, or do we insist on our rightness, with our egotistical drive for self-preservation and pride squeezing out any space for conversion?  Put another way and perhaps more bluntly: what does it mean when we proclaim our ‘rights’ in the face of what God calls us to rightly do and be?

The word “monument” seems fitting to use here: what monument are we seeking to build and preserve?  A monument grounded in any sense of self-centeredness or a monument to this persistent grace of God that seeks the wholeness of all creation, of every human being?  Indeed, since we’re talking about monuments, perhaps we should reflect and pay attention to the monuments of a self-focused economic system that holds the self-centered pursuit of wealth as the ultimate goal of life.  God’s judgment against all golden calves opens the door to salvation and union with God and one another.

Such a contemplative posture can indeed aid us in developing an awareness of these spaces of self-focus and pride, of our assertiveness of our own agendas rather than God’s in-breaking Kingdom and desire for a community of hope and love.  Such a silencing of the incessant noise of our own anxious and fearful self-supporting arguments can open such a space of deeper awareness, of what the ancients in the contemplative lineage called “watchfulness” (Philokalia).  This is the reality we are called to share: a reality of Divine love that suffused all existence, where the rigid boundaries we impose crumble and give way to God’s vision and dream.

“Well, that’s a lot to live up to,” I told Fr. Thomas with our group.

I will always hold his words to me in my heart: “You don’t live up to it at all.   The path to this intimacy is through dying to the self.”

May God give us the grace–and the opportunity–to embody this practice.


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