"Science is becoming more and more a prophet for our time,
telling us things about God we never knew
and about how the universe works."
- Thomas Keating, That We May Be One
In his later years, Thomas Keating often referred to science in his teachings, seeing hope in the new physics as describing a greater connection between us and God, among the human family and all creation. He recognized science's contribution to evolving the cosmology that prevailed when the Bible was written: we were "bad" people on a flat earth with Heaven above and Hell below, stranded far from a judging God, and we needed to exert great effort to earn the right to go to Heaven. As a scientist, I'd like to briefly point to a couple of the concepts of the new cosmology that may have inspired Fr. Thomas from the scientific point of view and explain why I think they are relevant to our practice of Centering Prayer.
The cosmology of modern physics brings us outside of dualistic concepts such as here or there, good or bad, me or not-me. It presents instead some revelatory concepts: all the "stuff" we are made of is actually condensed energy (Einstein's E = mc2) rather than solid balls. And the open, timeless manifestations of the particles we are made of overlap and interact intimately. (This is not "woo-woo" thinking: a lot of our modern technology, including leading edge developments in medicine and electronics, is based on quantum mechanics.) And as described by Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, all this mysterious matter we are made of arises from fields spanning the universe, intimately connected and even holographic. Each point contains all the others, in a hyper-dimensional reality. A rough analogy for this cosmic web might look like a spider's web after the rain; glistening in the sun with droplets of water, each droplet reflecting all the others. This is distinctly non-dual: in a web where each point contains all others, there is no separation. In other words, we can say that all is intimately connected, part of a single whole. Mystics, as well as scientists, perceive this oneness. And often, it is called Love.
We are never left out of this Love. God opens experiences of this mystery to all of us: perhaps as a fleeting sense of deep connection, of timelessness, or of being fully a part of the incredible love-bearing beauty in nature. And in the context of the new cosmology, this mysterious, intimately connected reality, Jesus' teachings can begin to make sense to us on a deeper level. Rather than our needing to do all sorts of good works to go to a Heaven later, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that it is inside of us (Luke 17:21). And he tells us that we are intimately connected: we must love one another, as he has loved us (John 13:34). He even tells us that our neighbor, the one we should love as ourselves, is not the one who looks like us or prays like us: in this hyper-connected field, everyone is our neighbor. And no one is separate from God.
One of the gifts emerging from Centering Prayer is that as we let go of our conditioned dualistic thinking, we discover this field of Love, connection, timelessness and open possibility that has always been there. With the eyes of contemplation, a gift from God deepened by our practice of surrender to God's presence and action, we can begin to feel embraced, rather than confused, by non-duality. Moment by moment in Centering Prayer, we can experience a dynamic interplay between a non-dual openness, manifested by surrendering and consenting to God , and a dualistic grabbing, pushing away, or failing to even notice how caught up we are in our own drama. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has "woken up" during Centering Prayer to notice that I'd been lost in thoughts for quite a while! But over time, I've slowly been graced with a deeper trust in God and a faith that God is there, right in the middle of whatever I am experiencing. That in the midst of my grabbing, my turning away, the open field of Love is always being offered. I can say yes again and again to that open, loving field: to lie down, to rest, to let go of my heavy burdens. As human beings we are not defined by sin, but by a Love that is birthing and holding us in every moment. Thanks be to God!
Joy Andrews Hayter holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from UC Berkeley, and has always been fascinated by the mysteries of the cosmos and how they reflect on the mystery of our own being. Also a spiritual director, she teaches Centering Prayer and leads prayer workshops and retreats at Mercy Center in Burlingame, California and other locations.