My relationship with Fr. Thomas Keating has not been lengthy in terms of time but has been lasting in lasting in both support for my practice and ministry and is embedded in my body as an opening to an eternal love.
I began by writing a letter to Fr. Thomas in early 2015 about my experience with Centering Prayer. I described to him how my attachment in thought to a particularly energetic association I had in my thoughts during Centering Prayer had led me repeatedly to let go of this and return ever so gently to my sacred word. Then in one instant, the energetic thought (which was an upsetting encounter with someone) arose again in my thought, but this time I felt a movement a bit different from my consent and letting go. I found the energy associated with this situation simply moved from my head to my heart and there it stood in this heart field and I realized that I could simply allow it to be in my larger boundless heart space and I was not disposed to think about it. The energy of the encounter would not go away, but now I held it in a space which was so large as to make it appear very small and in which space my mind was not able to exercise its judgements and its obstacle to my opening. I didn’t find it necessary to cling and to let go. In this larger space, I simply opened to divine indwelling which was of its nature so vast that there was not room for the rage my mind would like to flare up to even feel warm. I could see the other person with who I had this encounter together with myself and I realized we both existed in this deep and vast space and indeed we were both sourced, sustained, and held by this same source which connected us.
I asked Fr. Thomas if this is a valid experience of Centering Prayer and if I should encourage this sensation, which is an attentive field but not a thought.
Here is his reply:
“If I understand correctly your letter of March 9, you are experiencing the normal development of deep prayer, which is a movement beyond the “imagining” mind and its many varied ways of judging, reflecting, planning, experimenting, or just plain thinking useless or harmful thoughts. These latter come from outside or inside in the form of memories and imaginings. I would certainly encourage what you call “heart based awareness”. This is a safe place to go habitually in your formal prayer time, but also in everyday life when assaulted by tempestuous or negative thoughts and scenarios. You will often fail to get there, but that will improve with practice, or the Holy Spirit will suggest some other practice or refinement to protect the humble disposition of your prayer.
with my prayers and best wishes and
In Christ’s love,
This was a loving and very encouraging affirmation by Fr. Thomas and I was gratified to hear it.
Then in spring of 2016 I was asked to become coordinator of the Chicago Chapter of Contemplative Outreach. I had never been to St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, CO., the home of Fr. Thomas, and since Contemplative Outreach has a very strong association with the monastery, I decided I would go and make a retreat there to experience it for myself.
While there, I was talking with one of the monks after eucharist, a time when they greet and visit with guests, about my new role with Contemplative Outreach. He asked if I had met Fr. Thomas or would like to see him. Fr. Thomas was at this time quite frail and indisposed. I did not have any intention of asking for an interview with him. The monk said, well let’s see.
The next day the monk had sent a message to me that he spoke with Fr. Thomas about my new role in Chicago with Contemplative Outreach and that he would indeed like to visit with me. I was to return to the monastery later that day for the meeting. I returned and waited in the lobby until the monk came out and told me that Fr. Thomas is feeling very little energy to negotiate his activity for the day and is not able to meet with me. However, he relayed to me that Fr. Thomas expressed a willingness to try again the next evening and would I be able to come back?
That evening, I was brought into the cloister by one of the monks, and led to a common room at the end of the long hallway. I was instructed to wait there and he would bring Fr. Thomas to see me. My mind was certainly going through any thoughts of how I would greet Fr. Thomas and what I should say and do, but I was engaged with allowing my thoughts to flow by without gripping on to them.
When the door opened and Fr. Thomas entered the room, I stood and approach him slowly. He had to set aside his walker, and then turned to me. I stepped up to him and we both extended our arms to each other.
We both reached around each other and as we embraced, I had a remarkable sensation. I felt the space inside his body as vast and empty. It seemed as though there was nothing there. It was vast, the same sensation as if in a dream I would stand over an abyss. I felt invited into this vast space. It was an abyss so the first thought came to me, as it would in a dream, that I may not be able to enter this space, that I could fall into nothingness.
But I clearly felt invited and as I sensed into this space, it was connected to the space inside of me, and I knew I would be held and sustained in this space and that the invitation to enter and share this space came from a powerful divine love. We held each other in this brief moment of infinity and love.
I realized that this embodied sensation is the result of Fr. Thomas’ lifelong consent to emptying his false self so that in a very real way, there is no self there. The feeling of warmth and love was very powerful.
He invited me to sit and talk which we did for about an hour. Thomas was very interested in our Chicago chapter. He remembered his visit here fondly, and we spoke of those he knew here. He extended his good wishes to all of us in Chicago and his blessings and hopes for a fruitful future of communal participation in the work of the Spirit, in each of us and in us as a community.
I was encouraged to write this by a friend who helped me realize that the intimate embodied sensation that I experienced in the presence of Thomas Keating was a feeling that others may have felt or that others can open their heart to sensing now, as Fr. Thomas is in transition to an infinite love. In this type of connection I am sure that we share a deep embodiment of God’s love and in the words of Fr. Thomas speaking of his fellow monk, Brother Bernie: “This must be how God loves us”.
- Alan Krema lives in the Chicago area.