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Open Mind, Open Heart

| 29.2.04
Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, by Thomas Keating

I've been interested in the contemplative aspects of Christianity for some time. Ever since I experienced my first Taize service, I have had a strong sense that silence and stillness can be very powerful avenues for experiencing God. Questions raised by that first encounter led to Thomas Keating's book, which explains centering prayer and contemplative prayer in detail. Open Mind, Open Heart is available free online from Contemplative Outreach, and it is also published in book form, available at Amazon.com and other booksellers.

Drastically boiled down, a thumbnail definition of contemplation is the idea echoed by the Psalmist, who writes: "Be still and know that I am God." When one practices centering prayer one sits quietly, intending to empty the mind and heart of all thoughts, expectations, and demands, waiting for God to respond or not respond in any way God chooses. Through the practice of centering prayer one hopes to undergo "a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. . . A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists." (see Introduction). This state of being is called contemplation. Resting in this state is the essence of contemplative prayer. It is the hope of those practicing centering prayer that they might receive contemplative prayer.

One aside which might be helpful --the words "contemplation" and "meditation" are often used differently in the Christian tradition than they are used in Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Sometimes Christians will talk about "meditating" on the Scriptures. The act of "meditation" here means to ponder, study, or ruminate over. When a Buddhist talks about meditation, they are talking about clearing the mind of thoughts and emotions. Christians use the word "contemplation" to describe the same practice.

Another way to look at contemplation is in terms of "consent." In the same way that Christians consent to have Christ be born and live in them, the contemplative person consents to the Spirit's desire to pray in them. By clearing away the obstructions that appear on the conscious level, they are able to experience the Spirit on a more direct level that bypasses the mind, the ego, and consciousness.(see Chapter 2)

Keating spends some time in this book tracing the history of contemplative Christianity, and explaining why it eventually fell into disfavor. Blaming both Catholic Scholasticism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Keating explains how prayer became understood more and more as a discipline to occupy ones conscious mind. The theologically vague yet more comprehensive way of "praying the scriptures" (lectio divina) more prevalent in the early centuries of the church gradually slipped away (see Chapter 3.1) and was replaced by discursive forms of prayer that could more easily fit into philosophical, theological, or doctrinal categories.

Despite the lamentable state of prayer today, Keating is convinced that if one uses the conscious modes of prayer faithfully enough, one will eventually be driven to what John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul." Counter-intuitively, Keating writes that when one is unable to pray and feels unconnected to God, the devout practitioner may potentially be at the gateway to a deeper, more mature relationship with God --a relationship marked by contemplation. Keating implies that Christianity's collective amnesia regarding the mystical, contemplative modes of prayer has contributed to people leaving Christianity for Eastern religions where meditation is more readily available. One gets the sense that there are ecumenical as well as evangelistic imperatives behind promoting a more contemplative dimension to Christianity. (see Chapter 3.3)

Moving from theory to practice, Keating outlines a basic method for centering prayer. The method consists of finding a quiet space to sit comfortably, relax, and let go of conscious thoughts. When unavoidable thoughts occur, gently think about a pre-chosen "sacred word" or phrase. Keating recommends two periods of centering prayer per day; one in the morning and one in the early evening. While requiring no small commitment, this put contemplation within the realm of possibility for ordinary people. One does not need to be a monk or nun living in a cloister to be contemplative --some of the most contemplative folks Keating knows are married people living busy and active lives. (see Chapter 4.1) "Contemplative prayer is a way of tuning in to a fuller level of reality that is always present and in which we are invited to participate. Some discipline is required to reduce the obstacles to this expanded awareness. One way is to slow down the speed at which our ordinary thoughts come down the stream of consciousness. If this can be done, space begins to appear between the thoughts, enabling an awareness of the reality upon which they are resting." (see Chapter 4.2)

The remaining chapters of the book deal with such practical matters at choosing a sacred word, dealing with distractions and thoughts that may arise, and keeping disciplined in one's practice of centering prayer. While these chapters are very useful as a "how to" guide, I also saw a more universal, Jungian theme emerge as Keating outlined the solution to most problems in terms of acknowledgment and acceptance. Specifically, for every problem that arises it is central that one recognize it and acknowledge it. Then, perhaps counter intuitively, one much accept it. Only once one can accept problems and accept oneself as they truly are, is there any possibility for the problems to recede into the background and for spiritual growth to occur. "Every response to God, whatever it is, must begin with the full acceptance of reality as it actually is at the moment." (see Chapter 6.1)

In one very down-to-earth example, Keating compares maintaining interior silence and listening to God to conversing with a friend near a busy street. It is easy to get angry at the noise of the passing cars, but anger won't stop the noise and will ruin the conversation. Yet by being able to accept the noise for what it is, one is freed to carry on the conversation. In the end, the noise is unimportant. "So it is with the rumbling that goes on in our heads. It is so bad sometimes that many people will not put up with it. They say, 'Interior silence and contemplative prayer are for the birds. I cannot endure this barrage of tiresome thoughts going through my head.' So they get up and leave. If they would just hang on and give themselves a little more time, they would get used to the noise." (see Chapter 6.1)

In the last third of the book Keating draws some interesting comparisons and contrasts between contemplative Christianity and the charismatic movement. While Keating credits charismatic renewal for opening up ordinary Christians to the possibility of the Spirit moving powerfully and being active in people today, he puts charismatic gifts (especially the gift of speaking in tongues) in the context of being primitive forms of contemplation, or gateways to contemplation. When one speaks in tongues, Keating says, one doesn't understand what one is saying. Therefore one can't have thoughts about what they are saying. This is similar to clearing the mind of thoughts during centering prayer. Keating seems open to the possibility that both contemplative Christianity and charismatic Christianity can lead to experiencing visions, ecstasies, and other unusual spiritual experiences. However, Keating puts great stress on accepting such experiences for what they are and not dwelling on them or analyzing them, lest one become full of pride for one's perceived spiritual accomplishment. For in the end, (see Chapter 8.1) "God is incomprehensible to our faculties. We cannot name Him in a way that is adequate. We cannot know Him with our mind; we can only know Him with our love. That is what some mystical writers call unknowing. It is by not knowing Him in the ways that we now know Him, that we do know Him. Visions, locutions or ecstasies are like frosting on a cake. The substance of the journey is pure faith."

KEYWORDS: Centering prayer, contemplative prayer, mystical prayer, spiritual practices, disciplines
PUBLISHER: Continuum Pub Group; (July 2002) ISBN: 0826414206
LINK: http://www.centeringprayer.com/OpenHeart/index.htm

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