Father Thomas Keating: Inviting the Presence of the Divine, Part Two

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at The Edge. Today I speak with Father Thomas Keating. Father Keating is a Trappist monk in the Cistercian Order. He served as Abbott of St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts for 20 years, and now resides at St. Benedicts Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. He’s the author of over 35 books, as well as the Sounds True audio learning course, The Contemplative Journey: Contemplation and Transformation from Christianity’s Mystical Tradition. Father Keating is one of the architects of the Contemporary Centering Prayer Movement: a Christian contemplative practice in which practitioners invite and receive the presence of the divine. Recently, Sounds True recorded a complete home study course on centering prayer. This is a course that we have also developed into an online learning course that will begin on January 20th, 2010 at Soundstrue.com. During the recording of this centering prayer course, we recorded most of the material on video, and then some of the guided meditations on audio. I had the chance to interview Father Thomas Keating. He was 85 at the time of this interview, and we’ll listen to it now on Insights at The Edge. In part two of this interview with Father Thomas Keating, we discuss death, the afterlife and the transformative process that occurs when one engages regularly with the practice of centering prayer. Here’ s part two of my interview with Father Thomas Keating.

Tami Simon: Now it seems like from hearing you teach on this course on centering prayer, you’ve talked several times about the tremendous unbelievable power of facing God in its total rawness and immensity, and that at the moment of our death—our physical death—some kind of experience may open up for us. At least this is how I’ve understood you–and I want you to correct me if I’m wrong—some kind of experience may happen for us at the time of physical death that is not available to us as long as we’re incarnated in bodies and have these forms to work with. Is that correct? Do you think there’s something that happens at the time of physical death that we can’t experience until we actually, physically die?

Father Thomas Keating: Well, that’s my guess! Because most of our troubles are in the brain; those are the habits of thinking that are unquestioned or that have been habits of years. So when the brain dies all of the background material and context, or the unconscious influences of our, even our genetic or ancestral influences or the influence of the collective unconscious—a new field of investigation—everything is gone and so for the first time in our conscious life we can make a totally free choice, and if that choice is made in the presence of God, there’s only one answer. That one will plunge into that immensity of love, irresistibly. So what is separating us from God primarily is the thought that we’re separated from God. When that dies, there’ s now more separation is there? That’s at least my reasoning of the process. I haven’t been through this by the way. I haven’t even had a near death experience that lots of people have had.

Tami Simon: And when a great saint dies, a great person dies, and then afterwards future generations have some feeling often that they’re accessing the energy and the blessing power of this being—what do you think is happening there?

Father Thomas Keating: it’s the exchange of energy that is not well known to us yet, but there are lots of breakthroughs. There’s a doctrine, in the Catholic communion at least, which is called the communion of saints. Which means that the difference of those who have gone before us—and ‘us’ is probably very small—and that there’s a constant interaction perhaps going on, more clear in some people so the fact that one’s loved one dies isn’t the end at all it’s just a call for a new relationship, somewhat like the death of one of our roles is an invitation to form a new relationship and a new roles that is more mature, you might say. So, what were we talking about?…

Tami Simon: We’re talking about these great beings that died…can we access them in some way?

Father Thomas Keating: Well even very modest beings like myself, have had wonderful experiences with folks in the next life without trying.

Tami Simon: Like what? I’d be curious about that.

Father Thomas Keating: Well I sometimes experience the presence of someone that’s gone before and I know all kinds of people who after the death of a loved one had some kind of very thoughtful reassurance, like a son who committed suicide and his mother was devastated and in a little prayer group they laid hands and prayed. She saw him outside the prayer group, and he said, “Everything’s O.K.” So that’s all she really needed to hear. So I’ve heard that over and over again and sometimes in the death bed– one’s– beloved one’s have gone before may join one and cheer one on.

Tami Simon: You mentioned you’ve had some experiences in your life related to this. I’d be curious about that.

Father Thomas Keating: Well you addressed in…

Tami Simon: Yes (Laughter)

Father Thomas Keating: Well, I had a most moving experience in the midst of my exercise of being an Abbott and the incredible of meeting we had in different parts of the world to discuss these changes that I referred to earlier. So we were in Rome, it was the end of the Counsel and we decided to take an afternoon off, something of a luxury for Trappist Abbotts. So we went to Anzio Beach. I don’t know why we picked that place. Anzio beach is where the Italian campaign the most of the young men are buried. So, as I walked into that place…so this will be difficult for me to explain, because I’m always moved by the sweetness of this experience…as I walked in there I felt surrounded by friends that I couldn’t see, as if they were saying , “here’s the guy who entered a monastery to pray for us while we were fighting our way up the Po river and being blown to pieces. So I felt this sense of being surrounded by friends and a warmth of affection that was much greater than what you get in a party of living adults, and so as I walked down the line of tombstones—crosses, not tombstones I guess, and some crosses—I realized something I had heard when I was given a deferment to enter a seminary and had misgivings about it, because I wanted to be a Trappist not a Diocesan priest. This saintly pastor said to me, “This war is not meant for you.” And that was for me a word of wisdom, which is a kind of reassurance in a word or two that goes to your heart and you know somehow God is speaking to you or reality is revealing to you, and that you think you understand what it says, but it gave me confidence to proceed on that path that I didn’t have before, Well, as I walked through that cemetery those words came back to me, and I realized that they were saying—that that priest was saying, or God was telling me through that priest—that I wasn’t meant for that was, but that I had another one that I was going to have to go through that was much longer and would last the whole of life perhaps. And they were saying, “This guy has a war to go through and now he needs our help more—at least that was the thought that went through my head—I needed there help, more than they needed mine. So there was this tremendous reciprocal action, oneness or unity in which I knew that these people, whoever they were, loved me and were grateful, but that also my need for them was as great as their need for me in their time. And so it was an enlightened moment for me to see that everything that happens is a social event and there are no private virtues or even private faults or sins. Everything we do is a affecting everybody else, and when this is coming out of love or charity, it’s extremely powerful. How? I don’t know, but it’s that kind of love that overcomes all evil and is much more powerful than the accumulation of human ills and brutality and intolerance and indifference that I suppose is sitting in some data bank waiting to be balanced or healed or exterminated by the incredible of love, especially divine love…which seeks no reward! It just has to share the goodness that it’s received. So it’s not something you take credit for, good deeds as I understand it, but it’s something you do as a steward of the mercy of God that you’ve experienced in your own life. So it makes me feel well…overwhelmed by the love of God which is so tender, so considerate, so wise…like there’s 20 years or so between the two events in that incident and yet it took just the right moment—a time when I was most wounded you might say—to communicate a kind of reassurance that was incomparable, that I couldn’t of thought up, or nobody else could have thought it up. So I cannot not believe in the incredible concern that God had for every human being that is expressed in a nano-second of time…it’s not just once in a while. It’s every moment, this reality is relating with us like an eternal dance in which it leads us and which we’re invited to follow, and obviously we stumble sometimes, but that doesn’t interrupt the dance. Just a part of the learning process…so that’s my contribution to your request.

Tami Simon: It’s interesting that it happened during the time of such difficulty for you; interesting that sort of the veils opened at a time of devastation…

Father Thomas Keating: My point is I’m trying to get—and I’m not succeeding I’m sure—that this kind of experience is normal! It’s what happens all of the time. We just don’t see it. And it’s these moments of awareness that divide the veils, as you say. But the veils are always separated, we just think they’ve been divided because we hadn’t noticed before, but now we’re beginning to notice that god is accompanying us and wants to be our companion at every step, breath, heartbeat, thought, word and deed. In other words, there is no other! There is just God from the perspective of oneness, and there is us on our way to becoming God too…and incorporating the dispositions of infinite love in our daily lives. It doesn’t matter if you keep failing. That’s to be expected. So the bottom line, as far as I can see, is not to be surprised by our faults, disconcerted, but to acknowledge them in all honesty and give them to God as a kind of gift and await the time when he takes them away to be, as they say in the 12 step program, to be willing that God take away our faults. That’s the primary disposition and then to be content and peaceful in waiting for that to happen.

Tami Simon: So I want to ask you a question about the path, and specifically the path of centering prayer as it relates to this journey you’re talking about, which is the idea that a lay person–someone who’s living in the world—can practice centering prayer for 20 minutes twice a day. Is that enough? I mean, is that enough to really…?

Father Thomas Keating: Well then add some more. We are somewhat discreet in our request so we start out with something that is reasonably accessible to most people and we are confident in the dynamic of the experience that even in that brief a time there’s enough to initiate or provide a seed bed for divine charity to begin to grow and then you will feel called to do perhaps other things or more appropriate things. As you gain confidence in God and humility to face the dark side of one’s personality. I don’t think God minds the dark side of our personality. We do! So to put up with it is itself a great overcoming of the faults.

Tami Simon: It seems to me that an experience of a retreat or a longer period of time, more of that real subterranean material might surface than just…

Father Thomas Keating: It would, and it does. That’s why we offer a series of retreats that are graded for further development. Problem is that we haven’t figured out a way to provide this free of charge. It costs money to have a house, or a retreat house and not everybody can afford to do this. So, we’re interested in the website and in Sounds True specifically as means of projecting this virtual community with its resources into an audience that we can’t attend to ourselves, nor can they come to us given the present circumstances of the world. So how to bring the love of Christ into accessibility, this is what we’re about, but granted we’re just still learning, we’re just beginning. We’re only 25 or so years old. The tradition is ageless. It’s foreseen in the Hebrew bible. It’s expressed by Christ in Matthew 6:6. It’s been lived by the early fathers of the church and the different fathers and mothers and all kinds of Christian communities and contemplative forms of life, as well as in ordinary married life and privately. So we know it’s accessible and it’s already as indicated in some of the lectures we offered, it’s that normal human life is to be contemplative. Because it’s this that makes one fully human and without it you don’t quite see what being human is because you’re saying the whole process at a level that can’t give you the answers. I think it’s Einstein who said that you can never solve any problem on the same level as the problem, something like that. So it’s by moving to an intuitive level, or as they’re now discovering in brain research, moving into a greater integration with the right brain—the left brain is our rational apparatus that is so self centered that you almost have to have a stroke to recover from it—so it’s the right brain that is the intuitive side of the intellect and this is what perceives our problems from a level of intuition and insight that is superior to the wisdom available for reason alone…or rational thinking.

Tami Simon: I just have one last question here. I could talk to you for a very long time, but I’m going to wrap it up here. You know the diminishment that you’re describing of the spiritual path. The diminishment of the glorious grand self project; that diminishment is not popular in the world, you don’t get popularity points necessarily for that kind of thing, do you know what I mean? And that can be hard, I mean to enter a process. I mean here you are…you’re a monastic. You’ve signed up for it, you know…I mean, I want to be a fabulous whatever doing this, but I’m signing up for a diminishment project? There’s a contradiction that’s a hard one to wrestle with.

Father Thomas Keating: Well this is God’s idea, not mine. (Laughter) So in my view only he can bring it about. All I can do is say that it exists. So it’s between you and God to decide whether it’s a possibility…more power to you. But the more the people who do this, the more chance there is of transforming society and the terrible horrors of our present world situation. It will not be cured in any other way. In other words, only utmost love can overcome utmost violence. Violence is rooted in our animal nature and until it’s integrated into our neo-cortex, in our human brain—and if further levels of consciousness that that rational level opens like a gate into a whole new aspect of human life—until that happens I don’t what’ s going to happen to society. The last 100 years have been absolutely horrendous in human brutality and violence and the technology is now far exceeding the moral judgment onto its justification. So as technology develops greater and greater weapons of destruction, we really risk the loss of human civilization as we know it. If someone starts escalating conventional weapons into nuclear, or chemical, biological weapons and there are people already present in the world who think this is the way to defend yourself. If that was a way of defending oneself in earlier times it doesn’t work anymore. There is no just war because you can’t help but kill an enormous of innocent people and the statistics are that if there is a war the safest thing to do is to join the military because most people who are killed now are not soldiers but civilians. What does that say about justification of war? In any case, these are huge problems that leaders of the world have to face and I really don’t know how we can help them to engage in the kind of dialogue, collaboration, negotiation that is essential for human society to survive in such a situation. So we desperately need to ask God’s help and perhaps the greatest contribution we can make to society at this time is to commit to the transformative process and to the divine therapy in a non-conceptual form of meditation that can heal the emotional wounds of our lifetime and enable us then to manifest the love of God in our behavior, in so far and as the Holy Spirit may inspire each of us given our talents and capacities. So, each one of us has an enormous accountability for being human in this moment of time where what we actually do with the rest of our lives can actually save this planet, or not.

Tami Simon: Do you think we could end, Father Thomas, with a prayer? Would you be willing to invoke a prayer for this, really what we’ve done here together which is creating a program to communicate how to do centering prayer and what the process is like, a map of that journey?

Father Thomas Keating: Holy Spirit of God, you fill the whole world with your wisdom…help everyone to receive it into their hearts and to open ourselves to every human being in forgiveness, compassion, and love. May the practice of centering prayer contribute to this transformation of society and lead many and more and more people into the transforming process of oneness and equality and happiness. So we ask for this and everything else that is in our hearts at this moment in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…Amen. Thank you and your excellent staff for their kind hospitality and we welcome you sometime if you get across the Rocky Mountains to visit the monastery. We make cookies out there and we’ll hope to give you something to bring home with you…Thanks so much for your support and interest. Thanks to all of you folks again for your encouragement and being with us and encouraging our humble and modest efforts to be stewards of God’s love. Thank you.