Rev. Thomas Keating, a founder of the contemplative prayer movement, dies at 95
The Rev. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who helped pioneer the Christian contemplative prayer movement, once wrote that the aim of centering prayer is communing with God as “two friends sitting in silence, just being in each other’s presence.”
Over the years, the Rev. Keating’s thoughts about this form of silent prayer crystallized into what friends said was one of his favorite sayings: “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.”
The Rev. Keating died Oct. 25 at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, according to the Contemplative Outreach organization website. He was 95 and formerly served as abbot of the abbey.
“Why go to this trouble to establish a deep motivation to practice a method of prayer?” he asked in an interview that Contemplative Outreach posted online.
“We come into this world with this enormous desire — a longing for happiness, gratification, and satisfaction. We haven’t the least idea of how to go about it, nor the apparatus to judge what standards might be available,” he said in the interview, which was recorded last December.
“What meditation teaches us,” he added, “is that at a certain level, we’re very needy people, very weak, fragile, without knowing who we really are, where we’re going, where we came from.”
Raised in affluence and privilege in New York City, Joseph Parker Kirlin Keating walked away from it all upon entering an austere monastic community in Rhode Island.
One of four children, he was known as Parker, born on March 7, 1923, in Manhattan. His parents were Cletus Keating and the former Elizabeth Kirlin.
The Rev. Keating’s father and grandfather were prominent maritime lawyers, and the family had homes in Manhattan and in the exclusive Long Island community of Mill Neck.
“At 5, I had a serious illness,” the Rev. Keating recalled in the 2013 documentary “Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence,” made by his nephew Peter C. Jones.
“I heard adults in the next room wondering whether I’d live,” the Rev. Keating said. “I took this very seriously, and at my first Mass bargained with God: ‘If you’ll let me live to 21, I’ll become a priest.’ After that, I’d skip out early in the morning before school and go to Mass. I knew my parents wouldn’t approve, so I never told them.”
He attended Deerfield Academy before entering Yale University. While studying Christianity, the Rev. Keating was drawn to the mystics and came to believe that the Scriptures call people into a personal relationship with God.
Transferring from Yale to an accelerated program at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx, he graduated in 1943.
He expected to be drafted during World War II, but received a deferment to attend the seminary. In 1944, he entered the strict Cistercian Monastery Our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, R.I., and was ordained a priest in 1949.
He chose the name Thomas as his spiritual name because of his admiration for St. Thomas Aquinas, according to his brother, Marshall.
The monastic life appealed to him, but it forced him to cut ties with his family, which caused many of them considerable pain, as he recounted in the documentary. His grandmother, he recalled, wrote him from her sickbed: “I miss you so much. I’m lying here in bed, and I said to the nurse, ‘If my grandson doesn’t come home, won’t you please just throw me out the window?’ ”
But all he could do was pray for her, he said.
“I felt the more austere the life, the sooner I would achieve the contemplative life I sought,” he continued. “I spent the next five to six years observing almost total silence.”
Jones told The New York Times that for many years he had thought of the Rev. Keating as “my mystery uncle, whom I knew about but never saw.” Eventually, the Rev. Keating began visiting his family in New York, and when Jones’s father died, the Rev. Keating held a funeral Mass in their living room.
In 1950, while the Rev. Keating was in Rhode Island, the monastery burned down and the monks moved to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer. He left Spencer in 1958 to help start the St. Benedict’s monastic community in Snowmass, Colo., not far from Aspen. In 1961, he was elected abbot at St. Joseph’s and returned to Massachusetts, serving in that capacity for the next two decades.
In 1971, a few years after the Second Vatican Council, at which Pope Paul VI encouraged priests and religious scholars to renew the Christian contemplative tradition, the Rev. Keating was invited to Rome.
This led him, along with William Meninger and Basil Pennington, to develop the practice of centering prayer.
“We had to make our tradition available in a simple, practical way that people could learn and practice,” Pennington, who died in 2005, told the Globe in 2000.
But the Rev. Keating’s enthusiasm for this approach led to tensions within the abbey, and a vote on whether he should remain as abbot was evenly split. He decided he did not want to remain in a house so divided and moved back to Snowmass.
It was a liberating move for him. He began organizing conferences with representatives of other religions, including the Dalai Lama, imams, and rabbis. During this period he focused more on centering prayer, holding workshops and retreats to promote it to clergy and lay people.
He helped found Contemplative Outreach, a network of people who practice centering prayer, in 1984 and was its president from 1985 to 1999.
“Centering prayer is all about heartfulness, which is a little different from mindfulness,” the Rev. Carl Arico, a founding member of Contemplative Outreach, told the Times. “It goes to the relationship with God, who is already there. It’s not sitting in a void.”
Today, Contemplative Outreach has chapters in 39 countries, with about 40,000 people who actively participate and many more who practice centering prayer on their own.
The Rev. Keating wrote more than 30 books and created various multimedia projects. One of his most popular is “Centering Prayer: A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God,” which consists of a workbook, DVDs, and audio CDs.
A memorial service has been held for the Rev. Keating, who in addition to his brother and nephew leaves other nieces and nephews.
In the 2017 interview posted on the Contemplative Outreach website, the Rev. Keating said that centering prayer, “brings us into ever-deeper silence,” and that in turn “enables us to moderate our desires for earthy satisfaction while at the same time appreciating God’s hidden presence in all creation”
Centering prayer, he said in an interview with Mary NurrieStearns that is posted online, is “a lifetime practice, one that can always grow deeper. Any effort to know God is success, even though we feel it is a flop, because God appreciates even the smallest consideration or thought much more than we can imagine.”
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.