In a troubling time for Catholics, Thomas Keating was an inspiration
Late last month Thomas Keating, a Catholic spiritual giant, died at age 95. Most Catholics have no idea who he was, which is our loss.
Catholics need some spiritual uplift about now. The sex abuse cover-up rages on. Catholic culture wars divide us as surely as Donald Trump divides America: conservatives cling to rules; liberals want none. We’d all like more inspiration and Masses where the music won’t make you cringe.
But Thomas Keating was about something else entirely: deepening faith, a joyful faith. That was central to his teaching, his many books, and to Contemplative Outreach, the organization he founded in the 1980s which now claims tens of thousands of adherents in 39 countries.
Like the great Catholic spiritual writer before him, Thomas Merton, Keating was a brilliant and charismatic Trappist monk. In the 1970s, at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, he helped revive an ancient Catholic meditation practice. As Keating told the tale, person after person, most of them young, would mistakenly knock at the abbey looking not for the monks inside but for the hip Buddhists at the meditation center down the road. Why the Buddhists, Keating wondered, and not us?
So began the formation of “Centering Prayer,” his method of silent meditation. “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.” Keating used that line over and over around the world and many times here. He spoke at the Marriott Copley Place hotel in 2012 with the Dalai Lama. More than 15 years ago, he packed a huge hall at MIT in Cambridge, home to some of the world’s most committed secular humanists. Yet Keating — wry, wiry, with a wingspan in his white robe that rivaled Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s — clearly mesmerized skeptical engineers and mathematicians with his joyful invitation to a life of divine indwelling. “Delightful,” is how he described that life. He spent his later years at a Snowmass, Colo., monastery where retreatants sign up a year or more in advance to spend time in silence, high in the Rockies, their days beginning and ending with monks’ hypnotic chants, in the dark, inside their small stone-and-brick church.
During two years writing for Crux, the Globe’s Catholic website, I learned about Keating, other Christian meditation, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (a Jesuit specialty), Catholic spiritual direction and companionship (they do it well downtown at St. Anthony Shrine), and all sorts of retreats. I learned that Catholic saints had babies out of wedlock (Merton and Dorothy Day) and sometimes told jokes. (St. Augustine, torn between wine and women and a holy call, hesitated, saying, “Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet.”) I learned about Joan Chittister, a rebel nun, and the 14th-century mystic Catherine of Siena, who battled the corrupt clergy of her day while claiming a steamy “mystical marriage” with Christ. “The more I enter, the more I find, the more I find, the more I seek. Thou are the food that never satisfies,” she said.
Like millions of cradle Catholics, I’d known almost none of this before. I blame both the church and my own lazy lack of curiosity about 2,000 years of Catholic intellectual history.
I mention all this today because it is such an awful time to be a Catholic, to feel complicit in gruesome crimes, to wonder if what’s right is getting out and giving up. But then there’s this other part of Catholicism that’s not about a disgraced hierarchy. Pope Francis, so crushingly inept in the abuse mess, is sheer inspiration when he writes about his own faith. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” he repeats the word “joy” 30 times in the book’s first four pages. He is quite convincing, and full of hope.
Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.