Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Prayer in Secret
My Spiritual Director emailed me that Abbot Thomas Keating was giving a lecture at Brown University last night and I was excited to be able to go. I got there very early... sat right down in the second row, a few feet from the podium. Before the lecture started, my former UU minister came over to chat. It was great to see him again. He had just come back from a retreat, so we talked about that. Lent. My kids and husband. It was too short a conversation.
Keating's talk was interesting. He spent most of the time defining the problem that Centering prayer attempts to address. He started with a story about a journalist who was covering a platoon in WWII who came away with the conclusion that the truth of war is that men like to kill.
From there, Keating went on to describe why we, as humans, are struggling so much with violence and hatred in the world. No, it is not an artifact of our ancestral parent's mistake in Eden. Rather, as Keating describes it, it is a function of our primitive brains struggling to catch up to our higher ones. (Clearly Keating accepts evolution. He talked a lot about our reptilian and mammalian brain functions. He even made a comment about when we were still in trees a few thousand years ago.)
He spent some time discussing why our attempts at happiness fail if they are focused on exterior things. He talked a lot about Jungian theories on childhood development. His take on our state of affairs seems to be a combination of biology, psychology, and finally, theology. The latter, last night, got short shrift until he finally began talking about Centering Prayer and it's role in healing the world.
The basic premise is that we all contain within us the essence of God... but we don't begin to recognize it until we set the intention to connect with God on a regular basis. And once we begin to do that, we will eventually not only recognize God within us, but also begin to recognize it in each other... which will lead to healing.
When I went to Brown, last night, I really had no idea what to expect. I have read several of Keating's books and they have all been helpful in my prayer practice. But really, I wish I had been available to attend his afternoon retreat rather than the lecture. The lecture was very intellectual. It was a lot of explaining. And while it was interesting, he discussed the problem for so long he ended up running out of time before he could really explore the solution.
The solution, of course, being God.
It is true that he talked about Jesus' ministry, especially as it relates to prayer. That was my favorite part of the lecture. He explained some of the tricky bits of gospel in terms of what it means spiritually and even psychologically. For example, 'If you try to save your life you will lose it..." He explained that it is the ego driven part of us, that Jesus is talking about. The part of us that needs control and power. That part of us must die in order to be able to see the Kingdom. Personally, I believe that we can never decide take up the cross because our ego will always be a factor. Rather, we slowly diminish the power of our ego by opening our selves up to something bigger and more powerful: God's love.
Clearly, the Abbot is used to talking to a diverse audience. He sounded almost Unitarian Universalist at some points! LOL. He spoke in a way that was accessible to non-christians in the audience, using terms like "Higher Power" and "Divine".
I loved seeing him in person. It was very cool to be in the presence of a Cistercian. His habit reminded me of Merton, of course. His shoes were worn and clunky. He wore a heavy brown leather belt. I marveled at the fact that this man has devoted the last 57 years to the service of God. 57 years in the monastery. And even though the lecture was long and complicated and somewhat intense, there were points when I realized that much of it was the fruit of his contemplation. We were getting an inside look at the result of hours, days, years, a lifetime, of thinking about the relationship between God and humanity.
There was one point, at the end of a nearly 2 hour lecture, when he just stopped talking. He just stood there, in silence.
It was my favorite part.
I told my husband that for a contemplative, Keating is pretty talkative!
So, here's the PS: I decided last night to add a new dimension to my centering prayer. I spoke, out loud, the intention to be silent... my intention to close the door on my thoughts and to pray in secret. And sure enough, it was a deeper meditation than I have experienced in months. In fact, it was so intense I was unable to sleep for hours afterwards.
For more information on Centering Prayer, visit Contemplative Outreach.