THE DAILY MEDITATION – from the Center for Action and Contemplation (Fr Richard Rohr OFM)

Week Forty-two

Thomas Keating: The Secret Embrace   Part One

The Dark Nights   Thursday,  October 22, 2020

His silence is a kiss,
His presence an embrace.

But now he is fading, fading.
And I am alone
 . . .

—Thomas Keating, “Loneliness in the Night”

I don’t think anyone can get to my (Richard’s) age without deeply empathizing with the sense of loss and grief—personal and spiritual—that Thomas Keating articulates in this poem. Cynthia Bourgeault does an excellent job of describing the spiritual dark nights that both Thomas and John of the Cross (1542–1591) put so beautifully into poetry. Cynthia writes:

The sense of joyful, flowing oneness that so marks the final years of Thomas Keating’s life didn’t “just happen.” For most of us—including for Thomas himself—it comes at the end of a painful season of stripping and purification that has classically been called “the Dark Night of the Spirit.”

The name itself comes from the 16th-century Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross, who up until this point has been the unquestioned authority on this excruciating passage. In this series of poems, Thomas Keating presses boldly into this forbidding terrain.

John’s classic spiritual roadmap actually specifies two dark nights. The first, called “the Dark Night of Sense,” typically comes fairly early in the journey. John saw its purpose chiefly as strengthening our capacity to endure temptation and weaning us from our dependency on spiritual consolations (the sweetness and even sensuous pleasure that often accompanies those early days of conversion). In Thomas’ contemporary psychological rendition, this first dark night relentlessly exposes our “emotional programs for happiness,” the hidden agendas and compensatory needs that drive our “false self system.” It thus accomplishes the first stage in the dismantling of the false self.

The second dark night comes much later in the journey and entails a much more radical and painful stripping that cuts to the very roots of the “false self system,” overturning the fundamental psychological and neurological hardwiring that drives the illusion of a separate selfhood. Its painful cost is that everything goes dark—“for the duration”—as we become increasingly unable to steer by the old binary operating system in our brains that always wound up turning God into an object (albeit a holy object) and in fact prioritized our experience of God over direct, unmediated union. Until the new operating system fills in, we are rather helpless, like chickens in molt, unable either to fly or lay eggs.

Believe it or not, this poem comes from a time far earlier in Thomas’ life. He once joked to me that he hadn’t written a poem since grade school. This is the poem! Even then, he was able to name the experience of the loss of tangible presence and withstand his solitude.

Something at first so concretely, robustly present is suddenly “fadingfading.” The substantial becomes insubstantial, presence fades to absence, and loneliness and longing dominate the emotional color palette. He is already intuiting, even as a young teenager, that the release from the loneliness and longing will not come from fulfillment of the original desire, but rather, through a mysterious inner alchemy that draws apparent opposites into an inner symbiotic unity. These are indeed the classic dark night waypoints, which Thomas returns to again and again—fundamental insights first glimpsed when he was still hardly more than a child.

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “Loneliness in the Night,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem III.

The Secret Embrace   Wednesday,  October 21, 2020

Before being born into the world of time,
The silence of pre-existence was all absorbing.

The transition from eternity to time
Is full of sufferings, fears, and little deaths.

But, in the transition from death
To eternal life,

The silence of pre-existence
Bursts into boundless joy.

All that can be manifested emerges
From the endless creativity of
That Which Is.

But
The Secret Embrace
Of
The Source of all creation
With
Infinite Transcendence
Can
Never be revealed.

—Thomas Keating, “The Secret Embrace”

Today we include the title poem, “The Secret Embrace,” in its entirety. Cynthia Bourgeault comments on one aspect of it in particular:

It is remarkable to trace how Thomas’ understanding of God evolved over the last three decades of his life. In the 1980s, when his first books and videos were beginning to appear, God was still very much framed within the classic Western model with God as “he”—a father figure. Thomas’ initial focus during the early years of his teaching was to shift that image away from a fearsome father, the wrathful God who has caused so much misery and woundedness for Western seekers, to a “divine therapist”: supportive, trustworthy, and a hundred percent behind us in our journey of transformation.

But by the end of his life, Thomas is in a very different place. God co-inheres and interpenetrates everything, the ocean-in-drop and drop-in-ocean, constantly exchanging in a dance of endless fecundity. God is not the “author” of creation, removed and overarching; the whole thing is God. There is not a single place in all creation where God is not, because God is creation itself, endlessly outpouring, endlessly receiving itself back. From top to bottom, we live and move and have our being in a participative reality, every fractal joined to every other fractal in a symphony of divine becoming pouring forth from that infinite wellspring.

In fact, with one singular exception, Thomas does not actually use the word “God” in this entire collection of poems. It is always “the Divine,” “I AM,” or “the Source.” He clearly did not want what he was trying to say here co-opted back into conceptions of a distant, male-gendered Being sitting up there in the heavens. He wanted us to keep our eyes on the big picture.

But more important, he wanted us to swim in the ocean.

Some may say that Thomas took a turn late in life toward a more “Buddhist” approach to divinity, but I believe this is not really accurate. We are not talking about a theology here, but a level of consciousness, universal across all the religions and accessed primarily through the consistent practice of meditation. To see oneness, it is necessary to see from oneness, with the eye of the heart, not the binary skew of the mind. From his decades and decades of faithful Centering Prayer, along with some very courageous and painful inner work, the rewiring of brain and heart that supports this seeing was gradually accomplished within him. These poems are its joyful fruit. They are tiny cameos of what non-duality looks like when approached from a uniquely Western and Christian perspective.

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “The Secret Embrace,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem II.

The Sound of Silence   Tuesday,  October 20, 2020

The silence of the Creator is thunderous,

Drowning out everything else,

And hiding in endless creativity.

—Thomas Keating, “Out of a Stone”

One of Thomas Keating’s greatest legacies will surely be his development and teaching of Centering Prayer, a Christian form of silent meditation. It has been my (Richard’s) preferred method of prayer for decades and I recommend it to anyone seeking to enter more deeply into the mystery of God. In today’s meditation, Cynthia Bourgeault explores a profound teaching on silence found within Keating’s poem “Out of a Stone,” excerpted above.

A theme that continues in all the poems contained in The Secret Embrace is that silence is not absence, but presence. It is a “something,” not a nothing. It has substantiality, heft, force. You can lean into it, and it leans back. It meets you; it holds you up.

That’s hardly how it’s understood in our culture at large, of course, where silence is typically seen as “vacant space,” waiting to be filled up with content. We try to cram every “empty” moment full. Even when we begin a meditation practice, this preference for content remains, and we will often approach silence as a kind of inner desert, a place of inner uncovering, which we enter to hear “messages from God.” It’s the messages that most grab us at the start; we’re all ears for whatever new insight emerges out of the silence.

Gradually, as we progress in Centering Prayer—or in any meditation practice, for that matter—we begin to reorient. Centering Prayer’s instructions to let go of all thoughts, regardless of content, directs us back to the silence itself, and we gradually learn the shape of the new terrain. As we stop grabbing for content, we gradually discover that silence does indeed have depth, presence, shape, even sound. As we mature in Centering Prayer, the perception that the emptiness is in fact the presence becomes more and more palpable. Thomas Keating encourages us that this “sound of silence” keeps right on growing. By his own later stage in the journey, it has become “thunderous.”

In fact—says Thomas—this “thunderous” silence is actually the most intense, concentrated “dosage” of divine presence we can bear face-to-face. In a paradoxical way, the dance of creation, beautiful and enchanting as it is, is like a veil over the face of the naked presence of God—like the veil that hides the Holy of Holies in the temple. These two faces of God—veiled and unveiled—live in symbiotic unity, and out of that unity everything pours into existence in a cascade of sheer delight.

For Thomas, creativity is “the diffuse shining of God” (to borrow a striking image from that other celebrated contemporary Thomas, Thomas Merton). [1] It’s what allows us to know our Creator not only in the “thunderous” silence of [God’s] direct presence, but in the dance of life itself. Either or both ways are fine, for they spill unceasingly into one another. From this “veiled embrace” between pure silence and joyful creativity at the very heart of all creation, flows life in all its beauty, goodness, fluidity, and magical wonder.

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

[1] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia,” Ramparts Magazine (March 1963), 69. See In the Dark before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, ed. Lynn R. Szabo (New Directions: 2005), 68.

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “Out of a Stone,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem I.

A Poetic Legacy   Monday,  October 19, 2020

Can the Creator of all lure poetry out of a stone?

Or cause a stirring of Divine Love in a human heart?

All is possible for the Creator of all,

Who loves to manifest the impossible

In endless configurations.

—Thomas Keating, “Out of a Stone”

Cynthia Bourgeault was a close friend and colleague of Father Thomas Keating. Over the past year, she has devoted much time to studying and praying with the eight poems offered in The Secret Embrace. She calls this volume of poetry written in the last months of his life “his final gift to the world.” Today Cynthia describes why she believes the poems are so important:

First, these poems offer an intimate window into the last stage of Thomas’ own spiritual journey, as he emerged fully into what he liked to call “unity consciousness.” Others might call it “non-dual realization,” “the unitive state,” or oneness. Basically, it means seeing the world as whole, seamlessly interwoven, dynamic, coherent, radiant, precious, creative, and compassionate; knowing yourself as belonging to and suffused in this oneness. This state is well known in all the great spiritual traditions, and he stands on the shoulders of John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Genoa, and others. Thomas’ version gives us a beautiful glimpse of non-dual realization shimmering through a contemporary Western lens.

Second, and more movingly, he allows us to glimpse the costly road that must be travelled in order to arrive at this state. It does not fall like a ripe fruit from a tree or open itself like a lotus blossom. It comes at the end of a fierce struggle, a journey of deepening self-knowledge brought through deepening dying to self. In Christian teaching, this final passage has traditionally been known as “the Dark Night of the Spirit,” and it is a wilderness journey indeed, overturning not only most of our familiar reference points, but even the structures of consciousness through which they are maintained. “Dying to self” proves itself to be something like an onion skin, peeled back to reveal still further layers of dying—until finally there is nothing left except the All.

Many of us on the Centering Prayer path know a fair bit about that first layer of peeling back the onion—the dying to false self, perhaps courtesy of Thomas himself. His early and most influential teaching was all about “dismantling the false self.” But what is the false self? As Thomas voyaged bravely through his last three decades of life, his answer to this riddle shifted steadily toward the non-dual.

Third and finally, Thomas draws on the metaphor of journeying into the unknown, which has pressing relevance for our own world just now. In this season of planetary upheaval, Thomas’ courageous spiritual work has deep wisdom to offer us as we begin to wrap our collective hearts around what is required next. However far any one of us is destined to travel on this wilderness journey, learning to lean into the diminishment, to live with paradox and unknowing, and to celebrate the creativity without dissociating from the pain are all vital survival skills as we humans collectively feel our way into the new beginning.

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

Excerpted with permission from Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating’s The Secret Embrace (2020), online on-demand course. Full details available from Spirituality & Practice at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10274/thomas-keatings-the-secret-embrace

Epigraph: Keating, “Out of a Stone,” The Secret Embrace (Temple Rock Company: 2018), poem I.

A Christian Contemplative   Sunday,  October 18, 2020

I first met Father Thomas Keating (1923–2018) in 2002 when he came to Albuquerque to speak at a conference on Centering Prayer [1] with me. I knew of his work and of Contemplative Outreach, the organization he had founded, but our paths had never crossed. As a Trappist monk, Keating had a life more circumscribed than my own as a friar. While Franciscans are called to be “in the world,” the Benedictines, Trappists, and other cloistered orders have vowed to be “not of it.” Our emphases balanced one another; Thomas was more inclined to “contemplation” while I gravitate, by temperament, more toward “action.” As the name of the Center for Action and Contemplation implies, both of our vocations are integral parts of the Christian contemplative tradition.

I had the pleasure of going to St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado for retreat a few times, even in the last years of Thomas’ life. Each time I was impressed with his deep spirituality and his commitment to living “on the edge of the inside” of his own tradition within the Catholic Church. His passion for sharing the practice of contemplative prayer with a wider audience of Christians was truly admirable. He knew what was his to do and he did it, despite the criticism that he must have received from many of his peers who were more used to their quiet, secluded existence.

Thomas Keating made his religious vows well before Vatican II, a full generation before I did. I believe he showed great courage in heeding the call of the Second Vatican Council, “opening the windows” of the monastery, and offering Centering Prayer to the world. Prior to that, contemplative prayer was the exclusive “gift” of the monastic orders, and some may have preferred to keep it that way. He made the ancient practice of contemplation an accessible, relevant, and transformative method of prayer for thousands of Christians by using everyday language and his own brand of humor. At the same time, he also validated the practice with modern believers by integrating modern psychology and the teachings of the 12-Step Programs.

For the next two weeks, guided by the wise mind and open heart of CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault, the Daily Meditations will focus on Father Thomas Keating’s final publication, The Secret Embrace, a short collection of poems written and gathered almost entirely in the last few months of his life. Thomas was a longtime teacher, colleague, and friend to Cynthia; her insights and skill will help us understand the deeply spiritual and deeply human themes of these poems and the contemplative journey itself.

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

Prayer for Our Community:
O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all beings. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and the weight of glory. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world. [Please add your own intentions.] . . . Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God, amen.

Listen to Fr. Richard read the prayer.

Story from Our Community:
As I read today’s message [on Celtic Spirituality], I was transported back in time and distance to the cliffs of Tintagel [England], where I stood many years ago, looking westward. . . Reading today’s offering, I wept—it was so familiar and I haven’t heard it in so long! Reclaiming my role as a mystic, at 82, after a lifetime of “being in the world” with what that involves, I’ve always been drawn to the spiritual dimension of life. Now thanks to the most recent CAC meditations, I am closer to Home than I’ve ever been before in this lifetime. —Sarah K.

Share your own story with us.

[1] Centering Prayer: Keating describes Centering Prayer as “a contemporary form of prayer of the heart, prayer of simplicity, prayer of faith, prayer of simple regard; a method of reducing the obstacles to the gift of contemplative prayer and of facilitating the development of habits conducive to responding to the inspiration of the Spirit.” See Open Mind, Open Heart, 20th anniversary ed. (Continuum: 2006), 185.

Image credit: “Outside in” (detail), James Turrell at House of Lights, Tohka-machi, Niigata, Japan.

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October 20, 2020

On the first day of Fall (September 21), I sent you a letter with the heading “Some simple but urgent guidance to get us through these next months.”

Many responded that we should continue with such guidance in this apocalyptic time [from the Ancient Greek apokalúptō, which means to disclose or reveal].

It seems we now require some necessary falling, so that is what I hope to share with you whenever an inspiration arises. I would like to entitle this series of communications Letters from Outside the CampIf my meaning is not immediately apparent, I expect it will become so in the coming months.

Many of you are probably familiar with my use of the paradigm of Order > Disorder > Reorder to describe the universal pattern of change and transformation. After my last letter, a CAC staff member pointed out to me that I tend to apply this paradigm in one of two ways.

In the first case, I try to show Americans (and other nationalities by association) how to spiritually thrive amid the DISORDER of Empire and the Imperial Church, a version of Christianity that has allowed itself to be co-opted and distorted by the illusions of “Empire.” Regardless of whether you are Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, this is what most of us were handed—largely without knowing what we were being given. Consider: the wholesale toleration and support of the enslavement of human beings, the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed us to colonize and oppress indigenous peoples, the deep Disorder of two World Wars and the Holocaust, the perpetuation of Jim Crow and white supremacy by major cultures of denial. Only in hindsight, as we are able to chart the arc of history and recognize the depth of our blindness, do the consequences of this co-option become so humiliatingly apparent.

In the second case, I use this paradigm to encourage and guide those who are ready to move out of Disorder and into REORDER. In my various books and meditations, I often refer to this as the Second Half of Life, or Resurrection, Recovery, Salvation, the Nonviolent Life, the Third Way, or just Enlightenment. I’m afraid this group has always been a minority in every age, as conservatives tend to hide in a presumed perfect Order and progressives often get lost in a perpetual Disorder that lacks any Center. To use Jesus’ metaphor, when one blind person tries to lead another, they both fall into the pit (Matthew 15:14). I am not saying all people were lost for the last 2000 years—not at all; but, I am saying we have failed to reveal to the world more than a pittance of the great Good News that is the Gospel. They will surely be able to accuse me of the same 2000 years hence. God always fills in the gaps by grace and mercy and this will never change. There seems to be no utopian age.

But now, what I will try to do is lead people consciously and lovingly into a necessary and conscious DISORDER—which is part of what I think John Lewis meant by “Good Trouble” and the Hebrew prophets by EXILE.

Below is an updated version of a brief meditation I wrote and offered to our CAC staff shortly after the pandemic began this past March. At that point, I suspected this might be What the Pandemic Is Saying to the World.

Humanity, you are all One.
You are one beloved community,
and you are one global sickness.
You are all contagious—and always have been,
unconsciously infecting and yet able to also bless one another.

There are no higher and lower in this world.
There is no smart or stupid; no totally right or totally wrong.
The only meaningful division is between those who serve
and those who allow themselves to be served.
All the rest is temporary posturing.

Many to whom you look for power and leadership
have shown themselves to have empty hands, minds, and hearts.
We are bereft of all satisfying explanations,
all ledgers of deserving and undeserving.
There are no perfect answers or absolute heroes.
We must all wear a mask to protect the other from “me.”

Don’t play the victim!
Victimhood is always a waste of time—God’s time and yours.
Instead, try to learn the important lessons.
We are all in the same elementary school now.
Here, we must learn to stand in two different places
and to change places often.
The served must also be the servants,
and the servants must also be the served.

Just stay in the eternal circle of the Suffering and the Servants.
Christians call it the Body of Christ.
We are not the first or the last generation
that gets to suffer and to serve on this earth.

A great deal has happened since the beginning days of the pandemic, yet the fundamental reality of humanity’s interconnectedness remains as true now as it has been at every moment in our history. But, as Pope Francis said in his recent encyclical (Fratelli Tutti [1] or All Brothers—and Sisters by implication),

If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists.

DISORDER is already upon us by reason of our planet, our history, our politics, our economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the widespread increase in mental and emotional unhealth. Our job is to make “Good Trouble”—and probably even “Necessary Trouble”—so that humanity can spiritually and politically mature.

It is about falling—but, as always, falling upward.

Richard Rohr

Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M. signature

[1] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 34.

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A Monthly Newsletter from the Center for Action and Contemplatio

The Universal Christ: A Companion Guide for Individuals

The Universal Christ: How a orgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe—Companion Guide for Individuals by Patrick Boland

Looking for ways to deepen the experience of the Universal Christ in your daily life? This new individual companion guide provides multiple points of engagement with each chapter of Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Using reflections, journaling opportunities, Lectio Divina practices, contemplative sits, and other exercises, the 226-page guide includes an extensive introduction for each exercise and supplementary material with historical background.

The CAC is Hiring!

CRM Product Manager
We have a bold vision for our future and are seeking creative, skilled individuals to help us achieve our mission. We are currently seeking a CRM Product Manager — a senior Salesforce professional to lead the continued investment in our Salesforce implementation and the larger integrated ecosystem as part of a coordinated Digital Product Team and to empower the CAC staff to utilize Salesforce for maximum possible impact and effectiveness in their job.

Community Engagement Representative
Do you want to be a part of a team helping others on their path of contemplative spirituality? We are looking for someone highly motivated and proficient with technology to join our team as a Community Engagement Representative. In this role, you’ll be acting as the voice of our organization, building relationships and engaging with the CAC community. Our ideal candidate is an excellent listener, communicator, and compassionate problem solver who loves to learn.

Apply today or help us spread the word!

Learning How to See: A New Special Podcast Series

How do we transform and transcend our biases? From the judgements made unconsciously to complacency in systemic evil, we must learn how to see if we are to learn how to transform. Center for Action and Contemplation faculty members Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr join Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of New York’s Middle Church for this special six-episode podcast series Learning How to See. Listen as these three powerful public theologians discuss how seeing is social, political and contemplative.

Listen on our website or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Episode one of Learning How to See will air in early October.  

When Everything is Adrift: A Conversation with Richard Rohr

How do we rebuild in a time of crisis and liminality? In the midst of a global time of disorder, shifting into reorder requires stretching into personal and collective transformation. Richard Rohr tackles this challenging and complex topic in an online presentation with Contemplative Outreach on Saturday, October 24, 2020 from 10-12 p.m. MT. As we stand together in a time many describe as major regression, denial of the past and even collapse, Fr. Richard will show us how to rebuild the Foundation through reconnecting with Christianity’s contemplative heart and mystical roots.

Learn more and register for When Everything is Adrift 

This event is offered by Contemplative Outreach. Please direct all questions and inquiries to their support team

Reader Favorites:
Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations

Find additional meditations by Father Richard in the online archive.

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2 thoughts on “THE DAILY MEDITATION – from the Center for Action and Contemplation (Fr Richard Rohr OFM)

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