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The Heart of the Matter

A Dialogue between Father Thomas Keating and Andrew Cohen



In every issue of What Is Enlightenment? we aspire to introduce our readers to sincere and passionate individuals who care profoundly about their fellow human beings and who dare to accept, as their own burden, the deepest spiritual aspirations of the race. Such encounters are always a privilege, but it sometimes happens, as it did with Father Thomas Keating, that the warmth, love, decency and sheer humanity that we experience in their presence exceed our expectations, and we can only wonder at the good fortune of being able to include their insights, ideas—and their spirit—in our ongoing inquiry into the nature and significance of enlightenment.

Father Keating, who spent twenty years as the abbot of St. Joseph's Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, is now, at seventy-four, the leading figure in an interdenominational movement to revitalize the Christian contemplative practice known as "centering prayer." He is the cofounder of Contemplative Outreach, an organization devoted to introducing Christian contemplative practices to laypeople of all faiths, and the author of several books, including Open Mind, Open Heart and Intimacy with God, both of which describe the process of spiritual development that such practices are intended to catalyze.

Since the beginning of his Outreach activities, Father Keating has shared responsibility for the development of contemplative workshops and retreats with several of his colleagues. Yet for many of the growing number of people who have benefited from their work, it is Keating himself, because of his extraordinary warmth and humility, who exemplifies and embodies the transformative potential of centering prayer. As a result, he is in constant demand as a lecturer and workshop leader and maintains, despite frail health, a taxing schedule that takes him to several cities each year. Keating is also known for his avid and unusually open-minded interest in the contemplative and meditative practices of other religious traditions. He has met and studied with spiritual teachers from a variety of Hindu and Buddhist lineages and helped to create, fifteen years ago, the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, at which teachers from different traditions meet regularly to compare views and ideas, and to evaluate objectively the benefits and drawbacks of their respective practices.

In the midst of all this activity, one might well suppose that Father Keating's celibacy is, as he says it was in his years as a novice, a given, something to be considered only in the context of so many other pressing concerns. But in the course of his fifty-three years as a celibate monk—several of them spent guiding others in the practice—Father Keating has clearly given much thought to the significant role celibacy can play in the lives of sincere spiritual aspirants, and it is a testament to his open-mindedness that, among the highly respected advocates of celibacy we interviewed for this issue, he is uniquely outspoken in his insistence that the celibate state must never be regarded as inherently superior, nor as essential to the attainment of any ultimate spiritual goal. The goal of celibacy, Father Keating asserts passionately, is "ever greater humility and purity of heart . . . a letting go of pride and the false self so that God can be God in us." Fundamental to his approach is the recognition that it is only through the cultivation of these attributes—humility and purity—and only through a process of "inner purification" rather than "external observance," that the potential of any spiritual practice to bring about authentic and lasting transformation can be realized.

Father Keating shared his views with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, the founder of What Is Enlightenment?, by telephone from his mountain hermitage at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, last October.

–Craig Hamilton


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