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The Heart of the Matter

A Dialogue between Father Thomas Keating and Andrew Cohen



If you ever want to test the open-mindedness of your spiritual friends, try this: With a completely straight face, tell them that, for spiritual reasons, you've decided to take a lifelong vow of celibacy. Indeed, it is a curious feature of today's spiritual landscape that, while the popularity of "sacred sexuality" workshops continues to surge, history's most widely embraced and time-honored spiritual/ sexual practice—abstinence—has become almost taboo. In fact, in the postmodern spiritual marketplace, it is rare to hear talk of renunciation of any kind, least of all where the chaotic and primal force responsible for our very existence is concerned. Given the culture of self-gratification in which we have all been steeped, perhaps no one should be surprised by this fact. But considering the current tidal wave of interest in Buddhism, which has a 2500-year legacy of celibate monasticism, and the fact that the vast majority of history's most revered saints and sages from almost every tradition were themselves lifelong celibates, it struck us as peculiar that so few modern seekers even think about the role of celibacy in the spiritual life.

So when we began our research for this issue, one of the burning questions we wanted to explore was: What exactly is the role of celibacy on the spiritual path? And more precisely, what is the actual experience of those who have lived their spiritual lives within the strictures of the celibate vow? How do the fruits of such radical renunciation show themselves in the human heart? With these questions in mind, we began our search for individuals who not only stood out as living examples of success on the spiritual path, but who also were lifelong celibates, because we felt that they alone would truly be able to shed some light on this rarely discussed and often misunderstood subject. It was this search that quickly landed us on the doorstep of Father Thomas Keating.

A Trappist monk, priest, and former abbot, Father Keating has, over the past several decades, gained international renown for his pioneering efforts to reinvigorate the mystical core of Christianity by introducing monks and laypeople alike to the ancient Christian contemplative practice now known as "centering prayer." In the course of his fifty-six years as a celibate monk—many of them spent guiding others in the celibacy practice—Father Keating has clearly given much thought to the significant role that celibacy can play in the lives of sincere spiritual aspirants. We were pleased to be able to include his views on this potent and challenging practice in our pages through the following dialogue with spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, the founder of What Is Enlightenment?

–Craig Hamilton


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This article is from
Our Anniversary Issue