Thomas Keating (1923–2018)

Thomas Keating
Thomas Keating

By Martin Rowe

I first encountered the work of Fr. Thomas Keating in 1994, who died on October 26, aged 95 as the newly minted promotion manager at Continuum Publishing Company (an independent press based in New York City). Among my tasks was publicizing three Keating titles that Gene Gollogly, Continuum’s sales manager and eventual vice-president, had recently acquired from Element Books: Open Mind, Open Heart; The Mystery of Christ; and Invitation to Love.

Gene recognized not only the centrality of these books to the burgeoning interest in “centering prayer” and Contemplative Outreach, the organization that Keating had helped birth, but ecumenism as a whole. Over the next five years, Continuum published many titles on the traditions of Christian contemplative prayer and lectio divina that Keating—and his fellow monastics Fr. William Meninger and Fr. Basil Pennington—had revived in the 1970s at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. In addition to books by Keating, Continuum brought into the world A Taste of Silence by Fr. Carl Arico, two titles by Fr. Richard Fragomeni, a book by Meninger on the fourteenth-century text The Cloud of Unknowing, and Centering Prayer in Daily Life and Ministry, a volume of writings by Keating edited by Gustave Reininger.

When Gene and I left Continuum in the summer of 1999 to found our publishing company, Lantern Books, Keating had no particular reason to follow us. He continued to write for Continuum, which was eventually bought by Bloomsbury, and for Crossroad (which was acquired by Herder, a German Catholic publishing house), but I think he appreciated Gene’s enthusiasm for Christian spirituality and my practicality, even pragmatism, when it came to publishing.

Gene and I had also attended two of the first three Gethsemani Encounters at Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky (the home and final resting-place of Thomas Merton). These meetings of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu monastics at the turn of the millennium were held under the auspices of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), in which Fr. Keating played a role. It was through these encounters that I became acquainted with other monastics—such as Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, Fr. William Skudlarek, and Ven. Yifa—who were to play a large role in my life and in Lantern’s development over the next ten years. Gene and I appreciated the honesty with which Keating and these other monks and nuns whom we published confronted the human condition—our vulnerabilities, dependencies, cravings, and self-delusions—even (or perhaps especially) within the context of a life of faith and ritual.

We had another connection as well. Keating’s readings of Matthew 6:6 (“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”—NRSV) was, in addition to being an invitation to apophatic prayer in the manner of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila, reaching back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, paralleled by the intimacy and stillness of reading itself. In both, one’s own voice was silenced and you paid attention to another’s experience and wisdom. Through both, you opened up the possibility not merely of persuasion but transformation through the word. Combined with the work of MID, Keating’s commitment to interreligious dialogue—an outgrowth of Vatican II’s recognition of other world religions as valid pathways to the divine, and the engagements of Thomas Merton with other faiths—echoed Lantern’s own orientation to interdisciplinary work, in which we produced books that combined animal advocacy with social justice or religion, or social justice with psychotherapy or religion, and so on.

Over twenty years, we’ve published nine titles by Keating, three edited anthologies featuring his work, nine more volumes inspired by centering prayer, fourteen books on interreligious dialogue, three memoirs, and, for a while, we printed the MID bulletin and hosted the organization’s website. Although I only met with Keating on a handful of occasions, we talked on the phone regularly. His wit was sharp, even piquant; his concern for clarity in his writing and thinking was unrelenting. Manuscripts would undergo numerous revisions: a delicate penned caret inserting a key detail here; there, a spidery rephrasing placed on top of the offending sentence. Always apposite, always authoritative, always a refinement.

In his last years, he relied on me and his editor Bonnie Shimizu to tell him if he was repeating something or saying nothing. I think he felt relieved when after he submitted a slender set of thoughts for possible publication in early 2018, we told him to put down his pen. He’d done all he could in forty years of writing to explain what centering prayer was and how it fitted into the Christian contemplative tradition, we said. Those who took his words to be a salve without the necessary contrition or repentance; or thought he was peddling “new age” ego-boosterism; or even discerned a blasphemous syncresis that threatened Church teachings—none of these individuals would be convinced by yet another dissertation on our relationship with God.

Bonnie and I concurred that an honest reading of Keating’s work would encounter a seeker deeply committed to a humble recognition of a loving and intimate God, a Divine Healer who cared for our human failings and demanded that we face them, even as He (and we) recognized our utter helplessness. Thomas Keating didn’t need to prove to anyone that he’d lived his faith, or that his mind wasn’t bent toward God.

A contemporary of my father, Keating was like him a person to admire for his discipline and authority, as well as his humor, even though we were very different. Keating was a Catholic man of faith, I am a Protestant agnostic; he was an omnivore, I am a vegan; he was someone who’d committed himself to a formal institution for more than seventy years, I had fled the institutional life at the same age as he entered one. Yet we both performed our daily disciplines, based on a belief in a calling greater than ourselves; and we both tried to do our best in the face of our (no doubt) regular infractions of that vocation.

Before the release of The Rising Tide of Silence, a documentary film on Keating’s life by his nephew, Peter Jones, I hadn’t thought that the Keating I knew (avuncular, easily amused) might be very different from the younger man. According to the documentary, the desiccated austerities practiced by the Trappists before Vatican II demanded self-effacement; the order restricted what it was permissible to read (no psychology, for instance); and it along with the Church discouraged the contemplative life or apophatic prayer. As a young monastic, Keating had (the documentary asserted) vigorously toed that line. Vatican II (1962–66) took place when Keating was an abbot. Its loosening of monastic strictures, and its opening up to other modes of knowing God as well as other religions came as a massive shock not only to the system that Keating had spent almost two decades enforcing, but to the man and his monastery.

Keating appears nonetheless to have grabbed the opportunities presented by Vatican II with both hands. He reconnected with the long-suppressed Christian contemplative tradition partly to enable young people fleeing to the religions of Asia to reconnect with the inner world of the Divine. He engaged with some theories of human consciousness and psychology that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s to give practitioners a contemporary language by which to understand the often-overwhelming emotions (even terrors and despondencies) those earlier mystics had experienced during contemplative prayer. He honored the expressions of humility and self-emptying (kenosis) that could be found in other faiths, while sticking resolutely to his own via negativa.

When my wife, Mia, and I went to see him in hospice at St Joseph’s Abbey over the summer, he was lying in bed, thin but with a lively look in his eye. He was characteristically wry-humored and curious—pressing me to practice contemplative prayer, asking Mia about her work, and reflecting on his literary estate. I thanked him for what he’d brought to Lantern, and to Gene and myself; he expressed his appreciation for my labors on his behalf. There was nothing to lament; death held no terrors; and nothing more had to be said. After an hour, he said he was getting tired, and we left.

Perhaps I was lucky only to know this older Keating; perhaps the younger man would have left me cold. But he was never pious or pompous with me; he never complained about my edits (at least to my face) or told me how little I understood; he never pulled rank or faith or his closeness to God to silence my reservations. I like to think his generosity was because, like most monastics, he knew that the rigors of a life of work and prayer would ultimately expose Pharasaism. Each day held a potential revelation of how weak one was before God; each day was a struggle to rein in one’s ego, ambition, and pride and recommit oneself to the order, to the superior, to the faith. Thinking of him in this way helps me to grasp the magnitude of the vocation to which he gave his entire adult life; it also allows me to glimpse the frail and flawed human being beneath the robe—one whom Keating and his works cherished, sat with, and loved.