The following is an account of a talk and meditation session led by Rev. Thomas Keating in 2005 (Keating died in 2018). This is based on my notes and observations and those of the friend who attended with me. My comments are interspersed throughout.
The Session Begins
My friend and I arrived late, so we missed any beginning introductory remarks to the program. However, Rev. Keating had not yet started speaking. After a short video and a time of urging people to give, a priest with Keating’s organization gave a brief introduction to Contemplative Prayer. The goal of Contemplative Prayer is to “renew the contemplative dimension of the gospel” (this is in the literature as well). Contemplative Prayer is a “prayer of consent” to God, saying to God, “I take you for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and health, etc.” Just to clarify, it was said that God says this to us and we say it to God. So since we say this to God, this certainly raises the question of when is God “poor, worse, or sick?”
Thomas Keating (a Trappist monk) came forward and gave instructions on how to do Centering Prayer (he called it Centering Prayer though it is also known as Contemplative Prayer; Keating named his website “Contemplative Outreach”). He said that “silence is God’s first language,” but I do not know any evidence for this and none was given. Language comes from God; we communicate and speak in words because that is how God made us, and it is one of the big distinctions between us and the animal world. Genesis 1:3 tells us “And God said, let there be light, and there was light.” So, according to the Bible, God spoke even before he created man and the first thing we learn about God is that he spoke.
Instructions Similar to Eastern Meditation
After instructing everyone on choosing a “sacred symbol,” which, he told us, could be any word we like (Jesus, peace, stillness, calm, etc.), Keating told us that if a thought came into our minds, we were to return to this word. The goal was to get to a state of no-thinking and to get beyond any perceptions, bodily sensations, or purposes. He also said this should be done at least 20 minutes twice each day, and one should gradually do it for longer periods of time.3
The instructions given by Keating for doing this Contemplative (or Centering) Prayer are almost identical to what I was taught for Buddhist meditation, minus the “sacred symbol” or “sacred word.” However, the idea that one has a word to return to in order to get away from thinking is part of most forms of Hindu meditation, including Transcendental Meditation. This word is called a mantra. It is not always used as a mere repetition, but as a way to get into a no-thinking state. This is a form of self-induced hypnosis.
The literature offered on tables at this talk claimed that this prayer is not a technique and not a form of hypnosis. But saying this does not make it true; it is a technique and because it is similar to Eastern meditation techniques, it can induce a trance, or altered state of consciousness, as I well know from having done Buddhist and Hindu meditation. The techniques are similar to the steps that induce a light trance state. It doesn’t matter what mantra one may use (or even if one is used at all) or what name is given to this practice; it is still the same technique. Allowing one’s mind to go into this state of not thinking (which is not the same state as daydreaming or sleeping) is a form of mild hypnosis. In such a state, one is very suggestible; critical thinking skills and judgment are suspended in this state. Therefore, I found it interesting that the main lecture came after everyone had been led into a 20-25 minute Contermplative Prayer session. Keating used Matthew 6:6 as the “formula” for this prayer (more on this later). He said that Contemplative Prayer was a way “to be free to be who we are and to be with that which we call God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” He said our feet should be flat on the floor and we should sit with a straight back.
Keating said at the end of 20 minutes, he would say the “Our Father” prayer. During the prayer-meditation, as people sat silently with eyes closed and many with hands held with palms up, I eerily felt like I was back in the New Age at a New Age or Buddhist workshop or lecture. After about 25 minutes, Keating started saying the “Our Father” prayer, and when he spoke, his voice sounded strange and came out very deep and incredibly slow, as though he were struggling to speak. No one else said it with him. After he finished, he told us to open our eyes.
A Psalm distorted
My friend and I did not participate in the CP session, but instead read the brochures. I also decided to read Psalm 78 in my Bible, because one of the brochures quoted what was allegedly an excerpt from Psalm 78. In the brochure, this is presented as Psalm 78:
“Listen well, O peoples of the earth,
to the inner promptings of the Spirit;
Let Silence enter your house that
You may hear!
For within your heart Love speaks;
Not with words of deceit,
But of spiritual truths to guide you
Upon the paths of peace.
. . . Therein lies the hope of the future,
to live as co-creators with
the great Creator…”
(Excerpted from Psalm 78,
Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill)
Having just finished my Old Testament 2 course at seminary, this did not sound familiar (I knew the part about being a co-creator with God is not in the Bible — that is straight-up New Age), nor did it sound like it would be in the Bible. I carefully read through Psalm 78 in my Bible three times and, just as I had thought, the Psalm from the brochure did not match up. The beginning of Psalm 78:1-4, which is the only part that seems to be remotely like the above, is this:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done. NASB, 1995
In actuality, the text is saying the opposite of the brochure’s paraphrase or translation: not that we should let “silence” in, but rather that we should listen to the words of God! If one examines Psalm 78, one will see that the excerpt from the brochure bears little to no resemblance to the Bible.
I later saw the book by Nan Merrill at one of the book tables in the foyer. Merrill apparently renders the Psalms into her own version. Yet this Psalm was presented in the brochure as though it is from the Bible.
Enter Keating’s “Inner Room”
Keating began a lecture after the prayer session that lasted about two hours. I took notes, and managed to write down certain phrases and some whole sentences; these have quotation marks around them.
Keating said that Contemplative/Centering Prayer is a way of “establishing a relationship with God” and gives us a way “to dialogue with Eastern religions, who have a rich contemplative tradition.” God was often referred to as “ultimate reality” or as “what we know as God in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Keating said that we are not in touch with our “spiritual will” unless we are “advanced in meditative practice.” Contemplative Prayer is a “description of Jesus’ formula for interior silence” though Keating acknowledged that Jesus did not give much detail on this (my comment: Jesus gave no details on it!).
A lengthy teaching on Matthew 6:6 now began, the verse where Jesus admonishes people to go into the “inner room“ (NASB) or just “room“ (NIV and ESV; other versions say “closet“) and “shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (quote from Matthew 6:6). Keating said that this is the “formula” Jesus gave us for Contemplative Prayer. The “inner room,” claimed Keating, is our inner self where we are to retreat or enter through Centering Prayer. Then we “shut the door,” letting go of our “ordinary psychological awareness,” perceptions, purposes, etc.
Keating referred to the “excellent meditative traditions in the East,” saying that Buddhist meditation is mindfulness but Centering Prayer is “heartfulness.” We must “consent” to the present moment; and have “intention,” which is “to be where your will is.” He said, “all creation is in the womb of God” (this sounds panentheistic, that creation comes from and is contained in the being of God, but I am not sure how literally he meant this). “Consent” (this word was used a lot) has to do with the present, but “effort” has to do with the future and is inadequate.
A simple reading of the previous verses shows us that Matthew 6:6 is a contrast to the picture of the hypocrites in verse 5 who pray publicly to get attention. Jesus is saying in essence not to show off when praying, not to make a big deal of it to look good. Jesus was not talking about interior silence and withdrawing into one’s self when he said we should go to the inner room! The inner room was a small room in houses where people could go for private prayer.4 Jesus is being literal here. Keating seizes the literal and turns it into esoteric pablum.
We were told, “Change your thinking or stop thinking.” We need to be “waking up to that which is within us” and the “less effort you make, the more you are in the present moment.” The “inner room” is a “spiritual location” and is strange to those of us “still encased in thinking.” These ideas echo Buddhist teachings on the need to transcend thinking in order to know ultimate reality, and the teaching that one must learn to be in the present. This thinking is rooted in the Buddhist worldview that one should cultivate non-attachment in order to overcome desire, which is the cause of all suffering (in the Buddhist worldview). Knowing that Keating has had Buddhist influence, it was not surprising to hear these Buddhist-based views.
Keating spoke of evolution frequently at this point, saying that we are literally “stardust” (this is actually a phrase from Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock,” which says, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we have got to get back to the Garden”). He said that “we are not used to being human, at least as a race” because we have not been human that long compared to the history of the earth. So we are not used to the “higher states of consciousness” and tend to fall back into “reptilian” states. This statement seems to imply that Keating believes we evolved from lower life forms. It was startling to hear that he believes we fall back into “reptilian” states and have not been human for that long.
What happens in the inner room
“What goes on in the inner room” became the focus of another lengthy segment. In Keating’s scenario, we have entered the room and closed the door; now Keating tells us what happens in this “room.” Here, we are “vulnerable” to the “divine indwelling” or “divine presence.” The “Inner Room” is “the affirmation of our basic goodness.” He referred to First Kings 19 (though he actually said it was in Exodus) when Elijah was despondent on Mt. Horeb and he hears a wind, an earthquake, and then a fire, but not the Lord. Then comes a sound of “sheer silence”(NRSV) which is“gentle whisper”in the NIV, a“gentle blowing”in the NASB, and“the sound of a low whisper“ in the ESV.5
Since most translations do not render it as “sheer silence,” I think it is skating on thin ice to base a whole teaching using that particular phrase. Not only that, but after the “silence”or the“gentle blowing,“ God spoke to Elijah! God spoke using words. Moreover, this event in the Bible concerns an Old Testament prophet, and is not normative for today or for non-prophets even then. Additionally, taking an experience, especially an unusual one, as a prescribed teaching — unless other passages give instruction to practice it — is to misuse the text.
This event in First Kings is not an instruction on how to find God, yet it is used by numerous teachers of contemplative spirituality as a proof text for “hearing” God in silence. They seem to ignore the fact that we now have the full revelation of Christ and the completed canon, which Elijah did not have. Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Christ came and revealed God’s character and love for all to see and know.
Keating said that Christ “awakens” the “Inner Room” except for those “exceptional souls” who are “enlightened” in other ways. He did not expand on this. It seemed he was combining the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit, saying that they are given to us as we sit in the “Inner Room.” The “energy generated in the Inner Room activates” the fruits [sic] of the Holy Spirit. At this point, Keating’s talk became convoluted and full of psychological jargon, including Jungian psychology. He talked about the “collective unconscious” (from Carl Jung) and how it can go all the way back to Adam and Eve. He was not talking about sin or the fallen nature, but how man is tied in to our ancestors — this is a Jungian concept and is very common in New Age thinking.
Keating also talked about the “purification of the psychological unconscious.” The language got torturously elaborate and the concepts very dense. He made cryptic statements such as: “The absence and presence of God” are the same thing.
There were few references to Christ, and when they were made, they were almost peripheral, although thankfully he did refer to the Trinity at one point and to the death of Christ on the cross. However, there was no talk of sin or how sin separates man from God, of how man can be reconciled to God, or the need for a lost world to know Christ. This is disturbing in light of the fact that Contemplative Prayer was presented as the way to bring love to the world. One of Keating’s final statements was that God is silence and silence is God.
Afterwards, my friend and I had a private conversation with Rev. Keating, after waiting in line with others. My questions and Keating’s comments and answers did nothing to allay my concerns of what he is teaching, but rather only deepened them.
It is important to note that CP is not accepted officially by the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics group, has an excellent article against Centering Prayer on their website, which I recommend for the information they provide. Though the Contemplative teachers quote the mystics, it is clear from Contemplative literature and books that Contemplative Prayer is based on Eastern meditation techniques. That Eastern meditation was an influence on this prayer is admitted by the three founders themselves, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Meninger, in a 1994 video. Some have tried to make a distinction between Contemplative and Centering Prayer, a distinction Keating did not seem to make. I believe that the terms are being used interchangeably, and to attempt to make such a distinction serves no useful purpose.
I want to emphasize that doing this type of meditation (it is not a prayer since there is no biblical model or basis for it, and no thought is involved), especially if one goes into an altered state of consciousness, can be quite dangerous if done repeatedly over a period of time. Not only does it gradually change one’s worldview, there are accounts of breakdowns, depressions, disorientation, bizarre bodily reactions, and even suicidal thoughts that result from doing forms of meditation that result in an altered state. Being in this state is not safe, healthy, normal, spiritual, or biblical, and it is certainly not prayer.
Added August 2023: In light of my research on Richard Rohr and Perennial Wisdom, and considering that Keating and Rohr were close friends, I believe that Keating may have been a follower of Perennial Wisdom. His language in his books that I read and in this talk I attended strongly reflect that possibility.
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1 Conservative Episcopal church that later broke away in late 2007 with other churches from the Episcopal Church USA. Keating was sponsored by an outside group. The Falls Church was previously unaware of his unorthodox teachings, with which they strongly disagree.
2 Marcia Montenegro formerly practiced Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and various forms of New Age meditation for many years before salvation in Christ in December, 1990.
3 Followers of TM (Transcendental Meditation) are taught to practice their meditations for 20 minutes twice each day, and are given a mantra, a word or phrase to repeat in this fashion. The mantra is usually the name of a Hindu deity or a phrase used by Hindus in their religious meditation. In Hindu meditation, a mantra is considered to have the ability to spiritually transform your consciousness. When Keating was beginning this journey at St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, MA, he invited Buddhist monks and a former monk who had become a TM teacher give sessions to the monks at a retreat at his monastery.
4 “The term translated room refers to the inner room of a house, normally without any windows opening outside, the most private location possible (BDAG 988).” Footnote on Matthew 6:6 from the NET Bible online.
5 The Hebrew word, according to the NAS Hebrew/Greek dictionary, comes from a root word for “gentle, fine, thin” and means “fine, fine dust, finely ground, gaunt, gentle blowing.”