How Thomas Keating launched a global interfaith movement from a Snowmass monastery
The documentary ‘Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence,’ is available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon and YouTube.
“Open Mind, Open Heart” (1986)
“Invitation to Love” (1992)
“Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer” (1994)
“Divine Therapy and Addiction” (2009)
‘The Thomas Keating Reader” (2012)
Keating wrote more than 30 books in his life, many available at Explore Booksellers in Aspen.
When he died a year ago, at age 95, Father Thomas Keating was remembered around the world as a trailblazer for the contemplative Christian movement.
From his stone cell at St. Benedict’s Monastery, which he helped found in Old Snowmass and where he lived for the last four decades of his life, the Trappist monk prolifically wrote books and most famously promoted the practice of “centering prayer.” His initiative brought meditation back into the Catholic faith and became a forerunner of the mindfulness movement that has gone fully mainstream in recent years.
A lesser-known legacy, his decades-long commitment to interfaith dialogue and exchange, spread far beyond the officialdom of the Catholic Church and the clergy.
“When he died last fall, his great work as a Christian leader and teacher was brilliantly celebrated,” Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian reverend and disciple of Keating’s, said in July during a two-day conference in Aspen that focused on Keating’s interspritual legacy. “But there was a feeling that this piece had been left unclosed — this ability to access what he left in this spiritual network.”
For a quarter century, Keating hosted influential interfaith conferences in Snowmass, which brought together leaders and practitioners of all faiths and traditions to find common ground. He also helped found organizations like Spiritual Paths, which took the mission of the Snowmass Conference around the world. And late in life he helped launch the New Contemplative Leaders Exchange, which used his centering prayer methods to fuel a new generation of Christian contemplatives and social justice activists.
“It’s these factors that we didn’t want to let slip out like water in a sieve,” Bourgeault said at the conference, which was organized by Spiritual Paths and hosted at the Aspen Chapel, “but to collect and hold and pass on.”
MISSION FROM SNOWMASS
Keating was born into privilege in Manhattan in 1923 and died having owned almost nothing for most of his life, after spending 74 years living the devotional and austere life of a Trappist monk.
He attended Yale and then Fordham universities before entering seminary in 1944.
Ordained as a priest in 1949, he began his life as a Trappist at a Rhode Island monastery and then went to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, where he stayed through most of the 1950s.
He came to Snowmass in 1958, when he was elected superior of the new St. Benedict’s Monastery, which in those early days supported itself through monks cattle ranching and candymaking. But he left after three years to return to St. Joseph’s, where he served as its abbot for the next 20 years.
At St. Joseph’s he began his deep studies in the overlooked tradition of meditation in the Catholic tradition, immersing himself in Christian mysticism and contemplative practices of 14th-century monks that paralleled the meditation of Eastern religions. In the 1970s, with the secular peace movement and rise of popular New Age spirituality, centering prayer fit with the culture and spiritual desires of its times.
His championing of meditation, however, and his embrace of Eastern traditions caused strife in the Church. Facing pressure to step down as abbot at St. Joseph’s, he returned to Snowmass in 1981.
“He was getting criticism from some of his colleagues within the Catholic clergy about how much he could say and what he could say,” recalled Will Keepin, a physicist, interspiritual meditation teacher and author of the book “Divine Duality.”
Friends and colleagues recalled how Keating struggled with his calling during this period.
“He suffered quite a bit,” said David Frenette, a longtime student of Keating and a centering prayer teacher, “because this was his commitment as abbot — to serve the monks he was responsible for spiritually.”
Frenette said Keating told him he even contemplated giving up his life in the monastery and that it took him years to find his path, finally settling on his commitment that a monastic life could help heal a broken world. Keating returned to Snowmass in the early ’80s with a mission that would reach far beyond the walls of the monastery.
“As a monk, he could spread the message of contemplative prayer, could foster religious dialogue,” Frenette concluded. “He helped us. He helped me.”
From his perch in Snowmass, surrounded by 3,000 pristine high-alpine acres, Keating quietly began the interspiritual movement.
Soon after his arrival, he organized a series of public Buddhist-Christian dialogues at the Naropa Institute in Boulder and then began hosting intimate and private conferences in Snowmass that would convene imams, rabbis, swamis, priests, Native American leaders and secular practitioners of transcendental meditation — devotees and leaders from a wide swath of traditions — to meditate and talk about their spiritual work.
Keating ignored sectarian boundaries and developed close relationships with leaders like the Dalai Lama. Known officially as the Snowmass Interreligious Conference, it started in 1984.
“I went to all these interspiritual conferences and they were boring except for the meals and breaks,” Keepin recalled Keating saying at the time. “I’m going to do an interfaith gathering where there are no presentations. We’ll only have meals and breaks.”
Keating concurrently started hosting workshops and retreats in Snowmass where laypeople could learn about and practice centering prayer. In 1984, he founded Contemplative Outreach, which aimed to bring contemplative prayer to Christians around the world. It has since opened chapters in 39 countries and today counts 40,000 members.
In 1986, Keating published the widely influential — and still widely read — book “Open Mind, Open Heart,” which outlined his practice of centering prayer. The stillness and silence of it invited the presence of God, Keating found, and led to what he dubbed “divine therapy.”
“In every situation, just be still,” Keating said in a public talk at St. Benedict’s in 2002, adding with signature humor: “In every situation, just shut up.”
Keating’s sense of humor and plainspoken, self-effacing manner helped him bridge religious boundaries and girded him through periods of resistance from Church leaders. He had a distinct and deliberate manner of speaking, often ascending into a high-pitched lilt for emphasis (Justin Lanier, who studied under Keating as a novice at St. Benedict’s and now serves as an Episcopal priest, recounted stories about Keating at the July convening in a lovingly buffoonish impression of Keating).
As the centering prayer movement transformed contemporary Christianity and made Keating among the most influential theologians in the world, his interreligious work also bloomed.
“I feel like somebody who, even though I don’t look like it, is a surfer on the tide that is coming in and riding this wave of interest in a deeper meaning in life,” he said during a 2003 talk. “I don’t know where it will take me and everybody else, but all we know is we are going. I look forward to taking as many people with me as who want to ride this tide.”
‘IT WAS CATALYTIC’
Aspen’s Ed Bastian suggested bringing the interspiritual work of the Snowmass Conference to the rest of the world and, with Keating, founded Spiritual Paths in 2002.
Best known in local lore as Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign manager during the writer’s 1970 “Freak Power” run for sheriff of Pitkin Country, Bastian, now based in California, has gone on to become one of America’s foremost Buddhist teachers and scholars.
Like most people, he first encountered Keating on the page. In the religion section of Explore Booksellers in 1989, he opened up “Open Mind, Open Heart.” Armed with a Ph.D. and a practice of Buddhism stretching back to 1969, when he traveled to India to interview the Dalai Lama when he was 25, Bastian admitted he was ready to scoff at Keating.
“I was pretty damn arrogant about my Buddhism,” Bastian recalled.
But the book surprised him.
“I said, ‘This sounds a lot like Buddhism!’” he said. “And who is this Father Thomas Keating anyway?”
He went to see Keating in Snowmass to find out, and sparked a relationship that continued through Keating’s death, including participating in the Snowmass Conference with religious leaders of all stripes.
“Nobody had ever done that,” Bastian said of the conference’s interfaith approach. “Maybe a few friends had together, but certainly not with an esteemed abbot of a Catholic monastery. It was an incredible experience. Out of that came a new form.”
Added Bourgeault: “It was catalytic.”
Keating’s inquiries into other faiths, some argued, were the foundation of centering prayer. Bourgeault believes they “midwifed” his revolutionary and influential meditation practice. She called his interreligious curiosity “the cradle from which centering prayer emerged.”
“Centering prayer didn’t arrive in a vacuum,” she said. “He asked his buddies — including a Buddhist Roshi — to come and help him develop a practice that would put the Christian contemplative tradition into a format what would be accessible to people in the modern world.”
The Snowmass Conference ran annually for 25 years, ceasing as Keating’s health declined and as the network that had grown out of it had gone global.
As Keating defined it in a 2003 talk, his work was “inviting people throughout the world across all boundaries — geographical, religious, racial, ethnic — to a deeper meaning in life, a deeper experience with the ultimate reality, or God, as we call that reality in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Though practitioners of a wide swath of faiths might claim him as their own, Keating never left the Catholic Church. He defined his work as part and parcel of his Catholic vows.
Bourgeault suggested that perhaps Keating had moved into a “post-Christian and universal” faith. Swami Atmarupananda, one of the earliest members of the Snowmass Conference, suggested that Keating increasingly spoke of his relationship with God in psychological terms, of eliminating the “false self” and abandoning oneself through prayer and meditation — rhetoric that would seem outside the bounds of Catholic doctrine.
“From the time I first met him in 1984, there was a great deal of growth in him,” Atmarupananda told the crowd in Aspen this summer, later adding: “He didn’t break down Christianity or leave Christianity; he just removed the barriers and the boxes so that he could see it again freshly and see the life-giving principles, rather than the laws and the boundaries.”
In Keating’s later years, Atmarupananda recalled, Keating increasingly drew on Catholic concepts like the Holy Trinity in his practice.
“His idea of God was constantly evolving,” Atmarupananda recalled. “He said one time, ‘You can call him Butch if you want. The name doesn’t matter.’”
‘HOPE FOR THE FUTURE’
Given his embrace of interfaith practices and their controversial status in the Catholic Church, Keating is not a likely candidate for canonization or sainthood. A quick internet search turns up blogs and articles by Catholics calling him a heretic for his interreligious initiatives. In 1989, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict — wrote a letter to the Church’s bishops about the proper manner of meditation. It was read by many as a castigation of Keating’s method of centering prayer as it gained popularity.
Keating may be remembered anyway in the decades and centuries to come, however, as a folk saint by Catholics who embrace his teachings.
His legacy in the growing global interspiritual community, meanwhile, is assured.
Keating’s legacy continues through the work of organizations like Contemplative Outreach and Spiritual Paths and in the work of the interfaith community he grew and inspired.
As Bourgeault put it, Keating “continues to guide, to shape, to touch our hearts and, through our hearts, to touch the world — a world crying for hope, for joy, for compassion.” She described the summer gathering of pupils, friends and family at the Aspen Chapel in July as “part seminar, part inquiry, part celebration.” But it was also the beginning of the next chapter of Keating’s work, a strategic assembly for those he inspired to decide how to continue what he started.
The conference devoted a panel to Keating’s death itself. As his health failed, he left Snowmass for the infirmary and then hospice care at St. Joseph’s back in Massachusetts. In those final months, his students, friends and interfaith colleagues recalled profound meetings with the ailing monk before he died in late October 2018.
Ted Jones, Keating’s nephew and director of the 2013 documentary “Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence,” said Keating stopped using medication in the summer of 2018 and was told he had a few days to live, yet stayed on for months.
“Thomas was dying for many years, and he always came back,” said Phileena Heuertz, founding partner of the Omaha-based Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. “Someone asked, ‘What’s that like?’ and he paused and said, ‘It’s the hardest work of my life.’”
Lanier, the Episcopal priest and one-time St. Benedict’s novice, recalled asking Keating how he felt and Keating responding: “There comes a time when you are falling in the abyss and it seems like no one is coming to your help. Not the virgin mother, no saint, not Jesus, just desolation. … You fall and fall and fall and in this groundless abyss until you are shattered on this ground into a million pieces and each one of them is born as God.”
His suffering bore fruit, his students said, because he talked openly about the experience to those he’d mentored and inspired them to continue his work toward finding religious harmony.
Brie Stoner, a musician and protégé of Keating from the Center for Action & Contemplation in New Mexico, said those final days were inspirational: “What he was doing was saying, ‘I am. May you be.’”
Looking to the future, Bastian cited a Pew Research Center poll that noted 35% of Americans no longer claim a religious identity. Bourgeault added that a majority of Americans under 30 are “religiously bilingual,” so even if they affiliate themselves with an organized religion they are open to other traditions. Keating’s interspiritual work, they argued, is only the beginning.
“Interspirituality is emerging as a new paradigm in our culture,” Bastian said. “It is an impulse.”
Society may be growing less sectarian, he argued, but people are spiritually hungry as ever — as evidenced in the growth of the mindfulness movement and the mainstreaming of meditation.
“These folks need what all human beings have always needed — how to connect their lives to a greater purpose,” Bastian said. “We’re in the midst of this grand creativity, around which we can help people of all faiths, and no faiths, find a common path, that they can bond together. People can solve the horrid divisions we are now facing in the world. It is a hope for the future.”
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