Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 7, Part I

The Birth of Spiritual Attentiveness

    The chief act of the will is not effort but consent. The secret of getting through the difficulties that arise in contemplative prayer is to accept them. The will is affectivity more than it is effectivity. To try to accomplish things by force of will is to reinforce the false self. This does not dispense us from making appropriate efforts. In the beginning the will is involved in habits that are selfish. We have to make efforts to withdraw from them. But as the will goes up the ladder of interior freedom, its activity becomes more and more one of consent to God's coming, to the inflow of grace. The more God does and the less you do, the better the prayer. In the beginning one is conscious of having to say the sacred word again and again. A better way of expressing that kind of activity is to say that one returns to the sacred word or that one gently places the sacred word in ones awareness. The sacred word is the symbol of the subtle spiritual movement of the will. One keeps consenting to God's presence. Since He is already present, one does not have to reach out to grab Him.

    The sacred word is the symbol of consenting to God's presence. Eventually the will consents of itself without need of a symbol. The work of the will in prayer is real work, but it is one of receiving. Receiving is one of the most difficult kinds of activity there is. To receive God is the chief work in contemplative prayer.

    The method of centering prayer is a way of opening to God at 360 degrees. Surrendering oneself to God is a more developed kind of consent. Transformation is completely God's work. We can't do anything to make it happen. We can only prevent it from happening.

    As this prayer becomes habitual, a mysterious undifferentiated and peaceful Presence seems to be established inside of you. Some people say they feel that God is living within them. That tranquil Presence that is always there when they settle down becomes their method of prayer.

    In the beginning we bring to prayer our false self with its expectations and preconceived ideas. That is why in teaching this prayer I do not speak of effort. The word effort is immediately translated in our work ethic into trying. Trying dilutes the basic disposition of receptivity that is necessary for the growth of contemplative prayer Receptivity is not inactivity. It is real activity but not effort in the ordinary sense of the word. If you want to call it effort, keep in mind that it is totally unlike any other kind of effort. It is simply an attitude of waiting for the Ultimate Mystery You don't know what that is, but as your faith is purified, you don't want to know. Of course, in a sense you are dying to know But you realize that you can't possibly know by means of any human faculty; so it is useless to expect anything. You don't know and can't know what you are waiting for.

    This prayer is thus a journey into the unknown. It is a call to follow Jesus out of all the structures, security blankets, and even spiritual practices that serve as props. They are all left behind insofar as they are part of the false-self system. Humility is the forgetfulness of self. To forget self is the hardest job on earth, but it doesn't come about by trying. Only God can bring our false self to an end. The false self is an illusion. It is our way of conceiving who we are and what the world is. Jesus said, "One who loses his life for my sake will find it:' (Matthew 10:39) He also said, "If anyone will come after me let him deny himself [that is, the false self, take up his cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24) Where is Jesus going? He is going to the cross where even his Divine-Human Self is sacrificed.

    For Christians personal union with Christ is the way to come to divine union. The love of God will take care of the rest of the journey. Christian practice aims first at dismantling the false self. It is the work that God seems to require of us as proof of our sincerity. Then He will take our purification in hand, bring our deep-rooted selfishness into clear focus, and invite us to relinquish it. If we agree, He takes it away and replaces it with His own virtues.

    At certain stages of human development, there are crisis points; for instance, early adolescence and the period just before young adulthood. Similarly, there is a crisis in spiritual development every time one is called to a higher state of consciousness. When the crisis begins, one hangs on to the false self for dear life. If one resists this path of growth, there is a chance that one might regress to a lower state or play ring-around-the-rosy for a while; there is the possibility of success or failure, of growing or regressing. If one regresses, one strengthens the false. self. Then one has to wait until God reissues a new challenge. Fortunately, He has plans for us and does not give up too easily We see that pattern at work in the way Jesus trained the apostles in the Gospel. He deals with us in similar ways.

    The Canaanite woman is a magnificent example of someone undergoing what John of the Cross called the night of sense, the crisis that initiates the movement from dependency on sense and reason to docility to the Spirit. This woman went to Jesus as many other people had done and asked for the cure of her daughter. She didn't expect to have any trouble. She knelt down and made her petition. But Jesus didn't answer her. She prostrated herself, her face in the dust, and still got the cold shoulder. No one was ever treated so roughly by Jesus. As she was groveling in the dust, he said, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." (Matthew 15:26) The implication is obvious. But she came back with this incredible answer, "You are absolutely right, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs as they fall from their master's table.' (Matthew 15:27) Jesus was thrilled. His strange behavior was intended to raise her to the highest level of faith. At the end of the conversation he was able to say to her, "How wonderful is your faith! You can have anything you want!" To get to that place we, too, may have to experience rebuff, silence, and apparent rejection.

    Some people complain that God never answers their prayers. Why should He? By not answering our prayers, He is answering our greatest prayer, which is to be transformed. That is what happened to the Canaanite woman.

Sometimes there are no thoughts. There is only my self awareness. I don't know whether to let go of it or to be aware of it.

    That is a crucial question. If you are aware of no thoughts, you are aware of something and that is a thought. If at that point you can lose the awareness that you are aware of no thoughts, you will move into pure consciousness. In that state there is no consciousness of self. When your ordinary faculties come back together again, there may be a sense of peaceful delight, a good sign that you were not asleep. It is important to realize that the place to which we are going is one in which the knower, the knowing, and that which is known are all one. Awareness alone remains. The one who is aware disappears along with whatever was the object of consciousness. This is what divine union is. There is no reflection of self. The experience is temporary, but it orients you toward the contemplative state. So long as you feet united with God, it cannot be full union. So long as there is a thought, it is not full union. The moment of full union has no thought. You don't know about it until you emerge from it. In the beginning it is so tenuous that you may think you were asleep. It is not like the sense of felt union with the Lord that takes place on the level of self reflection. Union on the spiritual level is a state of pure consciousness. It is the infusion of love and knowledge together, and while it is going on, it is nonreflective.

    There is something in us that wants to be aware that we are not aware of ourselves. Even though the willingness to let go of the self is present, we can't do anything to bring it about except by continuing to let go of every thought. If we reflect on self, we start to move out again into the conceptual world.

    Divine union for some might seem a bit scary. We can't imagine what such a state of being might be like. We think, "What if I lost consciousness? What if I never come back?" If we indulge the fear that we might not come back, we inhibit the process of letting go.

Continued Next Week . . .

More information can be obtained by reading the book Open Mind Open Heart by Fr. Thomas Keating.  It is offered in our Bookstore.