Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 8, Part I

The More Subtle Kinds of Thoughts

    The first kind of thought that regularly comes down the stream of consciousness when one begins to practice centering prayer is woolgathering. This may consist of things that we were doing or thinking about prior to our time of prayer. Or again, an outside sound, a vivid memory, or some plan for the future may attract and capture our attention. In the simile we have been using, these thoughts are like boats floating down the stream of consciousness. Our normal, habitual reaction is to say, "What is this? I wonder what is in the hold?" Instead, gently return to the sacred word, moving from the particular thought to the general loving attention to God that the word reaffirms. And let the boat go by. When another boat comes down, let it go by. If a whole fleet comes down, let them all go by.

    At first this is bothersome because you want to remain quiet. Little by little you begin to develop two attentions at once. You are aware of the superficial thoughts. At the same time you are aware of an undifferentiated presence that mysteriously attracts you. It is a deeper attention, a spiritual attentiveness. You are aware of both levels of attention going on at once. To develop that deeper attention is more important than worrying about the superficial thoughts. They will cease to attract you after a while.

    A second kind of thought that comes down the stream of consciousness might be compared to a flashy bat that captures your attention and values you feel like climbing aboard. If you give in to the inclination and hop on board, you start heading downstream. You have identified yourself in some degree with the thought. To return to the sacred word is to reaffirm your original intention of opening to the divine presence. The sacred word is a means of liberating yourself from the tendency to get stuck on an attractive thought. If you are hooked or about to be hooked, let go promptly but with a very gentle interior movement. Any form of resisting thoughts is itself a thought. Moreover, it is a thought with an emotional charge to it. Emotionally charged thoughts hinder the basic disposition you are engaged in cultivating, waiting upon God in the mystery of His Presence. So let go of all thoughts, and when tempted to pursue one of them, return to the sacred word. Do it as gently as if your attention were a drop of dew descending on a blade of grass. If you allow yourself to be annoyed at being pulled out of the silent waters that you were enjoying, you will just go farther downstream.

    When you begin to quiet down and enjoy a certain peace, you don't want to think of anything. You just want to be quiet. Then another kind of thought emerges. It could be some bright light about the spiritual journey or some great psychological insight into your past life. Or you have a problem with a member of your family and suddenly see how it can be resolved. Or you discover the perfect argument for converting your friends. Of course, when you come out of prayer, you see that your brilliant ideas were utterly ridiculous. They looked wonderful in the darkness of the deep waters of silence, but in the light of day you realize that they were bait to lure you out of interior peace and quiet.

    Again, you may feel an overwhelming urge to pray for someone. It is important to pray for others, but this is not the time to do it. Any effort you make at this point is counterproductive. This is God's opportunity to talk to you. It would be like interrupting someone who wants to confide something to you. You know how it is when you are trying to tell a friend something important and he keeps interrupting you with ideas of his own. In this prayer you are listening to God, listening to His silence. Your only activity is the attention that you offer to God either implicitly by letting go of all thoughts or explicitly by returning to the sacred word.

    Preachers and theologians who are trying to practice contemplative prayer have a special problem with good thoughts. Just when they are quiet, they get some incredible inspiration. A theological problem they have been trying to fathom for years suddenly becomes as clear as crystal. There is a tendency for them to think, "I must reflect about this for just a second so I won't forget it after my prayer is over." That is the end of their interior silence. When they come out of prayer, they can t even remember what the bright idea was. When one is in deep quiet, one is very susceptible to brilliant intellectual lights. Most of the time they are just illusions. Human nature does not like to be empty before God. If you are making headway in this prayer, you will be tempted by the jealous demons who see that you are getting some place and try to trip you up. To hinder your progress they dangle various kinds of tasty bait in front of your imagination. Like a little fish enjoying deep waters, you feel engulfed by God on all sides when suddenly this bait is lowered into your peaceful space. You bite on it and out you go.

    It may be hard to convince yourself of the value of interior silence. But if you are going to practice centering prayer, the only way to do it is to ignore every thought. Let it be a time of interior silence and nothing else. If God wants to speak to you in successive words, let Him do so during the other twenty three hours of the day He will be more pleased that you preferred to listen to His silence. In this prayer God is speaking not to your ears, to your emotions, or to your head, but to your spirit, to your inmost being. There is no human apparatus to understand that language or to hear it. A kind of anointing takes place. The fruits of that anointing will appear later in ways that are indirect: in your calmness, in your peace, in your willingness to surrender to God in everything that happens. That is why interior silence is greater than any insight. It also saves you a lot of trouble. Pure faith is the surest and straightest road to God. Human nature wants to recall spiritual experiences of one kind or another in order to be able to explain them to oneself and to others. The remembrance of spiritual experiences is okay up to a point, but such experiences are not as important as interior silence. Don't reflect on them during prayer If they have genuine value, they will come back to you later The deeper your interior silence, the more profoundly God will work in you without your knowing it. Pure faith consents and surrenders to the Ultimate Mystery just as He is, not as you think He is or as someone has told you He is, but as He is in Himself.

    There is no greater way in which God can communicate with us than on the level of pure faith. This level does not register directly on our psychic faculties because it is too deep. God is incomprehensible to our faculties. We cannot name Him in a way that is adequate. We cannot know Him with our mind; we can only know Him with our love. That is what some mystical writers call unknowing. It is by not knowing Him in the ways that we now know Him, that we do know Him. Visions, locutions or ecstasies are like frosting on a cake. The substance of the journey is pure faith.

    A special kind of thought occurs when our ordinary psychic self is quiet. If you have ever made wine, you know that after the new wine has been separated from the dregs, it is poured into a barrel and what is called a finer is introduced. A finer is a liquid that forms a thin film throughout the barrel and gradually sinks to the bottom in the course of two or three months, carrying with it all the foreign bodies in the wine. What is happening to your psyche in contemplative prayer is quite similar The sacred word is the finer and the silence to which it inclines you is the process that clarifies your consciousness. As your consciousness is clarified, you resonate with spiritual values and the radiance of God's presence.

    There is an immediacy of awareness in contemplative prayer. It is a path to the rediscovery of the simplicity of childhood. As an infant becomes aware of its surroundings, it is not so much what it sees that delights it as it is the act of seeing. I once heard about a little girl of wealthy parents who loved to play with her mother's jewelry. When her mother wasn't around and the nurse couldn't capture her in time, she used to gather her mother's diamonds and throw them into the toilet bowl. She loved to hear the splash as she watched the beautiful diamonds sinking in the water As she grew older, she learned to flush the toilet. The members of the household were tearing their hair How were they to cure the dear child of this terrible habit? The little girl had no interest in the value of the jewelry. Her mother, of course, thought they had great value. The little girl simply enjoyed the immediacy of the experience, the sparkling diamonds splashing into the water. She had the freedom and joy of true detachment.

    As we grow older, it is important to develop our analytical judgment, but we shouldn't lose the enjoyment of reality as it is, the value of just being and of just doing. In the Gospel, Jesus invites us to become like little children, to imitate their innocence, confidence, and direct contact with reality He doesn't invite us, of course, to imitate their childishness, and their tantrums. If our value system doesn't allow us to enjoy anything without putting a price on it, we miss a great part of the beauty of life. When we bring this value system into the domain of prayer, we can never enjoy God. As soon as we start enjoying Him, we have to reflect, "Oh boy, I'm enjoying God!" And as soon as we do that, we are taking a photograph of the experience. Every reflection is like a photograph of reality. It isn't our original experience; it is a commentary on it. Just as a picture only approximates reality, so every reflection is one step back from experience as it actually is. When we experience the presence of God, if we can just not think about it, we can rest in it for a long time. Unfortunately, we are like starving people when it comes to spiritual things, and we hang on to spiritual consolation for dear life. It is precisely that possessive attitude that prevents us from enjoying the simplicity and childlike delight of the experience.

    In contemplative prayer we should ignore our psychological experiences as much as we can and just let them happen. If you are at peace, wonderful; don't think about it. Just be at peace and enjoy it without reflecting. The deeper the experience you have of God, the less you will usually be able to say about it. When you try to conceptualize, you are using your imagination, memory, and reason--all of which bear no proportion to the depth and immediacy of divine union. A childlike attitude makes sense in this situation. You don't have to do anything. Just rest in God's arms. It is an exercise of being rather than of doing. You will be able to accomplish what you have to do with much greater effectiveness and joy. Much of the time we run on cylinders that are out of oil or a bit rusty. Our powers of giving are pretty well used up by noon on most days. Contemplative prayer opens you to the power of the Spirit. Your capacity to keep giving all day long will increase. You will be able to adjust to difficult circumstances and even to live with impossible situations.

Continued . . .

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