Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 5, Part II

The Sacred Word as Symbol

    If you keep up this practice every day for several months, you will know whether or not it is right for you. There is no substitute for the experience of doing it. It is like getting to know a new friend; if you meet and converse regularly, you get to know each other faster. That's why we recommend two periods of prayer each day, preferably the first thing in the morning and before supper. Sometimes the "conversation" is engrossing and you experience a certain peace and refreshment. At other times the conversation is like talking about baseball scores when you have no interest in the game; you put up with it because you are interested in a particular person and in whatever interests him or her An uninspiring period of prayer won't bother you very much if your long-range goal is the cultivation of friendship. The essential discipline is to do it every day.

What do you do when the entire prayer period consists of wave after wave of thoughts?

    When you start to quiet down, you may become aware that your head is full of thoughts coming from both outside and inside. The imagination is a perpetual-motion faculty; it is always grinding out images. So you must expect that on the level of your memory and imagination, thoughts will just keep coming. The main thing is to accept the fact that this is going to happen. No one is going to fall instantly into an ocean of peace where there are no distractions. You have to accept yourself as you are and God as He is, and trust that He will lead you in a way that may not always feel comfortable but that is best for you.

    In the case of unwanted thoughts, just let them go without being upset. If you make up your mind that there are going to be a lot of thoughts, you are less likely to get upset when thoughts arrive. If, on the other hand, you feel that the goal of centering prayer is to be free of all thoughts, you will be continually disappointed. When you feel disappointed; that is a thought with an emotional charge to it. It shatters whatever interior silence you may have been enjoying.

Must one say the sacred word constantly?

    So long as thoughts are going by of their own accord, you don't have to think the sacred word. In the beginning it is helpful to keep returning to it in order to introduce it into your subconscious and thus to make it easier to recall when you need it during prayer. The basic rule is to let all thoughts on the river go by. As long as they are going by, you don't need to do anything about them. But when you want to look on board one of the boats to see what is hidden in the hold, think the sacred word. Do so gently, however, and without effort.

    If you have just had an argument with someone or received bad news, you will need a little preparation for prayer. Reading scripture, walking or jogging around the block, or doing yoga exercises may help to calm your emotional turmoil. One reason to pray early in the day is that events haven't had a chance to upset you yet.

Does the sacred word disappear permanently or just from time to time during a particular prayer time?

    The experience of interior peace is the sacred word at its deepest level. You are experiencing the end of the journey toward which the sacred word is pointing. But this is generally not a permanent state. You keep getting bounced out and have to return again to the sacred word.

You said that it is not so much repetition of the sacred word that counts but the intention. I was wondering haw to hang onto the intention without repeating the word. It seems as if they go together.

    In the beginning it is hard to hang on to your intention without continually returning to the sacred word. But this does not mean that you have to keep repeating it. There are forms of Christian prayer similar to mantra practice in the Hindu tradition that consist of repeating the sacred word continuously. This is not the method of centering prayer. In this practice, you only return to the sacred word when you notice you are thinking some other thought. As you become more comfortable with this prayer, you begin to find yourself beyond the word in a place of interior peace. Then you see that there is a level of attention that is beyond the sacred word. The sacred word is a pointer and you have reached that to which it is pointing. Until you have that experience, you must continue to go back to the sacred word in order to reaffirm your intention when you notice you are thinking of something else.

    It seems that a word has a certain emotional quality to it, some kind of atmosphere about it. I was wondering if there was a distinction between trying to stay with the word to see what the feeling quality of that word becomes in centering prayer, and trying to allow everything to drop away, including the feeling quality of that word, in the hope that there is something coming from God's direction.

    The meaning of the sacred word or its resonances should not be pursued. It is better to choose a word that does not stir up other associations in your mind or cause you to consider its particular emotional qualities. The sacred word is only a gesture, an expression of your intent; it has no meaning other than your intent. You should choose your word as a simple expression of that intent, not as a source of meaning or emotional attraction. The less the word means to you, the better off you are. It is not a way of going to God or a way into interior silence. Rather, it establishes an interior climate that facilitates the movement of faith. The movement of pure faith is the heart of contemplative prayer. Only God can put content into that kind of faith.

    You may reach a point where you no longer think of the sacred word at all. When you sit down for prayer, your whole psyche gathers itself together and melts into God. Interior silence is the sacred word at its deepest level. For example, if you take a trip to New York, you buy a ticket at your starting point. But when you get to New York, you don't go to the ticket office to buy another ticket; you are already there. In the same way, use the sacred word to move into interior silence. So long as you experience the undifferentiated, general, and loving presence of God beyond any thought, don't go back to the sacred word. You are already at your destination.

Sometimes I think that I have reached the tranquility before I really have. I've tasted the real thing once in a while, but sometimes I think it is there before it really is, and I don't want to go back to the word. Yet I feel that I have to.

    Well, don't be too sure. Stay there a few more moments. God is much more intimate and accessible than we think. If the Lord reaches up and pulls you down, great! But since He does not generally do so, there may be something you can do to make it easier for Him. Centering prayer is a method of doing precisely that.

To what exactly is our attention directed in centering prayer? Is it to the sacred word? To the meaning of the word? To the sound of the word? To a vague sense of God being present?

    None of them. We do not try to fix our attention on the sacred word during centering prayer. We do not keep repeating it or think of its meaning. Its sound is of no significance. The sacred word is only a symbol. It is an arrow pointing in the direction intended by our will. It is a gesture of sign of accepting God as He is? Exactly what that is, we don't know. Again, the sacred word is like the needle of a ship's compass pointing out the course in a storm. It is not a means, still less an infallible means, of getting to our destination. It is not within our power to bring about a vague sense of God's being present. What, then, is our principal focus in centering prayer? It is to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ, the Divine Human Being.

    In discussions with others who practice centering prayer, l have found that they stop saying the sacred word as soon as some type of silence appears. They stay silent for about five minutes; then thoughts arise and they return to the word. They make another descent into quietness and drop the word; then thoughts arise and they return to it again. What do you think about this dropping and returning, dropping and returning to the word?

    Your description sounds as if they know how to do it. Some teachers of prayer are convinced from their experience that contemporary Western minds are so active that they need to repeat a Christian mantra over and over, at least in the beginning. People leading very active lives can certainly benefit from that sort of concentration to hold their attention. The method of centering prayer, however, is not concentrative, but receptive. While both methods are excellent and aim at the same goal, they are not the same and produce different effects in the psyche. In centering prayer, the use of the sacred word is designed to foster the receptive attitude. The interior movement toward God without any word is often enough. You may sink into interior silence as soon as you sit down simply by opening yourself to the presence of God. His presence is already there, but you may not have noticed it because of other duties or occupations.

    Contemplative prayer is an incredibly simple kind of attention. It is more intention than attention. As the Spirit gradually takes more and more charge of your prayer, you may move into pure consciousness, which is an intuition into your true Self. There is no way of knowing God directly in this life except by means of pure faith, which is darkness to all the faculties. This darkness is to be understood not as a blanking out of the faculties, but as a transcendence of their activity. Pure faith, according to John of the Cross, is the proximate means of union with God.

    Contemplative prayer may open up into various kinds of inner experiences or non-experiences. In either case, it is a training in being content with God as He is and as He acts. There is tremendous freedom when that disposition is finally established because then you will not look for any form of consolation from God. Spiritual consolations can be as distracting as sensible ones. God gives consolation to heal the emotional problems I was referring to previously. Someone who has been deprived of love needs a lot of affection. The Spirit knows that as well as any psychiatrist. It may be for this reason that the Spirit fills certain people with waves of love and various marks of affection. It doesn't mean that they are holier than others or that the Spirit loves them more. It means that they have more need of love. So he gives them what they need--always, however, with a view to strengthening them so that they may receive more substantial communications, which are beyond the range of psychological awareness.

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