Open Mind Open Heart
The Contemplative Dimension
of the Gospel

by Father Thomas Keating

Chapter 9, Part III

The Unloading of the Unconscious

    Perhaps the first stage in the development of contemplative prayer is the awareness of our independence from our ordinary psychological world. In other words, we are aware that we are not just our body and that we are not just our thoughts and feelings. We are no longer so identified with external objects that we can think of nothing else. We are becoming aware of our spiritual nature. Our spirit is the dwelling place of the Trinity. That realization remains part of every other reality and is no longer over whelmed, even in the midst of great activity, by circumstances, external objects or our emotions and thoughts.

    But the experience of independence and distancing from the rest of reality is not an absolute independence. It is only the affirmation of our true Self. Another awareness follows as a further development. As the unconscious is emptied out, the awareness of the deepest level in us is also an awareness of the deepest level in everyone else. This is the basis for the commandment to love ones neighbor as oneself. When you truly love your self, you become aware that your true Self is Christ expressing himself in you, and the further awareness that everybody else enjoys this potential too. Augustine had a phrase for it: "One Christ loving himself." That is a good description of a mature Christian community You are aware that a power greater than you is doing everything.

    Then everything begins to reflect not only its own beauty but also the beauty of its Source. One becomes united to everything else in which God dwells. The insight into Christ dwelling in every other person enables one to express charity toward others with greater spontaneity. Instead of seeing only someone's personality, race, nationality, gender, status, or characteristics (which you like or do not like), you see what is deepest--ones union or potential union with Christ. You also perceive everyone's desperate need of help. The transcendent potential of most people is still waiting to be realized, and this awakens a great sense of compassion. This Christ-centered love takes us out of ourselves and brings our newly found sense of independence into relationships that are not based on dependency, as many relationships tend to be, but that are based on Christ as their center. It enables one to work, for others with great liberty of spirit because one is no longer seeking ones own ego-centered goals but responding to reality as it is.

    Divine love is not an attitude that one puts on like a cloak. It is rather the right way to respond to reality. It is the right relationship to being, including our own being. And that relationship is primarily one of receiving. No one has any degree of divine love except what one has received. An important part of the response to divine love, once it has been received, is to pass it on to our neighbor in a way that is appropriate in the present moment.

Is the purpose of this prayer to keep you in a state of union with God throughout the day?

    Yes, but in the beginning it is not likely to be continuous. Later on, as prayer develops, a closer union in daily life becomes more evident. One can also be in union with God without any form of recollection that affects the senses. This is what I mean by preparing the body for higher states of consciousness. Physical ecstasy is access of the body. When the senses, are not ready to endure the intensity of God's communications, they just give way and one is rapt out of the body. Mature mystics who have passed through that stage rarely have bodily ecstasies. They have integrated spiritual communications with their physical nature and the body is now strong enough to receive them without the former inconveniences. Living the divine life becomes like living ordinary human life. If you are familiar with the Ten Ox Pictures of Zen, the last one represents the return to ordinary life after full enlightenment. It symbolizes the fact that there is no way to distinguish the life with which you started from what it has become, except that it is totally transformed in its ordinariness.

    The triumph of grace enables people to live their ordinary lives divinely. First come moments of recollection that are absorbing. After these have been thoroughly integrated, the same graces are given without one's being absorbed by them. One is completely free for one's ordinary daily activities with the same degree (or greater) of union with God that one had before. Continuous prayer in the fullest sense of the term is present when the motivation of all our actions is coming from the Spirit. Short of that state, we have to use methods to unite us to God.

    There is a difference between being and doing. Once one's being is transformed into Christ, all ones doing becomes anointed with the interior transformation of one's being. I suppose this is the mystery of Mother Teresa's great charm. She fascinates people. Cameras follow her not because she is physically beautiful, but because she is radiating the mysterious attractiveness of God. I'm sure she is not trying to do so, but because she is so, it happens. This is the kind of transformation contemplative prayer tends to produce. It is easy to bog down at lower levels of spiritual development. The challenge always comes to go farther, and if we accept, we are off to the races again.

    No one ever grew as much in the spiritual life as the Blessed Virgin Mary because there was no interior obstacle to hinder her growth. Growing in grace for her meant growing in the midst of the human condition with its interminable trials. She had, in fact, the heaviest kinds of trials. The transforming union should enable one to handle greater trials than those of less evolved Christians. What's the use of building this magnificent spiritual building unless you do something with it? I am sure God doesn't intend merely to look at these people who are so holy. He wants them to do something. If He liberated them from their false selves, it was precisely for some great purpose.

    Suppose one has reached inner resurrection, transforming union, and no longer experiences the turmoil of ones emotions because they have all been transmuted into virtues. Christ is living in such persons in a remarkable way, and they are aware of their permanent union with Him. Suppose God should then ask them to give up that state of enlightenment and to go back to the kind of trials, or worse, they they endured before. Their union with God would remain, but it would be completely hidden from them on the psychic level. This is one form of vicarious suffering. The transforming union is not a free ticket to happiness in this world. For some, this may mean a life of complete solitude full of loneliness; for others, it may mean an active apostolate that prevents them from enjoying the delights of divine union; for others again, it may mean intense suffering-physical, mental or spiritual--which they undergo for some special intention or for the whole human family Their transformed humanity makes their sufferings of immense value for the same reason that Jesus, because of his divine dignity, became the Savior of every human being, past, present, and future.

    Therese of Lisieux during her last illness could no longer think of heaven, although up until then it had been her greatest joy. Yet she had clearly reached transforming union, attested to by the piercing of her heart. As she herself was dimly aware, she was passing through another dark night for the unbelievers of her time. She lived at the crest of the rationalistic age when the arrogance of the human intellect was probably at its height.

    Thus the greatest trials of the spiritual journey may occur after the transforming union. They would not take away the union, but the union would be so pure that, like a ray of light passing through a perfect vacuum, it would not be perceived. This would be a most profound way of imitating the Son of God, who gave up being God, as Paul said, in order to take upon himself the consequences of the human condition. Jesus relinquished the privileges of his unique union with the Father in over to experience our weakness and to make our sufferings his own. That sacrifice could only be imitated by one who has achieved divine union and who then, at God's request or insistence, gives back to God all the normal enjoyment of that state to be immersed once again in unbearable trials. This is evident in the lives of a number of mystics and saints. And I dare say God isn't going to change His way of doing things.

    Life, once one is in union with God, is what God wants it to be. It is full of surprises. You can be sure that whatever you expect to happen will not happen. That is the only thing of which you can be certain in the spiritual journey. It is by giving up all your expectations that you will be led to Medicine Lake, the Native American's term for contemplative prayer. The medicine that everyone needs is contemplation, which alone leads to transformation.

    Contemplative prayer will go through various stages and vicissitudes. You may have experiences that will leave you in confusion. The Lord will bring help to you through a book, a person, or your own patience. Sometimes it is God's will to leave you alone without any help. You may have to learn to live with impossible situations. People who can live peacefully in impossible situations will make great headway in the spiritual journey. You will come up against loneliness and existential dread. You may feel as if nobody in the world understands you or could help you and that God is a billion light-years away. All these things are part of the preparation process. God is like a farmer preparing the soil of our soul to bear not just fortyfold or sixtyfold, but a hundredfold. That means that the soil has to be well tilled. It is as if God drives His tractor over the field of our soul and harrows it in one direction, then in the opposite direction, and then He goes around in a circle. He keeps doing the same thing again and again until the soil becomes as fine as sand. When all is ready, the seed is sown.

    Or take the image of a growing tree. At first you see the trunk and the branches. Later come the leaves. This makes the tree beautiful, the stage of growth that might be compared to the enjoyment that comes when you first learn how to enter into interior silence. After the leaves come the flowers, another moment of intense satisfaction. But they quickly die and fall to the ground. The fruit comes only at the end of the season, and even then it takes a while for it to ripen on the tree. So don't think when the leaves appear and the flowers come, that this is the end of the journey. The spiritual Journey is a long trip.

    Moreover, your experience will seem to recycle and you'll feet that you are back to where you started and haven't made any progress at all. Recycling is like climbing a spiral staircase. You seem to be returning to the point from which you started, but in actual fact you are at a higher level. An eagle rising toward the sun keeps returning to the same place on the horizontal plane, but to a higher place on the vertical plane.

    The inflowing of the divine light into our souls is a ray of darkness according to John of the Cross. We see light in a dark room is because of the dust that is there. If there were no dust, the ray of light would go right through the room without being observed. This is a symbol of the full development of contemplative prayer, which is so pure that it is not perceptible to the one receiving it. It is manifest, however, in the progressive transformation of the person. Such a person manifests God more than any sacrament.

    Is this not the meaning of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception? We are invited to become what Our Lady was from the beginning, a pure transmission of God's presence and action. Contemplative prayer is the school through which we pass to come to the contemplative state, the means God normally uses to bring people to an abiding state of union. Once in that state they may not have much awareness of God's inflowing graces, but the Holy Spirit is the inspiration or motivation of all they do.

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