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In order to dispel confusion on the topic of contemplation, today’s post will clarify certain benefits and problems inherent in some forms of the ancient practice. In order to accomplish this goal, I will use as an example Thomas Keating’s quaint book, Open Mind, Open Heart (1986). The title itself may beckon cheesy chick-flicks or, even worse, a Lifetime movie special on the horrors of unrequited love. In actuality, however, the book is refreshing and contains many great nuggets of truth. It is worth the buy. (You can do so here.)

Keating’s book also sometimes purports less desirable forms of contemplation. I say, “less desirable;” and not, “anti-gospel.” There will be no finger pointing today. I simply want to contrast an evangelical form of contemplation from Keating’s Roman Catholic and sometimes mystical perspective. I also realize that Keating, while an influence for the last 60 years, does not speak for all those who contemplate. The purpose of the post is simply to explain Keating’s view of contemplation, which contains both strengths and weaknesses, in order to learn from them as evangelicals.

Throughout many of my previous posts, I have mentioned that contemplation is somewhat content centered, that is, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. I also mentioned that contemplation is the quiet, restful, and ruminating side of communion with Christ. Keating also assumes these realities at times: “Jesus in his divinity is the source of contemplation,” as, for example, in the case of the transfiguration (16, cf. 17 for an elaboration).

But he can also say that the real problem confronting contemplators is not their sin but rather their thinking: “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from him” (44). I can certainly appreciate some of Keating’s sentiment if he refers only to believers in Christ, who are already washed in his blood but struggling through sanctification; yet, Keating’s words undoubtedly demonstrate a low view of sin, which is all too common in various strands of contemplation. One does not need to scour the history books to find examples of mystics affirming Keating at this juncture. (This is a later blog to be developed.)

Perhaps Keating’s following analogy clarifies what he means:

“Contemplative prayer is a way of awakening to the reality in which we are immersed. We rarely think of the air we breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time. In a similar fashion, the presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us. Our awareness, unfortunately, is not awake to that dimension of reality. The purpose of prayer, the sacraments, and spiritual disciples is to awaken us” (44-45).

And: “God’s presence is available at every moment, but we have a giant obstacle in ourselves—our world view. It needs to be exchanged for the mind of Christ, for his world view. The mind of Christ is ours through faith and baptism . . . but to take possession of it requires a discipline that develops the sensitivity to hear Christ’s invitation: ‘behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens I will come in and sup with him and he with me’ (Rev 3:20). It is not a big effort to open a door” (45).

In a large sense, I agree with Keating here and elsewhere: a major problem that confronts human people is their own distorted worldviews. However, again, to say that flawed thinking is the “chief” problem misses the larger issue. The fundamental problem is not so much epistemological (thinking, worldview) as ontological (sin, separation, etc.). Keating’s analogies are insightful, even brilliant, but his metatheology sometimes misses the mark, at least from an evangelical vantage point.

Moreover, Keating helpfully identifies the importance and reality of the inner spiritual life of the believer. As he rightly notes, the heart of the monastic life was not so much its structures but rather its interior life in contemplation (29). He also effectively summarizes the lectio divina in several places: (1) the reflective part is meditation, which consists of pondering the words of Scripture; (2) the spontaneous part is affective prayer as one responds to the reflections; and (3) the contemplative part is where the reflections and acts of will are simplified as one moves into rest in the presence of God (20). Furthermore, he makes contemplation practical for people in new and insightful ways. He explains at least three steps: (1) silence, calmness; (2) focus on a “sacred word;” and (3) rest in God. I especially like his focus on “intention” and not “attention” in contemplative prayer.

Lastly, Keating rightly identifies God’s work in contemplation: “In contemplative prayer the Spirit places us in a position where we are at rest and disinclined to fight. By his secret anointings the Spirit heals the wounds of our fragile human nature at a level beyond our psychological perception, just as a personal who is anesthetized has no idea of how the operation is going until after it is over. Interior silence is the perfect seed bed for divine love to take root” (45). While his suggestion here faces some of the same objections I previously noted, he carefully notes God’s spiritual work, which functions as a scalpel in our hearts as we silently rest in him.

Nevertheless, Keating often identifies the inner life of the human in contemplation in odd and perhaps unbiblical manners. In one instance, he peculiarly states that the object of contemplation is to “deepen our contact with the ground of our own being” (46). If he refers to introspection here, then his sentiment is understandable; but it seems odd to say “our own being.” Is not the object communion with God in Christ by the Spirit? (Other times he does suggest this reality.) In another instance, while he rightly notes that our thoughts and feelings must be resting on something (34-35), he then elaborates, “They are resting on the inner stream of consciousness, which is our participation in God’s being” (35). Granted that all things, including our thoughts, are ultimately held together in Christ (Col 1:15); yet his view tends to associate too quickly our thoughts and our participation in God’s being. I cannot help but discern an implicit mysticism and even pantheism in some of these statements. Perhaps I misunderstand.

The point of this post is in no way to demean Keating’s work; it is also not to set up the proverbial whipping boy. I greatly respect and appreciate his insights. Rather, recognizing the distinct possibility for theological problems in the controversial subject of contemplation, this post has sought to show how my understanding of contemplation is similar and different from another view, namely, Thomas Keating’s view. Hopefully, the post has related the positives of Keating’s view throughout; hopefully, it has demonstrated some potential pitfalls as well. (I am sure that my view has as many pitfalls.)

In short, Keating’s work is excellent and practically relatable, yet it sometimes misplaces or ignores the theological foundations of contemplation, namely, those related to the seriousness of sin and the centrality of the cross. (For a more coherent treatment of theological foundations, see Kyle Strobel’s excellent article, “In Your Light They Shall See Light” in the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care.)

How should one contemplate? By reading Scripture, meditating it, remembering God, and thus moving into a quiet, humble posture of resting in God (cf. Augustine, Calvin, and the Psalms).

(For a more expansive overview of Keating’s work, see James C. Wilhoit’s article, “Contemplative and Centering Prayer” in the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care.)