A REDISCOVERY OF JESUS’ TIMELESS LIFE OF THE SPIRIT
Comments on Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God,
An Introduction to CENTERING PRAYER
(A Crossroad Book, New York. 2012)
Thomas Keating(TK, 1923-2011), a Cistercian Trappist monk has become an internationally recognized authority during the last 30 years on Centering Prayer and its promotion among lay people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.(see: A RISING TIDE OF SILENCE) Chapter One, of His signal work, Intimacy with God, An Introduction to Centering Prayer, sets the context for his contemplative spirituality through a brief discussion of major changes resulting from Vatican II’s radical response to the need for updating the Church’s pastoral approach. Keating’s observations are not explicitly linked to spiritual or theological documents of the Council. Rather they reflect backdrop, non-dogmatic doctrinal values which guided the spirit and major directions of the Council Fathers by emphasizing what is essential to the gospel’s authentic spirituality based on Jesus’ example with his father God.
It goes without saying that pre-Vatican II negative attitudes toward God would take on major importance when your spiritual life should revolve around an ongoing mutual interchange or relationship with a personal God (see Post on Revelation). Two quotes, one at the end and the other at the beginning of Chapter One summarize the tone of TK’s comments. The quote at the end: “The spiritual journey has great difficulty in getting off to a good start if we are carrying a load of unexamined and unquestioned negative attitudes toward God.” (p. 13). The quote at the beginning: “These negative images of God, which are implanted in us largely as a result of early religious training, are in fact a legacy of past generations and a pervasive set of religious attitudes that represent a distortion—sometimes a 180 degree distortion—of scriptural and gospel values. This is true for both Protestants and Catholics, although its imprint has been felt particularly vividly in the Catholic Church.” (pp.1-2).
The negative criticisms of TK’s point out among other examples external good works and religious practices per the example of the Pharisees without an interior counterpart relationship with God. A fixation on a materialist concept of heaven, another negative value, without a compassionate concern for one’s earthly downtrodden neighbor, simply runs counter to Jesus’ basic spiritual message. Even more damaging, the belief that a ruler judging according to a strictly enforced (facing hell) law of mortal and venial transgressions added a heavy dose of fear and guilt in our relationship with the God Jesus experienced as a loving father. Jansenism in the Catholic church and Puritanism found in the many Protestant denominations developed to represent more extreme cultural deformations of true gospel values.
Perhaps TK’s most serious, albeit less obvious, observations of pre-Vatican II spirituality are addressed in Chapter Ten, “Contemplative Vision for our Times ” where they apply to the church’s superstructure, the Catholic priesthood whose mission has always been to serve the faithful in its journey to God. Its loss of mission shone through an institutional clerical culture completely adverse to Jesus’ simple spiritual program. Centuries of undisputed religious hierarchical power inherent in the millennial prerogatives of the official religion gradually had led to the need of a dogmatic justification for its privileged control over the mind and soul of Europe and its many colonies. The symbols of privilege reached a high point in the Council of Trent when based on the canonical gospels rendered as historical data it made the dogmatic declaration that Christ himself at the last supper had instituted the Church with its priesthood. Trent, facing the challenges of the emerging Protestant movements, elevated priests to the place of Christ himself when performing their sacramental functions, thus formally tying sacramental sources of grace, especially the Eucharist to the Catholic hierarchical priesthood.
As a corollary to the new dogmatic environment liturgical functions built around the Eucharist became a powerful instrument for the hierarchy to differentiate itself from the laity. The Mass to a significant degree came to be a practical, visible substitute for Jesus’ gospel model of spirituality, love God the father in your brothers and sisters. Even the obligatory prayers of priests and monks, the daily recitation or singing of the psalms, were promoted to the symbolic level of official prayers of the church, leaving the laity as second class followers of Jesus.
In hindsight the Council of Trent basically divided Jesus’ followers in two “essentially different” camps, one in control, the consecrated officials, and the other passive and, well, inferior.(Catechism of the Catholic Church, treatment of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and priesthood. English Translation, Paulist Press, 1994). The priests and religious had morphed into the professional church taking on the responsibility of performing the double commandment of Jesus, hallowing God’s name full time, paid or supported, and caring for the neighbor, of course with the financial support of the laity. Toward the end of the pre-Vatican II period it appeared that both parties of the divide had endorsed their roles much to the detriment of a church that was supposed to be modeled on Jesus’, “last shall be first” spiritual “way” to work in and for God’s Kingdom.
The Council Fathers guided by Catholic scholarship especially Sacred Scripture studies, previously censured by the Vatican superstructure, opened the Church to a search for a new pastoral engagement with its numerous and varied flock. An opening to the role of history and a new technological world underscored the impact of a long-lived changing socio-economic culture on what had become an ossified but institutionally speaking arrogant ecclesiastical superstructure. The terrain for much needed revised goals and approaches in the church had been mapped out. A scientific and more accurate reading of Sacred Scripture, an enlarged view of the complexity of humankind continuously being molded by our father/mother God/creator in a complex evolving growth lead the Council without explicitly addressing doctrinal issues to build up a new framework for being church. Despite a fierce resistance on the part of a minority allied with the Vatican bureaucracy, Keating’s contemplative spirituality has been vindicated through Vatican II’s new framework and Jesus’ true timeless spirituality made available for all of his followers.