One Book That Illuminates The Contemplative Path For Modern Readers

In talking with a friend who’s a voracious reader at a recent get together, he confided a little sheepishly that he had about 600 books on his various reading lists. It reminded me of my own lengthy reading lists, most of which I will never get around to actually reading.

Over the years I’d go through phases of different interests: Zen, Russian Literature, Postmodern Theology, Myth, Anthropology, The Desert Fathers, various poets, literary criticism, and so on, gathering far more reading on my wish lists than I had time to finish. Any recommendations by well-meaning friends usually ended up somewhere between the 125-150 on the priority list.

But I came to a realization one late night adding yet more books to the list browsing the internet: my spiritual hunger wasn’t being satisfied even during times when I was able to carve out some time for deep reading. Whatever barrier I was trying to overcome was still there. I felt deeply another articulation of deep truth on the page, however profound, wouldn’t help me internalize the truth in a way I was looking for.

Reading can certainly be deepening, expanding, and rewarding. But it also has its limitations. Sometimes it can be like trying to slake thirst from a picture of a lake, or to get home just by exploring a map. Reading can reorient, infuse imagination and expand our horizons, giving us a greater sense of what we think is possible or even thinkable.

It can point the way toward transformation, but it can’t necessarily provide the means to get there.

An exception to that rule is the work of Trappist monk Thomas Keating. This author turned from a life of privilege and wealth after graduating from Yale, committing himself instead to a life of prayer and monastic austerity.

Along with Basil Pennington, Keating was hugely instrumental in revitalizing the contemplative roots of the Christian tradition and bringing these beyond the walls of the monastery and into the lives of lay people throughout the latter part of the 20th century. He’s especially known for popularizing the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer, which he developed based on the 13th century English spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing. (Click on the link for the documentary on Keating’s Life A Rising Tide of Silence).

I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of the DVD set of his teachings through Contemplative Outreach. In an earlier time I may not have even given his teaching the time of day. Keating is Catholic. I was raised Protestant. His teaching is often criticized for its vague whiff of New Agey Eastern mysticism. I was raised to be highly skeptical of such things.

Nevertheless friends and mentors for whom I had a deep respect recommended Keating on multiple occasions, along with his classic Open Mind, Open Heart.

Like other spiritual writers with a lasting impact, there is a certain accuracy, depth, and luminosity to his insight. But where Keating parts company from many writers is that he advocates a practice and outlines in some detail how to go about it. And the practice doesn’t consist of ever expanding and more expensive versions. It’s pretty simple.

I found the clarity and accuracy of his insights in his book Invitation to Love even more striking. Drawing on studies in both psychology and theology, he outlines his understanding of the human condition, including our False Self or egos with their misguided emotional programs for happiness. He also draws on the mystics to outline the stages of contemplative prayer and what to expect on the journey.

While rooted in the Catholic tradition, there is a profound universality to what Keating is up to, calling out what so many of us struggle with: “one of the biggest impediments to spiritual growth is that we do not perceive our own hidden motivations.” Growing in this kind of awareness helps dismantle our misguided and often destructive “programs for emotional happiness.” In its place we make room for the divine presence to take root and flower. Keating goes on to identify how these hidden motivations come about and the transformative process of contemplative practice.

As with anything else, of course, the teaching can only point the way. We still have to take the steps ourselves to experience any kind of change. But beyond outlining how to practice Centering Prayer, this book contains simple practices to integrate into everyday life collected at the back of the book as well.

If your list is long enough already, hey I get it. My reading list is pretty long, too. But if you feel a pull toward the contemplative path, Thomas Keating’s Invitation to Love is a fantastic place to start.

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