The Rev. Thomas Keating and the Dalai Lama at a conference in Boston in 2012, in a scene from a documentary directed by Father Keating’s nephew Peter C. Jones.
By Katharine Q. Seelye | The New York Times | October 28, 2018
THE REV. THOMAS KEATING, a Trappist monk and a pioneer in the worldwide Christian contemplative prayer movement, died on Thursday at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., where he had once been abbot. He was 95.
His nephew Peter C. Jones confirmed the death and said Father Keating had been in declining health for several years.
The arc of his life took Father Keating from riches to rags and back to riches again, Mr. Jones said in a telephone interview: He was born into affluence and privilege in Manhattan, walked away from it all when he entered an austere monastic community in Rhode Island, and was rewarded with spiritual riches.
Father Keating played a major role in popularizing what is now known as centering prayer, a method of silent prayer that allows one to rest in the presence of God. Over the years, his thoughts crystallized into what friends said became one of his favorite sayings: “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.”
He was born Joseph Parker Kirlin Keating (and familiarly called Parker) on March 7, 1923, in Manhattan, one of four children of Cletus and Elizabeth (Kirlin) Keating. His father, like his father before him, was a prominent maritime lawyer. The family had a home in Manhattan and a summer estate in the exclusive Long Island community of Mill Neck.
“At 5, I had a serious illness,” Father Keating recalled in a 2013 documentary made by Mr. Jones, “Thomas Keating: A Rising Tide of Silence.”
“I heard adults in the next room wondering whether I’d live,” Father Keating said. “I took this very seriously, and at my first Mass bargained with God: ‘If you’ll let me live to 21, I’ll become a priest.’
“After that,” he continued, “I’d skip out early in the morning before school and go to Mass. I knew my parents wouldn’t approve, so I never told them.” While his mother read the Bible, his father was a lapsed Catholic.
Parker Keating went to the Buckley School, a private school on the Upper East Side, and Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts before entering Yale. As he studied Christianity, he was drawn to the mystics and came to believe that the Scriptures call people into a personal relationship with God.
EAGER TO EXPLORE HIS SPIRITUALITY, he transferred from Yale to an accelerated program at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx. He graduated in 1943. He expected to be drafted in World War II but received a deferment to enter the seminary. In 1944, at the age of 20, he entered the strict Cistercian Monastery Our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, R.I. He was ordained a priest in 1949.
He chose the name Thomas as his spiritual name because of his admiration for St. Thomas Aquinas, according to his brother, Marshall.
The monastic life appealed to him, but it forced him to cut ties with his family, which caused many of them considerable pain, as he recounted in the documentary.
His grandmother, he recalled, wrote him from her sickbed: “I miss you so much. I’m lying here in bed, and I said to the nurse, ‘If my grandson doesn’t come home, won’t you please just throw me out the window?’ ”
But all he could do was pray for her, he said.
“I felt the more austere the life, the sooner I would achieve the contemplative life I sought,” he continued. “I spent the next five to six years observing almost total silence.”
Mr. Jones said that for many years he had thought of Father Keating as “my mystery uncle, whom I knew about but never saw.” But as time went on, Father Keating would visit family in New York. And when Mr. Jones’s father died, Father Keating held a funeral Mass in their living room.
“My father had landed on Omaha Beach, and my uncle called it a ‘tragedy,’ ” Mr. Jones said. “He viewed World War II not as a great victory but as a tragedy for humanity.”
In 1950, while Father Keating was in Rhode Island, the monastery burned down and the monks moved to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, in central Massachusetts.
HE LEFT SPENCER IN 1958 to help start a new monastic community, St. Benedict’s, in Snowmass, Colo., not far from Aspen. In 1961 he was elected abbot at St. Joseph’s and returned to Massachusetts, where he served in that capacity for the next two decades.
In 1971, after the Second Vatican Council, at which Pope Paul VI encouraged priests and religious scholars to renew the Christian contemplative tradition, Father Keating was invited to Rome. This led him, along with William Meninger and Basil Pennington, to develop the practice of centering prayer.
But his enthusiasm for this approach led to tensions within the abbey, and a vote on whether he should remain as abbot was evenly split. He decided he did not want to remain in a house so divided and moved back to Snowmass.
IT WAS A LIBERATING MOVE FOR HIM. He began organizing conferences with representatives of other religions, including the Dalai Lama, imams and rabbis.
During this period he focused more on centering prayer, holding workshops and retreats to promote it to clergy and lay people. He helped found Contemplative Outreach, a network of people who practice centering prayer, in 1984 and was its president from 1985 to 1999.
“Centering prayer is all about heartfulness, which is a little different from mindfulness,” the Rev. Carl Arico, a co-founder of Contemplative Outreach, said in a telephone interview. “It goes to the relationship with God, who is already there. It’s not sitting in a void.”
Today, Contemplative Outreach has chapters in 39 countries, with about 40,000 people who actively participate and many more who practice centering prayer on their own.
Father Keating wrote more than 30 books and created various multimedia projects; one of his most popular is “Centering Prayer: A Training Course for Opening to the Presence of God,” which consists of a workbook, DVDs and audio CDs. One reviewer called it “a monastery in a box.”
In addition to his nephew and his brother, Father Keating is survived by six other nieces and nephews. Another brother, Cletus Keating Jr., and a sister, Anne Keating Jones, died before him.
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