The Heart of the World

January 30, 2008


 The Message of Monastic Life

 by Fr. Thomas Keating

Monastic life has been the guardian of much of Christian spirituality throughout the ages. Christian monasticism dates from the early part of the fourth century. It sprang up almost simultaneously in Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor While it expressed its inspiration in various concrete forms, all of them shared the same fundamental dedication to the search for God through silence, solitude, simplicity of lifestyle, and a discipline of prayer. These spiritual values were generally lived within a community which provided an environment conducive to the search for God.

Spiritual development is the birthright of every man and woman, not only of cloistered monks and nuns. Monastic life is simply a professional way of going about it. While the world as a whole tends to neglect and forget the knowledge of how to pursue and live a spiritual life, the monastic world has been occupied through the ages in trying to preserve that knowledge. At this moment of history, there are large numbers of genuine seekers after truth. Many of them never had a specific commitment to one of the Christian denominations, or even to any religion.

Others, who were raised as Christians or Jews, never heard any challenge to lead an interior life of prayer and union with God in their local churches or church-related schools.

During the last three or four centuries, the Christian spirituality of earlier times has become lost to view, and it is principally in monasteries that a continuing tradition of contemplation has been handed down. For this reason many of these seekers, both Christian and non-Christian, are turning to monasteries for some kind of guidance. This is especially true since the Vatican Council (1961-1965), which set in motion a vast program for the spiritual renewal of the Roman Catholic Church. This movement has awakened the interest of those in other Christian churches and in other religions who are seeking the spiritual renewal of their own traditions.

A contemplative monastery is a visible sign of our common human groping for interiority or wholeness and for what is deepest in human values. It is the sign of the Church’s groping for the fullness of the Christian mystery–oneness with God and with all creation. The monastic life-style is designed to lead those who enter it into a new attitude towards all reality. A certain measure of solitude and silence, and the practice of the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, reduce the distracting stimuli which reinforce our view of ourselves and the world. This gradual silencing of our habitual ways of thinking and reacting opens up our awareness to other realities and other values, especially the value of every other human being at the deepest level. The ultimate purpose of monastic life is to experience oneness with everyone else–and to bear all the consequences of that experience.

A certain experience of God is quite common in the population. People do not talk about it because they think that if they mention their experience to their friends, everyone will think they are crazy. People who are not even religiously minded have an experience of transcendence now and then, but they do not know how to articulate it. If they should hear a few words indicating knowledge of an experience which is beyond thoughts, which is very peaceful, and which arises spontaneously, this will awaken memories of experiences which were very real to them at one time. We have to begin to understand that it is normal to be contemplative; it just needs to be cultivated.

Have you ever experienced a few moments of interior silence? How would you describe it? Is there not a sense of a very deep, all-pervading peace, a sense of well-being, and a delicate joy, all at once? Why is it such a difficult state to maintain or return to? It seems easier to forget about the whole experience than to be plagued by the pain of lingering outside a door that seems to be locked from the inside. Yet, in spite of this lingering pain, the repeated experience of interior silence is a need that everyone has in order to be fully human. Our capacity for the transcendent is precisely what distinguishes us most from the rest of visible creation. It is what makes us most human.

A while ago a group of university students visited the Abbey on a field trip in connection with a course in mysticism they were taking in school. After a few brief introductions, they wanted to know about my past life, my reasons for entering the monastery, and what possessed me to reach such a decision. Having answered as best I could without completely undermining my reputation, I said to them, “May I now ask you a question? Have you ever experienced a few moments of interior silence?”

They thought about that for a few moments, and then, very gradually, began to respond. I doubt if any of them were church-goers. Their professor said later that their interest in Christian mysticism did not coincide with church-going, at least not much of it. It was intriguing to hear four or five of these young people discuss their various experiences of interior silence.

So I pursued it a little further. “What was it like?”

One girl said, “I can remember a few times when I was lying on my bed, and a sense of well-being came over me along with deep interior silence, peace and joy. The only trouble with it was that I couldn’t make it last. There was also no way of getting back to it after it had gone.”

Another made this observation: “It is like having a door inside of you that is normally closed. You would like to get in, but can’t; and yet, every now and then, it just opens up. The feeling is just wonderful. It is like coming home.”

I said, “Well, you can’t make it come about then?”

Several replied at once, “No.”

I said, “If you can’t bring it about, who is it that opens the door?”

They were not prepared to answer that question, except that they knew it was not themselves. As a result of experiencing these moments of interior silence, they seem never to have forgotten the occasions, even if they happened only once. Evidently, the experiences had made a great impression and had influenced their actions for some time afterward. But little by little they faded away, as the students got immersed once again in the daily round. One other point made by these young people was that the experience of inner silence was like being really one’s true self for a few moments, rooted in one’s self. It was a deep affirmation of their being.

Interior silence is a fairly frequent and even ordinary human experience. It is not something given only to very spiritual or holy people. It seems to respond to a real need, as real and vital as eating or sleeping. You can survive, of course, without moments of interior silence, while you cannot survive without eating or sleeping; but a question could be raised about the quality of your survival. If this spiritual need is not appeased, it will take revenge in strange ways, such as an uncomfortable hunger. We may find ourselves trying to cover up the remembrance of this hunger in order not to feel its pangs. A lot of compulsive behavior–drugs, sexual license, hyper activity, work for work’s sake–can be means of escaping from the awareness of this hunger. Nature seems to have provided us with the need of interior silence. We seek it as we seek returning to a place of security, warmth, and love. Christian revelation addresses itself to this natural tendency and tells us Who it is that opens the door and lets us in.

A contemplative monastery is a visible expression of the fact that a state or place of interior silence is really available to all, and that everyone is invited. Such a place possesses a mysterious fascination. People do not come merely to look at the liturgy. They do not come just to sniff incense or pick up religious vibrations in the church. They feel intuitively that a contemplative monastery has something they are looking for. The buildings suggest it; the solitude suggests it; the silence suggests it. A group of people seeking interior silence as a life’s work is a call to others to do something similar in their lives. This call is a significant service in our day; one, however, that is impossible to measure with any kind of tool.

But what are the consequences of responding to this call?

When you reduce the ordinary flow of thoughts and your emotional reactions to them, you enter into a new world of reality. Even on the level of the senses we hear sounds only within a certain frequency or see things at a certain distance. Dogs hear much more than we do. Hawks see much farther than we do. If the range of our senses is limited in these areas, it should be no surprise that there are other levels of awareness that our ordinary sense experiences do not perceive either. This is especially true of the level of spiritual reality, which is the level of the mysteries of the Christian faith. Ordinary hearing does not grasp them. Ordinary seeing does not perceive them. Thus, Jesus repeatedly reminded his listeners, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15), hinting that we must develop a greater capacity for hearing than the external ear alone. Christian tradition teaches that there are faculties of finer spiritual perception which develop in a climate of interior silence.

The principal means monks use to cultivate interior silence–external silence, a certain measure of solitude, and a non-possessive attitude–can be put into a concentrated form, like a capsule, to be taken daily, or several times a day. The traditional word for this is contemplative prayer.

Mary of Bethany gives us an example of how we might proceed. In the Gospel of Luke we read that “she seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching” (Luke 10:39). It is clear from the remarks of Jesus in her defense that she was engaged in some special kind of activity of greater value than Martha’s in preparation of his meal. Mary was listening to the Word of God–the divine person–a reality deeper than the human words falling upon her sense of hearing and resounding in her imagination. She was listening with her whole being. Her identity was melting into the presence of the Word of God within her. John, resting in the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper, prayed in the same way that Mary of Bethany listened. He was not thinking or talking, but resting.

Contemplative prayer allows the hunger and thirst for God to well up. “On the last and great day of the Feast, Jesus stood up in the Temple and cried out with a loud voice: “If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink. Out of his inmost being will flow rivers of living water. This he said of the Holy Spirit who was to be given to those who believe”‘ (John 7:37-38). By these words, we are urgently invited to put aside our preoccupations and come to Christ in the depth of our being. This movement and the experience which results from it are the basis for every genuine form of Christian spirituality.