Wednesday, June 20, 2007
A Modern Spiritual Classic
A Small Classic of Modern Spirituality
I have recorded in these pages before that friends have recommended books for me to read. I have long had an interest in spirituality as has good friend of mine, Tom Gleeson, roughly my own age and a fellow teacher. I suppose we are more than friends – we are, in fact, kindred spirits. We have attended many courses on personal (both spiritual and psychological) development together. A small contemporary spiritual classic that I have just finished – called The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation – is one he lent me a few weeks back, but which I have just got around to finishing. It is a wonderfully simple, disarmingly simple, yet profound book.
This book is 45 short pages in length and comprises two lectures delivered by Thomas Keating, the famous Trappist monk and scholar, at Harvard University in 1997 in a lecture series endowed by Harold M. Wit. Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. was born in 1923 in New York City, is a graduate of Yale and Fordham universities and is a founder of the Centering Prayer movement and of Contemplative Outreach Limited and has a web page at Centering
This is a beautiful book, small and deeply enriching. It is at once disarmingly simple, yet profound. The two lectures are entitled “The Human Condition” and “Contemplation and the Divine Therapy.”
In the first lecture he asks us the deeply probing question as to where we are actually here and now in our own spiritual life, in our own quest for meaning and happiness. In the second he addresses the question as to who we really are or are called to be in our lives. In both he manages a brilliantly rich assimilation of the findings of modern psychology with the spiritual quest. Needless to say, for Thomas Keating that spiritual quest finds both its source and apogee in the Christian vision of life.
Freud may be credited with first bringing the wonderful world of the unconscious to universal notice. To my mind it was the great psychiatrist, Carl Gustave Jung, who established the unconscious in a more holistic and less pathological way than his former mentor and friend and who saw the unconscious and indeed the collective unconscious as sources of creativity, wonder, awe and splendour as well as the more negative pathological aspects of our personality.
Here is what Keating has to say about the unconscious and the spiritual quest on page 12 of this wonderful little modern classic: “The discovery of the unconscious is only 100 yrs old, and it casts an enormous light on all spiritual disciplines.” Then on page 20 he continues: “What matters most is fidelity to the daily practice of a contemplation form of prayer such as Centering Prayer. This gradually exposes us to the unconscious at a rate that we can handle and places us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Divine love then prepares us to receive the maximum that God can possibly communicate of his inner light. Besides the dark side of the unconscious, there are also all kinds of other awesome energies – e.g. natural talents, the fruits of the Spirit, the seven gifts of the Spirit, and the divine indwelling itself – that we haven’t experienced yet and that are waiting to be discovered.”
Keating sees the contemplative journey as “a purification of the unconscious” which is “an exercise of letting go of the false self, a humbling process, because it is the only self we know.” (p. 20) He sees the false self as looking for fame, power, wealth and prestige. By meditating or contemplating on a regular basis we learn to come to terms with all the false “selves” and there are so many of these. These may also be called your masks or roles or even in Eliot’s words the way you “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” in The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock. One by one over many months and years we face each of these masks and pull them away layer by layer until we meet a truer and more real and authentic self. This is not an easy task at all. In fact this gradual stripping away is painful.
On page 25 this is what Keating says: “Contemplative prayer starts modestly, but as soon as it begins to reach a certain intensity, it opens us to the unconscious. Painful memories that we have forgotten and repressed begin to come to consciousness. Primitive emotions that we felt as children and that we have been compensating for come to consciousness.” However, now we are at the stage where we have a therapy as it were to face all these memories. In fact, this therapy is none other than the “divine therapy” of contemplation where we open ourselves to the very grace of God which will come flooding into our hearts to help up on our spiritual journey. This is the theme of the second lecture.
To be continued.
Above I have placed a photograph I took of the sun in the trees at Newbridge House last summer. Both the sun and the tree have long been potent religious symbols.