Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is David Frenette. David is a certified addictions counselor and has a Masters degree in counseling psychology. He’s an adjunct faculty member in the Religious Studies department at Naropa University and has also taught Centering Prayer under Father Thomas Keating’s guidance since 1984. He’s currently serving on the pastoral council of Father Keating’s international organization Contemplative Outreach. With Sounds True, David has created a new book called The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God in which he offers guidance in the time-honored and rewarding meditation practice of Centering Prayer.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, David and I spoke about the blessing that one can receive through the practice of Centering Prayer. We also talked about what he means by the word “God” and the Trinitarian mystery. We talked about Father Thomas Keating being his spiritual father and the role of a spiritual father or spiritual mother in one’s contemplative life. And finally, we talked about the most important contemplative attitude that supports the practice of Centering Prayer. Here’s my conversation with David Frenette.
David, in your description of Centering Prayer, you talk about how we’re immersing ourselves, training ourselves in consenting to the presence and action of God. And I wanted to start our conversation talking about this word “consent,” that we are consenting to the presence and action of God. I found that word very, very powerful, and I’m wondering what it means to you to consent. And I’d love to hear your sense of what that word brings up in you.
David Frenette: It’s an interesting term, in terms of meditation practice. Consent—in an understanding of Christianity, Christian contemplation, and Centering Prayer—helps to draw forth this response, a practiced response of opening and being in the mystery of God, which envelops everything, but that we’re usually not aware of, just because we’re attached to our thoughts and stimulated by emotions and not able to settle into the present moment where God lives and dwells and where we have our being in God.
So the idea of consent in terms of Centering Prayer is to have a little form, a little structure for the practice that helps us let go of identification with thoughts and then say “yes,” and be in the “yes” that is part of the nature of God in the Christian understanding of love that’s not an emotion or a sentiment, but the ground of reality; not a concept, but the ground of being that evokes this “yes.”
So at some point, the mystery of God says “yes—” at us—to life, and brings us deeper into life. But in order to enter into that process, it’s valuable to have a practice that opens up “yes,” because sometimes—I know what it’s like to be patterned and programmed by an unconscious “no,” or resistance or contraction away from life. So God is a mystery of love that invites the “yes” from us, and then Centering Prayer is a little practice about saying “yes” to the presence and the transforming action of God.
TS: Now, it’s interesting. In what you’ve just said, there’s a “yes” that we say, we consent, but then you also mentioned something [that] emerges in us as this action of God. Can you say more about that that, the “yes” emerges out of us?
DF: One of the great Christian teachers of contemplation in recent history, Thomas Merton, had a wonderful wisdom saying. He said that we become contemplatives when God discovers himself in us, when God awakens in us. So this is the insight that we’re, as meditators, sometimes trying to achieve a goal: I’m trying to make my mind empty or find peace or something like that.
But the truth of the practice of Centering Prayer in Christian meditation is that God is awakening in us, ready to emerge in life, the “yes” to come forth that transforms resistance and contraction. And it’s a matter of letting that happen. So as Centering Prayer evolves over time, it’s a matter of being less effortful and more receptive and open to the simple presence of love that’s ready to touch and transform us.
TS: Now, for people who are unfamiliar with Centering Prayer—you’re describing it a little bit as Christian meditation, but for someone who’s unfamiliar, can you describe what the process of Centering Prayer is, how it works?
DT: Yes, we kind of plunged right into this vast context of the love of God and the presence of God that’s available at all times. So Centering Prayer is one meditation practice that’s a re-expression of the essence of Christian meditation that’s been preserved mainly in monasteries for 2,000 years, but once in a while breaks out into life outside the monastery. And that’s been a valuable effect of the teachings in the last couple of generations, that Centering Prayer has broken forth from the monastery to make the Christian meditation tradition available to people who live in ordinary life.
It has a little form or a structure that’s really about getting started in the practice itself, and then there’s a lot of nuance and subtlety that is built on that form or structure. The simple form or structure has to do with taking time apart from the busyness of life and sitting down for a period of time—10 or 20 minutes, whatever one’s commitment is—and giving attention to a posture that’s comfortable, relaxed. [It] could be cross-legged or just simply sitting in an open, comfortable posture with an erect spine—a natural, open posture that is not too contrived, but alert.
And then having an intention to open to God, whatever that might express. Some people have a deep relationship with Christ, so [their] intention at the root of Centering Prayer is to open up to the presence of Christ, not as an object of thought but as a consciousness, the Christ consciousness that’s in everyone. But people practice Centering Prayer without that felt sense of relationship with Christ. They might just have a sense of opening to God as ultimate mystery or ultimate reality. The important thing is to have a little bit of preparation with intention and opening of the mind and heart.
And then, for the period of practice—20 minutes, say—then, whenever you’re engaged with a thought—that is, whenever you’re thinking about your thoughts—then you ever-so-gently return to a word of one or two syllables, which is the sacred symbol of consent. Again, we’re attached to our thoughts and our emotions and not able to just be in the love of God that is the nature of reality. So you need some way of saying “yes” and disengaging with a thought.
So going back to a classic in Christian spirituality from the Middle Ages: The Cloud of Unknowing. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing taught [us] to have a one- or two-syllable word that expresses this “yes” to God. And whenever you’re engaged with thinking about other thoughts—kind of an unconscious “no” to life and to one’s own deeper sense of presence in the love of God—then you just return ever-so-gently to that word.
Now, one can also practice Centering Prayer with other symbols: the breath, the glance, and a more subtle form of practice called the Sacred Nothingness. But to begin Centering Prayer, it’s usually taught with the word, practicing for a period of time, say 20 minutes, with that preparation around posture and intention. And then having a period of time at the end, a few minutes to let go of returning to the word, and then begin[ning] to reengage with thoughts and emotions in a new way to find them gradually, over time, emerging out of the mystery of God so that there’s no separation between peace and thoughts and emotions.
And that’s the best preparation for life, because we have to have some kind of engagement without thoughts and emotions to function in this world. Centering Prayer is not trying to transcend the world. It’s developing a new relationship with oneself so that one can be in the world in a new way.
TS: Now, I want to circle back to what you said: even before we begin the formal practice, we sit in our intent, in our intention for doing the practice. So what is you intention when you enter the practice of Centering Prayer?
DF: These days—because I’ve been practicing for years in this approach of Christian contemplation and Centering Prayer that forms it—my intention is just to be, just to be, without effort, without struggle, to let everything be just as it is in the mystery of God, which has a sense of devotion to it, but also had a sense of presence and awakening in this mystery.
So when I start my practice, I remember that intention. That presence of God has a quality of love and compassion in my consciousness, but it’s not a sentiment or an emotion. And with that intention, I find myself more open in a conscious way to the reality of God. And then once the practice begins, I don’t think about it again, because it’s a non-conceptual form of meditation and it’s not reflecting anymore.
But the idea is that generating the intention at the beginning of the practice and then moving beyond intention into God just as God is—without form, concept, or image—and then having a period of time at the end where you come back to intention and thoughts and feelings, is really the process of transformation in Centering Prayer. A gradual process where one opens to God and God opens to us. One says “yes” to God, and then God says “yes” to others in compassion and simple ordinary ways through us.
TS: It’s that second half, God opening to us, that I find curious. I think most people can intuitively understand what you mean, that we enter a prayer practice to open to God, but isn’t God already open to us always? What do you mean there?
DF: Yes, God is always open to us, but we don’t experience it consciously. I think that’s maybe the clarification that needs to be said. We don’t experience God’s presence in consciousness and in life. So God is always there, ready to break into our consciousness and in life, but the process of Centering Prayer or Christian meditation is about letting us experience that in consciousness and in life; letting us experience the “yes” of God coming through in ordinary events, [like] driving a car, washing the dishes, or taking care of children, or just trying to make a living.
Because we’re so attached to our own thoughts and feelings and emotions, there’s no chance to experience the way that God is there in all things. And all things are in God, like the wonderful line from Christian Scriptures: “It is in God that we live and move and have our being.” It is in God that we live and move and have our being. So God is here all the time, like Merton says, we just need to let God discover God’s self in us so we can experience that consciously in daily life. And have the sense of God in more and more of life. And then lose that conscious sense into just presence, into great self-forgetfulness.
TS: Now, earlier in your life, I know that you studied and practiced within a Buddhist context. And then something happened and you made the shift so that your life started to unfold within a Christian context. I’m curious what happened for you. In your book, The Path of Centering Prayer, you describe it as a type of conversion experience. So I’d love to hear more about that.
DF: I wasn’t raised a Christian or raised with any religious training or upbringing. I did go to church I think once that I remember. But when I was young, in college, I began a real search for meaning, and to try to understand what life was about. So I studied psychology and transpersonal psychology and got involved in meditation, primarily Eastern meditation—Hindu and Buddhist meditation. And I was particularly drawn to Zen practice—Soto Zen practice—because there wasn’t a lot of belief or dogma that was required of me.
So I practiced for a few years in that tradition. And in the midst of that orientation of practice, which is a profound path, I began to experience something that wasn’t really spoken of in Zen. Sometimes it happened on intensive retreats, a sesshin, and sometimes it happened just in my ordinary life. Something about a presence that drew me deeper into emptiness and into fullness.
For example, once I remember I was living at home, and it was in my junior year of college. I had a little apartment in my parents’ basement, where I could live simply and drive off to school. I had done my Zen meditation practice this evening—it was an evening in December. And I came upstairs into the family living room and my parents were there and the television was on. And playing on the television was this Peanuts, a Charles Schultz cartoon.
TS: Charlie Brown, yes.
DF: A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was December, and they used to play this every year. And I just walked into the back of the room with kind of a centered, opened mind, having just finished my zazen practice. And at that point in the cartoon on television, the character Linus was asked, “What’s the true meaning of Christmas?”
And he starts to read this passage from Luke’s Gospel, the Christian Scriptures, on the coming of the Christ, the birth of Christ into the world. And I’m sitting in the back of the family room, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I felt this enveloping love kind of washing through me and over me and coming from everywhere and nowhere that was drawn forth from this cartoon character on the television reading the Christian scripture.
And it happened for a few minutes, and I just kind of quietly went back downstairs afterward and I said, “What was that?” But it was a sense of being touched by the mystery of God. I think Christianity is just my path as a contemplative, as a meditator, and I gradually began to have more and more of those experiences. And the conversion or the change and the reawakening and the settling of my own life into my life’s path happened over a few years, but it was engendered by those kinds of experiences.
I would never be in a church so I could hear Scripture read, or be around Christian teachers or anything like that. So it was kind of humorous that God came to me through the television, or through a cartoon character, awakening me and settling me and orienting me towards my path of meditation.[>
TS: So it was really this sense of love and presence that inspired you to seek your way through Christianity versus Buddhism or Hinduism?
DF: Yes. I still practiced with the Sangha that I was with, the community, for a few years. But I began to slowly expose myself [to] or be curious about the Christian meditation path. I had no conception that there was even a meditation path in Christianity, because it’s been a little bit obscured in the last few centuries and just relegated to monasteries.
[So] I read Thomas Merton, this great contemplative writer and teacher who had died 12 or 15 years prior to that. [And] his books somehow brought the path of Christian meditation alive for me. And he had kind of a similar experience as a young man, going through a conversion experience after having gotten in all [sorts of] different aspects of life. So he was a good connection for me. I kind of see him as maybe my first real connection with Christianity, almost like a teacher, through his life and through his writings.
So over a period of a couple of years, I was still practicing zazen and going through all kinds of other changes and experiences. But this other aspect of my life began to awaken, and I didn’t have a lot of support for it. I didn’t really meet real Christian meditators for a few years after that initial conversion or invitation into the Christian understanding of what meditation is, which involves love not as a sentiment, but as a presence—that “yes,” that quality of love that is a mystery beyond form and image but brings the practitioner into the life of God itself, and then [they] lose even the sense of God at some point in order to let God live more fully in one.
So it’s a path that has devotion to it, that has practice, that has mystery in terms of not being able to conceptualize in a clear way or know with any certainty in a dogmatic way what God is—because God is coming alive as an experience—and then transforming the structures of experience itself. So that began to happen to me very slowly and gradually when I was young, and I began to pursue the Christian contemplative path.
But I’ve always had a great appreciation for Buddhism and all the great world religions because I see the face of Christ arising in all these great traditions in a unique way. The traditions themselves wouldn’t call it Christ, but to me it’s the same mystery of compassion and invitation into transformative practice.
TS: Now, you said something very interesting. You said “transforming the structures of experience,” so that this experience of God transforms the way we’re structured to experience life itself. Can you say what you meant by that?
DF: Yes. Well, there’s a lot of different ways to approach this. In the Christian tradition, the idea is that we are, that we experience ourselves—David or Tami—as created in the image and likeness of God. But oftentimes we get stuck in this concept of feeling separate from God and separate from other people, and just trapped in what Merton and Thomas Keating, my spiritual father, called the “false self”, or the “separate self” sense; separate from existence and life and other people.
And so meditation, Christian contemplative practice, and Centering Prayer begin to transform that sense of self so that one is gradually in greater touch with God’s presence, consciously coming into life, and then seeing that presence in all of life, in other people, and finding a sense of unity with other people so that one is not trying to protect one’s own turf or living by the hidden agendas of a self that doesn’t really exist on its own. The true unique person is created in union with other people.
But it’s not a sense of self that we can feel attached to. It’s a sense of self that you give away, just like Jesus did 2,000 years ago; his great gift of himself was given away to other people in compassionate love and then established [as] a path for anyone who is oriented toward his presence.
So the structures of consciousness—usually we’re thinking in [terms of] “subject, object” kind of thought of experience. The subject is the “separate self “sense, and then we’re thinking about thoughts and feeling objects of consciousness relating to other people who feel separate from us. That structure is transformed through contemplative practice, like Centering Prayer, gradually, so that there’s a sense of union with other people. And even the sense of God as an object of thought is gradually transformed so that God becomes the subject, the hidden reality in one’s self more and more that’s looking out through one’s eyes towards life, towards other people.
TS: Now, I don’t want to get too stuck in words and definitions, but I do think this might be helpful. You use the word “God” quite freely, quite liberally.
DF: Yes. [Laughs]
TS: And I’m wondering, do you mean something particular when you use the word “God”?
DF: For me, of course, God is wrapped up in the Christian revelation, which is [that] God is Trinitarian, God is a mystery of transcendence but also imminence and life. But if we just set that Christian mystical or theological language on the side or a moment—it has its meaning and its importance, [but] God is also ultimate reality. God is whatever one experiences and feels is the transcendent truth of one’s life.
So this is very relevant for Centering Prayer, because people can practice Centering Prayer with a sense of felt relationship with Christ or with the Christian Trinitarian understanding of what God is. But one can also practice Centering Prayer without that, with just a sense of relating and saying “yes” to ultimate reality and one’s experience.
For example, once there was a Buddhist teacher who I was acquainted with who came to a workshop that I led on Centering Prayer—a morning workshop, just the basic introduction to the practice of Centering Prayer. We did the basic teachings, like we just explained a few minutes ago, about posture and having an intention and then a practice period and a word or a symbol of one’s consent, and then having a period at the end where you integrate that back into life.
And we practiced for 20 minutes, and then I answered questions from the audience. And then I had the chance to talk to her, this Buddhist teacher, just briefly afterwards. And she said she was very amazed that she had done this practice of Centering Prayer, this brief little exposure to it, and she had the most profound Buddhist experience that—well, she had a very profound Buddhist experience, not the most profound Buddhist experience.
But she was opening to that reality because of her intention, which was expressed as a relationship with ultimate mystery. For her, that was emptiness, śūnyatā, but the intention helped her enter into a deeper relationship with that reality—at least during that morning. And it may have been just so she could have an understanding of what this traditional practice was from her own experience.
So God, for a Centering Prayer practitioner, can be very intimate and very close and very personal as one’s own experience of what ultimate reality is—what is most ultimate and most real for one in terms of the important things of life. And then for someone who’s connecting with or downloading the Christian experience of that, it can also be infused with this sense of Christ and the Trinity and the love that’s revealed and transmitted through the means of Christian practice, like scripture, like I was explaining.
And if that happens with Centering Prayer, then one kind of also experiences a particular blessing in the practice, too. But Centering Prayer is wonderful because, like many other meditation practices, you can practice it with the religious context, with a Christian understanding, but you can also get a sense of the practice without having to download that. Just like mindfulness meditation can be practiced by a Buddhist in our culture with the Buddhist religious container, you can [also] practice mindfulness without that Buddhist religious understanding and still have some benefit from it.
DF: The same is true for Centering Prayer.
TS: Now, you said something I didn’t quite follow. You said if I was practicing Centering Prayer within this Christian theological context, then I might receive a blessing of some kind. And I was like, “What did he mean by that? What kind of blessing?”
DF: [Laughs] Well, the blessing of the presence of Christ, which is also transmitted in the practice if one is open to it. So for a Christian practitioner, again, the presence of Christ is not a concept or an idea, but a living reality. It’s like a Christ consciousness, which dwells within the practice itself for one, if one is open to it. It’s like having the inner blessings of the practice awakened in one through a sense of devotion or intention.
You know, in the practice of Centering Prayer, you generate that or offer it at the beginning of the practice, and then you enter into the mystery of it itself. Because Centering Prayer, as a Christian mediation practice, is really meant to transmit the mind or the consciousness of the founder of the religion—Christ, Jesus of Nazareth from 2,000 years ago—and what his experience of ultimate reality was, [which] he called “Abba,” or “Father,” the generative source of his consciousness.
So my spiritual father, my mentor, Father Thomas Keating—this Trappist monk coming in the lineage of Thomas Merton, yet another great Trappist monk—really says that if one really goes deep into Centering Prayer, with the openness or the intention to say “yes” to the mystery that was awakened in Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago—and then transmitted through little contemplative communities for 2,000 years, monastic and non-monastic, and bubbles up in new forms for contemporary society—then one can open up in grace to that same blessing that Jesus experienced and that he transmits through his own consciousness to the practitioner of Centering Prayer, Christian meditation.
TS: So I want to hear more about that, because this is not something that is part of my own inner knowing, what you’re talking about right now. So I really want you to show it to me, if you will, which is this appearance of this blessing, this sense of the presence of Christ, using your language. Help me understand what that’s actually like for you in your prayer life.
DF: Well, so I have a sense of, over the years—I’ve been practicing for 30 or 35 years—of a deepening experience of what Christ is. And now, for me, Christ is not tied up with the sacrificial mystery that’s transmitted on Good Friday, where he offered his life in compassion for other people. That’s a really important part of the mystery of Christ. It’s sometimes touched in by the resurrection, which was what happened after the crucifixion, where his consciousness was available in a new form. His body was a resurrected body and touched his disciples as it touched me in life.
If I have a little bit of pause in my activity—for example, we were driving over here this morning for this interview, and just had the chance to stop at the stoplight coming off of the freeway. And I opened myself in some way to the mystery of God that I know and could sense that resurrected presence of Christ right there at the edge of the freeway, kind of bringing me into greater openness and just in[to] the present moment without thought or concept. And in that openness, there’s a little bit more compassion, a little bit [more] freedom from my own agendas and neuroses and concerns.
But to me, it’s a living reality, that sense of Christ. Christ is almost like my guru in the sense of being an inner teacher. But the key part of Christian practice to understand is that that presence is there as a guide but it also gets lost as an object of experience so that it can come alive a little bit more fully in oneself to other people.
So I don’t always have that sense of felt relationship with Christ. Sometimes it’s just presence, because that mystery is in me looking out to the world through my eyes, but [it’s]something I can’t claim. It’s just ordinary and it’s just in the moment, hopefully it diminishes a little bit of my neurosis and concern so that I can be a little bit more present.
To talk a little bit more about this sense of relating to Christ and then being willing to lose the relationship—I don’t know if you remember Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the great Christian saint and teacher. A few years ago, some of her letters to her spiritual directors were published. And in those letters, written over the course of two or three decades of her life after she founded her missionaries of charity, she describes a period of time that came back to her where she lost the sense of belief in God and lost the sense of Christ’s presence to her. And it was very painful for her, because she didn’t understand it. She didn’t understand what was going on.
And these letters were a little bit—when they were published a few years ago, they caused a little bit of concern. “What happened to Mother Theresa? Did she really lose her faith?” Well, I was reading these letters, and I thought, “Well, I know what happened to her,” as much as one can know. She was a great contemplative practitioner. She practiced contemplative prayer for three hours a day. Not in the form of Centering Prayer, but in a slightly different practice. And what she was doing was losing the sense of Jesus or the sense of Christ or even the sense of God as an entity outside her that she could feel or relate to because Christ was coming alive so much through her.
I had the chance in the late 80s, when I was living in our retreat center in New York, to briefly meet her, Mother Theresa of Calcutta. She was in the South Bronx at a church one Saturday, and I heard about [it]. So we went down to meet her, because a group of her nuns were receiving their vows and she was there attending it. And I didn’t have a big connection with her before that, but at one point of the service, she got up, she was invited to give a few words of wisdom to the assembly of people who were gathering there in this little church. And she talked for about 5 or 10 minutes, and she talked very simply, as she always did, about compassion and about love and the need to care for other people, and to care for them and serve them as Christ, as God, to care for the divinity in them.
And I was sitting in the back of the church, in this little pew, and just like in that experience I described with Linus and the Peanuts cartoon, which was about 10 years before that; along with Mother Theresa’s words, I felt again the presence of Christ coming to me in a loving, tender, but infinite[ly] mysterious way. So something in her was able to transmit that to other people.
And then, during that day, after she finished her little words, we all were invited to come up and congratulate the nuns who had just made their vows and say hello to her. I was walking through this little reception line and I got to Mother Theresa, and I kind of bent down because she was about almost four feet tall, and she was there in her little sari, the little habit that she wore, the little monastic habit. And I looked into her eyes and it was just this deeply wrinkled face, and not that attractive physically, but just radiant with beauty and simpleness and ordinariness. She looked very tired and exhausted, and I just took her hand and I said, “Thank you so much for your work,” and kind of received the blessing of her presence.
But those two experiences that day—the first one when I just felt the presence of God’s love leading me into greater freedom and mystery, and then that sense of seeing her face, this ordinary human face—they were both icons to me, or experiences to me of two sides of the Christian understanding of what God is. God is love that comes through us as God was coming through her to me through her words.
But also, God was wrapped up in the ordinariness of her face, just the simple human experience that was there. She looked very tired. If I would have seen her outside the church on the streets of the South Bronx, I would have given her a dollar because she looked like kind of a homeless person. And she would have given the dollar to somebody else.
Anyway, that story was very meaningful for me, that early experience because, again, years later when I read these letters that she had written to her spiritual director over the course of many years when she was not getting the right teaching on what was happening to her in her meditation practice, I understood more fully. I said, “Of course. She lost the sense of God’s presence in her because God was coming alive through her to other people as it happened to me in that church in this transcendent mystery of love that was touching me, but also in the ordinariness of her face and her utter humanity and her struggle and her tiredness and both were wrapped up together in the mystery of what Christian transformation is. So the idea of what is the Christian God, that topic is a huge one.
TS: Yes. You know, I think part of the reason I’m going down that line of questioning is it’s something I haven’t understood very well. You mentioned someone could approach Centering Prayer and simply be contacting ultimate reality, simply working with consenting more and more to ultimacy. And that’s very intuitively obvious to me. At the same time, one could practice Centering Prayer and explore this Trinitarian nature of God as explained in the Christian theological framework. And that’s where I have this big question mark. I don’t really get that, it’s never dropped into my body as something that makes sense, so I go back to simply understanding this idea of ultimacy.
So I’m wondering here, David, if you can help me, and that’s why I’m sort of pursuing this, which is here you’re talking a little bit about what it might be within that Trinitarian context to receive a blessing from Christ, but clearly there’s the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit that this whole thing makes up the Christian view of ultimacy. Can you help me understand that from the perceptive of what you yourself have experienced through your Centering Prayer practice?
DF: I think it’s something of a mystery, and it’s hard to describe. It’s a mystery that’s, to me, wrapped up in, what is one’s true path? How do you find your true teacher? I think this is a question for every seeker. Whatever meditation path one is on, how does one find one’s own teacher and one’s own tradition? And all these traditions have grown up—we’re in a unique time in our world because they’re all existing in parallel to each other, and we’re kind of exposed to many different teachings and traditions.But what is one’s own path, and how is that awakened in one? I think in my experience, that’s helped by some kind of meditation practice where you let go of the thinking process, such as we’re describing in Centering Prayer. That’s a prerequisite. The Christian understanding is that God can break into life at any time, but if one has a practice, one is more open or accident-prone to the accidents of grace.
And how does that happen? I think it happens because of the nature of reality itself, which has a compassionate quality to it. How did it happen for me? I can’t be sure about why this was my path, really. In some ways, it’s a little hard for me to answer. I think it’s something about connecting with the mystery that’s there. I was around a lot of other teachings when I was young—Buddhist teachings, Hindu teachings—and that same sense of awakening into the inner aspect of those traditions didn’t happen for me, but it did in Christianity, and it was really a little confusing at the time.
So to me, I think this is part of the path of meditation. Yes, we have to have a practice to dispose ourselves to the gifts that are there in a tradition, and then just realize that some of it is unknown.
TS: But this Trinitarian nature of reality, how [did] you intuitively [come] to appreciate that through the Centering Prayer practice, and what [is] that appreciation. That’s what I’m looking to understand.
DF: Oh, I see. In the Christian understanding, the Trinity is one aspect of the nature of ultimate reality, or God. It’s not so much like a three-some of people, but it’s the structure of reality as the structure of life itself in which everything is created. So Christ, the consciousness that was in Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago, is kind of the entry into the trinity for most Christians. The Father is the unseen source of Christ, the generative source that speaks the word of Christ into life. And then the Holy Spirit is the energy or the inflow of love between those.
So the Father is like the subject, the self that cannot be seen, the aspect of God, the unseen supreme source of God. And then Christ is the manifestation of that. And then the Spirit is the mystery of love that unites the two in self-gift. So it’s actually a wonderful intuition about who we are or who the Christian practitioner is, created in the image of God. The Christian practitioner has this presence of God, which is energy and love at the source of one’s consciousness. But also, the Christ is the presence of God within that leads Christian practitioners into deeper union with God.
Now, this is important to understand, because the deepest aspect of Christian contemplation is to practice as described in this book, The Path of Centering Prayer, without a symbol, without a word to represent one’s consent to God, but just with God’s presence itself, which can be experienced as silence or stillness or inner spaciousness sometimes, and to relate to that but to lose that relationship so that God comes to life in the unseen quality of the Father within oneself.
So the Trinity is really a mystery that’s hard to describe. It’s a mystery of love; it’s a mystery that doesn’t fit into dualistic thought. But it’s a mystery in which the patterns of consciousness and the structure of life is imaged in one’s own existence. So it’s a little bit like, if you just think [of] more of a concrete example of water—if you say that water can appear in different shapes. It can appear as fluid water, it can appear as ice when it’s frozen, and it can appear as steam. And the Trinity is like that. It’s like the different aspects of God that take different form or shape.
So in this simple metaphor, water is the form of ice is like Christ. It’s something tangible that you can relate to. Water in the form of a liquid is more like the Spirit that moves and permeates everything and finds its own course and gives life to all of existence. And water in the form of steam is this unseen disappearing entity that’s more like the Father, what Jesus called the Abba, the generative source of his own existence that’s rather intangible.
So that’s the Christian mystical intuition about what one aspect of God is. It’s this mystery that’s hard to articulate, but is imaged in life and imaged in us.
TS: Now, when you were talking about Father Thomas Keating, you referred to him as your ‘spiritual father,’ and I thought that was a beautiful and interesting phrase. Often people will talk about their teacher or their meditation coach or their mentor. But a term like spiritual father is a term within the Christian tradition that you won’t hear other places. So I’m curious what you associate with that term, ‘spiritual father.’
DF: Yes. It’s a traditional term going back to the second and third centuries in Christianity. When this movement of Christian meditation took off, it was led by the Abbas, the spiritual fathers, and the Ammas, the spiritual mothers.
So the spiritual fathers and the spiritual mothers, the Ammas and the Abbas, lived in the deserts of what’s now Syria and Egypt and the Middle East. And they formed little communities of practitioners, and there was a very intimate community that was involved among those little groups of practitioners. They lived in—you know, some were hermits, and some lived a more social life together, but it was all oriented towards contemplative prayer. And it’s really the first time that the written tradition of what Christian contemplative practice was, was articulated by these fathers and mothers of the desert.
Anyways, ever since then, there have been little communities—sometimes in monasteries and sometimes outside monasteries—where a mentor, a spiritual father or spiritual mother, has been seen as a guide or a teacher. And for me, that’s happened through Thomas Keating, who I met a few years after having gone through this conversion experience.
My only guide was Thomas Merton, just reading his books, and then I had the chance to meet Thomas Keating. He had just retired [from] being an abbot of a large monastery and was beginning to teach Centering Prayer around the country, and I heard him give a talk at a Vedanta Society in Berkeley, California, where I was living. And I thought, “Oh my God, here is a Christian master who had the teachings,” not only the ability to articulate them, but he was living in the consciousness that I was describing, the consciousness of Christ. And I wrote him a letter and asked him for some help. He was coming back to Berkeley, and we began our contact, which has been really about 29 or 30 years now.
So a spiritual father in the Christian tradition is not like a guru—the guru or the ultimate teacher is Christ—but a guide in whom the qualities of Christ might be manifest in ordinary ways. For example, for Father Thomas Keating, some of the qualities that first impressed me about him were his compassion and his openness. As you know, he’s a very articulate and refined person, and quite a theologian, in a way. But in the midst of all that, there was a great sense of simple, ordinary love.
I remember when I went on retreat with him for the first time; in 1983, a two-week Centering Prayer retreat in New Mexico at the Lama Foundation. It was a great experience. He kind of parted his great teaching on Centering Prayer and helped initiate me into this practice in a deeper way than it had happened before.
What impressed me so much was his ordinary humanness. There was one morning where I was not feeling well about halfway through the retreat. We were in these little adobe rooms in this retreat center, a very small group of about 12 people. And I heard someone passing by outside and I just went and interrupted them in their silence and said, “Listen, I’m not going to be able to get to the morning practice because I’m just not feeling well.” And I went back to my bed and laid down, and my stomach was upset and I was just with the experience.
After about an hour and a half or two hours, there was a knock on the door, and I opened it. And there was Thomas Keating. He had finished leading the morning meditation. He came to find out how I was, and in a very solicitous way, he said, “Well, I heard you weren’t feeling well. How are you?” And I said, “Well, my stomach is upset and I’m just not feeling well.” And he came in and he said, “Well, can I help you in any way?” And he was just so kind and so present in this very human way. He’s this great spiritual master and he was concerned about my stomachache.
And he went and he got me a homeopathic remedy from his room and I took that and he said to me, “Well, have you really prayed with this?” And I said, “Well, I’m sitting, I’m doing my practice, but I’m lying down.” He says, “Oh no, I mean have you really prayed and asked for God’s help?” And I said, “Well, no, I’m here doing Centering Prayer.” [Laughs] And he said, “Well, why don’t you pray?” And I said, “OK.”
So he left, and I let myself pray then, because he had told me how to pray and to let my prayer come through the pain, through my discomfort in my stomach. And I offered it in surrender to the mystery of God and took the homeopathic, and I wasn’t sure what really helped, but I felt much better. I think partially it was his presence to me, Thomas Keating’s presence to me. His ultimate concern in a very intimate, human way.
So a spiritual father, an Abba, or a spiritual mother, an Amma, in Christianity, they’re like that. They can be teachers, but they’re also mentors in a way in which the teachings and the life of God are present to someone. And if one is able to have that kind of relationship, it can be very beneficial, because the primary teacher, Christ, is invisible, and [is] a reality that one is relating to, but then also being lost in. So having a mentor and having a community are very important gifts on the spiritual journey in Christianity.
TS: Now, I’ve heard it said that when meditation, the practice of meditation, can really start impacting the Christian world, people who identify themselves as Christian, then we’re really going to start seeing rapid spiritual transformation in the world, since so much of the world’s population is Christian. And I’m wondering what you think about that, and if you think of Centering Prayer, contemplative prayer, as a type of movement that is picking up steam in this regard.
DF: I think it is, yes. Centering Prayer has been taught outside the monasteries since the 1970s, and in the course of those decades, it’s really found a home in many parts of Christianity. But not every part, because sometimes the fundamentalist attitude toward religion, particularly in Christianity, is less understanding of a practice in which one lets go—a way of prayer or devotion or Christian meditation, Christian contemplation—where one is letting go of ideas of God in order to develop a loving relationship with God.
So in some parts of Christianity, Centering Prayer has not yet found a home. But it’s a gift that’s available to anyone. And again, like we’re saying, a little bit outside the realm of the Christian religious world, other people have connected with Centering Prayer.
Some people in recovery—practicing the 12 steps through AA or OA or whatever form of recovery one is in—have picked up Centering Prayer as an 11th-step practice. The 11th step in recovery, of course, is seeking to develop an ongoing relationship with a higher power through prayer and meditation. So Centering Prayer has had a place and found influence in our society. And I certainly hope that it would continue to do that.
In the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, there have been many renewals of the contemplative life that have contributed to society, and sometimes they die out, and sometimes they come back—the Christian message comes back in this contemplative understanding in a new way. It’s very traditional because it dates to Christ’s teachings and to the early teachings of the desert fathers and the desert mothers.
And yes, my hope would be that it would continue to flourish. The particular teaching of Centering Prayer, I think, is very suited to this society we’re in because it also has great respect for other traditions, inter-spiritual and inter-religious sensitivity. Again, the path of Centering Prayer is reinforced by serious retreat practice. We have a lot of retreat opportunities all over the country—a retreat center in Snowmass, Colorado, where Father Thomas lives at the monastery there, our center in this network of practitioners.
But also it’s a practice for ordinary life. It’s a practice that’s strengthened by retreat. I myself had 10 years where I was living in a retreat facility and doing intensive practice, and a period of a few years of solitary retreat. But the real import of Centering Prayer is to practice in the ordinary routines of daily life. And I certainly hope that flourishes and continues.
TS: So, David, if we were to think of Centering Prayer as a movement, a movement in our world today, do you have a sense of what your role is in that movement?
DF: Well, I’ve been around for a little while, and so I’m seeking to help provide for people who are maturing in the practice, the instruction and the deepening levels of its practice. And also, my interest is to reach out to younger generations, people in their 20s and 30s who may not yet have been touched by the message of Christian meditation or the practice of Centering Prayer.
So there’s a sense in which the renewal of Christian meditation has been developing over the past couple of decades. Thomas Merton and others like Merton in the 1950s and 1960s articulated this message, this possibility of Christian meditation and the Christian transformative path. And then a generation later, Thomas Keating and his fellow monks who taught Centering Prayer—Father Basil Pennington, Father William Meninger—they developed this practice so that people could do what Merton was talking about.
And then a generation later, now, there are people who are looking to develop and articulate from their experience of having been on the path for awhile, the nuances of the practice and ways to reach new people who might not have connected with the way that the Centering Prayer practice was articulated 30 years ago.
But the essence of the practice is still there, and so how do you do that? How do you create new structures? I’m interested to see if we could create a form of a monastic community such as I had when I was young under Thomas Keating’s guidance, where one can go away and live the monastic life for a period of time without making a final vow.
In the Christian tradition, if one is a monk, one has a permanent vow. In our community, in the late 80s and early 90s, we didn’t have that structure. We lived a very serious monastic commitment to prayer and to silence and simplicity and meditation and service without a permanent vow, and it was a wonderful training to move back into life. Me, I was there for 10 years. I’m very interested in seeing if young people would be drawn to that kind of experience now as a training ground for life.
So that’s how—some ways, at least now—I see, yes, everything changes in one’s life, and who knows what’s going to be around the corner next time, next year.
TS: I just have one final question for you, David. The entire second half of your book on The Path of Centering Prayer is about contemplative attitudes and the attitudes that support the practice and living, really, a contemplative life. And I’m curious, if you had to pick just one attitude, one attitude that you think is the most important contemplative attitude to support this life of opening to God, to the mind of Christ, what attitude would that be?
DF: Well, there’s a few of them [laughs] mentioned in that teaching—
TS: You’re only allowed to pick one here.
DF: Just one. [Laughs] Well, the one that I think I would pick is just about being—this contemplative attitude of just being, without effort, without struggle. The more that we can live in that disposition in Centering Prayer, the more we’re aligned with the being of God, which is pure love, pure presence, pure consent, the mystery in which everything is held. But so much of one’s own effort in meditation gets in the way of just being.
So the attitude just to be, just to rest without having to try to achieve anything is a valuable contemplative disposition, because then it infuses gradually over time the things that you have to do, which is letting go of thoughts and returning to God, but with a greater sense of trust and presence and relaxation into the mystery that’s here now.
So just to be. Just to be in the being of God, and my spiritual father, Thomas Keating, [who’s] in his retirement now. He’s 89 years old and he’s at the monastery. He doesn’t travel anymore. He’s had some health problems these last few years that don’t allow him to travel, but he finds it’s a wonderful time for him, after a lifetime of dedication and service and traveling all around the world and teaching on Centering Prayer. Just to be. He’s just up there being in God, just God and everything.
So I think my appreciation for the contemplative attitude of just being is reinforced by my spiritual father and seeing him now, where he can be present to the students in Centering Prayer in a deep, deep way without having to do anything. Because that’s the real intuition of what a God is in the Christian understanding. God is the source of everything, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. So to be in that reality is the great gift of Christian meditation and of Centering Prayer.
TS: Thank you so much. I’ve been talking with David Frenette. He’s the author of a new book published by Sounds True called The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God. And I have to say that the book was a beautiful book to read and be with and it also really helped me appreciate the depths of Centering Prayer as a path, and how it can really take someone on the full spiritual journey. So thank you so much for the inner work that you’ve done to be able to create a book like The Path of Centering Prayer. Thank you, David.
DF: Thank you, Tami.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.