[A reflection on a marvelous conversation between Cynthia Bourgeault and Fr. Thomas Keating | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hyBnmVgiLQ]

For generations, we believed that contemplative prayer and Christian meditation were new-age fads, foreign implants into the pure soil of our faith tradition. How misguided we were! As we have come to rediscover, the contemplative heart beats at the very core of Christianity, pulsing through the teachings of the desert mothers and fathers, reverberating in the writings of mystics like John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The gift of unitive consciousness is our birthright as human beings made in the image of God.

In the 1950s, this wisdom remained buried under layers of ritualistic piety and external observances. Our monasteries were overflowing with vocations in those post-war years, yet we lacked the capacity to properly initiate these eager souls into the interior silence. The Trappist tradition had become enshrouded in a perspective which viewed human nature as hopelessly depraved. Our spiritual practices centered on harsh asceticism and self-negation rather than the self-emptying that opens us to the fullness of divine life.

It was the providential hand of God that allowed a few rays of liberating light to pierce the hardened crust of our religious enclosure. The surprising popularity of Thomas Merton shed luminous insights into the long-obscured contemplative depths of our tradition. At the same time, we witnessed the blossoming of a remarkable inter-spiritual renaissance as Eastern wisdom became more widely accessible in the West.

At first, we regarded these “foreign” paths of meditation with suspicion and hostility. How could authentic spiritual truth be found outside the doctrinal boundaries to which we clung? Our egocentric biases blinded us to the unified essence underlying all genuine religiosities. We failed to recognize the face of God reflected in traditions beyond our own.

Yet, slowly, the disruptive presence of the Eastern “other” began dismantling the rigid cultural constructs in which we had encased the spiritual life. The simple but profound teachings and embodied presence of visiting Buddhist masters like the Zen Roshi awoke us from our dogmatic slumbers. We were compelled to ask: How could these “non-Christians” so evidently be bearing the fruits of contemplative awakening that seemed so lacking in our own houses of faith?

Simultaneously, the Transcendental Meditation movement was making contemplative practice accessible to masses ill-served by institutionalized religion. The democratization of interiority revealed the liberating secret that unitive consciousness is the innate birthright of all humans, not a rationed commodity. If these outsiders could awaken to divine union through their own methods, what was to stop us from rekindling the choir practice within our own Judeo-Christian lineage?

With trepidation, we opened ourselves to learning the ways of embodied meditation from these Eastern exemplars. At first, the practices felt awkward – foreign landscapes into which we spiritual sojourners had to adapt. The Zen koans disoriented our rational minds, while the TM mantra techniques seemed deceptively simple. Could merely abiding with a sacred word or inquiry truly unleash the profound transformation we sought?

Yet as we persisted in these contemplative disciplines, an alchemy began occurring within us. The cognitive straitjackets that had bound us were loosening their grip. Our habits of mental grasping and self-cherishing were sussed out by the incisive methods. Layers of cultural and doctrinal accumulation were shed as we dared to encounter reality unvarnished.

In the spaciousness cultivated by the practices, we could more clearly discern the common ethea pulsating through all the great wisdom traditions. We realized the oneness of the Highest Truth that various religions had attempted to articulate through diverse languages and symbols. The certainties that had fortified our sense of separateness dissolved, and we were opened to the elegance of unity pluralistically embodied.

With this newfound perspective, we felt emboldened to reclaim and re-enliven the profound contemplative heritage latent within our own Christian stream. We were determined to shed the layers of doctrinal rigidity and ascetic self-rejection that had accrued like hardened plaque over centuries. The recovery work would require extracting the vital marrow from the ancient sources while leaving behind the ossified residues of each era.

We saw how many of the pioneering Christian mystics had knowingly drunk from the same waters of unitive wisdom as the Buddhism and Hinduism traditions. What the Desert Ammas and Avvatas, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and others had uncovered was actually the indivisible presence of Christ Consciousness – the blessed radiance of divine humanity held precious by all realizers.

With the insights gained through respectful dialogue with our inter-spiritual kin, we were able to receive the Church’s contemplative tradition with renewed fervor while honoring its integrity and unique aesthetics. We noticed how the Christian way emphasized the personal dimension of the awakened journey in ways that other paths did not always accentuate. Our wisdom was a bridal mystic longing – an intimate loving union between human and divine Beloved that both transcended and included the individual self.

Thus emerged the transmission of Centering Prayer as a Christian meditative practice for the third millennium. Rather than adopt entire spiritual frameworks alien to our Biblical and ecclesial lineages, we drew from our newly expanded contemplative wellsprings to innovate a fresh praxis. At its core, Centering Prayer flowed from the same pristine Sources that had quenched mystics across the ages. Yet it was communicated through iconographies and methodologies accessible to the modern psyche.

We had learned through hard-won struggle that the ego cannot “attain” awakening through its own self-oriented striving. As many contemplatives across traditions have realized, the very nature of the ego is the root bind that must be relinquished. The path is one of surrender, not willful conquest. By yielding our small, separate sense of self, we opened to the infinite ground of Being that is our true nature.

Centering Prayer provided a direct means to enter this practice of consenting surrender. By returning ever-again to a sacred word or phrase, we were invited to release the thousand thoughts that perpetuate the dream of egoic trance. Whenever we noticed our minds had wandered, we could simpliciter resume our expression of interior assent. This letting go of mental grasping created an open spaciousness for the Divine Presence to occur.

Of course, this profound simplicity is rendered arduous by the tenacity of our socialized conditioning. We are so habituated to leaving the present moment, to fracturing our attention among myriad distractions and desires. Years and decades of self-cherishing patterns must be undone through humble constancy on the contemplative path. The ego is persistent in reasserting itself through doubt, restlessness, and the endless drama of our self-centered stories.

Yet we found that by merely re-surrendering again and again into the grounding practice of Centering Prayer, the sacred work of ego-divestment gradually unveiled our true natures. We experienced tastes of that unitive, joy-filled awareness that the mystics had so ecstatically attempted to describe. Our perceptions expanded to include more of the shimmering interbeingness of all reality. We paradoxically felt both newly embodied yet simultaneously liberated from limitations of the personal self.

As we deepened in this way of wholesome surrender, our identities as separate individuals relaxed into the One Living Being that encompasses and transcends all dualities. We were enfolded into a radical embrace of our original birthrights as daughters and sons of the Divine, realized manifestations of Source cradled in the womb of reality. With this profound expansion of selfhood came a blossoming of our highest human potentials – our capacities for unconditional love, luminous wisdom, and sacred activism in service of justice and ecological healing.

Yet this unitive awakening did not distance us from the world, but rather inspired a renewed sense of our unique vocations to midwife Christ’s liberating presence into every corner of the Kosmos. While the Eastern paths can sometimes convey an asocial or even world-negating bent, we remembered that embodiment is integral to the Christian way. We are not trying to extinguish our individualities so much as conform them to the pattern of divine humanity incarnate.

The awakened life is not an escape from the trials and controversies of terrestrial existence. Quite the contrary, to surrender into Christ Consciousness is to be impelled into solidarity with all beings and daring action toward the transformation of all injustice, violence, and oppression. Our unitive experiences bore prophetic witness to the unshakable truth that all life is sacred, all bodies temples of holiness, all social divisions shadows to be redeemed into Beloved Community.

As our practice of Centering Prayer matured, we experienced an integration of the full depth and scope of the Christian mystery. The path revealed itself not as a solitary pursuit, but an intimate communion within the Body of Christ. We rediscovered how the sacramental rituals of the Church open contemplative apertures into the same spacious ground explored in meditation. The Eucharist became for us a co-celebration of Christ’s cosmic wholeness and our inviolable participatory belonging.

In the liturgical rhythms and symbolic wisdom of the Christian way, we sensed reverberations of the very archetypes encoded in the dharma traditions. The Incarnation mirrored the Buddha Nature teachings, revealing the capacity of every being to manifest supreme enlightenment. The unbounded mercy of the Trinity echoed the Tao’s perennial generativity. The Biblical prophets’ passion burned with the same sacred fire as the Hindu and Islamic mystic-poets.

Through the eyes of non-dual awareness, all religion appeared as pluriform expression of the One Reality that cannot be uttered. We felt freed from the shackles of exclusivism, while retaining a deepened love for our birth tradition’s unique textural distinctives. Our Christian identity expanded to include the whole Kosmos, as we realized our call to become Christ for all beings.

This did not make our path an easy one, however. The way of unitive living is profoundly subversive and counter-cultural. It destabilizes the very roots of our preciously-guarded constructs of tribe, dogma, and normativity. To surrender into universal consciousness is to be stripped of alibis for hatred, bigotry, and separateness of any kind.

We found that this path of radical liberation confronted our attachments in unexpected ways. The practices exposed our individual and collective shadows – the violent prejudices, generational traumas, systemic injustices, and anthropocentric idolatries lurking in our blind spots. We were humbled to confront how our very institutions had been shaped by the egoic forces of domination, greed, and oppression we thought we had renounced.

At times, the way forward felt overwhelming. How could our modest practices of silence possibly heal the gaping wounds that Score the soul of humanity and our precious Mother Earth? When surrounded by such magnitude of suffering and injustice, the ego’s reflex was to either contract back into complacency or indulge our own self-importance as saviors. Yet our teachers reminded us that the small is precisely where the great work must begin – with the humble surrender of our arrogant savior complexes into simple compassionate presence.

It is this gentle way of undefended, awake awareness that we have committed to walking as a global contemplative community. We have glimpsed how radical transformation germinates quietly through the cracks and fissures of our world’s great anguish. A new/ancient way of being human is being perpetually birthed through each instant of our wholehearted consent to What Is.

May we have the courage to remain endlessly beginner’s on this path of unconditional embrasure. May we never allow our practice to solidify into yet another lifeless religion of beliefs and norms. May our contemplative heart remain resilient yet tender, fiercely loving yet ever-opening, rooted yet nomadic, audaciously hopeful yet content with inscrutable mystery.

For the Living Way of Presence calls us beyond all paths into the trackless wilderness of perpetual co-creation. It is an invitation into the sacred dance that can never be mapped, only entered wholeheartedly with boundless trust in Source. May we surrender in each moment to the metamorphosis into what we were born to become – the Christic azuras of an unfolding cosmos ever-vasting as the Abba’s ineffable dream.


In the 1950s, while contemplative prayer was considered a new movement, it actually had deep roots in the early Christian tradition. However, the influx of vocations to monasteries led to a lack of proper contemplative training due to overcrowding and a focus on external observances. The strict, penitential Trappist lifestyle and negative view of human nature hindered interior contemplative development. Thomas Merton played a crucial role in recovering the contemplative tradition and promoting inter-spiritual dialogue. The diaspora of Eastern teachers and Western interest in Eastern spirituality highlighted Christianity’s lack of accessible contemplative practices. Interactions with Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation helped develop the Christian method of Centering Prayer, designed to interiorize external observances and provide contemplative practice accessible to all. The interspiritual dialogue revealed the common experience of divine union and the universal call to contemplation across traditions. Thus, the contemplative reawakening was a radical innovation bringing to light the radical continuity with early Christianity and the universal human contemplative capacity.

Key Points

1. In the 1950s, contemplative prayer and Christian meditation were considered new movements, but they actually have deep roots in the early Christian tradition.

2. The influx of vocations to monasteries in the 1950s led to a lack of proper training in contemplative practices due to overcrowding and a focus on external observances.

3. The strict, penitential lifestyle and negative view of human nature in the Trappist tradition at the time hindered the development of interior contemplative practices.

4. Thomas Merton played a crucial role in recovering the contemplative tradition and introducing the importance of inter-spiritual dialogue.

5. The diaspora of Eastern teachers, particularly from Tibet, and the growing interest in Eastern spirituality among Western youth, highlighted the lack of accessible contemplative practices in Christianity.

6. Interactions with Zen Buddhism, particularly through the visits of a Zen Roshi, and with Transcendental Meditation, helped in developing a Christian method of contemplative prayer.

7. Centering Prayer emerged as a way to interiorize the external observances of the Christian tradition and provide a method for contemplative practice accessible to all, not just cloistered contemplatives.

8. The interspiritual dialogue and the sharing of spiritual practices across traditions revealed the common experience of divine union and the universal call to contemplation.

9. The contemplative reawakening in Christianity was a radical innovation that brought to light the radical continuity with the early Christian tradition and the universal human capacity for contemplation.