What is Contemplative Outreach?



What is Contemplative Outreach?

By Elizabeth Smith

Edited by Fr Thomas Keating OCSO


Fr. Thomas Keating founded Contemplative Outreach specifically to support those who are practicing Centering Prayer as he envisaged it. To this intention, he set about creating a systematic teaching which would make accessible to modern people the rich and long tradition of the Christian Contemplative teachings. His hope was that after following his theory of the spiritual journey while also practising the Method of Centering Prayer, they do go hand in hand, he would enable people to acquire a full spiritual education which would empower them to then decide where to go from there. We hope that some would stay with Contemplative Outreach to train and become teachers to carry on the work.

There has always been a long tradition of various types of prayer groups. However, few, if any, have had the advantage of a systematic spiritual education. Many depended on the wisdom and learning of the leader. This has also applied to many of the different prayer movements of the past centuries. In depth, guided study especially of the Western Christian tradition was in the past rare and open to only a few.

Fr Thomas Keating saw a need to meet the growing interest in contemplation among lay people and religious. The latter also suffered from a truncated education as far as contemplative spirituality was concerned. This situation came about for various historical reasons beyond the scope of this article to cover. Thomas Merton is perhaps one of the more famous instigators of the contemplative renewal.

I became very interested in the teachings of Fr. Thomas Keating because he did seem to be someone who was presenting a very solid basis for a renewal of the contemplative spirit in the Church based on a sound Christian theology and spirituality. I have spent the past twenty-seven years practicing Centering Prayer, studying and training with Fr Thomas. This has involved trips to the USA once or twice a year. Over the course of these years, Fr Thomas has become my mentor and friend and I stay in regular contact with him. I had also studied Christian Spirituality through a Distance Learning Course before meeting Fr. Thomas Keating. At Christ College, Liverpool I specialised in Theology and Scripture.

The main purpose of Contemplative Outreach is to teach the practise of Centering Prayer, but at the same time past on the Western Christian Tradition in the hope that it will educate Christians in their own tradition and encourage them to study some of the sources of this tradition, e.g. St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, The Cloud of Unknowing and St Francis de Sales, to name but a few. (cf. Fr Thomas Keating’s article “A Traditional Blend”). An important element of this tradition encourages the follower to find a wise mentor.

Centering Prayer is now increasing in popularity and many are trying to interpret the method and Fr Thomas’s teaching for themselves. But it is best taught by a Presenter trained by Contemplative Outreach.

Fr Keating’s intention was to develop courses and retreats to train people in his teaching and this is an ongoing process. Centering Prayer itself is a simple but   subtle method beginning a process that is different from other methods of meditation which are popular now and would at first glance appear to be similar.

“……Centering Prayer is a specific method and it has its own dynamic and it has to be done according to that dynamic for its fruits to be fully realised and experience” Fr Thomas Keating, Spiritual Journey, Part One  

It often takes about three years of a regular faithful practice for people to become aware of some of the subtleties. (cf. Fr Keating’s article “Resting in God’s Presence”.)

As you can see, this can be a slow process and requires commitment not only to the practice, but in attending the courses and retreats designed by Fr. Thomas Keating to lead the practitioner into greater depths and understanding of the practice.

The system Fr Thomas Keating devised is as follows:

  • An Introductory Day or weekend followed by six weeks of study of the extended introductory materials.
  • After the Introductory day one is encourage to attend a Lectio Divina Day or weekend
  • People are also encouraged to attend a Ten Day Intensive Retreat within their first year or two of practice. This helps firmly establish the practice and is a real help in understanding the teaching materials.

Following on from these there are several retreats which follow in sequence;

  • The Post-Intensive Retreat. This is primarily a silent retreat with longer periods of Centering Prayer.
  • An Advanced retreat. This can be of various lengths.
  • Heartfulness Retreat. This is the latest retreat and is aimed at those who have been practicing for eight to ten years.

As those who have attended these Retreats can attest, they “hear” the materials in an atmosphere of silence and solitude in a very different way to those who only hear the materials in the everyday environment of daily life. We recognise that this can be a problem to many who cannot afford the time or finances to follow this recommended structure. Contemplative Outreach is looking at ways to broaden this approach, but the experience of the regular Ten Day Intensive Retreat cannot be reproduced in shorter sections, though the teaching containing the back-ground material of Centering Prayer could be. The regular Ten Day Intensive is very important for those who wish to become staff members of Contemplative Outreach.

There are also training course for those who wish to share the method:

  • Facilitator Training
  • Presenter Training for those wishing to give the Introductory Day.
  • Leadership training, aimed at those who wish to become Coordinator.
  • Practices to bring the Fruits of Centering Prayer into daily life, especially the Welcoming Prayer and the Active Prayer Sentence.

As can be seen the above is a huge programme which takes commitment, training, study, and time to implement.  It also requires a certain level of maturity both emotionally and spiritually. This is helped by the practice of Centering Prayer plus the deliberate practice of dismantling the False Self system as out lined in Fr Keating’s teachings.

Then there are the various enrichments programmes which can run alongside the core materials of the curriculum.

  • The United in Prayer Day with groups around the world. This is a yearly event which normally takes place in March. The materials, usually a DVD with Fr Keating and sometimes a guest speaker, e.g. Richard Rohr, can be viewed repeatedly as is true of all Fr Keating’s materials.
  • Quiet Days or half days of prolonged Centering Prayer periods with possible discussion of difficulties or sharing of experiences of the benefits of Centering Prayer.
  • Centering Prayer Weekends covering a topic from Fr Keating’s teachings, e.g. The False Self, The Human Condition, Lectio Divina, The Welcoming Practice, or other practices for daily life.
  • Centering Prayer Intensive Retreats. Short retreats of four or five days or a weekends, again aimed at a section of Fr. Keating’s teachings.


While we recognise the good in other methods and insights they bring to the spiritual journey, Contemplative Outreach has its own focus, which has been briefly described above.

“We affirm our solidarity with the contemplative dimension of other religions and sacred tradition.” Theological Principles of Contemplative Outreach.

Of course, there is always room for improvement. However, it would seem wise to run these new ideas past either Fr. Keating himself or the body he has appointed before they are introduced or integrated into the original teaching. This would be in keeping with the long Christian Tradition of referring to a wise teacher or group.

Contemplative Outreach is always designing new programmes and courses to support those who practice Centering Prayer. These are always done in consultation with Fr. Keating and by a group of teachers he himself has appointed. It is the purpose of Contemplative Outreach to maintain the integrity and purity of his teaching which is embodied in the Western Christian Tradition.

It is unfortunate that in this “want it now” society, people are always looking for an instant fix even in spirituality. There is no quick fax. It takes time and dedication or as St Teresa of Avila says, “…a determined determination.” But then anything worth doing always does and the spiritual journey is the one thing that is worth doing for ourselves and for the benefit for all humanity and this beautiful universe of ours.





Copy right E.M. Smith 2016