What is Contemplative Outreach?
Contemplative Outreach was founded by Fr. Thomas Keating 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.
There has always been a long tradition of various types of prayer groups. However, few groups, 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 fairly 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 I stay in regular contact with him.
The main purpose of Contemplative Outreach is to teach the practice of Centering Prayer, but at the same time to pass 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. The Cloud of Unknowing, St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and St Francis de Sales, to name but a few. (**cf. Fr Thomas Keating’ article, A Traditional Blend in the Contemplative Outreach Newsletter June 2000 Vol.14 Number2). An important element of this tradition encourages the follower to find a wise mentor.
Centering Prayer has its scriptural inspiration from Matt.6 v 6. It also comes out of the Christian Contemplative Heritage, inspired in the first instance by the Desert Mothers and Fathers and the Hesychastic tradition, both of which cultivate interior silence and purity of heart. Centering Prayer is a passage from concentrative practices to an alert receptivity through consenting to God’s presence and action within, which places the emphasis on purity of intention.
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 trained Presenter.
Fr Keating’s intention was to develop courses and retreats to train people in his teaching and this is an ongoing process. Centering Prayer, as taught by Fr. Keating, is a subtle method beginning a process that is different from other methods of meditation which are popular at the moment 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 experienced
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. Contemplative Outreach Newsletter, Spring 1998 Vol.12 Number 1.)
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 Keating to lead the practitioner into greater depths of understanding and practice.
The system he devised is as follows:
- An Introductory Day over a day or weekend followed by six weeks of study of the extended introductory materials.
- After the Introductory Day, one is encouraged 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 a number of 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 practising 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 easily be reproduced in shorter sections, though the teaching containing the background 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 courses 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 coordinators.
- Practices to bring the Fruits of Centering Prayer into daily life, especially the Welcoming Prayer.
As can be seen the above is a huge programme which takes 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 outlined in the teachings of Fr Keating.
- 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 again and again 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 particular topic from Fr Keating’s teachings, e.g. The False Self, The Human Condition, The Welcoming Practice, or other practices for daily life.
- Centering Prayer Intensive Retreats. Short retreats of four or five days or a weekend, again aimed at a particular 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 practise 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 fix. It takes time and dedication or as St Teresa of Avila says, a determined determination. Anything worth doing well always requires effort and commitment. The spiritual journey is the one thing that is worth following not only for ourselves but for the benefit for all humanity and this beautiful universe of ours.
West Sussex, June 2015
A very successful Ten Day Intensive was facilitated by Elizabeth Smith this June 2015 in the lovely surrounds of the Poor Clare Convent, Crossbush, Arundel. It was a very interdenominational group that came together consisting of religious and laity, from professional people to housewives, from those still working to those retired. For some it was their first experience of a Ten Day Intensive, for others it was a welcome return and time of renewal.
The silence was almost tangible remarked one retreatant.
A very experiential learning process was the comment from another.
All the participants found doing Centering Prayer together in a group supportive and strengthening. On the last afternoon the DVD about Thomas Keating, A Rising Tide of Silence – was shown and much enjoyed, prompting orders for the DVD to be made.