David Frenette is a senior teacher in the Centering Prayer movement–a contemplative Christian practice that was designed by Father Thomas Keating. He’s also the spiritual director at the Center for Contemplative Living in Denver, and the author of The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God.
In this episode, David describes his path from Zen to Christianity and how he uses the practice of Centering Prayer to deepen his experience of God.
This is part one of a two part series.
- The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God
- Incarnational Contemplation
- Center for Contemplative Living in Denver
Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m delighted to be joined today by a special guest. I’m here with David Frenette. David is a senior teacher in the Centering Prayer Movement which is a contemplative Christian tradition. He’s also the spiritual director at the Center for Contemplative Living in Denver, just down the road. And he’s also the author of a newly released book called The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God. And I just dropped the G word in. We’ll definitely explore that together. But first I wanted to start just by asking a question about kind of your history with contemplative practice. We were speaking a few years ago and you described this conversion experience that you had into the contemplative Christian tradition. What’s so interesting to me it was a conversion from Zen practice.
So it’s usually the opposite for most people that get into Buddhism. They sort of gone away from their Christian roots and found this thing that’s like very different from their tradition. And you had that sort of opposite experience. So I was hoping you could kind of bring us back to the beginning in your first kind of introduction to practice and then talk a little bit as well about this experience you had of switching from Zen to the contemplative Christian practice.
David: Yes, Vince. It’s so good to be with you finally after all these years. I wasn’t raised a Christian. I didn’t really have any religious training as a young person and then began to get very interested in meditation and the meaning of life and searching for my own answers to suffering, to my suffering. And of course drifted naturally into meditation practice, Hindu, Buddhist practice when I was in my late teens and connected in a profound way with Zen practice, particularly the Soto Zen practice, not Koan practice, but Soto Zen practice.
And I moved to the Bay Area to practice with the sangha that Suzuki Roshi established in San Francisco and the Green Gluch Farm and then Tassajara and in Berkeley where there was a smaller zendo where I kind of settled, I liked Berkeley, and really got seriously into practice then after I had graduated from college. I was doing daily practice and then also zazen, periodic zazen and deepening into an experience of Zen Śūnyatā or emptiness. And periodically out of that emptiness there rose something which wasn’t talked about much or at all really in Zen practice. And that was kind of a fullness or sense of loving transcendence that came into my heart and being and into me and around me and through me and kind of knocked me off my cushion a couple of times actually and really kind of deepened my practice itself.
In other words, this periodic touch of what I called into my self kind of like a divine love. It wasn’t happening in an ashram, in Hindu ashram which sometimes uses that “God” word or the divine language. It was happening in my Zen practice when I was going deeply into the present moment and was being touched by this kind of experience which I didn’t understand. Actually, it was rather confusing. Not when it was going on. It was just a sense of deep empty bliss and presence. But afterwards I didn’t know what to make of it.
Vincent: Cool, so, I’m curious what you ended up doing with that because clearly you found the need to kind of look elsewhere than in the Zen tradition. Could you take us through kind of that experience, what happened, how did you find out about the contemplative Christian path, and how did you discover that it was sort of more helpful in terms of describing what you’re experiencing.
David: Well I want to say first I think for me somehow and I’m not sure why my particular path in life, in this life is a Christian contemplative path. And that the early Zen training was profound for me for three or four years. And it helped me discover or be discovered by my true path. But yes I didn’t understand what was going on. I really didn’t. I searched around for someone who could explain it to me. And of course the the Christian contemplative path is rather hidden. It certainly was 30 years ago. Now it’s more evident through work of Centering Prayer and other great teachings.
But at that time there wasn’t much known about the Christian contemplative path or the path of practice outside monasteries. And I went to a few monasteries. But I also was just doing my ordinary practice so I connected with a great writer, Christian contemplative writer, Thomas Merton who had been dead for about 10 or 12 years by then. This is like around 1980 or 1981 and his books were just amazing to me because he wrote everything with a very deep personal flavor of his life as a monk, as a contemplative monk, and he’s very articulated to be able to describe the kind of experience I was having. And he had a great dialogue with great Buddhist teachers too and he lived a wild life before he became a monk and was artistic and traveled around the world. So I had a lot of personal connections with him.
So I pursued this and tried to deepen my understanding. And I eventually became a Christian because it was my response to this mystery that arose out of emptiness into fullness and into presence and kind of invited something from me. My response was to become a Christian and to affirm that for some reason this is my path in life. I’ve always had a great respect for Buddhism and a great love for Buddhism too and all the geeks in the world. But it was a sense of conversion. But the idea of conversion is not a single like in the fundamentalist Christian idea like a born again experience. But it’s like an awakening into mystery that can’t be contrived by words or terms or ideas. And it’s meant to be a lifetime practice of conversion and re-conversion and awakening and reawakening that’s facilitated by deep contemplative practice.
So yeah I became a Christian and settled into my path and then a few years later met a great teacher who helped me on that path. Merton was a teacher in the first years through his books but then I met a great real life Christian master.
Vincent: So one, I’d be curious to hear about this real life Christian master, and then two, I remember you talking a bit about spending 10 or so years living in a monastery in upstate New York where you I’m imagining kind of went deeper with the Christian path and the practices. So, I’d be curious to hear one about the teachers that you’ve worked with and kind of how that all works in the Christian tradition, and then two, to hear about your time kind of spent doing intensive training. Like what kind of things did you learn from that experience or what things occurred I guess in the process.
David: Well my spiritual father is Thomas Keating. He’s a Trappist monk and priest, a monk in the same tradition as Thomas Merton. And I’d met him in Berkeley. He came to the [Vedanta] society actually, a little [Vedanta] center to give a talk. And I went there and I heard this master and I thought, oh my god, this is a real Christian teacher because there’s not many of them. And I wrote him a letter afterwards and I asked him for some help. I was thinking about becoming a monk. But in the Christian tradition if you become a monk it’s with the idea of living forever in the monastery, in a [cloister] contemplative monk away from the world. And I felt drawn to intensive practice but I didn’t really feel drawn to that kind of permanent separation from the world, because even then I somehow intuited that the fullness of practice is to integrate the experience arising in practice with all of form and all of life and all of experience.
But I did feel called to at least explore the monastery and he helped me with that. He kind of actually encouraged me to take it very slow because I was like 25 years old or something. And he invited me to come on an intensive retreat that he was giving, a two-week retreat at the Lama Foundation, this inter-spiritual community near Taos, New Mexico. And he invited just 12 people there. He wanted to have a little small group. He had been teaching centering prayer, which is a Christian meditation practice, in the monastery to his monks but this is the first retreat that he wanted to offer to people who are not monks but serious practitioners of the Christian path.
So I went on that two-week retreat and it was profound. He was teaching in the style of a Christian spiritual father, an abba. The abbas and the ammas, the mothers and the fathers, are a tradition that goes back in Christianity to the 3rd, 4th century. The desert fathers and the desert mothers were the first teaches and masters of the Christian life who articulated their ways of practice of meditation, wrote it down, transferred the oral tradition that had been given them into some written forms and developed little communities. And they worked intimately with people. And often times by virtue of their own practice and their own prayer they could create kind of an openness in the students mind to experience God if we can use that term here.
David: The mystery that’s beyond form and image but is given the name God in the Christian tradition. So Thomas Keating taught in that style especially coming through all those years in the monastery being an abbot and a recognized spiritual master. And on that two-week retreat my practice deepened. He cannot only described what had been happening to me in the last six or seven years in terms of awakening to Christ and also giving my life to that reality in terms of practice and surrender. But also something about the retreat, it was the right conditions for my experience to go deeper into a kind of meditation that really open up for me over the years. So it was a watershed experience for me and for him. Because it was the time when he brought his teachings out of the monastery into the world encountering people who were not monks as I was saying, and his basic teachings on this practice of centering prayer kind of solidified there and began to take shape and form. And his organization of spiritual practitioners was really germinated or seated at that time. Of those 12 people who are on that retreat, more than half of them ended up dedicating their lives to the work of centering prayer and to being his serious students and followers and practitioners.
Vincent: It sounds like a pretty awesome retreat.
David: It was. It was great. It was called an intensive retreat and it was intense. And it was structured; he had been giving retreats like this and had been on some Zen retreats too. A teacher that he invited many times to his monastery in Massachusetts, Suzuki Roshi, was a great friend of his. He had given the Trappist monks, I think a retreat one zazen a year for years. And so Father Thomas Keating was very familiar with that style of practice and his encounter with Zen and other great Buddhist and Hindu teachings and Jewish mystical teachings kind of served as a mirror for him to see more clearly and deeply into his own tradition, into Christian tradition, to articulate and bring forth this practice of centering prayer, which has its roots in the Christian teachings of the desert fathers and the desert mothers and the monastic movement that developed from them and all these great teachings throughout the centuries. But had been kind of locked away in the monasteries so it needed to be reanimated and brought forth for people who live now in contemporary society or who live in a society three decades ago cause things have changed so much in three decades. But centering prayers has been a wonderful tool for people who are somehow drawn to that Christian path and need some skillful means to pursuit it in their ordinary lives.
Vincent: And then from there you ended up spending some more intensive time practicing going deeper with the path. I’m curious to hear a little bit about that period and what it was like for you.
David: Yes. After that retreat I went home to Berkeley and ended up going on an intensive period of meditation there in my little studio apartment. I was working as a janitor because Thomas Merton said once that if he lived in the world outside the monastery he would want to be a janitor so he can devote his life to practice. So I took that seriously. My parents weren’t that happy with it especially cause I had just gotten out of school a couple of years before and I was going to get my PhD. So anyways I devoted more and more of my day to practice and I ended up doing a lot of meditation each day, partly because of the things that had opened up on that meditation retreat.
And at the same time a few people who were on that retreat, the other 11 people, were talking about forming some kind of a community to support Thomas Keating’s teachings, a retreat community. So I kind of threw my hat in with them and we developed this community first near Thomas Keating’s monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. We had like nine months there renting a place and working on the retreats that he was just developing based on that prototype that he had taught a little while before. And then in New York State, a few of us moved to New York Upstate about two hours from New York City and Connecticut and then later in Orange County, New York and had this little retreat center. It could take about 25 people on a retreat and about three to five residences, meaning people, those of us who committed to the community with this idea of living a serious life of practice without that permanent vow.
But we did take commitments and in Christian tradition their commitments are to live simply and to be under obedience and to be celibate and to live that out for a set period of time. So those are like monastic commitments but it wasn’t a permanent vowed life. And I was there for 10 years learning about service and about contemplative practice with this group and kind of running the place after a while. But also the ideas with those external commitments it creates an environment to go deeper to one’s own practice. So the idea is not to just live out these empty commitments or vows but to be in a container so that one can practice without distraction and be trained. I was in the remedial course. I mean people were there for a couple of years. I stayed for 10 years because I really wanted to serve the community and to try to help it develop over time.
Day to day we got up at like 4:30 in the morning and gathered for a few hours in meditation each day and in common and then in private. And then at 9 o’clock, we start our workday in silence, taking care of the place, taking care of guest, doing some teaching, whatever was going on. We’d have meditation at noon for another hour. And then lunch in common. That was the only time we really talked much during the day. And then go back to work in the afternoon, and then at 5:30 at night we did have another hour of meditation and then solitude at night and some work. That was the time to do private practice. And then we take one day off a week. We got paid $100 a month, a little stipend.
And I’d take the bus into New York. I love New York, and I’d just walk around. I didn’t have much money to do anything just pay for the bus and have lunch at the Indian restaurants down in the village. But I’d walk around. And my practice at that time was to integrate the silent meditation that we were doing the other six days of the week with the very intense life of Manhattan where I could experience the divine too breaking forth in the creativity and the culture and the craziness and the noise of Manhattan and all of New York. But I could only really experience that because the other six days of the week I had training in opening up and consenting and resting in the ground of being from which all activity and all noise and creativity and all culture arise. So it was a nice balance for me. And then after 10 years, I said well I’m going to see about a little change of life and ended up living more of an active life in the world after that time but it was a really good training ground. And actually I hope that we could set something up again for young people who might feel called to do that. That place closed shortly after I had moved on back to come back west to Colorado. But I still think there’s a need for that kind of training center and not necessarily for people to be in it for a long time for 10 years but for a period of time where they can go deeply into practice with the idea from the start that the practice is about integrating and experiencing and expressing the life of God in all things. I think that’s a great horizon or threshold or future project for the Christian meditation tradition which is developing in new ways.
Vincent: Nice. Maybe shifting gears just a little bit. I wanted to talk a little bit about the book that you’ve written, The Path of Centering Prayer. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the practice of centering prayer. And in particular, what is it, in terms of practical terms, like you mentioned it’s a meditation method. How does it work? And then are there any sort of basic ideas that come with this practice that are crucial to understanding what it’s doing.
David: Centering prayer is a simple practice in the beginnings of its practice actually. So based on the teachings of a medieval Christian classic called The Cloud of Unknowing, which kind of updated the teachings of the desert fathers and the desert mothers for that era in England and Europe, the centering prayer is all about consenting and saying yes to a mystery that cannot be conceived of in words. And the problem that we have, according to the teachings of this medieval classic called The Cloud of Unknowing and to centering prayer, is that we’re attached to our thoughts and emotions and our words and our ideas. So the idea is to let go of the thinking process for a while and open up to the mystery of God which is as the Cloud said “God is a mystery who can well be loved but not thought.” And that’s really the Christian contemplative understanding. Contemplation in the Christian tradition doesn’t mean thinking or contemplating about spiritual truths but experiencing them beyond thought. So centering prayers have a word of one or two syllabus. This is the teaching of The Cloud of Unknowing for the middle ages or the breath or a simple inward turning, the glance or some other kind of symbol of, yes that’s not conceptual but just represents one’s openness.
And then whenever you’re engaged with a thought you turn ever so gently to that word, that symbol, that breath and open to God. And there’s a lot of turning. There’s a lot of practice. There’s a lot of letting go involved in it as there is in many practices. But it opens up to at some point this experience where you let go, one let’s go of the symbol, the word, the breath, whatever and just rests in openness. And that in Christianity is called “pure contemplation” or contemplation itself. So for those who are familiar with other forms of meditation, like I said I was trained early on in Soto Zen practice. In Soto Zen practice as I’d learned it, not Koan practice but sitting practice, there’s the basic form of the practice where one counts the breath. And if one is focused, like I usually got up to 10. Sometimes I get lost along the way then you start over again.
And then at some point after a lot of practice there’s just the experience of just sitting or shikantaza in Japanese, just sitting without holding on to any form, without counting the breath or without doing anything in the posture. In Soto Zen Practice it’s very important to just sit and just be in solidarity and oneness with the posture and everything like it. So in centering prayer there’s that similar form. There’s the basic introductory practice and it has the word or the breath to settle the mind and then open up to the mystery of God and then there’s the contemplation itself, pure contemplation. Just being and resting and opening in God. A God that may well be loved but not thought. Love not as an emotion but as a stance of consent and being and then the mystery of love which is the Christian understanding of what ultimate mystery is, awakens more and more as the depths of ones own existence, not as a separate entity from one’s self but as the ground of one’s own being.
And then this book, The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God, goes into different instructions and dispositions to provide some kind of assistance for the practitioner who is interested in this path and especially the way that the path changes over time because the experience of God for a Christian practitioner often becomes less dualistic and more about a oneness and immediacy. So they benefit from understanding how that works in their own practice and how to deal with it. Otherwise one can get kind of trapped in looking for an old experience of God when God is everything that is rather than just one little idea or one thought.
So the book is meant to affirm the basic teachings for centering prayer for younger people who may not have connected with it fully from Thomas Keating’s books or one of the other great writers on centering prayer. But also provides instruction for the deepening practitioner and some of those instructions are really also we found people from other traditions sometimes find value in them. For example, these attitudes and dispositions of gentleness and effortlessness which are key to the deepening of centering prayer as it moves into pure contemplation, but it’s also valuable for people who are drawn to any kind of deep meditative path when you let go of the form of the practice. That can be Mahamudra or Dzogchen or some forms of [inaudible] Hindu experience and into just being, just being with everything that is.
In Christian language everything is in God and God is in all things. Everything lives and moves and has its being in God as one part of the Christian scriptures say. So that practice is just to consent to that mystery, have a little form and structure to settle the mind, and then just be in it in sitting meditation and then more and more of life.
Vincent: I understand that in addition to teaching centering prayer you’ve also been teaching and developing other ways of practicing and I’d be curious to hear about some of the stuff that’s kind of emerging for you in terms of how you’re teaching or things that have emerged that are kind of new additions to the contemplative tradition or maybe new re-additions to the tradition.
David: Well going back to that early experience I had when I was in my late 20s and 30s at the retreat center, one of the great things about the retreat center in New York State was that we provided retreats for people for the weekend or 10 days or longer. And then people who came and committed to the lifestyle could get this intensive training. But also it turned out to be something of a laboratory where the core community, five of us and then some others that weren’t living full time there, could look deeply at the needs of the people who were coming to us for spiritual practice and under Thomas Keating’s guidance. He didn’t live there. He came by every six weeks or so for a couple of days and gave us a little bit of guidance. And under his guidance we started to develop materials and practices that would help the centering prayer people integrate their experience into life. Like deal with emotions and thoughts outside the time of practice.
So that’s been an enduring interest of mine over the years. The idea of a tradition I think is that it develops and changes according to the changing needs and social circumstances of a contemporary society. And this has always happened in the Christian contemplative experience. The desert fathers and the desert mothers they developed teachings based on what they had experienced of Christ and his message and his resurrected presence for the circumstances of their times. And so too in The Cloud of Unknowing was a new re-expression of the earlier tradition that goes back to Jesus refined by the desert mothers and fathers and then taught for the needs of that time. And this time in our world now it’s such a rapidly changing crazy world that I find that even those teachings that were developed 30 years ago at this retreat center, along with Thomas Keating’s basic and very profound instruction on centering prayer, are sometimes not enough. Not enough especially for young people and sometimes not enough for people who are living in the world.
So recently we’ve been looking not only at the material that’s in this book The Path of Centering Prayer to help the deepening of that practice, but also about how to live with more presence and attention, sacred attentiveness in daily life so that the experience that’s opened up in centering prayer is then stabilized in the rest of life. So for example, teaching here in Boulder and then at the Garrison Institute. We teach a retreat there every March for the last year, seven day or eight day retreat. And we’re going to be doing a new retreat on, its kind of like mindfulness with devotion in terms of what a Buddhist practitioner might understand. Or we might call it heartfulness in the Christian understanding or sacred awareness to complement centering prayer and bring its effect into more and more of life.
So it involves being present with sacred attention and presence to whatever is going on in one’s body and one’s daily life and there’s a bridge created therefore for greater psychological healing with emotions and traumatic experiences and then also with living with greater sacred attention in daily life. And this is actually a traditional understanding in the Christian contemplative tradition. One of the great teachers, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection from centuries ago talked about practicing the presence of God. So the Christian idea would be that the same God who’s there in sitting practice without form, without image, but with a loving presence that transforms one’s consciousness is there in life too and the idea just as one would do with Buddhist mindfulness practice is to bring attention to it through the body, through the emotion, through the breath and have that permeate more and more of one’s consciousness.
The difference between perhaps Buddhist mindfulness practice and this approach is that one experiences the source of all of life as God and then there’s a sense of connection or devotion to that reality, that’s why it’s sometimes called heartfulness rather than mindfulness. And the heartful connection with God then begins to transform the ordinary moment so that one even loses the awareness of God as an object. And then God becomes the subject of one’s consciousness itself and then life is transformed into what another great Christian teacher from four centuries ago called “The Sacrament of the Present Moment”. This great French contemplative Jean-Pierre de Caussade said that every point of existence, every moment of existence, is infused with sacredness because it is ordinary, because it is a sacrament.
Meaning it’s infused with God’s presence but not in a special way just because it’s ordinary. So all I have to do is just let go of trying to make things special and experience the radiant ordinary wonder of every moment of time through heartful present awareness. So that’s one example. And then there’s another practice of meditative inquiry which we want to develop because I think many modern or contemporary people, because we’re being inundated with so many messages and beliefs and unconscious values thrown at us in our highly technological age, find it valuable to come back to inquire and affirm what’s really happening in one’s own experience from the perspective of one’s spiritual path and to bring that forth. Otherwise, the mind is just conditioned and programmed by other values and beliefs.
So there’s this whole kind of smorgasbord of auxiliary practices that are very important for someone who is really deeply committed to the path. Centering prayer is wonderful because it reduces everything to just the simple presence of pure being. And so all these other practices then kind of flow into that deep receptive dimension of pure contemplation that centering prayer on its own cultivates. So there’s a sense that all these other practices flow out of the centering prayer practice and then feed them to help to feed it again to help someone live in the ordinary existence that we’re here with in our world.
Vincent: All right.
I brought this up in the beginning of our interview and we have sort of, you’ve talked about God. But I suspect you’re talking about it in a different way than most people might understand that idea. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about the difference between how you’re talking about God to sort of contemplative understanding and how most people understand what God is because I know from sitting in a lot of different Buddhist communities that many of the people there have a kind of reactivity to this word. And myself I don’t because I didn’t really grow up in that situation. Although, I did grow up in southern Baptist community so there was a little bit of reactivity.
It was challenging but probably no different than any other kind of traditional culture where there’s like real strong identity around certain approach.
But anyway could you talk a little bit about God and the different ways of understanding that word?
David: Yes. This is an important question for someone who’s a practitioner in a theistic tradition like Christianity who or what God is. So, one of the great early contemplative teachers in Christianity, Dionysius the Areopagite, had two important books. One book was called I think it was called The Divine Names. And in that book he goes through all these great names, some scriptural and some that are there in the tradition for God. For example Mystery, Love, Creator, King, Beloved, Christ the Anointed. And then in another of his great books, The Mystical Theology, Dionysus the Areopagite goes into great detail in kind of destroying all those names of God saying that the reality cannot be named. The reality that he at some point calls “It” cannot be named by any descriptor or attribute. It’s beyond all names. Yet it manifests in life, in form, in names.
So this is really the heart of the Christian contemplative understanding. That in this tradition there is this name, God, which points to a reality that cannot be named or limited by any name. And that this person Christ, Jesus, 2000 years ago helped to manifest some qualities of this mystery that cannot be named or limited to any name like compassion and love and sacrifice and surrender and service and forgiveness.
And so beyond all those attributes or qualities that Jesus of Nazareth manifested, he also for a Christian practitioner embodied this mystery itself, especially in his resurrected presence, as a living reality. That was the reality that touched me when I was young the mystery of love which cannot be, was not like any other love I had experienced. So God who or what God is I think always changes in my 30 years as a Christian practitioner, my experience of God is always changing. I just use the term somewhat inelegantly sometimes to point to or indicate a mystery that cannot be named. So I think it’s actually rather tragic that some more fundamentalist parts of Christian churches or Christian understanding or teachers sometimes gets so locked in on the literal meaning, not only of scripture, but the literal understanding of what God is.
Like The Cloud of Unknowing says God may well be loved but not thought. Cause if one gets locked into this literal understanding either of scripture or of God, a fundamentalist concrete understanding, then one is also reinforcing the subject-object way of relating in oneself. I am a firm, solid person, self, if I can use that term here, relating to an object, either an idea, a concept, and that’s exactly what the Christian Contemplative path undermines, either the experience of God as an object, because over the path of centering prayer and the path of Christian transformation God becomes lost as an object outside oneself, any object, any thought, idea or experience comes alive as the deep subject of one’s experience.
And then that whole subject-object way of thinking and relating and conceiving and perceiving collapses all together in the transformation of consciousness that’s alluded to in scripture, Christian scripture, when it says to be transformed by the renewal of your mind and to put on the mind of Christ. So the mind of Christ is not an intellectual mind. It’s a mind that’s not about dualistic thinking. It’s a mind that arises in the moment out of the indwelling presence of God and that apprehends everything more and more with a compassionate presence of God, perceiving God as the source of everything.
So Thomas Keating, my spiritual father, has a nice little saying. He says the first part of a contemplative journey for a Christian is to realize that there is an other. The second part is to become one with the other. And the third part is to realize that there is no other. So the first part is to realize that there an other. There is a Thou. There is a mystery for a Christian practitioner and the mystery of life, the ground of one’s being, invites one into relationship with itself, himself, herself. And on my journey that’s what happened at the beginning when I went through that first awakening or conversion experience to say yes to that mystery. And I think for practitioners of any tradition I think there is a way in which whatever their tradition is it invites them into a deeper relationship with it. It may not be through this sense of God but a commitment to the practice, to deep surrender, to one’s own teacher, guru, and that lineage and tradition there’s some relationship that’s evoked.
So in the Christian path the first task is to realize that there is an other, a Thou, and to enter into relationship with it. And the second is to become one with it. So it’s no longer an object. It’s no longer outside one’s self. And the third is to realize that there is no other. In other words there is nothing that separate from God. There’s a wisdom saying, actually it cannot be fully articulated or described Thomas Keating’s wisdom saying. But it points to again what this mystery of God is. It’s not something that can be locked into a box, into an idea. Again I wasn’t raised a Christian but people who are raised with a Christian religious background, a background that lacks the awareness of the Christian contemplative dimension and maybe substitutes that with more of a fundamentalist or evangelical kind of understanding.
I totally understand why they would react against the word God because that God, a God of judgment perhaps, a God of fear, an old man in the sky is not the kind of God that I understand either. The God that I understand and relate to as a Christian practitioner is a God that is ever changing and invites the transformation in me as I surrender and move into the relationship with that mystery and open up to its compassionate presence, a presence that’s not about the sentiment of love either. Jonathan Cross another great Christian teacher said that God is a living flame of love that burns and transforms. A living flame of love which is a great image.
Again God is not limited to that image, but when Jon talks about the living flame of love he says the love that is God’s living flame burns and destroys every obstacle to being at one with it at every moment of time. And the obstacle is one’s own attachments, ideas, resistance to emotion, and the contracted sense of self that is not in union with all of life and everyone else. So my greatest experience after having done a good deal of retreat practice in those early years was to find God awakening, or the divine awakening, in more and more of existence.
So that was kind of brought to a fullness last year when my beloved Donna, my wife, well we got married. And that was an experience of the divine for me. I experienced God breaking forth in her presence in every existence of my life. I’m saying this because she’s here in the room.
And it’s no longer a solitary path for me. It’s the path of divine relationship in all things that’s mediated by more and more of life for me and something that I kind of bow down in humility before because I find myself very imperfect before this mystery of life and love. But God is in that too, I think, or that’s in God too.