God’s First Language

Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and mystic, has returned to God’s eternal embrace, at age 95.  Fr. Keating famously said: “God’s first language is silence.  Everything else, is a poor translation.”   Keating reintroduced us to the ancient wisdom that it is in silence, that we hear God’s voice.

In our plugged in, hyper busy world, full of distractions…it is silence that provides an antidote.  Silence offers us respite from the exhaustion and anxiety, that results from our constant hurrying and preoccupation with much and more.

When I was a boy, I knew this.  Near my house was a wetland, where we explored and played.  Walking through the woods as children, we immersed ourselves in the sounds and smells of the forest…rich loom, scented pine needles, bubble of the brook, call of the birds….all called us to become open and reflective.

Silence, in such a sacred place, allowed us to hear the voice of our Creator.  Martin Luther said:  ‘The sound of wind, the movement of water, call of a bird are logoi (little words), from our Creator.

As I grew older however, I often forgot to listen.

I became preoccupied by dreams and schemes.  My life became active and busy.  At times, more times than I care to acknowledge, I became disconnected from the beauty and richness, that only comes from first being quiet.

Fr. Thomas Keating at Snowmass Monastery, Colorado

Thomas Keating however, came into my life as a breath of fresh air.  A teacher who through his books and lectures and simple witness, offered a series of spiritual practices.  Reminding us of what we knew as children.

He called it, ‘Centering Prayer’.

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. http://www.centeringprayer.com

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation.

For those of us who are Christian, it leads us into communion with Christ.

Several years ago, I attended a retreat in Maryland.  The culmination of the retreat was a practice called, ‘The Great Silence’.  For 72 hours we didn’t speak.  We began and ended each day with 30 minutes of ‘Centering Prayer’.

On the third day of silence, I awoke to find that the colors of the forest, fields and sky had become more vibrant than any I had ever seen before.  A woman, at the far end of a meadow, greeted the morning by singing a Gospel song.   I found myself entering into the very melody, that she sang.

Words can’t adequately capture what I felt and experienced that day.  I can’t prove, measure or quantify what came to me.

What I do know, is that silence, an intentional practice of being quiet, created the essential environment, within which I was able to see with new eyes and hear and receive with an open heart.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet and mystic said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

I knew this to be true as a child.   Thomas Keating gave me a practice, for returning to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.   Thank you, Fr. Keating.

Keep Open, Look Closely


“The mystics invite us to remember what we all too often forget: That great mystery we call God, is everywhere present in the world, suffusing creation with the being of the Holy. Once in a while, if we keep our eyes open, if we look closely enough, something amid the familiar reveals itself, offers itself to us in a new way. What we know, what we have learned, is taken apart. Is remade. Remakes us.”
~ Jan Richardson, Source: In the Sanctuary of Women

I’ve been exploring this quote from various vantage points this Lenten season. Lent is a 40 day season in the Christian calendar (exclusive of Sundays) that guides people of faith towards the promise of Easter. It is a season for intentional reflection looking for the sacred within the familiar.

Lent invites us to let go of that which distracts us so as to become steeped in that which is eternal. Last week I gathered with an ecumenical group for the purpose of listening. It’s sad but true, that Christians don’t always play well in the sand box together. It is a hopeful sign when various branches of the Christian tradition gather for a shared purpose. The method we chose is Centering Prayer a simple yet profound form of becoming quiet so to hear what (paradoxically) can only be heard in silence.

Thomas Keating a Trappist monk re-introduced this ancient practice of Centering Prayer. He invites us to:

‘Spend 20 – 30 minutes sitting in silence. Choose a ‘sacred word’ that will help you return to silence when distracted. Our word can be ‘God, Jesus, Abba’, or a feeling word ‘love, peace, hope, quiet’. Centering Prayer is like a deep-sea diver who slowly slips into the water and sinks deeper and deeper. When a distracted thought inevitably arises, it is as if the diver bobs back to the surface. It is then we quietly speak/think our sacred word, which allows us to sink yet again into the depth of silence.’

It is in this silence says Keating that we are able to ‘hear God’s voice speaking into the depth of our being’. Being quiet can be a counter cultural act. In the midst of our busy schedules and over stimulated brains, quiet offers us respite and renewal. For me there is something powerful about shared gathered silence. I can’t quantify it or measure it but as the Quakers would put it ‘a sense of common ground emerges that can only be found through silence.’

Perhaps you reading this have no faith tradition or are from another faith tradition. For you too the invitation awaits, that in silence we discover ‘something within the familiar’ that otherwise may have been missed.

Where do you go to be quiet? Perhaps walking your dog, savoring your morning coffee, working in your garden, hiking in the woods, sitting in a church/temple/mosque, walking on the beach? Where do you go to move beyond distractions and simply be? For me a favorite place is kayaking on the water, sometimes simply floating, becoming immersed literally and metaphorically in my surroundings.

Kayak lone paddler photo

Wherever your quiet journey takes you, to solitary places or community, I hope that you too hear a voice of blessing that can only be received in silence. Travel well.

Note: If you live on the North Shore of Massachusetts, the 4th Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. a community wide group meets to practice centering prayer. For location contact me at kharrop@fbcbeverly.org.