Who Will Replace Thomas Keating?

Centering Prayer – I think it’s increasing, it’s burgeoning, and I think after my demise it’s likely to grow significantly, even more. I don’t know why, it’s just the nature of things.  The seed has to fall into the ground and die for its full energies to be released.  So whatever gifts I’ve received hopefully will be continued by divine providence, perhaps in ways that we don’t foresee.
Thomas Keating

Who will replace Thomas Keating? I’m starting to hear that question more. This is not a new question. It has been asked hundreds of times or more before our beloved 95-year-old spiritual father passed. Thomas answered this himself though. He was asked, with varying degrees of tact, “Who will replace you?”, and he would reportedly answer “You! and you, and you, and you…” to those in attendance at the time. [1]

Thomas often spoke to us about the trap of idolatry, and that any leader, and any human, has “feet of clay”. And all humans share the basic reality of a limited lifetime on this planet; Thomas was no exception.  Knowing this, for many years now, Thomas has been deliberately retreating from Contemplative Outreach leadership, experimenting with leadership structures until he found one that works and that would not rely on him.

As for Thomas’s teachings, there are enough recordings and writings to keep any of us on a graduate track in transformation for the rest of our lives. He encouraged us to evolve, while keeping our tradition alive. He painstakingly laid out his teachings and visions and would be the first to admit we all are part of the answer. Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler, past president of Contemplative Outreach, wisely said, “None of us have it all together, but together we have it all.”

Thomas was one of three monks who started Centering Prayer, and the world still has the embodied gift of Fr. William Meninger, who found that old copy of The Cloud of Unknowing in the monastery library and formed the first version of Centering Prayer. The link to the Trappists is promised and permanent, I believe, with a commitment that the monks have made to always keep a spiritual liaison between practitioners and St. Benedict's Monastery. In Snowmass, Thomas taught the monks regularly until the time of his departure.  Other teachers, lay and vowed, have emerged from the Contemplative Outreach community, becoming known teachers and authors themselves, sometimes in new areas. Leaders of various kinds, expressing various gifts, are found throughout the Contemplative Outreach worldwide community.  Some teachers have sprouted from our movement into other areas of spirituality as well.

I do find myself these days terribly missing the unique incarnation we called Fr. Thomas Keating. I was so fortunate to meet him on retreat in Snowmass, attend 16-day and 10-day “advanced teachings” by Thomas, to which I was invited by an angel of Snowmass named Sarah. To spend hours one-on-one, and hundreds of hours watching him in our small group. At the end of those 16 days, Thomas hugged each of the 20 or so of us. Thomas was well over six feet and had such a wide wingspan of long arms draped in his monk’s robes. The hug was a surprise, and I now recall it as the closest I have ever felt to being wrapped in the loving arms of God.  I recall him saying at that moment, related to the story of Jumping Mouse, that the trick in life is to “simply spread your wings and let the Spirit take you where it directs you”. This now seems to be his advice to the whole of Contemplative Outreach.  The news of his passing has been expected; the grief I feel is something I was not ready for. What I learned from Sarah is that, not being able to see him in one space anymore, we will learn to see him in each other, and everywhere.

A long time ago, another spiritual teacher (who was by all accounts amazing but did not want to even be called “good”), told us that when he was gone, those who followed him “will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12). Thomas Keating has made this as easy for us as he can. In some way, you will replace Thomas. He tells us that replacing him starts with each of us doing what he encouraged: practice the prayer.  From that we can listen to how we are called and from those callings, you may not only replace Thomas’ actions, but exceed them. Thomas reminded us it all comes from the Spirit, , and for those who practice what he taught, it all starts with the prayer.


[1] Susan Komis, who was on Thomas’s leadership team for over 15 years, repeated this to our chapter and in several conversations in the past.

As written by Hyemehosts Storm in the book Seven Arrows, this story is the only time during the 16-day Advanced Study of May 2008 in which Thomas simply read something verbatim as the entire lesson of the day. Thomas referred to this story as “the greatest parable of the spiritual journey that (he had) seen in any tradition”.

Phil is a member of Contemplative Outreach of Chicago.