"Where are you... The same question is addressed to every generation, time, and person. At every moment of our lives, God is asking us, "Where are you? Why are you hiding?" Thomas Keating, The Human Condition, p. 7


"This is the human condition - to be without the true source of happiness, which is the experience of the presence of God... and to have lost the key to happiness..." Thomas Keating, The Human Condition, p. 9


"According to St. Augustine's theology, original sin has three consequences: 1) we don't know where happiness is to be found (ignorance); 2) we look for it in the wrong places (concupiscence); and 3) if we ever found out where it might be found, the will is too weak to pursue it anyway...

"In recent years, we have witnessed the development of various psychological theories such as codependency and the dysfuntional family... These theories are getting pretty close to the idea of the universal character of original sin." Thomas Keating, The Human Condition, p. 12



Here is where the great teaching of the dark nights of St. John of the Cross corresponds to depth psychology, only the work of the Holy Spirit goes far deeper. Instead of trying to free us from what interferes with our ordinary human life, the Spirit calls us to transformation of our inmost being... into the divine way of being and acting..." Thomas Keating, The Human Condition, p. 22


"Centering Prayer is not an end in itself... When our defenses go down, up comes the dark side of the personality, the dynamics of the unconscious, and the immense emotional investement we have placed in false programs for happiness, along with the realization of how immersed we are in our particular cultural conditioning."
Thomas Keating, The Human Condition, p. 34

An Existential Approach to Liturgy

Part IV: Spirituality and Human Nature -
Toward a More Profound Engagement with the Paschal Mystery


A. The Human Condition: Fr. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, is also a keen diagnostician of the human spirit. His observations about human nature will lead us to a deeper understanding of "who we are," we who are drawn into the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

1. Lodging the question: Fr. Keating was chosen to deliver the prestigious Harold M. Wit Lectures on Living a Spiritual Life in the Contemporary Age at the Harvard Divinity School in 1997.* He begins his presentation with this question, "Where are you?" [p.7] He further claims that this question serves as the "focus of the first half of the spiritual journey."[p.7] It is about this first half of the spiritual journey that our immediate inquiry is concerned. Continuing, Keating said,

"All the questions that are fundamental to human happiness arise when we ask ourselves this excruciating question, 'Where am I? Where am I in relation to God, to myself, and to others? These are the basic questions of human life.

"As soon as we answer honestly, we have begun the spiritual search for God, which is also the search for ourselves. God is asking us to face the reality of the human condition, to come out of the woods into the full light of intimacy with Him... [Adam and Eve] had to hide from God because the loss of the intimacy and union that they had enjoyed with him in paradise was so painful..." [p.8]

2. Exile, Loss, and Searching: Keating analyzes the human condition in terms of exile and loss. We all live outside the experience of intimacy with God (exile). We have lost the way to find it (loss). What follows, then, is the desperate search for happiness - "lookin' for love in all the wrong places..." People search for happiness because we are all "designed for unlimited happiness, the enjoyment of all truth, and love without end."[p.10] For many, though, the search is fruitless.

3. Human Development: Keating draws on insights from contemporary psychology to describe how and why this often fruitless search begins. He points to the fact that humans develop an "innate thirst for happiness" from infancy, yet have neither practical experience of the divine presence nor the capacity for full self-reflective consciousness during that development. The result? "... we look for happiness somewhere else." [see p.11]

4. The Three Great Human Needs: Three essential biological needs accompany all of us born into the world - security and survival, power and control, affection and esteem. The challenge is this, according to Keating: these three instinctual needs motivate the child's search for happiness before we develop self-consciousness and the experience of the presence of God. These three needs orient our human programs for happiness. He says,

"Without the help of reason to modify them, we build a universe with ourselves at the center, around which all our human faculties revolve like planets around the sun.

"As a result, any object entering into our universe - another person or event - is judged on the basis of whether it can provide us with what we believe or demand happiness to be." [p.13]

"Is it good for me?" becomes the most basic childhood question. Unchecked, it leads irrevocably to a life seeking fame, power, wealth, and prestige.

5. Development of the False Self: Further, childhood socialization leads to internalizing the values of others - family, peers, religion, education, ethnic group, nationality, race, gender, and sexual orientation. [see p.14f] Overidentification with the group to which we belong plus the drive for happiness in terms of security and survival complicates the human emotional program for happiness.

"The homemade self or the false self, as it is usually called, is programmed for human misery," Keating claims. [see p.15] He goes on, saying, "Without facing these early childhood excesses and trying to dismantle or moderate them through the exercise of reason (in Christian tradition this means the practice of virtue), they continue to exert enormous influence throughout life." And so, human nature becomes habitually distorted by seeking happiness in the wrong places.

Keating does not present a pretty picture of human nature. Yet it has the ring of authenticity, doesn't it? The Gospel question remains, "What am I to do to be saved?" And it is to the Gospel that Keating turns for an answer.


B. Repentance and Conversion: "Conversion addresses the heart of the problem." [p.18] Conversion offers a freedom of living and a palpable change of direction, particularly from the emotional programs for happiness that are motivated by the false self. And yet, these programs are deeply entrenched. Even St. Paul said, "What I want to do, I don't do. And what I don't want to do I find myself doing." (Romans 7:15ff).

"If we don't face the consequences of unconscious motivation - through a practice or discipline that opens us to the unconscious - then that motivation will secretly influence our decisions all through our lives." [p.19, emphasis added.]

1. The Contemplative Journey and Transformation: Keating recommends the discipline of contemplative prayer, accompanied by a wise guide, as a significant answer to the bind that the false self leaves us in:

"The contemplative journey, because it involves the purification of the unconscious, is not a magic carpet to bliss. It is an exercise of letting go of the false self, a humbling process, because it is the only self we know." [p.20]

Contemplative prayer leads through a profound process of purification to what the Greek Fathers called deification. That is, through the grace of God, we are more and more conformed to Christ. We come to live out of the divine compassion, rather than from our false selves, our small prejudices, or our self-preoccupations.

2. Contemplation and the Divine Therapy: In his second lecture, Keating goes more deeply into the human need for contemplation, a need he finds answered by Centering Prayer. He says that Centering Prayer offers the person a chance to encounter the divine healing in a most profound manner. It is a path, a way, that many can benefit from.

"Centering Prayer and other practices that lead to Christian contemplation move us toward interior freedom. We open ourselves to God and allow ourselves to rest in a silent place beyond thinking, a kind of oasis in a day of emotional turmoil...

"This sort of spiritual discipline is a therapy for the tyranny of the false self, not only for our emotional programs for happiness, but also for our overidentification with family, nation, religion, or group." [pp. 32-33]

It is finally our entrance into the divine rest that is healing, claims Keating. And this healing is the way out of the false search for happiness.

At this point, we leave off our description of Keating's insights into the human condition and the spiritual life. The reader may want to pursue Fr. Keating's work through further reading.

The question now is this: what can we liturgists learn from his diagnosis of human nature and from his prescription for its healing? What can this all say about liturgical prayer?


C. Toward a Contemplative Liturgical Spirituality

1. Keating describes our initial situation in terms of exile and loss. These are particularly potent themes of Advent. They raise the spiritual problem of trust for a person or a community because exile and loss describe experiences of betrayal. "Things should not have been this way."

Inasmuch as this truly describes an aspect of the worshiping community, it at least suggests that our preaching must address the issue of trust in a reverential and compassionate manner.

2. Inasmuch as the false self wants neither to be discovered nor to be confronted by God, the Word, or the Paschal Mystery, a liturgical spirituality must account for this aspect of the encounter.

3. Keating's insights into the human condition lead us to a deeper recognition of the power and the challenge that the sacrifice of praise signifies. The praise of God certainly goes against the basic instincts of the false self for it claims another as its true center. However, the spiritual problem it raises is that of Pharisaism, or hypocrisy, the pretense that one operates "only in God."

4. What would a Contemplative Liturgy look like? Better, what would a contemplative congregation look like? What are the capacities needed by the Body of Christ to enter into the liturgy fully, actively, and consciously?

If we could come up with a picture of this, what would it suggest about the way we read, preside, and sing? What might it say about the way we walk and talk and breathe? What would reverence look like? What would joy feel like?

5. What sort of catechesis must we do? Liturgical catechesis needs to take up the burden of teaching people how to enter into the Mass and sacraments contemplatively. Kathleen Hughes has already offered powerful suggestions in terms of an on-going mystagogy of sacrament.** As liturgists and catechists ourselves, we will have to look to a new level of the study of the spiritual life.


Part IV will look at a more psychological approach to understanding human nature.
Part V presents a classic view on death and dying.
*Fr. Keating's lectures have been collected and published in The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, (New York: Paulist Press, 1999). The book is available in many book stores, as are his other significant writings: Open Mind, Open Heart; The Mystery of Christ; Invitation to Love; and Intimacy with God.

**Kathleen Hughes, Saying Amen: Toward a Mystagogy of Sacrament, (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1999)

Copyright © Robert F. O'Connor, S.J., 2000. All Rights Reserved.

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