• on 8th March, 2023

Meditation Awakens the Heart: Noel Keating

Meditation Awakens the Heart: Noel Keating


Good evening everybody. And thank you for being here. My name is Noel Keating. I live in Carlow and have been meditating for about 18 years. I am currently National Coordinator for Christian Meditation Ireland, a community of people all across Ireland who meditate in the Christian tradition. We teach meditation as a universal practice which finds expression in diverse wisdom and religious traditions and our groups are open to all.

The whole culture of Irish society has changed enormously in my lifetime and while there is much to be grateful for in those changes, one of the undesirable consequences has been a decline in regard for the spiritual nature of the human person. I believe there is an urgent need in Irish society today for practices that awaken the person to their true nature.

Our purpose in Christian Meditation Ireland is to highlight the relationship between meditation and spirituality and to promote the good news that meditation enlivens and deepens our spirituality. Meditation as a daily practice does just that – it awakens the person to an appreciation of who they are at the deepest level of their being. My theme this evening, Meditation Awakens the Heart, is – as we shall see – just another way of saying that.

When Dermot Lane spoke to us recently he said that spirituality was ‘about attending to what is going on in the interiority of our lives. There is an inner dimension to our lives that others rarely get to see; and, indeed, we often ignore that inner dimension in ourselves until a great love or a great suffering suddenly enters our lives. That inner dimension can be lived at different levels. And, as Dermot said, Spirituality helps us to get in touch with these layers and levels.’

In a book he wrote in 1999, at the end of the 20th Century and looking ahead to the next, Dermot described faith as

a love of truth, a personal dedication to truth and a practical living out of life according to truth. An insight into the truth of God followed by a personal response to that insight which affects daily living.[1]

I think that might serve as a good definition of spirituality – a love of truth, a willingness to search for it and a commitment to guided by that truth as we live out our lives. But to do that we need to awaken to and begin to honour that inner dimension of our lives. We have to start to nurture our spiritual sensitivity and begin to place it at the centre of our lives, to ensure that it informs how we live.

James Finley, who writes about Christian meditation, has a lovely way of describing the reality of life for most of us. He says that we spend so much of our lives trapped on the outer circumference of the inner richness of our lives. Isn’t that a lovely image? I think it captures something very important about our failure to live from the centre – it depicts in a simple image how we may wander about aimlessly, driven by external forces, ignoring the interior dimension of our being.

What are those external forces that drive so much of our activity? They include the expectations of others, our immediate family, our circle of friends and the wider culture of society. We come to accept that the world as we experience it, is how it was meant to be.

And as we enter into adulthood our conditioning may draw us towards a desire for what might be called the three Ps – power, prestige and possessions. We all want to be looked up to, we all desire prestige so we very often go along with the norms of society without giving them too much thought. As so, as adults, we can remain trapped on that outer circumference of the inner richness of our lives. Spirituality is about taking the time to look inwards. While we may think of a spiritual person as one who is especially committed to their religion, in fact a spiritual person is one who tries to live life well, who strives to live an authentic life. So a person can be deeply spiritual and live a deeply authentic life without attachment to a particular religion. A spiritual person is one who takes time to attend to what is going on in the interiority of their lives and to discern how they are called to be; how to behave when confronted with a challenge. When we become attentive to the inner dimension of our lives, we begin to see more clearly the challenges that are all around us and how we can offer some service to alleviate them.

Take, for example, the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

That parable is a very good example of authentic and inauthentic living. Only one of them responded as the situation called for. And, so typical of Jesus’ parables, it wasn’t the one his audience would expect! Why might it be that the priest and the Levite did not respond to the needs of the man who had been attacked and beaten and left for dead? Perhaps we might say they didn’t see at all clearly; they didn’t see with compassionate eyes. Somehow they were blinded by their conditioning. They had urgent business elsewhere – possibly religious – that was, in their limited way of seeing, more vital than responding with love and compassion to the needs of the injured man.

Although it is difficult to explain conceptually how it does so, one of the fruits of meditation is that it awakens the heart. It cleanses the lens of our perception so that we see more clearly, through compassionate eyes. When the heart is open we see more clearly and we respond to what we see, rather than react out of our conditioning. John Main, who recovered the practice of Christian Meditation for our time, used to say that meditation moves the centre of gravity of our consciousness from the head to the heart.

And what does that awakened heart reveal? Meditation awakens the heart to who we are in God and who God is in us. It draws us into personal spiritual experience. It awakens us to our spiritual nature. As a young boy I felt very close to God. I remember reading a library book around the age of ten or twelve which contained the phrase from St Augustine that said ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’ and that still resonates strongly with me even today. I think a great many young children – if God is spoken about in their lives – have a sense of that. And even if God is not spoken about in their lives, they may still feel that restlessness but not know what it is about.

A significant turning point in my own spiritual journey as an adult was appropriating for myself the deep meaning of Chardin’s quote: “While we think of ourselves as human beings on a spiritual journey we are in fact spiritual beings on a human journey.” This expressed in words something I had always ‘known’ (in inverted commas) – I say inverted commas because it was somehow a knowledge of the heart rather than the head and it was this knowing that responded so strongly to Augustine’s phrase ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’. I know now that every time I meditate I rest my heart in God. I choose to move twice each day from the outer circumference towards the inner richness of my life.

I discovered that as my faith and apprehension of this Reality deepened, I became ever more deeply aware of an intense desire to honour my profound connection with all that is. I found my traditional image of God became undone yet my sense of God’s presence in the world and in my life expanded beyond understanding. Through the practice of meditation, I became deeply aware that while one’s image and concept of God can never match the Reality, which is beyond one’s capacity to describe, one could nonetheless come to discern and experience the love of God in all of life. And we can become a conduit for that love through service to others in our community.

Can I stress again the essence of what I’m saying – meditation gives rise to personal spiritual experience; it awakens the heart to its true nature. I mentioned that Dermot Lane spoke to some of us recently about the need to reconnect theology, spirituality and meditation, which is known as contemplation in the Christian tradition. Another Irish theologian, the late Jesuit Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher wrote that ‘Spirituality comes before theology: If faith is not an experience of encounter, we have little to reflect on except the words of others. And they will ring hollow unless touched by personal fire.’[2] Reading Scripture and the practice of meditation are complimentary disciplines, each supporting the experience of personal encounter with the Divine in very different ways. The biblical prophets proclaimed a God based on their personal intimate experience of God, through which they attained a new consciousness of their true Self,[3] of their intimate relationship with God.

When I say that meditation gives rise to personal spiritual experience, I need to tease out the nature of that experience because it isn’t ‘experience’ as we are used to that word! I mean that meditation teaches us experientially, through actual experience who we really are.

The actual psychological experience of meditation can be difficult because thoughts continue to intrude – they are relentless. But by paying attention to our mantra, returning to it repeatedly as soon as we realise we are again caught up in thought – as we continually let go of thought we deepen our ability for selfless attention to our word. We develop our capacity to allow our thoughts to simply drift by like clouds without engaging them; instead we hold our attention steadfastly on the repetition of our word. The metaphor of a surfboard can help us to understand this better. The rise and fall of the waves are like the ebb and flow of our thoughts and the mantra is our surfboard. When we first try to surf we keep falling off our surfboard just as when we start to meditate we keep falling off our mantra into the waves of thought. But if we persist, if we keep getting back on our mantra-board we learn how to remain steadfast for longer. In meditation it helps to listen to our word as we say it and our posture helps too – sitting up straight and keeping our feet firmly rooted to the ground. The waves will still rise and fall around us, but we can learn to ignore them, to not be distracted by them and to keep our attention, our selfless attention, firmly on our word.

And we must learn to do that almost effortlessly – it mustn’t become a struggle, we mustn’t be in fighting mode – ‘I’m going to do this if it kills me!’ – but gently and lovingly returning to our mantra each time we fall off and listening to it as we say it. Because the intention is to be still and silent in God’s presence, open and vulnerable to being changed by Love. Richard Carter suggests that, instead of a surfboard, to imagine that ‘the word is like an anchor which holds you in that still place. … The prayer word provides a stability that prevents your inner stillness from being swept away.’

John Main had another metaphor for the mantra which is very consoling too! He likened it to the auto-pilot on a plane which is an automatic homing mechanism that effortlessly guides the plane to its destination once the intention has been set by the pilot. So set your intention through the opening prayer and trust that your faithful selfless attention to your word will guide you home. Whichever metaphor appeals to you, the mantra keeps you on track and brings you home to the centre of your being.

But remember, you will not be aware that you have landed because that happens at a level of consciousness deeper than ordinary self-consciousness. Mysteriously, in the gaps between your thoughts, you are in communion with God but all you will recall is riding the waves of thought with selfless attention.

Yet over time you will come to appreciate for yourself, and not simply because someone has told you, that your daily practice of meditation opens you up to a whole new dimension of your own being. You begin to encounter that which lies beneath the noise of your distractions. As your consciousness expands, you dimly begin to apprehend the deep, mysterious silence beneath the noise. I deliberately use the word apprehend rather than comprehend because we perceive what lies beneath the silence, we experience it at the level of the heart without fully understanding it at the level of the mind. It is experiential knowing as distinct from intellectual knowing; knowledge of the heart rather than the mind. Meditation awakens the heart and puts the mind in the heart.

So words are inadequate to the task of truly describing our spiritual nature – it is a heart-felt experience. The words we use are merely pointers; they point towards the mystery of what we experience but the words we use are not the thing itself. That is why poetry, which makes rich use of metaphor, often captures something that cannot be said in any other way.

The philosopher Heidegger once wrote that poetry is language in service of the unsayable. Isn’t that a lovely expression – language in service of the unsayable. Not language that explains it clearly but language that points towards something that cannot be expressed adequately in words. Poems bear witness to what we apprehend in our experience – especially in our experience of the spirit – but cannot be explain in everyday language. For example, consider this poem by the theologian and poet Malcom Guite:

‘O Sapientia’ [O Wisdom] by Malcolm Guite

I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of Being, always grounding me,
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

Take a few moments to read the poem quietly to yourself. Don’t try to think about the meaning; at the same time let the meaning somehow sink into your heart. Is there a word or a phrase that touches you at the level of your heart – that strikes a chord somehow and resonates with you, that captures something you have always known but may have found it difficult to express?

For me, this poem points to the ground of being that sustains all of creation: I cannot think unless I have been thought, Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken. It names through metaphor the Source of all life, that which maintains our existence through Love and in which we live and move and have our being. Each metaphor – Mind, Light, Word, Wisdom, Song – captures an essential truth that defies precise conceptual description and together they capture that Essence ever more fully, albeit never quite adequate for the depth of the truth towards which they point: Mind behind the mind through which I seek, Light within the light by which I see, Word beneath the words with which I speak. It is this understanding that meditation awakens us to.

I am especially drawn to the line ‘O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me’. It acknowledges this Essence as the creative, founding force of all that is; and then goes on to a different sense of the word ‘found’, describing it now as ‘unfound wisdom’ – representing all that we are searching for. And yet, it is this which finds us – when we choose to be still we find it waiting for us! Poems like this speak to the heart more than the mind and, just like meditation, awaken us to the validity of experiential knowledge, of spiritual knowledge; it validates for us the knowledge of the heart.

Meditation is a prayer of the heart, not the mind. While the Church defines prayer as ‘the raising of one’s mind and heart to God’ (2590), the focus has always been on mental prayer, saying our prayers such as the ‘Our Father,’ the Hail Mary’, saying the Rosary. While this kind of prayer is of course important, the problem is that mental prayer came to be seen by many as the only way of prayer. By contrast, Christian meditation is a silent, wordless, imageless form of prayer that calls for stillness of body and mind. And in that stillness the heart opens. Look at what John Main said about this:

I have spoken to many of you before about the importance of our personal response to the summons of Jesus, of turning with an un-fragmented consciousness toward the mystery of the indwelling Spirit. [NK: notice that phrase ‘unfragmented unconsciousness’ which means ‘selfless attention’]. I have said that real and powerful as that Presence is in our hearts, and wonderful as is the transformation it works, it will not impose itself on us by force – because it is Love. It will not break through the doors of our hearts. We must open our hearts to it. [NK: And that is what meditation does. It awakens our hearts to the Divine presence within even if the mind can’t figure out what is happening.] The wonderful beauty of prayer is that the opening of our hearts is as natural as the opening of a flower. Just as a flower opens and blooms when we let it be, so if we simply are, if we become and stay silent, then our hearts cannot but open: the Spirit cannot but pour through into our whole being.

[NK: Our tradition recognises that, as St John of the Cross expressed it, ‘Silence is God’s first language’ and that silence is the deepest response to mystery. We don’t need to use words because the Spirit already knows what we need at the deepest level of our being and, in the silence, the Spirit is at work within us in communion with God and we somehow, mysteriously, apprehend the truth that we participate in this.] And John Main continues:

It is this we have been created for. It is what the Spirit has been given to us to bring about. This then is the real meaning of faith: openness, perseverance, wakefulness, commitment to the pilgrimage.

And that brings us right back to where we started with our definition of faith as a search for the truth, an insight into the truth of God … and a personal response to that insight which affects how we live our lives. Contemplation leads to service – they are two sides of the same coin.

In the stillness and silence of meditation we are freed to experience the underlying Presence that is the ground of all being. It is this experience, however dimly felt through a cloud of unknowing, that gives rise to a sense of inner peace and joy. It nourishes our inner life and, leads us to see more accurately what we are called to do so we begin to live life more abundantly and compassionately. Because our meditation grounds us in God, our actions, our behaviour is driven less by the egoic self and more by our true-self. So while secular meditation, as in mindfulness, is focused on the self, on self-care, the intention and focus in Christian meditation is on true-self-care, acting from our deepest sense of who we are as children of God.

So, our intention in Christian Meditation is to be still and silent in God’s presence. Not talking to God, not thinking about God, not praying to God, just simply being with God. And we need to understand that while that is our intention, it is God’s work. While intention is important and impactful, it must also be effortless. In meditation we leave aside all doing and enter the world of being. Meditation is not about doing, but being. It is not about mastery but mystery; not about mastering a technique but allowing oneself to be vulnerable to the mystery in which we live and move and have our being. In Christian meditation, one holds fast to the intention to be in communion with God in the silence but one lets go of all effort to make it happen or to ‘experience it’ as it happens. We bring our full attention, what might better be described as selfless attention, we bring all our full undivided attention to our word, and we listen to it as we say it silently. And we have faith that meditation opens us to a deep engagement, a silent communion, between the human spirit and the divine at a level of consciousness deeper than our ordinary everyday awareness. Because it happens at such a deep level of consciousness, we will not be aware of it as it happens. But we will know that by the traces it leaves behind over time. We will know this, not with our heads but with our hearts. This kind of knowing is intuitive, it arises from being calmly present to reality and it requires no mental processing.

Over time we begin to realise that meditation has transformed our sense of self-identity. As our sense of consciousness moves from the ego, from the head, to the heart we discover who we truly are. We move from an egocentric way of seeing the world to a wider perspective, a broader way of seeing the world and one’s relationship to it and to others. And all of these together lead us to live life with more compassion for others and with greater authenticity. As John Main expressed it in his book ‘The Present Christ’:

Our meditation teaches us how fully every part of us has to be involved in the radical conversion of our life. It teaches us that we have to put our whole heart into this work of the Spirit if we are genuinely to respond to the call to leave the shallows and enter into the deep, direct knowledge that marks a life lived in the mystery of God. Then everything in our life acquires this deep dimension of divine Presence.

In recent years I have listened to many children describe their experience of meditation and its fruits. They also say that meditation helps them to feel the goodness inside – they too discover their inner selves in the silence of meditation and they discover that this is who they really are. Listen to this profound insight from a twelve-year old boy Jason who said to me: ‘Meditation is like a map and our destination is who we really are.’ Compare that to the statement from John Main directly above.

Before I conclude, I’d like to say a few words about the short prayer John Main wrote which we say before meditation. It reads as follows: Heavenly Father, Open Our Hearts to the silent Presence of the Spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious Silence where Your Love is revealed to all who call.

It is a beautiful, simple prayer which captures the essence of what Christian Meditation is all about – opening our heart to the Spirit. not opening our minds but our hearts. Alex, a twelve-year-old Canadian girl, captured this understanding that meditation is a prayer of the heart when she said to her teacher: ‘When I hear the chimes at the start of meditation, I imagine it is God ringing my doorbell and I open my heart to let Him in.’ She might equally have said that she imagines she is ringing God’s doorbell and he opens His heart to let her in. Both are true at the same time. This understanding echoes what John Main was pointing to when he wrote: “The all-important aim in Christian meditation is to allow God’s mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more not only A reality, but THE reality in our lives; to let it become that reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we do, to everything we are.”

Meditation moves us beyond rational thinking; it is not irrational but trans-rational, a movement beyond mental activity about one’s relationship with the Divine, to a communion with the Divine. In meditation, we strive to let go of thought. However, that letting go is not about absence, but leaving room for a growing awareness of the true-self. Silence is the soil in which the true-self is cultivated. Meditation teaches us that we are loved and have always been loved by God – not for our talents or our achievements, not for our ego or our performance – but that we are loved for who we truly are, that we were created by Love, as love and remain intimately connected to Love which is the ground of all being. This discovery, this revelation, often comes to us as a slow apprehension rather than a dramatic unveiling. As we come to appreciate the truth that the Spirit dwells within us, we find we are no longer driven by external reward or punishment but we become responsive – our motivation comes from the knowledge that we are participating in the Mystery itself.

The core fruit of meditation is that it awakens the heart to who we already are and that changes everything – above all it changes our way of seeing and therefore our way of being in the world. We come to appreciate that meditation is not just for my benefit or your benefit but for the benefit of all. It is not about you but about the grace your daily practice generates in the world around you. Meditation is not about seeing God but coming to see how God sees. Meditation is not a practice for personal salvation, but for awakening fully to the present moment and responding with compassion action in the world in our daily lives.

To remind us of that I wrote a short closing prayer for meditation that picks up on the theme of the John Main opening prayer. His prayer asks God to open our hearts to his presence. The closing prayers recognises that our hearts should be opened not just during meditation but afterwards too and so the closing prayer asks: ‘Lord, may our hearts remain open to your presence and guide us to love like you.’ It reminds us that we hope to remain in this state of awareness, aware of the inner richness of our lives, so that it transforms our way of seeing and being in the world. It is not that we are being called to do something but to be something, to ensure that our doing is informed by our deepest sense of being so that we will live our lives from the perspective of the true-self. The real fruit of meditation, of all contemplative prayer, is not a warm fuzzy feeling that we are close to God but it is found in contemplative service to others.

As Richard Carter, who spoke here in Balally recently reminds us: We do not seek silence to escape from the world. Rather, we seek silence to rediscover our humanity and a world infused by God. Neither do we seek silence to escape others but to find them. [The City is my Monastery, p.35] Meditation awakens the heart to who we are called to be and we discover that meditation and service are two sides of the same coin.

We will close with a 20 minute meditation. Before we do that can we look for a moment at one of the poems from Richard Carter’s book The City is my Monastery.’ And imagine this is what and how you are as we enter the stillness and silence of our meditation:

Imagine you are the seed held in God’s hand
Imagine the gentle closing of that hand
The place of darkness, the place of unknowing
The place where you fear death
But also the place of new life
The soil where the seed will break open, where the roots will grow down
And where the new shoot will begin to seek the light
You are that seed
Imagine God’s loving and longing for the world
Imagine the dwelling place for God’s loving and caring and sharing
Is your own flesh.

And now let us say the opening prayer as we meditate together for 20 minutes …

[1] Dermot A. Lane, “Reconstructing Faith for a New Century and a New Society,” in New Century, New Society: Christian Perspectives, ed. D.A. Lane, (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999), 168.

[2] Michael Paul Gallagher, Into Extra Time: Living through the Final Stages of Cancer and Jottings Along the Way. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2016), 39.

[3] Adrian Gellel, “Adapting to the Requirments of the Individual in the R.E. Classroom,” in International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, ed. M. de Souza, et al., (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006), 1096.

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